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Why the outrage over Rolling Stone's Boston bomber suspect cover is a mistake



This may be difficult to hear, just three months after a pair of judiciously-placed pressure cooker bombs tore apart the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding more than 260 others.

But it’s this media critic’s opinion that outrage over Rolling Stone’s cover featuring a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev -- the 19-year-old surviving brother among two siblings accused of setting the bombs -- is misplaced and unwise.



Anger over the image’s use on the magazine's Aug. 1 cover crackled over social media and cable TV news Wednesday, as critics accused the legendary music magazine of ginning up a controversy to sell copies and lending Tsarnaev the kind of status normally reserved for rock stars and presidents.

The pharmacy chain CVS, based in a town 50 miles outside Boston, has already said it won’t sell the magazine in a statement on its Facebook page: “As a company with deep roots in New England and a strong presence in Boston, we believe this is the right decision out of respect for the victims of the attack and their loved ones.”

Comic Patton Oswalt tweeted: “At Rolling Stone: ‘Let’s use Zimmerman next!’” joking darkly about possible confusion between classic rocker Bob Dylan (real name: Robert Zimmerman) and infamous acquitted shooter George. Carson Daly, host of NBC’s hit singing contest The Voice, called the cover “irresponsible and totally inappropriate.”

But was it really? The image, taken from Tsarnaev’s Twitter profile according to the New York Daily News, has appeared everywhere from the cover of the Sunday New York Times to Radar Online and the Huffington Post before now.

Rolling Stone, which sets trends for pop music and pop culture, is considered a different animal, giving Tsarnaev a glamorous sheen. Still, critics may forget, cult leader and murderer Charles Manson was also featured on the magazine’s cover in 1970, labeled the “most dangerous man alive”; an image which also could be considered glamorous.

But I think this controversy is as much about humanizing Tsarnaev as it is about glamourizing him. Some critics have suggested the magazine could have used a different, less attractive photo , but I'm not sure how that addresses the idea of the glamour which comes from being on the magazine's front cover.

What a less glamorous photo does do, however, is make Tsarnaev look less like the cute boy next door and morel ike the traditional image of Muslim terrorists that we're used to seeing. it makes him less...human.

The magazine’s cover story describes in detail how a charming kid who wrestled in high school and was liked by many peers could become involved in such a horrific act of terrorism, courtesy of an unstable brother and crumbling family. And the cover image tells that story in a single instant; seemingly, a self-taken "selfie" photo from his Twitter profile.

At times the backlash feels like a distant cousin to reaction over the George Zimmerman verdict, as people still feeling frustration, anger and horror over a senseless act looks for a place to vent their outrage.

I would argue what is inciting people here, in part, is the ugly truth of Tsarnaev’s story; that a kid who looks like he could be the backup singer in a boy band somehow, allegedly, became a bomber capable of such carnage.

The magazine’s editors said as much in a note prefacing the story: “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.”

It’s also a marked change from what media was reporting before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his 26-year-old brother Tamerlan were identified as suspects and chased down by police (Tamerlan died after a gun battle with police, as Dzhokhar ran him over in a car while trying to escape). Back then, outlets such as CNN and The New York Post were suggesting darker-skinned Muslims might be to blame; outsiders, attacking the U.S. from within.

I made these points and more in an appearance on CNN this morning; I noted anchor Jake Tapper's coverage during his show The Lead later today didn't feature anyone speaking to defend the magazine's decision, beyond statements read from the editors and publisher (the show's graphic artists also created a mockup of a Rolling Stone cover featuring The Victims -- a great cover, but not the story the magazine was telling in this issue).

It made me wonder how CNN will cover Tsarnaev's eventual trial? His sentencing if found guilty? How many magazine covers will he grace then, and won't that coverage -- which then will feed CNN's bottom line -- also make him something of a star?

For me, this Rolling Stone cover serves as potent reminder that too many preconceived notions about who might be capable of such a bombing can be severely off base.

Starting those conversations, even in the face of anger and backlash, is the goal of powerful journalism.

And sometimes, in those debates, one picture speaks louder than any words.

[Last modified: Friday, July 19, 2013 8:30pm]


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