When monsters have the faces of angels, and the uncomfortable nature of journalism
Who’s old enough to remember the Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show hit, “Cover of the Rolling Stone?” I haven’t heard that song in 35 years, but I could sing it by heart right now.
For the sake of anyone within earshot, I won’t.
The gist of the song, for those barely older than most of my shoes, is that a rock star’s biggest thrill is making the Rolling Stone cover. Some musicians, despite fame and financial success, just can’t seem to land their mugs there. It’s an ever-elusive musical holy grail, always just beyond reach.
“… but the thrill we’ve never known, is the thrill that’ll getcha, when you get your pictcha, on the cover of the Rollin’ Stone.”
Well, Dr. Hook & Co. finally got their wish, making the RS cover in 1973. Because they were edgy and newsworthy? Maybe. Because they wrote a witty little ditty that forever etched Rolling Stone into popular awareness? More likely.
It worked. Thirty-five years later, and I still remember the lyrics. And I couldn’t even tell you what I had for breakfast yesterday.
Rolling Stone is rock music’s bible, but it’s more than just a music magazine. It has a sharp edge. It has pushed the comfort envelope before and featured notoriously horrible people, like Charles Manson and OJ Simpson. It has a history of poking the public in its collective eye, not simply for shock value, but as if to say, “Think!”
Besides sexy, slick features on rock Gods and Goddesses, Rolling Stone has journalistic political knuckles. Remember, this is the magazine that dragged down General Stanley McChrystal’s lustrous military career in 2010 after printing his unflattering comments about Vice President Joe Biden and other White House officials.
Eerie side note: The journalist who did the dragging was killed in an explosive single-car crash in June. A June 25 Huffington Post story notes, “Hours before dying in a fiery car crash, award-winning journalist Michael Hastings sent an email to his colleagues, warning that federal authorities were interviewing his friends and that he needed to go ‘off the rada[r]’ for a bit.”
In other words, Hastings feared retribution. (From the military? The government?) He thought there was a target on his head. Imminently. No one will allow that to be proven, of course. But come on. It walks like a duck.
Think it’s just a music mag now?
Check Rolling Stone’s website. Sure there’s music. Sure, it’s (usually) the main thing. But click on “Politics” and you’ll find some in-your-face investigative journalism. There’s no fluff to be found there. Just muscle and bone. And knuckles.
So, this week, when the angelic face of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a morph of Jim Morrison and Eros, peers out at us from under the iconic RS logo, it’s not out of character. The Tsarnaev feature is just another step on Rolling Stone’s investigative journalism path.
Is the cover pleasant? Hell no. It twists your gut. Pinches your soul. Tweaks your sensibilities: How did this baby-faced, tousled teenager wreak terror, havoc and death on one of America’s most beloved cities at one of America’s most beloved events? Monsters are supposed to be hideous. Yet, that face — it doesn’t make any sense. But, then consider the headline and sub-headline: The Bomber — How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.
Key word there: How.
Really, isn’t this something we all desperately want, and need, to figure out? I certainly hope so, because if we don’t, it will happen again. Right here in America. Tsarnaev isn’t unique. He’s the next in progression after Timothy McVey, Eric Harris and Dylan Kliebold, and James Holmes. Nothing new under the American sun.
Rolling Stone’s Tsarnaev cover is brilliant. Horror, fear and death, juxtaposed with sweet, innocent and yes, sexy — all curiously packaged as a rock star. And, Rolling Stone didn’t even work that hard at the photo. They didn’t spin this. They lifted it off Tsarnaev’s Facebook page. Like it or not, Tsarnaev doesn’t look like madman Manson or orange-haired psychopath Holmes, or even the dreaded Anyone and Everyone Muslim or Arab Trying To Kill Us. He looks like someone you’d be thrilled to have your daughter date. But… he’s a cold-blooded killer.
That uncomfortable sensation in your brain is called “cognitive dissonance.” It’s really, really, really uncomfortable to look at that cover. Rolling Stone grabs you by both ears and yanks your face right up close: Look at this! You MUST look at this! We can’t ignore this any longer! Yes, it hurts — look at it anyway!
It’s hard, you say. Someone said to me yesterday, “You can do hard.”
You can. It’s hard. Do it anyway.
Thing is, we Americans prefer soft. The only thing we hate more than exercise is thinking. A glance at any morning “news” program will prove it. Hard news gets three sentences, and then there’s 15 minutes of giddy breathlessness over the birth of the Royal Baby, and have you heard the latest about juicing — OMG, cumquats! — and who was Justin Bieber just spotted with?
Enquiring minds do, indeed, want to know.
So, this Tsarnaev cover. It has us in an uproar. But when the cacophony of outrage settles, it may have us talking. Figuring it out. Preventing it from happening again. And, moreover, shifting our “terrorist” paradigm.
As for all the shock and fury over blatantly gruesome exploitation to boost magazine sales, I offer you this: Google “Tsarnaev magazine cover” for images. You get one. Google “JonBenet Ramsey magazine cover.” You’ll find scores. So, before we get all high and mighty about Rolling Stone’s audacity, let’s consider the audacity of People, Us, Newsweek and scores of tabloid rags that all profited handsomely by sensationalizing the brutal murder of a little girl.
The problem is us. The terror is us.
Yes, look at this.