“Rolling Stone” Outrage and the Bandwagon Mentality

by Bill Brenner on July 18, 2013

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence; nor is the law less stable than the fact. John Adams, Summation, Rex v Wemms (1770)

I wasn’t planning a follow-up to yesterday’s post about the Rolling Stone cover story on Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev. Then I saw all the outrage and realized there was more to this than the magazine’s editorial motive.

This is a case study in how caught up people get in the bandwagon mentality.

Mood music:

Consider this: People are outraged over the magazine cover because they feel it portrays Tsarnaev as a teen heartthrob. But the picture has been floating around for months and The New York Times used in back in May. No one said boo at the time. The picture shows an innocent-looking kid who is anything but innocent, but it’s real.

Nevertheless, after a few people expressed anger over the Rolling Stone cover, people started tripping over each other to rage in a delirious rush to find a seat on the bandwagon. Some stores announced they wouldn’t carry this issue of the magazine because they were taking a stand against such sensationalistic madness. In my opinion, they’re just trying to capitalize on the anger and get some good brand PR.

New York Times Tsarnaev Front Page

Consider this: A few weeks back, amid a tidal wave of public joy over the Supreme Court striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), The New Yorker displayed an issue cover that depicts Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie snuggling together in from of a TV displaying the justices. Most of the response was positive. People gushed about how this demonstrates how far we’ve come in accepting people for who they were, regardless of sexual orientation, race and so on.

But the cover takes liberties with the truth. Sesame Street has said that those characters are not gay. In fact, its puppets are without sexual orientation, period.

Go ahead and tell me you can’t possibly compare the two covers, that Sesame Street is a children’s show. The characters on Sesame Street are very real to children, and The New Yorker made two of the characters out to be something they’re not.

New York Bert and Ernie Cover

Personally, I wasn’t bothered by The New Yorker cover. To me, it was an artist merely expressing his emotions over the death of DOMA. I wasn’t bothered by the Rolling Stone cover, either. I thought the image with the headline and summary set the reader up for an important case study in how a seemingly good kid goes astray, espouses evil and becomes a monster.

Someone noted yesterday that terrorists crave the limelight and want to be on the cover of magazines. Perhaps that’s true. But we need to see their faces, too, so we know who our enemies are. That’s why evil people make the cover of news magazines all the time.

When there’s a bandwagon to jump on, however, the truth gets trampled underfoot. People latch on to memes on Facebook every day that have absolutely no basis in truth. The image and text capture the outrage they feel, so the facts become unimportant.

The outrage over the Rolling Stone cover is, to me, another example of that. With emotions still raw (mine included) over the Boston bombings, people want ways to vent their spleen. Seemingly offensive photos and magazine covers will do the trick every time. Maybe that’s not a bad thing; having outlets to express our pain is healthy and helps us move on.

Yet when we spend too much time on a bandwagon fueled by rage, we’re bound to choke on the exhaust.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lynn July 18, 2013 at 11:08 am

“When there’s a bandwagon to jump on, however, the truth gets trampled underfoot …”

Precisely. From DOMA to Zimmerman to Rolling Stone, the reaction to the news has been harder to watch than the news itself.

Thanks for this thoughtful post.

Matt Belfiore July 18, 2013 at 11:53 am

The differences: 1. The New Yorker is not regularly read by children, and even if a child of Sesame-Street-viewing age saw the cover, they are not going to make a connection to the political message being eschewed. 2. Displaying an inferred image of gay marriage between two well-known puppets , as provocative as it may be to some, isn’t going to have much potential for swaying other puppets to change their sexuality. 3. I’m no psychologist, but I’ll go out on a limb and say the same probability exists for any member of the human race. 4. The classic Rolling Stone cover layout is iconic. It’s an icon that says celebrity, creativity and pop-star fame. The classic New Yorker cover layout is iconic. It’s an icon that says erudite, sophisticate and ivy league. I’d be willing to bet that most future Dzhokhar Tsarnaevs would be more impressed with being on Rolling Stone than on The New Yorker, Time, or most other magazines.

The similarities: Like much of the evolving social attitudes of the past quarter century, the New Yorker’s cover might just make people who have lived as a maligned minority feel less persecuted for being attracted to someone with similar genitals.

The Rolling Stone cover just might make people who have lived their lives struggling with a hatred of society, inner demons and a lust for fame feel that just like Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, it’s high time they made the cover of the Rolling Stone.

I’m not throwing up a “Hell Yeah! I’m Boston Strong! Burn Rolling Stone’s Senior Editor in effigy!” meme on my Facebook page. I’m not calling for censorship. I am only reacting to what I see. Just because my opinion happens to be in line with the one that is seemingly currently prevailing doesn’t mean I’m picking up a torch and pitchfork, or jumping on any bandwagon. Rolling Stone can publish anything it wants. I can disagree with it, and I can voice my disagreement.

Do we need to see the face of evil so we know who our enemies are? If we saw Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s face the day before the bombing, would we then recognize him as evil? After seeing his face on every other magazine and news report (as we have in the last two months) would we recognize him any less if he hadn’t been on Rolling Stone?

To take it to an extreme, could Tiger Beat publish the same article with the same picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover? Sure. Would I seriously wonder about the editorial decision? Yes.

Is this cover the most heinous thing to happen to humanity? No. Might it possibly encourage others to try and outdo Mr. Tsarnaev’s newfound fame? Maybe.

Do I feel that perhaps the folks who have suffered from his act of violence might like to be spared seeing him on the cover of Rolling Stone? I make no claim of speaking for them, but I know if I were in their ranks, it wouldn’t make me feel any better. Is it Rolling Stone’s job to make them feel better? No. Would it have been a humane thing to do? Probably.

Do I deserve to be accused of jumping on a bandwagon, or being part of a mob? No.

Andrea Holbrook (@andreasoldier) July 18, 2013 at 10:03 pm

I won’t be buying Rolling Stone, because it is icon, and its cover makes Tsarnaev look like a celebrity, something the NYT cover fails to do.
And I always thought Bert & Ernie were gay, and laughed when I saw the New Yorker cover.
Now Boston mag is coming out with pics of Tsarnaev’s face lit up by a police sniper’s scope, and already people are saying they will turn him into a martyr for his cause.
There’s no winner here

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