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Why is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone?

Popular culture magazine Rolling Stone has released the cover of its August 1 print edition on the internet. Most of the headlines promise the familiar mix of pop culture and news: a review of Jay-Z’s…

The Rolling Stone cover image of alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has drawn comparisons to rock musician Jim Morrison. But is this glamourising Tsarnaev? Rolling Stone

Popular culture magazine Rolling Stone has released the cover of its August 1 print edition on the internet. Most of the headlines promise the familiar mix of pop culture and news: a review of Jay-Z’s album, a thesis on why Robin Thicke appeals as an R&B artist, a tribute to the touring resilience of Willie Nelson, something on climate change. Then, straddling both worlds, we have Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect of April’s Boston Marathon bombings, is the front cover. The headline reads:

The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.

It promises an important reflection on a significant global phenomenon. In the UK, following Lee Rigby’s murder, calls have been made for more research on the connections between the process of radicalisation and terrorism.

Of course Rolling Stone covers being what they are, the words are the last thing that catch your attention. As news websites pointed out, the cover prompted instant social media outrage by making Tsarnaev look like a rock star. Incensed readers pointed to the similarities between this picture and the classic Jim Morrison cover. That image of The Doors' mythic frontman was instrumental in defining the rockstar photograph as a genre in itself. Understandably, many are outraged by the elevation of the alleged bomber to celebrity status.

It’s tempting to think that the magazine deserves the flak, as it clearly anticipated controversy. The editors have published a statement emphasising their sympathy for the Boston bombers’ victims, and defend both cover and story as being consistent with Rolling Stone’s “long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day”. Apparently, the cover emphasises that Tsarnaev looks like any ordinary young person. The intention is to create a deliberate juxtaposition: how can an handsome, talented, popular kid end up being implicated in such a willful atrocity?

But readers aren’t buying it. Literally.

Online readers have found different reasons to object. There’s reasonable, visceral anger at the glamourisation of a figure who is accused of maiming and murdering. But there are also accusations that Rolling Stone is jamming a square peg into a round hole. A reader called “Tom Russo” observed that the magazine brand depends on covers that “are traditionally seen as aspirational”, and it’s disingenuous to distance this cover from the rest.

We are accustomed to Rolling Stone covers being about sexy folks we want to be. They know it. We know it. No accompanying story or editorial comment can change that. Good journalism is arguably more important than it has ever been, while industrial changes make good journalists an endangered species. Clearly, Rolling Stone’s decision reflects commercial interests. Its ethical defence will doubtless be a matter of conjecture for some time, because it speaks to a growing public scepticism toward a media form that is integral to the health of society. This cause célèbre is a big deal.

Academic media research can’t answer the question “should this have happened”? But it can offer insights on why it happened, with its work on the connections between news and entertainment.

For a long time now, American magazines have sold themselves by attracting attention to horrible stories by using beautiful pictures. Back in the 1950s, “true life confession” magazines became enormously popular with American women. These titles typically told “true” stories about “good” girls who ended up in horrible situations. The victims of these narratives were always young women who wouldn’t go out with nice boys, or settle down to get married. One tale features a woman who takes the daring step of going on a European vacation, only to be seduced by an evil Austrian Nazi.

Researching these stories, social scientist George Gerbner noticed an intriguing anomaly: the covers of the magazines never reflected their content. Where the written copy outlined horribly lurid details of violence and degradation, the covers always featured its victims as sweet, beautiful and happy. The reason was simple enough: store owners wouldn’t stock covers featuring abuse. They worried that “true” covers would disturb customers’ buying mood.

The connection here is that there is a long history of writers having to ply their trade within the strictures of commercial media genres. So, a Rolling Stone cover story has to look like a Rolling Stone cover story. The magazine might have got it horribly wrong here, but this does prompt us to think about the relationship between news and entertainment.

Gerbner thought that entertainment creates powerful images about what the real world is like. Further, when we try to make sense of events of which we have no direct experience, we often fall back on familiar media narratives. Faced with incomprehensible horrors, one reaction is to interpret them through the genres that have become common vernacular. As Australian cultural studies professor Graeme Turner has argued, “celebrity” is one such language.

People are rightly asking if the cover is ethical. But a better way to get at the anger beneath this question is to ask if it was predictable, given the commercial pressures of competitive media markets.

