Calling bullshit on Rolling Stone’s defenders

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Columnists sometimes like to be contrarian. I’m as guilty of this as the next guy, but the hope is that your contrarianism is at least sincere — that it’s a reflection of intellectual honesty — not just a cheap way of exploiting the “man bites dog” rule to garner cheap attention.

When it comes to the people making the counterintuitive argument that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the cover of this month’s Rolling Stone, I have to wonder about their sincerity. As John Nolte demonstrates, the dreamy photo and the context of making the cover of the Rolling Stone (and the rock star status that usually bestows) conspire to glamorize this terrorist.

Now, I’m aware that some people have made the argument that the actual story — as well as the words on the cover — compensate for the glamor shot. After all, they call him a “monster!”

There is a word for this theory: Bullshit.

The disparity between the number of people who see a cover versus the number of people who read a story is staggering. What is more, even the words splashed on the cover are easily overcome by the image. Anyone who knows anything about optics and public relations knows this to be true.

There’s an old story about Ronald Reagan — and why pictures are more important than words. Essentially, the Reagan team’s theory was that it didn’t matter what you said about him, as long as the pictures were flattering.

As TIME recalled, “Lesley Stahl got a quick tutorial in that when she did a scathing report on the Reagan budget cuts and expected rebuke from the White House. Instead they were all ecstatic. Why? Because the accompanying footage of my father was terrific, showing him to be confident and robust.”

Reagan aide Mike Deaver agreed, saying Stahl had “unwittingly accomplished the purpose of the White House in trying to be critical of [it]. In the competition between the ear and the eye, the eye always wins.” (Note: This is not to compare Reagan to Dzokhar Tsarnaev, but rather to demonstrate that a). words are irrelevant compared to pictures, and b.) the media has long known this to be true.)

So why does this matter? First, should a responsible media outlet be in the business of profiting off of glamorizing a murderer? Imagine how this makes the victims and the victim’s families feel. Why don’t we put them on the cover? Why don’t we make them famous and glamorous?

But there are other reasons. It used to be that you could get this sort of rock star treatment by developing some discernible talent. For example, generations of kids who craved fame and female adulation picked up guitars and drums and headed off to their parent’s garage to make a racket. Most of them wasted their time — and perhaps a bit of their hearing — but they at least were off the streets.

Today, our society sends an even less positive message about how to attain fame and respect and attention. Reality shows demonstrate that talent is optional, or perhaps, even irrelevant. But that’s not the worst of it. Now, for anyone truly desperate to leave a legacy — for someone just dying for purpose in this world — for those who are ambitious enough to kill for attention and fame (spend enough time in politics and you’ll see this isn’t an exaggeration) — there is a pretty quick and easy method to attaining this attention.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think many young Americans will see the glamorization of a terrorist, and then decide to commit some copycat crime. That assertion would be overwrought. But then, it only takes one.

Matt K. Lewis