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Jeff Simon and the Rolling Stone Cover: If it’s not a matter of mistaken identity, it’s the horror story of our time

It’s largely a matter of mistaken identity. That’s the story I’m comforting myself with about the horrifying battle over Rolling Stone magazine’s cover. In other words, America at large simply forgot that Rolling Stone has always been far more than a rock magazine whose cover’s cardinal purpose was satirically laid out in Shel Silverstein’s very funny song for Dr. Hook’s Medicine Show (“Wanna see our pictures on the cover/wanna buy five copies for our mothers.”)

Charles Manson, for instance, was on its cover June 15, 1970. Gen. Stanley McChrystal was forced to resign as commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after being too loose-tongued in a Rolling Stone story. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi is probably the toughest political reporter regularly appearing in the United States (And, let’s remember, his career as a journalist began in Russia and then, in America, here with his outrageous alt rag The Beast. In a 2005 interview, Taibbi told me that aside from the nice people here “Buffalo looks like parts of Russia. It has emotionally some of the same feel for us.”)

But in the channels of self-righteousness, the kneejerks don’t want to deal with any of that about Rolling Stone. To them, Rolling Stone is just a magazine that celebrates rock stars on its cover, or entertainment figures with rock auras like Johnny Depp (whose Tonto gig in the tanked “Lone Ranger” landed him on the cover recently).

So, for comfort’s sake, I’m telling myself that it’s the wildly eclectic and journalistically serious nature of Rolling Stone that so many people got so wrong. In an America, where people, it seems, now prefer to believe the story they need rather than the one that’s true, that’s the story I choose to believe for sanity’s sake.

Otherwise, the story of this whole terrifying episode is too horrific for journalists to contemplate: that there has been a battle in America between journalism and electronic media and the values of the electronic media have absolutely and unequivocally won. Information exists to comfort consumers, entertain them and help them cope. And for no other reason.

That, I fear, is what the whole affair really means. That, in other words, no one understands actual journalism anymore.

The Rolling Stone cover couldn’t be more upfront about what it’s doing in Janet Reitman’s 11,000-word story about Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – a story, says the cover, about how a “popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.”

That, to me and anyone else who understands journalism, is very much a story exemplifying what the profession is all about – a terrific story about how such monsters come into being.

We, at The News, couldn’t possibly be more familiar with the misunderstanding and the hatred such stories can engender. Our superb professional colleagues, Dan Herbeck and Lou Michel, wrote a book called “American Terrorist” about how Timothy McVeigh came to be Timothy McVeigh after Michel established a relationship with McVeigh’s father. The way was then cleared for interviews with McVeigh himself.

People thought that the very idea of writing a book about McVeigh was a celebration of the bombing of Oklahoma City’s Murrah Building – or, at the very least, a de facto offer of amnesty. Some said that every penny received would be blood money.

Do the scientists who study cancer at Roswell Park do it because they’re “celebrating” cancer? Because they want their mother-in-law to die from it? Do they donate their time in their devoted efforts to study it, understand it and cure it?

Reporting on the horrors of the world – and how monsters become monsters – is one of the basic things journalism does. Or at least is supposed to do.

When magazines study the monsters who make monstrous news, misunderstandings are always possible. When Time magazine made Hitler its “Man of the Year” in 1938, and Stalin in 1939 and 1942, and Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, the magazine was recognizing those that had made that year’s most important news.


But yes, people said, isn’t serving them up on your cover asking your readers to swallow their poison?

To which all journalists know the answer: No. It’s providing crucial information about those responsible for our world, especially the horrors that sons and daughters die for and are maimed for.

Here, with savage eloquence, is what Frank Rich has to say in a current New York Magazine blog about the whole “controversy”:

“Even by the standards of phony post 9/11 outrages, this one is idiotic. And if you don’t believe me that idiots are involved, do note that one blog that has made a cause of vilifying the Rolling Stone cover, Michelle Malkin’s ‘Twitchy,’ cites as allies three members of the ’80s boys band New Kids On the Block, Justin Bieber’s bodyguard and James Van Der Beek, an actor who has otherwise been near-invisible since ‘Dawson’s Creek’ was canceled a decade ago. (Can Charlie Sheen be far behind?) What are these idiots thinking? That because Tsarnaev looked like a cute dude and a ‘celebrity’ (which he is, by the way, as is George Zimmerman), impressionable American kids will enlist with Al Qaida? That publishing an article about the psyche of a mass murderer somehow dishonors those he murdered? The whole point of the piece is that Tsarnaev didn’t look or act like a terrorist in an FBI mug shot but was a ‘golden person’ to those who knew him – ‘seamless like a billiard ball’ in the words of his high school wrestling coach in Cambridge. That’s how he got away with it even in our overweening surveillance state. How he fooled everyone is one thing of value we might learn if anything remotely positive is to come out of his and his brother’s horrific crime. No piece of journalism has shed more light on that question to date than this article by Janet Reitman, who was also the fearless author of the first major book to crack open Scientology … The more readers who are tempted to dig into this exemplary exercise in long form journalism (11,000 words) by the Rolling Stone cover, the better. Those pandering politicians and merchants who are encouraging readers to shun the magazine or barring it altogether … are, as they used to say in the Bush era, on the side of the terrorists.”

What I fear is more horrible than that: that America no longer wants the “light” of truth, journalistic or otherwise, that it prefers the Internet’s indiscriminate embrace of whatever rhetoric comforts and soothes people happy to stay in the dark. That all America now understands are “media” people who want to make money and be famous.

It’s the apocalyptic question of our time and never, I think, crystallized more clearly than in the ghastly self-righteous crusade against a magazine that wanted only to understand the horrors of our world a little better and to make sure their readers knew they were doing it: Does the “light” of truth stand a chance in the hideous cynicism and the propaganda “lighting” of modern entertainment media?

Maybe I wasn’t sufficiently frightened by the Age of Information before. Well I am now, after a simple Rolling Stone cover story revealed exactly how little interest so many friends and neighbors actually have in understanding the world we all live in.

Let’s by all means turn off the lights. It’s so soothing in the dark when you don’t have to look at anything.