Join the conversation

55 Comments sorted by

  1. Chris Harper

    Engineer

    Andy,

    What you say here is true, but there is another issue which you haven't addressed.

    Progressive organs, of which Rolling Stone is one, have a history of glamorising even the most murderous of psychopath, especially if their actions can be shoehorned into an anti-western or anti-capitalism narrative.

    How often do we see the visage of that mass murdering, but eminently photogenic, psychopath, Ernesto Guevara, published in one way or another?

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    1. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Chris Harper

      So you mean like how war criminal Henry Kissinger regularly appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

      http://www.coverbrowser.com/covers/time/52#i2556

      https://www.facebook.com/pages/Henry-Kissinger-War-Criminal/199351261749

      and

      "Christopher Hitchens, the late British-American journalist and author, was highly critical of Kissinger, authoring The Trial of Henry Kissinger, in which Hitchens called for the prosecution of Kissinger "for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture"

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    2. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Che Guevara, Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, Mao tse Tung, Ho Chi Min, Yasser Arafat - to name just a few of the most obvious.

      I am not aware of any mass movements featuring Henry Kissinger as a celebrity icon.

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    3. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Chris Harper

      "Henry Kissinger as a celebrity icon."

      How am I to know? He appeared so often of the front cover of conservative magazines, I assumed that you right-wingers had some sort of thing for him.

      It is also worth pointing out that Tsarnaev is a religious fundamentalist like the base of the conservative movement in the USA. While most conservatives want to go back to the 1950s, the Islamic conservatives want to go back to the middle ages.

      Your colleagues in the US point out the irony - leading American conservatives are enthusiastic supporters of Chechyan terrorism.
      http://www.theamericanconservative.com/chechens-and-american-hawks-an-interesting-alliance/

      I suspect the Tsarnaev confusion comes from the fact that in Afghanistan they (the Islamic fundos) are being blown up but in Syria and Libya they are being armed.

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    4. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Seriously?

      Us right wingers? All of us?

      Conservatives, libertarians, liberals?

      Stereotyping are we?

      Sigh. I give you a short sample of a very long list, and you keep banging on about Henry Kissinger. I am not aware that anyone holds him up, or have ever held him up, as an ideal to be praised and emulated, let alone subjected him to the adulation that those few I have mentioned have been treated with by mass movements on the progressive side of politics.

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    5. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      As to arming these people. Well, I acknowledge that some fighting on the side of the rebels are true liberals, but in the main, arming the rebel side is an act of insanity on the part of lobotomised Western politicians.

      When this lot get together and fight, rather than pick a side I would lief pray for an asteroid.

      BTW, my colleagues?

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    6. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Mike, in my youth, I recall owning at one time or other various paraphernalia - T-shirts, Warhol prints, posters - celebrating Jim Morrison, Mao, Che Guevara, Trotsky, Mandela, and many others. Henry Kissinger? Not so much.

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    7. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to David Thompson

      Well that is rather besides the point David since we are talking about what conservatives worshipped.

      But in any event I suspect that you are a BS artist.

      For those who do not know their history, owning both a Mao and Trotsky t-shirt would be akin to owning both a Carlton and Collingwood scarf. Trotsky was the sworn enemy of Stalinism and was ultimately assassinated by a Stalinist agent.

      Or perhaps that simply explains why you quickly migrated to the right.

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    8. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Mike, firstly I grew up in the postmodern era of irony. Secondly, celebrity and hero worship have nothing to with taking sides on the fallouts from the Bolshevik Revolution. Often it has little more to it than who has a coolest beard or the pointiest tits.

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    9. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to David Thompson

      That is to say, I once had a poster of Wonder Woman. Not sure, where she stood on the Sino-Soviet split though.

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    10. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      The issue is, no one in the west, outside nutter fringe groups, put pics of Adolf or his ilk on their walls. On the other hand, despite Marxism/Bolshevism being the most murderous ideology in human history it was mainstream and cool, if not a positive statement of admiration as role models, to have pics of these other guys on the dorm wall, including (prior to the Kruschev denouncement) Joseph Stalin.

      Personally, admirers of these progressive icons are either ignorant fools, or are no better than admirers of that other variant of socialism, the National type, even if Che did wear a cool hat.

