In defense of Rolling Stone

Mark Judge Journalist and filmmaker
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Everyone just needs to calm down. Rolling Stone magazine has every right to put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the terrorist Boston bomber, on the cover of its magazine. In fact, it could even be considered a sign of journalistic integrity. Those of us who think Rolling Stone sold out long ago to celebrity gossip and fluff record and movie reviews (is there a living critic worse than Peter Travers?) may even be pleasantly surprised to see him on the cover. At least Rolling Stone is doing something interesting.

Critics seem outraged without even reading the content of the piece about Tsarnaev (which is now online). They resent the softly “glamorous” “rock star glow” of the cover photo, which is actually a picture taken years ago by a former friend of Tsarnaev. They also won’t tolerate the theme of the article, which is that Tsarnaev was a popular student who “was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.”

I see nothing wrong with that frame. In fact, I quite admire it. Many victims of the Boston bombing object to the piece, and conservatives have been particularly galled by the story (without having read it). But this shows a reactive, incurious streak that’s worthy of the far left. Conservatives have become so steeped in a no-excuses ethos that they have lost basic curiosity about what science, sociology and religion can reveal about the transformation of a person into a monster. Yes, monster. Rolling Stone is not saying that Dzhokar Tsarnaev didn’t get enough attention from mommy and daddy as a child. It’s saying — I think — that his parents didn’t give him enough moral discipline to reject evil. His older brother in particular seems culpable. Are critics now saying that older siblings can’t influence younger ones? Also, to say that Tsarnaev “fell into radical Islam” could indicate that he joined the jihad after a series of bad decisions, indeed years and years of drugs and deals with the devil. I for one would like to read what caused him to go to the dark side. And I’m not bothered by the fact that Tsarnaev was a handsome young man. Pretty people can be a-holes too.

Of course, it’s possible that I’m giving Rolling Stone too much credit. I’ve written about the magazine in the Daily Caller before, and on those occasions I have noted how far into reactionary politics and self-parody the magazine has fallen since its glory years in the 1960s and 70s. People forget, but Rolling Stone was once a great magazine that wrote about serious issues with integrity and honor, employing dogged research and gifted writers. I have noted previously in the Daily Caller that Rolling Stone won a 1970 National Magazine Award for its compelling coverage of Altamont, the Rolling Stones concert in California that was poorly organized and ended in chaos and death. The award cited Rolling Stone’s courage in “challenging the shared assumptions of its readers.” In the early 1980s Dr. David Black wrote an award-winning series on AIDS that was years ahead of its time. Although since then the magazine has become more and more celebrified, it still publishes piece that are interesting and well reported. It’s rare, but it happens. The Boston bomber profile could be such a piece. It could be a piece that “challenging the shared assumptions of its readers.”

As a journalist, that has always been one of my favorites. Sadly it’s one that simple doesn’t apply to most of today’s media. Nobody challenges the shared assumptions of their readers anymore, whether it’s Glenn Beck with his crazed apocalyptic novels or MSNBC’s ankle-grabbing for the DNC. Or, for that matter, most of what one finds in Rolling Stone. Like the rest of the liberal media — and not a few conservative outlets — Rolling Stone is now in the business of outrage orgasms. Every time a Republican opens his or her mouth, a Rolling Stone writer like Tim Dickinson or the ridiculous Hunter Thompson knock-off Matt Taibbi reaches for the thesaurus and works themselves, and the audience, into a blissful explosion of self-righteous liberal rage.

And the conservatives are not immune. As one of them, I understand that America is being torpedoed from the left, and that a majority of the population has become so liberal that they won’t even blink as the ship goes under. This is sad, but it shouldn’t make us so reactionary that we assume that every college professor is a Marxist (although most are), that every Democrat is a baby killer (ditto), or that simply putting a terrorist on the cover of a magazine constitutes endorsement. When we get in to that place it’s not far before we want to tell publishers what they can put in their magazines, or artists what they can paint, or writers what they can write about. Then we stop reading novels, going to movies, and watching certain television shows. That kind of craziness is the province of the New New Left, and we have to be more intelligent, and more intellectually curious, than them.