Years ago, while working in a convenience store, my co-worker and I decided to pull the tabloids off our news racks one dreary Saturday.  That was the day the world was laying Princess Diana to rest and tabloids like the National Enquirer were jumping for joy at the fodder her tragic death provided, each magazine trying to one up the other to see who could publish the most gratuitous or bloody pictures on their cover.  For that one day, much of the world was united in grief as mourners for the former princess stretched across oceans and continents, from Europe’s privileged upper classes to starving masses in Africa and Asia to the average working man and woman the world over.  Canada, given its close historical relationship with the House of Windsor, was hit especially hard, so selling the publications that stalked her during her life and were now profiting off her death seemed tasteless and wrong.  So for that rainy Saturday (and Sunday, if memory serves), we stashed the tabloid trash in the back, safe from grieving eyes.

When Rolling Stone revealed the cover for its August 3rd issue, featuring an innocent looking, baby-faced, arguably glamourized picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the outcry was both immediate and thermonuclear.  The story apparently details how Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston bomber, was seduced and then radicalized by violent and extreme influences, and how he and his brother Tamerian descended down a dark and bloody path that ended in the decision to commit mass murder and domestic terrorism in the name of Islam.  But the magazine’s cover depicts the nineteen-year old terrorist as though he was the newest boy band sensation, the next fad destined to annoy parents of pre-pubescent girls during their early teen years.  On the cover of the Rolling Stone magazine scheduled to arrive on news stands this Friday, Tsarnaev, whose calculated actions lead to the deaths three people, the injuries and nightmares of over 260 more and lead to an entire city being held hostage for four traumatic days, looks like he belongs on the cover of Teen Beat.  And the ensuing outrage is exactly what Rolling Stone hoped for.

Rolling Stone is no stranger to controversy, learning long ago that it earned them free publicity and resulted in higher magazine sales.  Given that print media currently finds itself on the ropes, unable to compete against the more agile, current and free digital media, Rolling Stone (and others) are always hungry for whatever will capture the righteous imagination of consumers, and drive them to the newsstand, eagerly forking over the cover price if for no other reason than to hate-read the offensive content.  News channels and newspapers do the exact same thing on a daily basis.  And it works.

Social media has been bombarded by the furious feedback over Rolling Stone’s (deliberately) offensive decision.  On Wednesday afternoon, David Draiman, lead singer of heavy metal bands Disturbed and Device, took to Facebook and tore into the magazine with the frenzied white rage usually reserved for one of his metallic ballads.  His comments drew tens of thousands of online likes and approvals within hours.  I’m not judging the rage over Rolling Stone’s cover; it’s horrifically insensitive and the insult to Tsarnaev’s victims, their families and the entire city of Boston (and to an extent, the entire U S of A) is so massive it’s gravitational pull dwarfs that of the sun.  But, alas, it is working.

Boycotts are already under way, a number of Boston related retailers have refused to carry it, but the sad, morbid fact is that most of the people boycotting it never would have bought August’s issue of Rolling Stone anyway, and the number of people who will buy it out of controversy inspired curiosity outnumber regular buyers deciding not to for the exact same reason.  If Rolling Stone doesn’t sell a single issue in Boston next month, or even in the entire state of Massachusetts, there is still a very good chance it could still see a significant sales bump. It’s a risky business move and they need to pray the outrage fades from public memory quickly and that concerted efforts against them at the cash register lose steam once the hot summer months pass.  And granted, while this will cost them some regular readers, Rolling Stone is gambling they’ll rope in twice that number in new ones, that most regular buyers who took a pass in August return in September, that the increased sales of the controversial issue in question more than compensate for any residual losses and long term damage to their brand is minimal and non-lasting.  Simply put, people who have either never heard of Rolling Stone or forgot it was still around are hearing about it in a big way.  And you can bet many are tempted to pick up a copy just to satisfy their curiosity.  It’s the literary equivalent of rubber neckers slowing down in traffic to gawk at an accident, desperate to catch a glimpse of blood or maybe even a corpse.

I remember that weekend all those years ago, when an entire world seemed transfixed to a princess’ funeral at Buckingham palace.  I remember most customers understood and agreed with our decision to yank the rags, but we also got more than a few complaints by people (regulars among them) who wanted to buy a copy of each and every one for their “commemorative value.”  Controversy sells, no matter how tasteless or offensive.

Shayne Kempton





  1. Andrew says:

    I like how you book-ended the article with Princess Diana.

    From my perspective, unless Rolling Stone makes a consistent habit of controversy, this will blow over. True, they will lose some sales, as certain retailers pull the magazines off the shelves, but there will also be a lot of people who will pick it up just to see what all the fuss is about, as you pointed out.

    You’re right. Print media is on the ropes. Social media has our attention divided so much, that we now have six second “vine” videos. A controversy like this stands out. People take notice. I haven’t read the article in question, so I can’t really tell you if there is any “journalistic integrity” there.

    I do know that a large portion of the population are fascinated by serial-killers and psychopaths. The attempt to understand the why of their actions is compelling. Personally, I find that one short notch above celebrity gossip. I’m looking at you, TMZ.

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