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    11. R. Ambrose Raven

      none

      In reply to Chris Harper

      Messrs George Bush, Tony Blair, and John Howard are treated and depicted sympathetically by the media, in contrast to those you list.

      Yet in the waging of a war of aggression against Iraq, war criminals and mass murderers George Bush, Tony Blair, and John Howard did not merely commit crimes against peace. They also bankrupted the US economy, triggered Peak Oil, lengthened the occupation of Afghanistan, profoundly strengthened al-Qaeda, and triggered the global financial crisis, all to our…

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    12. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Chris Harper

      "....it was mainstream and cool.....to have pics ......including (prior to the Kruschev denouncement) Joseph Stalin...."

      Wasn't Joseph Stalin on our side during WWII? Didn't Russia take the majority of the casualties and the brunt of most of Nazi agression? Without Stalin and Russia, wouldn't Germany have succeeded in dominating all of Europe?

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    13. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      true perhaps.........Stalin was considered to be the lesser of two evils as far as I know. Churchill and Truman were well aware of the perniciousness of the man and his regime. It was political expediency rather than Stalin being a nice guy.

      But sometimes when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.
      The division of Germany proved that so.

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    14. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Stephen, I would not argue that Stalin was a murderous tryant, and that there was a large element of realpolitik and 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' in our alignment with the Russians during WWII. As to whether Stalin was the lesser of two evils compared to Hitler, that is very much a debateable opinion, and it could be argued either way.

      But as far as the division of Germany is concerned, you have to look past the western propaganda and look at why it really occured. Firstly, why was the…

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    15. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Mike,

      This just shows how any old psychopath can be canonised by progressives. Consistency in policy is less important than that the saint be both murderous and anti a free and open society in some manner.

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    16. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Mike,

      So what? Churchill swore that he would ally with the devil himself if it would help defeat Hitler, and did.

      However, even before that, when anyone who could read, and wanted to be informed, knew what a hellhole Soviet Russia had become, progressive intellectual luminaries (Shaw, the Webbs, Besant) sucked up to the old murderer, pretending that in Moscow paradise was being built, and adopted the Fuhrer Principle, with respect to Stalin, wholeheartedly.

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    17. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Chris Harper

      No disagreement from me Chris. I am not nor would I ever argue that Russia would have been a particularly nice place to be if you were one of the many classes of people who were not favoured by the regime. But then, Russia was not particularly unique in that regard in the world at the time. For example, I wouldn't have liked to have been a black living in the USA, or even once of many of the local populations living in a country ruled by some of the colonial powers.

      But you ask so what? Well, the cold war and the remnants of it that we are still dealing with, that's 'so what'. And we still keep failing to learn the lessons of aligning ourselves with people and regimes that, while they may be in our short term interest, are certainly not in our long term interest. Arming Saddam Hussein to oppose Iran is one example, as is supporting the Taliban against Russia.

      Its not a lesson we have appeared to have learned very well.

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    18. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Mike,

      I agree about the USA, although the British Empire, while bad in places, generally wasn't as dire a place for anyone as the US was for blacks.

      However, the point I was making was the adulation, by progressives, of the absolutely worst in human nature. As it was then, so it remains today.

      Hell, a hundred years earlier their intellectual ancestors were full of admiration for Napoleon.

      The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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    19. Chris Harper

      Engineer

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      Mike,

      Arming people who might not, in the future, have the best of intentions towards us is, I agree, a tad problematical. In fact, I think it is f*****g insane.

      Personally, I am approaching indifference to the situation in Syria, although I have a feeling that a murderous, secular authoritarian regime might be preferable to an extremely murderous, totalitarian religious one.

      However, I decline to choose sides. A pox on both their houses...

      Question is, did we support the Taliban? My memory, which I am prepared to question, is that we certainly did support and arm the Afghan opposition, including bin Laden, but the Taliban was a creation of the Pakistani's after the Russians left. They were created Pakistan wasn't too happy about the chaos the Russians left behind.

      We aren't the only ones who make the mistake of creating their future adversaries.

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    20. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to Chris Harper

      The machinations of global politics!

      The creation of Israel and not a Palestinian state is another example of arrogant and short-sighted policies by the West.

