Thursday, February 22, 2018
TV and Media

Debate stirring over Rolling Stone's cover of Boston bomber

Just three months after a pair of judiciously placed pressure cooker bombs tore apart the Boston Marathon, anger is again spewing over what many call a glamorized photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of the new Rolling Stone.

This may be difficult to hear, but it is this media critic's opinion that outrage over the magazine's Aug. 1 cover featuring a photo of the 19-year-old surviving brother among two siblings accused of setting the bombs — killing three people and wounding more than 260 others — is misplaced and unwise.

The anger over the use of the image 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, already has said in a statement on its Facebook page that it will not sell the magazine: "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."

Drugstore chain Walgreen's also said on its Facebook page it would not sell the issue, along with Massachusetts-based Tedeschi Food Shops.

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.

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 featured on the magazine's cover in 1970, labeled the "most dangerous man alive" — an image that also could be considered glamorous.

The magazine's cover story, online now, 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.

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 look 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: "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 were reporting before Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan, were identified as suspects and chased down by police (Tamerlan died of injuries sustained from a gunbattle with law enforcement and after Dzhokhar ran him over in a car, 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 United States from within.

This Rolling Stone cover serves as a 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.

Information from Times wires was used in this report.

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