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Magazines don’t kill people, bombs do

Rolling Stone made alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev its cover for this month’s edition. But why are we all so outraged?

US magazine Rolling Stone released its latest cover, and the image of alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev gussied up to better resemble a model from a MacBook Air advertisement than a suspected nutter stirred disquiet.

But not too much, actually. Not unreasonably, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick called the cover “out of taste”, and certain chain stores in the state banned the item from sale. The outrage-economy crashed and burned rather more quickly, with much of the action unfolding on the magazine’s Facebook page. Almost as soon as social media had rubbed itself predictably raw with the assertion this winsome pic could only result in more violence, traditional US media answered with a resolute: ”No it won’t”.

With their fondness for certain freedoms, US writers tend to downplay the influence of media in general and, indeed, of the influence of their own work.  For all its flaws, the North American worship of the individual does allow for the possibility of a will slightly freer than the version we understand here in Australia. In this nation, we believe our actions to be shackled to The Media as surely as our white ancestors were manacled to Mother England.

In the US, criticisms of a cover of the Tsarnaev type are likely to be no more strident than “that sends the wrong message”.  Here, media has much greater accountability. We media workers don’t “send the wrong message” so much as we cause actual imitative violence. This is as true in Anne Summers’ latest outing The Misogyny Factor as it was in the colony of Victoria in 1889 when Customs Minister James Patterson seized the works of Emile Zola — “the more subtle and deadly infection of French literary vice to be emptied … into the imagination of our children”.

Just as it is Summers’ belief that “true equality of the s-xes”, including economic parity, is significantly impeded by media aimed at older, working-class men, Patterson believed that French novels would corrupt our young. Our distaste for “inappropriate” works is one thing; our widespread belief that these items can and do have real-world outcomes is quite another.

During the campaign for an R18+ classification for video games, we heard in the most unambiguous terms that Grand Theft Auto kills. Former SA attorney-general Michael Atkinson said of his famous long-term refusal to support the category: ”The repeated act of killing a computer-generated person or creature desensitises children to violence.”

Atkinson went on to pass some risible laws banning internet commentary during the state election. And it’s here, really, where he might have actually stumbled upon a far better way to control the outcome of public behaviour through censorship. Certainly, media — either social or traditional — can impact our short-term behaviour.  It can make us purchase a particular brand of washing powder or vote for a particular party.

But it does not make us r-pe and kill.

Despite the view of Summers, Patterson and any of those protesting Bill Henson’s famous 2008 images — these wowsers include former Australia Institute head Clive Hamilton and current Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd — art and other media tend to influence little but short-term decisions.

The view that Alan Jones or Kyle Sandilands, for example, build a particular morality is widespread in Australia.  In the US, where both the idea of free will and the possibility of more politically niche news and entertainment services are greater, the influence of media is viewed with a little less concern.

Henson’s images do not result in damage to children. S-xist cartoons do not reproduce unequal wealth. Airbrushed villains do not cause massacre.

The simple view of cause-and-effect is tempting. It would be nice to think that the culture’s most repugnant ills could be cured by a wholesome media. But censorship is not now, nor has it ever been, a panacea.

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  • 1
    Posted Monday, 22 July 2013 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    The Rolling Stone cover is another confected controversy wherein opposing viewpoints hammer home the same line: In this case, that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty (and not framed, as his relatives claim). Sheeple are then invited to feel morally upstanding by taking either side.

  • 2
    Saugoof
    Posted Monday, 22 July 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    The cover itself I couldn’t care much about one way or the other. What annoys me more is that people who are outraged about it seem to be outraged mainly because it is an attempt at understanding how someone could become the sort of person who plants bombs amongst innocents. The impression I get is that some people fear that anything that allows them to see him as anything other than a cartoon monster will cause them to lose their cherished hatred of him.

    I’ve no sympathy for him, but I’d still want to find out what led him to this point. At least it’d give us some insight into one of the reasons people turn to terrorism.

  • 3
    Bronwyn
    Posted Monday, 22 July 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

    Drawing a long bow, much? For how much longer are subscribers to be subjected to Razer’s personal crusade against commentators who get more airtime than she does? This is barely coherent.

  • 4
    Bo Gainsbourg
    Posted Monday, 22 July 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t say the influence of media in the U.S. is of less concern…it is a common and major topic of debate…the media performance and structure in the U.S. has a significant effect on politics there…seems weird to suggest it wouldn’t.

  • 5
    Harris Evan
    Posted Monday, 22 July 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

    Helen, the media don’t kill people, roads don’t kill anyone, neither do wars, nor do pathogens, plague, or knives. Evil thoughts don’t either, nor do churches abuse people, pens don’t write, sedition doesn’t undermine governments, lies don’t mislead people. People aren’t careful enough, writers and readers are biased and slack, it all depends on many circumstances. If we are going to have freedom, we need to have responsibility and accountability, remedies and apologies, programs and wise people, laws and self restraint, willingness to forget, and to remember. I wonder have writers ever caused any evil in the world? Or any good? Probably. If I were to start somewhere, to clean the place up, I’d start with me, and especially with people whose effect on the world is enhanced by their constant access to print and electronic media.

  • 6
    Alex Lourey
    Posted Monday, 22 July 2013 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

    Saugoff is completely correct, in my opinion. This cover is no more ‘influential’ than the tabloid newspapers who splashed his photo over their front pages after he was caught; if anything, they are going above and beyond the coverage of Tsarnaev so far, not merely reporting the same story as you’d find in any source, but rather highlighting the choice he made to become the ‘monster’ he’ll be forever remembered as. Personally, I find times to be dim when people want safe journalism, complete with a mug shot of a terrorist and an article that doesn’t add much to the headline, as opposed to trying to explore how one turns to terrorism and why they make that decision.

  • 7
    TheFamousEccles
    Posted Monday, 22 July 2013 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    Having a hissy much Bronwyn? Your reply is barely coherent. Did you read the article, and not just the “by” line?

  • 8
    Bronwyn
    Posted Monday, 22 July 2013 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

    Eccles. I read the article, because I found the reaction to the Rolling Stone cover interesting, and there have been some interesting and insightful articles written in response. I don’t think this is one of them. I thought it a laboured attempt to score some point against a contemproary feminist with whom Razer disagrees, relying on ‘facts’ of her own choosing - a common theme of her recent Crikey pieces.

    Can’t say I anticipated that my comments would be so personally upsetting for anyone, but I do hope you find this more coherent.

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