The dwindling number of people still reading Rolling Stone know that just as MTV no longer is a music station, this is not just a music magazine. Nevertheless, the magazine’s covers are almost always rock and pop stars, and sometimes movie and TV actors. In recent months, that list has included glamorizing shots of Jay-Z, Rihanna, Bruno Mars, and Justin Bieber (who’s now “Hot, Ready, Legal”).
But nearly every issue also carries political commentary from fiercely frothing leftist writers like Matt Taibbi. When the editors decided to put Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover, they knew they were courting controversy. They must have known they were chasing notoriety by insulting people who lost relatives or their own limbs in Dzhokhar’s terrorist attack.
What must have been the reaction of the parents who lost 8-year-old Martin Richard?
The victims and their families surely choked when the magazine responded to the furor by claiming “Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, our thoughts are always with them and their families.” What arrogant nonsense.
Boston’s liberal Democrat mayor, Tom Menino, delivered a scathing rebuke in a letter to publisher Jann Wenner. “The survivors of the Boston attacks deserve Rolling Stone cover stories, though I no longer feel that Rolling Stone deserves them.”
Rolling Stone claimed the cover story would showcase everything writer Janet Reitman found by spending “two months interviewing dozens of sources – childhood and high school friends, teachers, neighbors and law enforcement agents, many of whom spoke for the first time about the case – to deliver a riveting and heartbreaking account of how a charming kid with a bright future became a monster.”
And then they put his picture, James Dean-like, on the cover. They claimed this kind of reporting is part of their journalistic tradition. It isn’t. Their tradition has not included regular covers with newsmakers or notorious bombers. When their journalism on Afghanistan abruptly ended the career of Gen. Stanley McChrystal in 2010, the cover displayed Lady Gaga nearly nude, her body covered only by a thong bikini and two machine guns.
Some tried to defend Rolling Stone by noting that several news organizations had used the same picture of Tsarnaev, including the front page of The New York Times. But Rolling Stone occupies a special zone in the popular culture, where top musicians hope and pray to know they’ve “made it” by making the cover.
If Sports Illustrated had put Dzhokhar on its cover, that would also be jarring. They could have. They didn’t. They put cops and a disoriented runner on the cover at the time of the murders.
The text of the cover doesn’t glorify the killer. It reads: “The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam, and Became a Monster.”
But that glimmer of sadness for the bomber’s lost childhood, the disappearance of a “charming kid with a bright future,” shows more effort to find a terrorist’s moral center than the magazine showed any of the last three Republican presidential nominees.
Last year, Rolling Stone’s cover carried a cartoon of Mitt Romney in a top hat and an ascot with the words “Greed and Debt: The True Story of Mitt Romney and Bain Capital.” Matt Taibbi sold Romney as pure evil: “Romney's run has been a shimmering pearl of perfect political hypocrisy...Romney chose his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin – like himself, a self-righteously anal, thin-lipped, Whitest Kids U Know penny pincher who'd be honored to tell Oliver Twist there's no more soup left.”
In 2008, John McCain was also a cartoon on the cover, with the words “Make-Believe Maverick: A closer look at the life and career of John McCain reveals a disturbing record of recklessness and dishonesty.”
Rolling Stone also ran two cartoon covers of George W. Bush, both making him look very much like a chimpanzee. Keith Olbermann lovingly promoted the 2006 cover titled “The Worst President In History?” They followed in 2008 with “How Bush Destroyed the Republican Party.” Both were written by socialist historian Sean Wilentz. In 2006, Wilentz admitted to Olbermann “I think the cover actually is a bit over the top.”
When Obama was inaugurated, the magazine did it again, with a more serious illustration of Bush 43 and a cover story that was completely made up. “Exclusive! Bush Apologizes: The Farewell Interview We Wish He’d Give.”
No one expects Rolling Stone to follow up with a cover that imagines “Dzhokar Apologizes: The Prison Interview We Wish He’d Give.” If they had ever really had the Boston victims in their hearts, they might. But they don’t.