The magazine unleashed hellfire by slapping Boston Marathon bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Rolling Stone identifies him as Jahar), on its cover. In addition to public outrage, especially from Bostonians, big name businesses like CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid and Wal-Mart have announced they will not sell the edition in their stores. The Facebook group Boycott Rolling Stone Magazine for their latest cover has nearly 170,000 likes. Even the mayor of Boston, Thomas M. Menino, wrote a letter to the periodical expressing his disapproval. A lot of people are upset.
And it makes sense. It’s in bad taste to glorify a murderer. The word floating around is “glamorized.” It’s upsetting to see a terrorist on the cover of a magazine typically reserved for celebrities. And that is what we’ve got, right?
That’s not an incorrect description, but it is a pretty shallow view of the whole thing. And here’s why.
1. Rolling Stone has done nothing here that other publications haven’t already done. The photograph of Tsarnaev, a selfie of a teenage, poofy-haired kid without a smile, is not new. We’ve already seen it on a number of television channels, magazines and newspapers, including the Times. So it can’t be the photograph itself that we’re upset about. But if it’s not the picture, maybe it’s the context. After all, The New York Times is one the most prestigious newspaper in the world, so maybe it’s allowed to publish such photographs without backlash.
2. It’s true that Rolling Stone is best known for entertainment news and pop culture columns, but it is also a legitimate news outlet. It publishes important, credible news with regularity and, quite frankly, has a reputation for serious and seriously good journalism. Remember the General Stanley McChrystal scandal from 2010? The whole thing was uncovered in Rolling Stone, and it shook up the US military and the country. The magazine also produced some of the most acclaimed reporting on Goldman Sachs and the financial crisis. And from everything reported thus far about the Tsarnaev story, it’s good, powerful journalism. So, if you think Rolling Stone simply isn’t the venue for this story with this cover, there’s not much ground to stand on.
3. Well, fine, but maybe this cover just came out of nowhere. After all, it is pretty shocking. But, again, it’s simply not accurate. Rolling Stone has a tradition of publishing provocative covers. A topless Janet Jackson. A seductive, 17 year old Britney Spears. “The Passion of Kanye West” in which he’s decked out in blood, scars and a crown of thorns. A naked, blood-drenched cast of True Blood. And, perhaps most goading of all, a cover of the pimp-serial killer Charles Manson. While we may find the magazine’s proclivity for provocation distasteful, we shouldn’t be surprised.
4. Okay, but none of this matters. The issue here is that Dzhohkar Tsarnaev is a radical, brutal “monster,” acknowledged as such on the issue cover. So, here’s a more ethical consideration. Maybe Rolling Stone’s decision, which was agreed upon and supported by the editorial staff, can help people avoid a thing we always say we want’t to avoid: dehumanization. It’s easy to think of Tsarnaev as a monster and nothing more, but this cover shows he is also a person. A boy. A kid with a thin mustache. The type who would take a photograph of himself with a camera phone. It’s too much to ask to feel sorry for him, but it’s not too much to ask to recognize that he, too, is a human being with a past and a story, hopes and failures, passions and demons. Maybe this issue will make us see Tsarnaev in a fresh light.
Ultimately, it might not have shown the best judgment, the best foresight, for Rolling Stone to give this cover the go-ahead. It might not even turn out to be in their interest as a magazine. But we shouldn’t make the writers, designers and editors out to be monsters we want so bad to hide away. They’ve only shown us something we didn’t want to see. They’ve shown us the world as it really is.