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    21. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Chris Harper

      Chris

      It may be true that the Afghan insurgents at the time were not actually the Taiban, but they were certainly the genesis of it. The Taliban is really just the political wing of the resistance, much as Sinn Fein is the political arm of the IRA or the ANC being both a political party and a resistance organisation. Any 'difference' between the two is purely a semantic distinction.

      And you are correct, we aren't the only ones who make the mistake of creating future adversaries. It has been…

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  2. Mike Hansen

    Mr.

    I am not buying their excuses either. This is pretty blatant opportunism on the part of Rolling Stone. I suspect that their calculation is that the blowback is worth the publicity.

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    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      One point the author noticeably silences is just what sort of "process of radicalisation and terrorism" the cover boy undertook. Don't forget, there is a market of 1.5 billion of the unmentioned group. Rolling Stone might just smell the potential money to be made from such a market.

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  3. Robert Tony Brklje
    Robert Tony Brklje is a Friend of The Conversation.

    retired

    More importantly why does getting on the cover of a mass media magazine mean anything at all. Is this reflective of a dying era, where mass media could define who or what was important, create the illusion of truth from lies or define what the whole of humanity should be discussing.
    Is this article about who was on the cover of a magazine or about how we were all scammed into believing that who or what was on that cover should be important to us, a cover decided by marketing teams to sell product…

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  4. Joe Gartner

    Tilter

    Does anyone really think that Rolling Stone is glamorising terorism? It's about shifting product. Perhaps the cover is a comment on the celebritisation inherent in the jihadist movement.

    I struggle to see the cover as 'unethical' - I'm presuming those that have made that comment have read the article and have seen it is a patently pro-jihad anti-American tract.

    Anyway,is it his fault that he looks like syd barret?

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    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      "I struggle to see the cover as 'unethical'"
      Joe, I could not agree more. It is a tic of the Media/Cultural Studies set. "Ethics" is code for "neomarxist ideological programs". ;)

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    2. Greg Young

      Program Director

      In reply to Joe Gartner

      I have no trouble seeing this magazine cover as unethical, but for a different reason.

      It shows a phot of a man who is yet to go to trial and has entered a plea of Not Guilty, and labels him as The Bomber and A Monster.

      No "alleged", no presumption of innocence. Just prejudicial coverage designed to bolster the widespread assumption that this man is guilty because the authorities say he is.

      Since 9/11 this sort of unthinking abandonment of civil rights has become commonplace. It's the attitude that has led to a government killing a teenage US citizen in a drone strike with virtually no negative consequences for them in doing so. It is a disturbing sign of an unhealthy and failing democracy.

      BTW, where was all the outrage when the New York Times and the Washington Post ran the same photo ?

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  5. Michael Glass

    Teacher

    Perhaps the most jarring thing about the photograph is that a baby-faced boy llike this could be capable of an act of terrorism. It would be so nice if villains looked - villainous. When they don't, it disturbs us.

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  6. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Commercial reality got Adolph Hitler the Time Man of the year in 1938 so it should come as no surprise that the editor of the Rolling Stone, faced with obliteration by the internet media, grabbed the photo of the handsome young bomber and teased out the 'sympathetic' angle.

    Maybe he or she got it wrong, but at least the magazine is back in the news.

    The sickest part of the cover is the blurb that says, 'How a popular, promising student was failed by his family..' There are millions of popular, promising students that are failed by their family, but they don't go and murder innocent children and marathon runners.

    The author is right - a beat up to raise flagging sales.

    Gerard Dean

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  7. alfred venison

    records manager (public sector)

    " Rolling Stone covers being what they are, the words are the last thing that catch your attention "

    i don't think it was always that way

    we are now a culture that preferences visual over literal (in the sense: consisting of, using, or expressed by letters). it wasn't always so in the history of rolling stone.

    last time rolling stone ran with a murderer on the cover was charles mason.

    the media ecology of the culture contemporaneous with the manson cover, was, in contrast to the present…

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    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to alfred venison

      Alfred, the US has been a visual (pagan even) culture for several generations now.

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    2. alfred venison

      records manager (public secotr)

      In reply to David Thompson

      back in marshall mcluhan's day, when you wanted to know how to operate the lawn mower, say, you read the manual, nowadays, when you want to know how to operate the lawn mower, you watch a video. that's the difference. i think its been one or two generations to get to this breakpoint, not more. -a.v.

