How Would John Wilkes Booth Look on the Cover of Rolling Stone?

July 23rd, 2013


Last week’s outrage over the glamour shot photo of Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev gracing the cover of Rolling Stone got me thinking about how far the American media has fallen.

I’m 100% in favor of freedom of speech and the press, but I also recognize the original intent of Constitutional protection of those rights was to permit citizens to criticize and challenge the government. Given that, I’m pretty sure most of the Founders would cringe if they knew it’s now being used to justify profanity, pornography, and plain insensitivity and stupidity like we see in the latest Rolling Stone cover.

We can’t nor should we muzzle the press, but certainly we should call the press accountable whenever they show extremely poor judgment.

This is definitely one of those times.

A photo of Charles Manson on the cover of this magazine a few decades ago demonstrates that journalistic judgment hasn’t collapsed overnight, but one does wonder when it actually began sinking quite this low.

Let’s not kid ourselves.

Historically, the press printed lots of salacious garbage to sell newspapers.  Thomas Jefferson frequently found himself the subject of such trash at the hands of an editor of a Federalist newspaper, James T. Callender.

Still, there was always a line even someone like Callender likely wouldn’t cross.

Let’s take John Wilkes Booth for example.

As we all know, Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865.  Most people also know that Booth was an actor.

What few know is that Booth was the Brad Pitt of his day.  Women absolutely loved him with some even collecting tiny portraits of him to sit on their dressers and admire.  He wasn’t the great actor his father and brother were, but he was just good enough and good looking enough to enjoy success.

So when he murdered President Lincoln, there was shock on multiple levels.

Imagine if Rolling Stone existed back in 1865.  Would they have found their most flattering photo of Booth to grace the cover?  While nearly all Americans today are appalled by Booth’s actions, back in 1865 there were actually quite a few people happy about it.  Remember, the South had just lost the Civil War and there were many bitter feelings towards President Lincoln. In theory, there might have been a fairly sizeable audience for such a magazine.

Still, I don’t think any editor would have dared put Booth’s photo on a magazine in a flattering way.

The reason is simple.  Back then, there existed a certain sense of decorum and standards people were expected to meet.  “Anything goes” wasn’t part of the deal.

Sadly, if the same thing happened today, I’m not so sure the annals of Rolling Stone magazine history wouldn’t ultimately include such a cover.

Fortunately, the people of Boston and the rest of America are expressing the sort of outrage that could keep this sort of thing from happening again.

We need to keep up the public outrage over the Tsarnaev cover if we don’t want to continue seeing more and more magazine covers like this.  Otherwise, expect more of this type of thing from a press that clearly knows no boundaries.