Culture At Large

Why we need that Dzhokhar Rolling Stone cover

John J. Thompson

The current scandal over Rolling Stone’s August cover is painful evidence of just how messed up our culture is when it comes to current events and any interest in understanding them. As the increasingly vapid demands of our ever-shortening attention spans continue to decimate long-form journalism in favor of sound bites and pithy tweets, our society is over-entertained and under-informed. Even when we think we are being educated by outlets such as the cable-news networks, we are mostly being titillated, manipulated or provoked.

Magazine covers mean a lot to folks who don’t take the time to read.

An unbelievable outcry has arisen from Rolling Stone’s decision to put a picture of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its once-legendary cover. Facebook, Twitter and thousands of blogs were set ablaze by the news. People, most of whom (like me) have probably not picked up a copy of Rolling Stone in years, called for a boycott, calling Tsarnaev a cockroach unworthy of this kind of exposure. Within 24 hours major retailers CVS and Walgreens decided not to carry the August issue and the mayor of Boston renounced the magazine’s staff for its cover choice.

But why?

Now, if Rolling Stone or any other media outlet had set out to make a hero, or even a martyr, out of Tsarnaev they would deserve the backlash. But the article, excellently composed by veteran journalist Janet Reitman, does nothing to aggrandize either of the Tsarnaev brothers. In fact, Reitman digs deeply into the story that the ADHD-addled, entertainment-news media has mostly ignored. Numerous friends, family members, former teachers, law-enforcement officials and experts on terrorism, sociology and mental-health issues are probed for clues as to how and why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev transformed from a successful, happy, popular young man into someone allegedly capable of such cold, calculated evil. It’s a fascinating and deeply troubling read that should be of particular interest to parents, pastors, teachers and others involved in reaching and ministering to young people in crisis.

It’s a deeply troubling read that should be of particular interest to parents, pastors, teachers and others involved in ministering to young people in crisis.

Many of those who would benefit from this kind of insight are boycotting what may be the most relevant and useful article Rolling Stone publishes all year. Would they be happier with more tripe about Rihanna?

None of the early, online critiques of the cover that I saw referred to the content of the piece. That’s interesting to me. Even the secondary headline on the cover - “How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster” - doesn’t seem to assuage the angst. I’ll admit, my first reaction was to be offended, and then cynical. Obviously Rolling Stone is desperate for relevance and this, I assumed, was why they would do something so controversial. That may be true. But now, having read the article, I am struck by how important and rare this kind of journalism is.

Reitman’s piece reveals that Tsarnaev was a promising kid with a troubled family caught up in a seemingly misguided pursuit of the American Dream. The story doesn’t answer every question about him, but it certainly provides a heck of a lot more context than anything I have seen so far. If he is another example of a young person seduced into deadly darkness, then shouldn’t we be paying attention? If he is just another cockroach, is it better for us to try to understand where he came from and what conditions allow people like him to reproduce, or to just squash him and forget about it? It seems to me it would be a good idea for people of faith to start caring about such troubled souls before another one lashes out.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Media