Friday, July 26, 2013

Gene Policinski: Rolling Stone cover offers exercise of free speech for everyone

  Don’t like the latest Rolling Stone magazine, featuring “glam, rock-star” photo treatment on the cover of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

  Don’t buy the magazine.

  A simple, First Amendment-friendly response. Quick, direct and easy to accomplish. And some outlets like drug and convenience stores are helping with the decision by refusing to stock the current issue on their shelves, responding to criticism that it glorifies the accused or insults the bomb victims and their families.

  Still, there’s no conflict here with free press or free speech on either side. The editors at Rolling Stone get to choose whatever they want as the cover image — nothing in the 45 words of the First Amendments sets standards or guidelines for their decision.

  And as long as it’s private companies like CVS and Walgreens, and not the government leaving that space vacant on the magazine rack, no problem there. Those private decision makers may, in turn, have to face questions from those customers who wanted to purchase the magazine.

  What began as a flurry of online criticism was followed by widespread media reports and commentary on the controversy and outrage. All of that has propelled the issue — both the printed one and the reason some are calling for a boycott — to much higher visibility.

  TV’s Stephen Colbert may have made the sagest observation: The biggest hurdle facing those hoping to hurt sales of the magazine through a boycott may be finding people who still buy magazines. Ouch, on a number of levels.

  The article that the cover image points to is somewhat overlooked in the flap over the cover flap: “How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by his Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.”

  Celebrity fluff, it’s not.

  Magazine covers have been stirring emotions and outrage for a long time. Time named Adolph Hitler as 1939′s Man of the Year. In that case, it was more the choice than the cover that drew criticism. Time‘s response was that it was not honoring Hitler but rather denoting the person who had the most impact on the world in the previous year.

  On April 8, 1966, Time again published what some consider the most controversial cover of all time — and it had only words, the first time that the magazine did not use a photo or illustration: “Is God Dead?”

  The article examined new approaches in that era of looking at faith and organized religion. No word, then, on whether the cover inspired Beatle John Lennon’s famous remark a few months later that the group was more popular than Jesus Christ.

  Other controversial magazine covers since then have ranged from Time‘s darkened mug shot of O.J. Simpson, a suspect in his wife’s death, to New Yorker magazine’s satirical drawing in 2008 of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, as a robed Arab figure and a gun-wielding terrorist. The magazine said the cover was intended to poke fun at those caricaturing the future first couple as just that.

  The New Yorker made waves recently with its cover showing Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie reacting to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. For the record, while some complained the cover made the pair appear to be gay, the Muppet creators said the two are “just good friends.”

  For Rolling Stone‘s part, Tsarnaev is not the first accused mass murderer to show up on its cover. Cult leader Charles Manson appeared in the June 1970 issue.

  The bottom line to all of this may well be the bottom line: Boycotts aside, the renewed presence of venerable Rolling Stone in a national discussion may well mean a boost, for now, in circulation. But it’s also been a valuable exercise in exercising our First Amendment rights, no matter what view you hold about the cover image.

  About the author: Gene Policinski is senior vice president of the First Amendment Center and COO of the Newseum Institute. E-mail him at gpolicinski[at]

  This article was published by the First Amendment Center.

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