THE BLOG

Dear Rolling Stone...

07/17/2013 03:47 pm ET | Updated Sep 16, 2013
  • Will Stephen Staff Writer, College Humor; Contributor to The New Yorker
AP

By putting Dzokhar Tsarnaev on your cover, you are revealing a profound disconnect with the culture you claim to represent, and failing the millions of Americans who have grown up under your influence by reducing yourselves to attention-seeking vultures.

And you should know this by now. You should know that you are operating in a society with entirely different cultural and social mechanics than those that once gave you relevance.

You should know that this is nothing like your 1970 Charles Manson cover. That no one was photocopying or distributing that image an infinite number of times and posting it all over the world with the click of a button.

You should know that now, on the Internet, there is a key split second before your reader scrolls right past you. And you have cynically chosen to use that split second as a means to inflame, ignoring so much about your readership, your role in society, and the real world implications of your editorial decision. Which, right now, makes you pretty horrifying.

You should know that an image posted on Facebook can easily get more Likes than the very article it links to. That the number of people who will read Janet Reitman's probably very thoughtful piece will be dwarfed by the number who will see, share, and remember this iconic image of a killer. That your cover will be in and out of the public's locus of attention before its issue even hits newsstands.

You should know that the infatuated teenage girls behind the #FreeJahar movement will clip out your cover, put it on their walls, and kiss it goodnight.

You should know that despite your often brilliant political and human rights coverage, you are not TIME, or The Atlantic, or the New York Times Magazine. That you operate from a very different cultural perch. That your serious journalism is buried beneath pictures of Skrillex in the recording studio and lists counting down guitarists, Beatles songs, whatever.

You should know that "Rolling Stone cover" has become a turn of phrase and status symbol that endows a certain weight on someone. And you should know that you willingly gave that weight to a man who killed a six-year-old boy. A boy whose parents won't be able to enter a CVS without seeing the face of their son's killer plastered next to blurbs about Jay-Z and Robin Thicke, who you dub "Pretty Fly for a White Guy."

You should know that that is what the public preeminently knows you for. That by reversing the traditional position of your lighthearted pop coverage with what I presume is thoughtful analysis of Tsnarnaev's psyche (which I have attempted to analyze as well), you have revealed a callous misjudgment of your hitherto well-documented role in the world around you.

You should know that it is disturbingly clear that his good looks played a role in this decision. That he is perceived by many as being hot. That you have given your stamp of approval, in some warped way, to his status as a sex symbol. That his image -- oriented in that iconic Rolling Stone headshot fashion -- will sell magazines. That, by using an old, private picture of his (before he "got big"), you are contributing to a twisted rags-to-riches narrative, framing his story as a kind of hero's journey. That you did not feature the clearly crazed Jared Loughner, James Holmes, or Adam Lanza on your cover for a reason.

You should know about Paul Bloom's analysis of the irrational empathy shown toward the baby-faced, "cute" Tsarnaev brother in the New Yorker. You should know that your cover doesn't address this confusion, it exacerbates it.

You should know that you are exploiting and endorsing a cult of personality built on a pornography of violence.

You should know about British television personality Charlie Brooker's eye-opening analysis of the media's role in covering -- and encouraging -- mass murder, publicized by comedian Patton Oswalt after each terrible shooting this country has seen recently. That, in the words of Brooker about an entirely different tragedy -- that of the 2009 Winnenden school shooting in Germany -- you are quite literally "turning this murdering little twat into a sort of nihilistic pin-up boy."

You should know that you have turned a cult hero of murder and DIY terrorism into Lil Wayne, Johnny Depp, or Jack White. You should know about The Onion's satire of Tsarnaev's bizarre celebrity status. About the photoshopped image of him courtside at a Pacers-Heat game. You should know that you have been bigger and dumber than even some of America's sharpest humorists could have predicted. That you have become a parody of yourself -- if only it were funny.

You should know that your cover is not subtle or thoughtful. That the damage is done. That you are encouraging the young, quiet wannabe Dzokhars out there, would-be copycatters who will look at your cover and see a rock star -- legitimized as such by a mainstream American establishment. One that, with good looks and the right plan, they could emulate.

This is not subversive. This is not anti-establishment. It's not fun, alt-y, cool, or even solemn. This is thoughtless, irresponsible abuse of your cultural authority, and reckless exploitation of a terrible tragedy.

You should know better.