Commentary Magazine


Topic: Dzohkar Tsarnaev

Why the ‘Rolling Stone’ Cover Has Angered People

Some journalists are complaining about the firestorm over the Rolling Stone cover story on Dzohkar Tsarnaev. Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic tweeted as follows: “The outcry over the Rolling Stone cover is unwarranted. It’s a straightforward photo, with a cover line that calls Tsarnaev a monster.” Others have pointed out that the dreamy image of Tsarnaev appeared on the front page of the New York Times as well and thus the outrage aimed at Rolling Stone is unjust.

If this had been the first cover of Rolling Stone magazine, that might be right. But it’s not. Rolling Stone has a 40-year history of magazine covers and it practically invented the rock-star glamor shot in the 1970s. It is therefore meaningful, as a kind of visual grammar, that the cover is reminiscent of 1970s images of Jim Morrison and Bruce Springsteen, among others; the silhouetted soft-focus image of a soulful boy-man is a Rolling Stone tradition. As for the fact that the photograph has appeared elsewhere, that is meaningless: A glossy magazine’s cover is not a newspaper’s front page. Covers of entertainment glossies are explicitly designed to be iconographic—to glamorize and romanticize and even mythologize their subjects. They are designed to sell single copies on newsstands, and you don’t sell single copies on newsstands with ugly pictures. Such covers are designed to allure, to draw in. That is second nature to Rolling Stone as a commercial enterprise, which is surely why it never occurred to its editors just how upsetting their cover choice would be.

Some journalists are complaining about the firestorm over the Rolling Stone cover story on Dzohkar Tsarnaev. Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic tweeted as follows: “The outcry over the Rolling Stone cover is unwarranted. It’s a straightforward photo, with a cover line that calls Tsarnaev a monster.” Others have pointed out that the dreamy image of Tsarnaev appeared on the front page of the New York Times as well and thus the outrage aimed at Rolling Stone is unjust.

If this had been the first cover of Rolling Stone magazine, that might be right. But it’s not. Rolling Stone has a 40-year history of magazine covers and it practically invented the rock-star glamor shot in the 1970s. It is therefore meaningful, as a kind of visual grammar, that the cover is reminiscent of 1970s images of Jim Morrison and Bruce Springsteen, among others; the silhouetted soft-focus image of a soulful boy-man is a Rolling Stone tradition. As for the fact that the photograph has appeared elsewhere, that is meaningless: A glossy magazine’s cover is not a newspaper’s front page. Covers of entertainment glossies are explicitly designed to be iconographic—to glamorize and romanticize and even mythologize their subjects. They are designed to sell single copies on newsstands, and you don’t sell single copies on newsstands with ugly pictures. Such covers are designed to allure, to draw in. That is second nature to Rolling Stone as a commercial enterprise, which is surely why it never occurred to its editors just how upsetting their cover choice would be.

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