By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Some thoughts on that Rolling Stone cover

22516_lgI’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.

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.”

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Some thoughts on that Rolling Stone cover (II)


  1. Good points Dan and I agree with what you’re saying with the exception of backing Levin. I think his point is simplistic and ignores the fact that anybody wanting to gain fame through mass murder or terror does not need a Rolling Stone cover photo to validate or motivate that deranged thought. Everybody knows that if you do something truly awful, evil and terrible in the name of whatever cause or perspective you want, the whole country will soon know who you are, who your parents are, where you went to school, etc.

  2. Could you please elaborate on the major differences between glamorizing him and attracting other alienated people who could be inspired to follow his example? Thank you.

  3. Richard Carpenter

    After the Virginia Tech massacre, I was impressed that Time put pictures of the victims on the cover and not Seung-Hui Cho.

  4. Tom Fiedler

    Rolling Stone’s cover and the article are well within the boundaries of responsible — even good — journalism. The self-portrait of Tsarnaev, which was widely published in the days after he was captured, begged the key question explored in the article: How can a seemingly assimilated and attractive young man become a “monster”? To profile him does no disrespect to the victims and their families.

  5. Why put him on the cover and give him more attention than the victims? Would they have done the same for a hijacker after 9/11? Could the same they have used the same justification if they had done so?

  6. James Kabala

    This reminds me of the (before my time) controversy after Time named Ayatollah Khomeini Man of the Year in 1979. Time insisted the selection was not an honor and never had been, but the editors never dared select a clear villain again. Of course, Time has put such people on regular covers all the time (according to my cursory research, McVeigh was on three times and Bin Laden five).

  7. I think what’s obscene is the fact that CVS, Tedeschi’s and other businesses are pulling it from their shelves. They have every right to do that, of course. But I still think it’s cowardly. The whole point of putting Tsarnaev on the cover, with that kind of photo, is to show that someone with a face like that could turn into a terrorist. Rolling Stone’s political/social writing is top-notch, some of the best in the business. I find it a lot more readable these days than, say, Time or Newsweek, both of which have long been dreadful.

  8. Andy Koppel

    All they had to do was to publish the same article without a cover photo, especially one that resembles a rock star.

  9. Aaron Read

    Dan, I have a theory about what’s going on here: a lot of people are really, really racist…but don’t want to admit it. The idea that such a “normal looking kid” could actually be an Islamic terrorist runs squarely counter to their beliefs that all terrorists must have turbans, brown skin and beards…and horns and hooves, probably, too.

    And I’ll add that 15 years of fearmongering about terrorism by our elected officials has lowered our collective IQ to the point where it’s impossible to have a rational public conversation about this anymore. I think Al nails it that it’s obscene that we’ve suck this low.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron: I’m not willing to get into the race angle, but I don’t think there’s any question that people are disconcerted when they look at a terrorist who could be one of their kids.

  10. Larz Neilson

    What bothers me is the censorship. Stores are reacting to a whirlwind of objections to the cover. Equally important, though, is the content, and it’s worthwhile to try to understand the mind of someone who would do such a thing — not to excuse him, not to glorify him, but as a means of developing strategies to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again. What role are the stores playing in this? They’re refusing to sell the magazine because of its content, specifically the picture on the cover. I realize they can’t carry every magazine, but most decisions are based on sales data or marketing considerations, not specific content.

  11. Mike Benedict

    Businesses do what businesses do. Their (over)reaction is typical and predictable.

    So, should Tsarneav been on the cover? Sad to say, the victims aren’t the story. Tsarneav, and what he came to represent, is. So yes, Rolling Stone picked the right person.

    That leaves the image itself. Rolling Stone has done something it has generally always tried to do — push the boundaries and make us think. Whether RS is a music publication or not is a red herring. This kid is pop culture: youthful, Boston suburbs, lots of friends. He was an everyday sort of person. And he went way off the rails. That’s not only a great story, it’s an important story. That photo could have been anyone. The image plays with our perception of what a killer “should” look like. Like Ted Bundy, who looked like he could have been head of the College Republicans, it reveals how distorted our views can be.

    Racist? No. Compelling? Absolutely.

  12. If he was an ugly son of a bitch, nobody would be complaining (or, at least, very few would be.) He happens to be a person with a decent face. That’s all this tempest in a teapot comes down to, in the end; he looks like what he looks like and, this being an extremely shallow society, some people can’t get past the aesthetics.

  13. Aaron Read

    Whoops, my last sentence should’ve read “SUNK this low.” Not suck. 🙂

    Dan, I understand why you don’t want to get into the race angle. Nobody does, that’s why everyone is tying themselves in knots, trying to justify a visceral reaction with after-the-fact rationalizations that are ignorant, stupid or just plain wrong.

    As Charlie Pierce is fond of saying, This Is Not About Race, Because It’s NEVER About Race.

  14. Maegan Kenney

    Mr. Kennedy,
    You bring up some valid points. Indeed, to understand is to not excuse and it is crucial to comprehend the reasons as to why people behave in the ways they do. For being a woman who is fascinated with the criminal mind and studied in the field of criminology, I couldn’t agree with your statement more. In order for society to ever truly prevent such heinous crimes, we must first understand the psychology behind them. Yet with that said, this monster has done nothing but brag and boast about his murderous acts. In fact, I would bet he is gloating in that jail cell as we speak in regards to the firestorm his picture is currently creating. Is it truly necessary to have provided this demon with any additional notoriety? Has he not acquired enough National attention already? Trust me, I believe it to be imperative to understand the descent into darkness that this young man experienced leading up to the Boston bombings. Yet, a simple story would have done the trick. The victims and families who are still reeling over the loss of their loved ones could have done without the cover. In addition, so could have I.

  15. Mike Benedict

    Anyone remember Ted Bundy? He killed far more people than the Boston bombers. Take a look at this Time cover:

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: That’s a satirical cover. Bundy was never Time’s “Person of the Year.”

  16. DK – it isn’t just immigrant classmates that think that 9/11 is an inside job – Dennis Kucinich and Cynthia McKinney come to mind as well. And – this is one point on which Occupy and TEA Party agree, that the government is willing, if not eager, to kill US citizens for its own nefarious ends.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Cynthia: I did a quick search on Kucinich, since I consider him to be more or less tethered to reality. Based on what I found, I’d say he panders to the 9/11 truthers without being one himself.

      • jim morris

        I would say that pandering to the truthers is probably worse than actually being one. I accept that all politicians, all leaders, must occasionally pander (it’s in the job description), but that doesn’t mean that all pandering is acceptable. I think this is especially true of someone like Kucinich who’s public persona is built on speaking what he believes to be the truth no matter how contrary it might be. I don’t see any reason why someone like Kucinish, who is so willing to offend just about anyone, would suddenly feel the need to pander to the truthers unless he actually agreed with them.

        • Dan Kennedy

          @jim: I agree. I’m just assessing the state of Kucinich’s sanity. Not his cynicism.

  17. Aaron Read

    Hey Dan, I’m poking a little fun here, but you still think it’s not about race?

    Holy crap we are an amazingly racist country. And the only saving grace is that most other countries are just better at hiding it than we are.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Aaron: What surprised me about that was that racism seems to trump homophobia.

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