I’ve been following and participating in the social media debate over Rolling Stone’s cover shot of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev since last night. And I have a couple of contradictory thoughts about it.
First, the positive. The cognitive dissonance makes for a brilliant piece of magazine design. The angelic-looking Tsarnaev juxtaposed with cover type calling him “the bomber” and “a monster.” The knowledge we all have that this is who Tsarnaev was not that long ago — and that he would soon begin his descent into terrorism.
As we know, the cover has been roundly criticized for supposedly glamorizing Tsarnaev. According to Steve Annear of Boston magazine, Tedeschi’s and CVS have both announced that they won’t sell the issue. Tedeschi’s released a statement that says:
Tedeschi Food Shops supports the need to share the news with everyone, but cannot support actions that serve to glorify the evil actions of anyone. With that being said, we will not be carrying this issue of Rolling Stone. Music and terrorism don’t mix.
Needless to say, similarly angelic portraits of Tsarnaev have appeared in just about every publication you can think of, including the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald and the New York Times. The outrage, it seems to me, is based on a misperception (reflected in the Tedeschi’s statement) of exactly what it is that Rolling Stone does.
In fact, the magazine publishes a lot of serious news stories and often puts them on the cover. And by way of analogy, I’ve posted a 1970 Rolling Stone cover of Charles Manson looking, if not exactly angelic, then at least somewhat more human than we’re used to seeing. I assume the accompanying story was not a flattering one.
For a little historical perspective, in 1938 Time magazine made Adolf Hitler both its “Man of the Year” and its cover boy. Yes, the start of World War II was still a year off, but Hitler was already a world pariah at that point.
Having said all that, I do have one negative observation to offer about the Rolling Stone cover — not that it glamorizes Tsarnaev, but that it draws attention to him in a way that may make an impression on other alienated people who could be inspired to follow his example.
My Northeastern colleague Jack Levin, a criminologist who’s an expert on serial killers and mass murderers, made that argument in an interview with Fox News. “If they want to become famous, kill somebody,” Levin said.
I’m not sure that we can or should edit with an eye toward how mentally disturbed people will react to decisions we make as journalists. Still, Levin’s point is well taken and well worth thinking about.
Update: Rolling Stone has now posted the story, preceded by the following statement:
Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev 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.
— THE EDITORS
Update II: I’ve now had a chance to read the article, by Janet Reitman. It’s not great, but it’s pretty good. There’s not much new, but it offers a level of detail I haven’t seen previously, including interesting information about Tsarnaev’s abandonment by his family and his gradual embrace of his brother’s radical form of Islam.
No doubt many people will say that the article “excuses” Tsarnaev, but I don’t see it that way. To explain is not to excuse. I certainly don’t excuse him. We need to understand as best we can what happened, and why.
I thought the most chilling part came near the end, when we learn how widespread the belief is among Tsarnaev’s fellow immigrant classmates that 9/11 was an “inside job.”