There’s been a lot of press recently surrounding Rolling Stone magazine’s decision to feature suspected Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the front cover. The magazine features a large editorial on the background of the suspect and contains interviews from people who knew him growing up. However the main gripe seems to be with the way in which Tsarnaev is glamorised in the shot.
Here are but a few of the comments on the Rolling Stone site, expressing ire with the photo :
“Someone should be fired. I’ll never, ever buy another copy of RS.”
“The cover of this magazine makes me sick! Why would you glorify this pig for murdering innocent people?”
“Why does he get to be on the Cover??? It should be the victims not the killer?!!”
Others even go so far as to say that the magazine supports the man, despite him being labelled as a “monster” on the cover (note the misleading headline of the linked article).
It is painfully obvious that Rolling Stone want to stir up publicity and sales by using a bit of controversy, this much is true. I can’t remember the last issue I saw that featured someone other than an entertainment celebrity or group. But Rolling Stone is entertainment media, that’s what they do. More importantly, it’s what other magazines do. Nothing suits a front cover more than someone who has made newspaper headlines, whether good or bad, and it’s been done before. In 1970, the same magazine featured Charles Manson on the front cover. According to USA Today, it became on of their biggest selling issues.
Are people in this day and age really surprised that Tsarnaev is on the front cover? The cult of personality is stronger than ever and celebrity culture pervades our media. Rolling Stone have only done what they always do with their cover photo: emphasised the featured person. There has been further criticism regarding the likeness to the Jim Morrison cover photo. Tsarnaev bears a passing resemblance to Morrison, which could explain why this conclusion is being drawn. That, and they are both looking at the camera, as nearly all those on the cover do anyway. The same is true of the Bob Dylan comparisons. It’s simply a way of engaging the viewer. The New York Times even featured the same photo of Tsarnaev. Rolling Stone have simply altered it to match their editing standards.
What about the article itself? It’s actually quite thorough, shown from the perspective of people who knew Tsarnaev. The picture is appropriate for the content and its headline; that kid on the front cover could be anyone’s child, and that’s the point. He looks youthful and innocent, making it the starting point of a narrative that asks: what happened to lead him to allegedly commit such an unforgiveable atrocity? It’s an in-depth character profile that’s worthy of more attention than the front cover.
Another truth is this: Tsarnaev has not yet been found guilty by a court of law. Yes, the evidence is stacked against him, but until he is found guilty any act on the part of Rolling Stone to make him look more sinister could be construed as media demonisation. Maybe no one would care in this instance, but it’s not appropriate for any publication to do such a thing, especially before a verdict. Need I mention Time Magazine‘s photoshop job of OJ Simpson?
I’ve seen some suggest that a photo of a victim should have been used instead. Whilst I can’t think of anything I’d like less than for a victim to be under the public gaze on an entertainment magazine, the fact is that humans like to judge. And there is no better way of judging guilt free than to judge the world’s villains. We know Osama Bin Laden’s name and what he looks like. Yet most of us cannot picture a 9/11 victim, nor a member of the SEAL team that took down America’s most wanted man. It’s a sad reality that bad guys are remembered foremost.
Who knows whether Tsarnaev wanted to be glorified for his alleged crime? Certainly, pleading ‘not guilty’ to all counts suggests not. Although I disagree with most of his article, Scott Keernan had it right when he said that “to report is not to approve and to publicize is not necessarily to glamorize.” The bottom line is this: Rolling Stone didn’t make Tsarnaev famous. Being suspected of setting off bomb during a marathon did.