Requiem for the Cover of Rolling Stone

The cover of Rolling Stone used to mean something big. Very big. It was Valhalla, Olympus, a place of honor for the lords of youth culture and politics and for the legends of American music and the entertainment industry. Dylan, Morrison, Joplin, Clapton, Springsteen, Madonna, Gaga, the Beatles, the Stones, Aerosmith, the B52s, Nirvana, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Belushi, Gere, Beatty, Cruise, DiCaprio. Even Bart Simpson.

That luster faded this week with a cover that featured the face of an alleged cold-blooded killer, the Boston Marathon bomber suspect whose name you won't read here and whose picture you won't see here because that is precisely the point. He deserves no celebrity.

His arrest was duly reported, and journalists should watch and ensure he receives due process and a fair trial. Other than that, he should disappear utterly and completely as the rest of us go about our lives and plan for our futures in the free and diverse society we relish. Celebrating any notion that he is iconic is sensational garbage.

Dylan first appeared on the cover in 1968, and he's reappeared 22 times since then. He's arguably the most important cultural figure alive today. (See Newsweek, 2004.) The Rolling Stone covers that feature him offer a nostalgic look at 1960s counterculture drawn from songwriting that chronicled the social unrest and youth movement of a generation.

Springsteen got there as The Boss, a champion of the forgotten working class. Gaga arrived with an aesthetic that urged alienated youth to embrace their uniqueness as innate. Clinton and Obama made the cover after they touched a cord of hope and brought generations of new voters into our political process. And Bart Simpson, well...

The face on the cover this week has no following in even the most remote corner of American life. Zero. Zilch.

There is nothing edgy or provocative about him. He is not idolized by anyone as a hero in any sense of the word. He is a grown man -- not the boy next door -- and he's an individual whose victims include an 8-year-old boy and a popular college security guard who was new on the job and was known for hiking and skiing with students.

There have been similar people on the cover, notably Charles Manson, and I'm not defending that or other poor choices. I don't think bad precedent makes for good habit or that it justifies more bad decision-making. And I'm not saying that Rolling Stone erred in offering a journalistic report on this man as he prepares to go to trial. That is standard.

My beef involves the reverence I have for the cover.

Some things in popular culture are so successful, so ubiquitous they touch us in ways that transcend our differences and create a space for us to experience American life together. Somebody technically owns them, but we all feel we have a claim to what goes on there. At a time when too much in our mass media simply pits one American against another and indignation and inflammation seem to be the litmus tests for deciding what's news, these iconic transcendent spaces are more important to our lives and our country than ever.

That's how I see the cover of Rolling Stone.

Perhaps I'm just an aging Baby Boomer yelling "get him off my metaphorical lawn." But so much is changing in journalism that I want people with the power to make a difference to think through things before they toss them overboard hypnotized by the idea that everything has to be new -- and it has to be new as fast as it can -- to stay relevant.

I know this is just one cover, but it's a big one.

Like many news organizations, Rolling Stone has changed its voice, focus and audience appeal over the years. I applaud that. It's become a credible source of hard-hitting news as Matt Taibbi's profile of Goldman Sachs and Michael Hasting's article about Gen. Stanley McChrystal show.

Editors answered criticism of their decision to put a mass murderer on their cover saying,

The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone's longstanding commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage...The fact that (he) is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens.

Good spin. Partly true, but it isn't the cover or not at all.

Journalists and news organizations make all sorts of subjective decisions every day about how they prioritize elements of their product. Everyone in the industry recognizes there is social and cultural significance in the story pecking order known as "play." Play enhances reputation. It also creates buzz, and buzz increases sales. Those decisions are a key part of every news product's market identity. There's usually a spirited decision about the lede story. Someone wins, someone doesn't.

I still think Rolling Stone occupies a different place in our national conversation than Time and Newsweek. It has a different history and a different audience, and I wouldn't wince at all if the murderer appeared on the cover of those publications.

I like reading hard-hitting journalism in Rolling Stone, but I want the editors to realize what they have with their cover and to make the most of it. I think they blew it this time, not necessarily for the present, but for the future as well as the past.

Then again, as Dylan told us a half century ago, "the times they are a-changin."