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  8. Joseph Bernard

    Director

    Lets celebrate the worst behavior of humans and look here people.. look here is a great way to get your name in lights..

    Lets ignore the strength of a young girl, Malama who has stood up and face death for what she believes in. Malama's presentation to the UN and Her inspiration to how many hundreds of millions of women and girls around the world. even the mighty taliban are licking their wounds and trying to recover some ground from the embarrassing stupidity of their actions that have been highlighted by this young woman..

    Malama is a person who we all deserve to see and celebrate and learn from.. Learn from Malama who is a heroic champion, who faces death and inspires greatness.. This is what our youth should celebrate..

    rather, than pine over a spineless "jihadi", who kills innocents and then can not even be man enough to put his hand up and say "i did it" .. seriously so not waist anymore time on this pathetic example

    you are the friends you keep.. "rolling stones"

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  9. Tim Allman

    Medical Software Developer

    Tempest in a teapot.

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  10. Trevor Kerr

    ISTP

    What? A magazine uses eye candy to boost sales? What will the advertisers think?
    Next time, try a naked, pregnant Royal being toe-sucked.

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  11. Stephen Ralph

    carer

    Didn't Time magazine have Hitler and Stalin as "men of the year" in 1938 & 1939.

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    1. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      don't know about 1938 but there's time magazine cover gallery somewhere. i didn't get much past 1933 where i saw hitler, goebbels & goering within the year. -a.v.

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  12. Mike Swinbourne

    logged in via Facebook

    This whole issue pretty much somes up what is wrong with the media and society.

    Rather than focussing on the story - how even someone who appears to have promise can fall into extremism - everyone is arguing about how he looks in his picture on the cover.

    There is nothing like worrying about appearances over substance is there?

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    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      "everyone is arguing about how he looks in his picture on the cover.

      There is nothing like worrying about appearances over substance is there?"
      Welcome the United States of Paganism.

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  13. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    Rolling Stone is bought by 15 yo girls, or those with the same outlook. What else need be said?

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    1. John Vacey

      Sciolist

      In reply to John Crest

      Odd. All those words based on a cover photo. Apparently noone (not even Andy Ruddock) needs to actually read the original Rolling Stone article. Guess my expectation that The Conversation and its readership should be more sophisticated than the MSM was naive.

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    2. John Crest

      logged in via email @live.com.au

      In reply to John Vacey

      Look at the published stats on the average visitor here - it's a veritble "who's who" of stupidity.

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    3. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John Crest

      John, have you ever bought or read a copy of 'Rolling Stone'?

      It is not and never has been aimed at 15 yo old girls. You are probably thinking of Dolly etc. Whist it has a lot of music and entertainment news, Rolling Stone actually produces some of the best investigative journalism on the planet. Grab a couple of copies and have a read.

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    4. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Mike Swinbourne

      15 yo girls are too busy with "America's Next Top Model" to bother their pretty little heads with anything as high falutin' as Rolling Stone.

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    5. Stephen Ralph

      carer

      In reply to David Thompson

      As their parents are into "Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous" or re-runs of "Baywatch".

      I used to love reading RS years ago - there were great articles.

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    6. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Nonsense, Stephen, we have the revived "Dallas" to drool over now. Rooly excellent!

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  14. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    You left out the fact that both Rolling Stone and Time had Charles Manson covers in the 70s. I suppose they should have airbrushed the photo of Tsarnaev to make him uglier and more monster like. Somehow I don't think this would have ameliorated the reaction: these days it seems outrage and offence are de rigeur responses to anything we don't like. I am outraged and offended by the bland grey background to the comments section: it should be flouro pink to draw attention to it rather than the article. After all, our comments are more important than whatever they are responding to.

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    1. David Thompson

      Marketing Research

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      Yes, I was wondering about Charles Manson, and the Weathermen, Black Panthers...

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  15. Leo Kerr

    Consultant

    "America... just a nation of two hundred million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns and no qualms about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable." Hunter S. Thompson

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  16. Peter Gerard

    Retired medical practitioner

    The photo of Tzarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone suggests youthful innocence which of course flies in the face of what we know about him. To me it reinforces my opinion that facial features do not necessarily reflect a persons character and also calls into question, in part, effectiveness of facial profiling in an attempt to detect potential terrorists.

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