Why we need that Dzhokhar Rolling Stone cover

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.

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.

Comments (11)

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Well said…and thought.

Randy Elrod

I enjoyed your examination of the issue.

My thought is that you can have excellent journalism. And your review of the article seems to argue how much our world needs an examination into a culture riddled with these types of people. I haven’t read it but I’m sure its a great read - one that I would enjoy and would raise great questions about society and reaching the lost.

The problem is - you can have great journalism without him on the cover. I agree with your statement that Rolling Stone was looking for relevance. I would argue there is very little correlation between a cover picture and how many people actually read the article - but that is just an assumption. So in my opinion there is no need to have a cover picture, in a sense immortalizing him, in order to have people read a great piece of journalism.

Having said that, I do think its important for many to read the article but now many wont because of a poor decision.

John, your article was well written and made some good points, never the less the image is not consistant with the content. It’s more like “Win A Dream Date With…” from some teen mag. Regardless of how probing and in depth the article is, we should not be glamorizing mass murderers with cover shots like this. Some disturbed individuals might indeed take this as encouragement towards their own shot at fame. It’s not about censorship just common sense and decency, and respect for those affected by this man’s actions. Magazine covers mean a lot to people who want to be on them, and also to their victims.

Well, I guess if a cover story is automatically “glamorizing” someone than you may be right. I don’t think it needs to be that, though. I think that, in fact, assuming that it is glamorizing it is to cede a point to the shallowness our culture celebrates. RS was not glamorizing Charles Manson when they put him on the cover.

Additionally, I think the dream-boat nature of the picture is PART of the story. It forces us to approach the subject in a different way - or to avoid it altogether I suppose. It’s not that they doctored a photo - or created an illustration or caricature. This is a photo that Jahar posted online of himself - and it perfectly captures the way his friends describe him - and it is the SAME picture used by the New York Times in a much shorter piece back in May. It’s deeply unsettling to think that a kid that looks like an indie rock singer could be so incredibly dangerous.

And I do think that far more people will read the story precisely BECAUSE it is on the cover. That’s the point. Sure, they could use a mug shot or something, but this shot really bothers me - which is what it is supposed to do.

Evil is far more attractive than we want to believe.

from a purely marketing standpoint, Rolling Stone is brilliant. We are talking about it. Which we haven’t done in a decade or so. all kidding aside, it begs the question about what stimulates us any more and what will get our attention. I do wish they had picked a different cover photo and I do wish people would READ an article before burning it in the streets. I can’t help but think it’s the fault of those crying out against it in the first place. Who reads magazines for content any more anyway? Isn’t there a blog for that?

Appreciate your insight, John. Well said.

John, I am torn on this one. As some others have said or implied, I do think that the cover of Rolling Stone, more than any other magazine, is inherently glamorizing.
On the other hand, I’ve been persuaded by arguments here and elsewhere that this cover forces us to reckon with the unreliability of our own perceptions. Tsarnaev does appear attractive, friendly and unthreatening in this photograph. He has demonstrated that he is capable of profoundly evil actions. That’s hard for me to deal with in my brain, but an important lesson to continually relearn.

I thought it was a picture of a bearded Jim Morrison.

The cover shot could have been used within the article to make the same point that the monster next door doesn’t look like a monster.  There are photos of this guy bloodied and surrendering.  Traditionally, you don’t make crime in any way appealing, especially of this caliber.  Out of respect to the victims, you show consequences to actions.  There are the family and friends of those who perished, the hundreds who were maimed and still recovering, the first responders who treated those and had to pick up the pieces, an entire city held hostage and locked down, and all the different law enforcement that put themselves on the line to capture this guy.  This cover hitting them in the face at every turn is incredibly insensitive to all these as well as all law abiding citizens.

Wouldn’t such photos be telling a different story, though, Brett? In effect a story that was told in the immediate aftermath of the event? I don’t recall images of the maimed victims and the first responders being in short supply. This Rolling Stone story is specifically about how a “dreamy” kid turned into an alleged killer (and, to John’s point in his TC post, what those who minister to kids can learn from such a drastic transformation). The cover image RS chose speaks directly to that.

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