“Rolling Stone” Bomber Cover Sparks Outrage, But Why?

by Bill Brenner on July 17, 2013

Before I deliver what will surely be an unpopular opinion, let me note the following: The Boston Marathon bombings happened on my home turf. That day, I was sickened by the video replays, scenes of people without limbs and word that one of the victims was an 8-year-old boy. I was as full of satisfaction as everyone else a few nights later, when one of the bombers was hunted down and captured.

Mood music:

Several friends were at the marathon that day, and one family from our kids’ school community left the finish line a few minutes before the bombs exploded. Yeah, I was effected to the core.

Now I’m waking up to find a lot of outrage online because of the latest cover of Rolling Stone magazine, which features the face of Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the young monster who carried out the attack with his older brother. Much of the anger is over the way he looks: like a rock star or someone to be celebrated. One friend ran a picture of the cover next to another Rolling Stone cover featuring Jim Morrison to illustrate the point. Business Insider  hissed that the magazine portrayed Tsarnaev as a “dreamy heartthrob.”

Rolling Stone Cover

Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Here’s mine: People are making a bigger deal of this than it deserves.

Though Rolling Stone is primarily known for its essays on celebrities, it also has a history of covering current events, including crime and war. Charles Manson once graced the cover with the headline, “The Incredible Story of the Most Dangerous Man Alive.” The articles almost always involve a lot of investigative reporting and detail, although there’s a political bias to the writing, as well.

Charles Manson Rolling Stone Cover

Tsarnaev does indeed look like a rock star on the cover. He’s got that long, black, curly hair and boyish face (he is, after all, still a kid, at least in my book). But the headline and summary make it clear that this is not an expos&eacute on a dreamy heartthrob: “The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed By His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.”

It’s natural for us to want the bad guys to be denied their media spotlight. After all, many times the bad guys crave the coverage. But when a kid like this tries to kill a bunch of people, it’s important to ask why. How does a young person turn into a monster?

No matter what we learn and what we do to steer kids in the right direction, we can’t prevent all of them from turning violent. But we can still try, and in the Boston case, it’s useful to look at the family history that produced two murderers.

That he looks like a rock star on the magazine cover is unfortunate. If the magazine used the surveillance photos or a picture of a bloody, wounded Tsarnaev, we probably wouldn’t have the outrage.

But in the bigger picture, I think the outrage is pain misdirected.

The messenger is delivering an unpopular story, and when that happens our first instinct is to shoot the messenger.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Fleming July 17, 2013 at 9:56 am

Instead of focusing on Tsarnev, RS could have done a feature on Martin Richard, or even Sean Collier. Image the impact of running a picture of the young Richard child, with his gap-toothed smile. The headline could have been something along the lines, “Martin Richard was eight-years-old when he was blown up by a terrorist. A look at a life lost.”
That’s not sexy though. Or particularly provocative. Or the kind of thing that would spark outrage and create a national furor in the media.
Good ol’ RS.

Michelle Davidson July 17, 2013 at 10:00 am

The story would have been fine. The glamorizing cover is the problem.

Jessica July 17, 2013 at 4:26 pm

If you took away all the text and had never seen a picture of Tsarnev before, yes you probably would assume this is some new teen popstar. But I think that is the point. Tsarnev is a kid, and somehow, for some reason he thought placing a bomb in a crowd was a good idea. How did he get from “normal, nice kid” to “monster”? I think the image is really powerful because it juxtaposes the innocent looking image with the horrible reality of what he did. I also heard some pundits saying calling him just a kid is offensive because it doesn’t excuse what he did. I agree, but again that is the point. Calling him a kid isn’t trying to make what he did alright – it makes it all the more horrible. I am clearly in the minority, but I like the cover for the message it sends, this was a lost boy who looks a lot like anyone else, and if circumstances were slightly different, maybe, just maybe he wouldn’t have left an explosive to hurt so many people. I think people are being to sensitive about the photo. RS clearly isn’t trying to glamorize his actions, they are doing an intensive article on a murderer.

Matt Belfiore July 17, 2013 at 9:26 pm

I can understand what Rolling Stone is going for… From the point of view of a novelist or a filmmaker, it’s a tailor-made visual… Juxtaposing a living nightmare with the pinnacle of the cult-of-celebrity. Taxi Driver and King of Comedy come to mind. It’s provocative, edgy, and the sort of thing Rolling Stone has regularly used to its advantage. However, the first vibe I get when I see it is that Rolling Stone is hammering its point home in a not-so-subtle, after-school-special, don’t-do-drugs-kids sort of way. Then a weary despondence kicks in, not because Rolling Stone is making me think about the kid’s upbringing… We all know that some kids will have terrible childhoods. We all know that some people will be challenged by mental illness. We all know some of those people will sadly lose their battle, and that a few of them will explode and cause harm to others. It’s an unfortunate part of the world in which we live. What makes me sad is that it’s just as obvious that in many cases this sort of celebrity is exactly what a lot of these time bombs crave. So maybe someone, somewhere should have made the decision to jettison poetic, poignant imagery for the good of the world. Would it really have made a difference if anyone at Rolling Stone said “Hey, maybe we should go with Willie Nelson for the 500th time?”

Heather Stockwell July 20, 2013 at 9:10 am

I’m with you, Bill. I think the cover was perfectly appropriate and successful. It got people to talk about not only the cover, but the horror of “handsome young man” as murderer. Apparently we still need reminding that bad guys don’t wear black hats.

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