Thoughts on the Boston bomber Rolling Stone cover

You’d have to be living under a rock that isn’t rolling to miss the biggest journalism news in the country right now. Rolling Stone Magazine’s issue this week features Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in full Twitter-profile-pic glory, underlined with the cover line “THE BOMBER: How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.”

Rolling Stone Cover
In other news, Robin Thicke? Isn’t Rolling Stone a rock ‘n’ roll magazine?

I always thought Rolling Stone had become obsolete. A rock n’ roll magazine that puts Britney Spears on the cover, not once but at least 8 times? The most “rock ‘n’ roll” she ever got was singing  a cover of “I Love Rock and Roll,” but she stole it from Joan Jett, who was, as much as a Google Image search shows, never on the cover.*

*Please, correct me if I’m wrong.

Arguments have been made on both sides whether the RS cover was a crime against journalism/humanity/Americans, a marketing tool (albeit an insensitive one) or nothing to really care about. I know my mom and sister were unhappy about it; when I first defended it, Mom replied, “Of course you would, you’re a journalist.”

As seen on MSNBC, CNN, Fox (oh, Fox) and other news outlets, however, being a journalist has nothing to do with it (yes, I realize I’m being extremely giving when I call such network anchors “journalists”). Fox has already declared Rolling Stone as a new recruitment tactic for Jihad:

“You know, 72 virgins? That’s interesting to some. But cover of the Rolling Stone? That’s delicious.”

Other news outlets have written articles about why Rolling Stone has not betrayed the American people, but rather continued doing what it’s done for decades. Rem Rieder’s USA Today article, “Don’t stone ‘Rolling Stone’ over Boston bomber cover,” citing the magazine’s history of putting not just musicians and movie stars on its cover and in its pages, but also newsmakers and history-changing political coverage.

Exhibit A: The Charles Manson cover
Exhibit A: The Charles Manson cover in 1970 that made him look like Jesus

So, without further ado, I bring you my own thoughts and reactions to the cover (and the reactions to the cover). Of course, I’m a magazine journalist who stands by her fellow editors, so there’s a touch of bias here.

Why I don’t think it’s as bad as everyone says it is: First, let’s look at the source of the photo. Rolling Stone didn’t get Tsarnaev out of prison, set him up in a studio with makeup and hair specialists and have a three-hour shoot with Annie Leibovitz. They used a photo from Tsarnaev’s own Twitter page. Granted, it was a more glamorous-looking shot, but who uses a bad picture of themselves when creating a thumbnail for 140-character quips? Just taking a personal photo off social media alone is a slap in the face(book) of our rights (that’s if you’re delusional to think anything you upload to the internet is still your private property). With my luck, they’d probably take this one off my Facebook because my Twitter profile is too boring:

This would have been accompanied by the cover line: "The Unemployed-Journalist: how a promising Mizzou graduate went crazy on Superman's ass when he walked into the Daily Planet at the end of Man of Steel and automatically got a job."
This would have been accompanied by the cover line: “Journo-Girl: how a promising Mizzou graduate developed laser vision and went crazy on Superman’s ass after he walked into the Daily Planet at the end of Man of Steel and automatically got a job.”

There were probably better pictures they could have used, such as his mugshot or a photo on his Facebook profile. Personally, I don’t find a sepia-toned selfie to be that glamorous, but rather a statement that “Terrorists use Instagram, too.” Maybe choosing a different photo wouldn’t have conveyed the right message. That’s where we come to…

…Some thoughts on why Rolling Stone did it: To sell the story, of course. Rolling Stone wanted the attention it hasn’t received since its 2010 story on Gen. Stanley McCrystal’s less-than-respectful comments about President Obama cost him his job as commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Congratulations, Mr. Stone. It’s a beautiful baby public outrage.

I think there’s another reason. By showing Tsarnaev in a Jim Morrison-like way, it conveys the idea that not all terrorists are bearded and turbaned (as Fox and the TSA would like us to believe) or look like the BTK Killer or Unibomber. The cover line even demonstrates this, calling him a “popular and promising student” who doesn’t look the part much less have the background of it. Yes, even bad guys can be good-looking and have Twitter accounts.

How it could have been handled better: There’s no doubt that Rolling Stone flubbed this one, whether you agree with it or not. The worst thing in the world for a magazine is to not be carried in some of the most-shopped stores in the country, namely Walgreens and CVS. They got the coverage they wanted, but they also alienated non-subscribing readers.

Perhaps they should have thought of doing a split-cover (a fancy term for sending one cover to subscribers and putting another cover on newsstands). Send the Tsarnaev cover to readers who love your magazine enough to pay the $20 subscription fee and who can’t say, “I don’t want the next one.” Put something else on the cover for newsstand readers. May I suggest looking at a text-only cover? Use the same blurb, but without the picture. It would have sold the story in a less inflammatory way, and perhaps gotten the same attention as Time‘s 1966 cover:

Time+Is+God+Dead
Of course, this assumes that people can still read without visuals. Queue Gaston’s line from Beauty and the Beast: “How can you read this? There are no pictures!”

But even that couldn’t have squelched the hate toward Rolling Stone. Jahar supporters have already screamed their own outrage via Twitter at him being dubbed “The Bomber” before going to trial. Yes, that’s right. Jahar has supporters who have brought up the very interesting point that technically Rolling Stone committed libel by calling Tsarnaev, who’s pleaded not guilty, a bomber before a jury makes the decision. The rest of America doesn’t seem to care about that little fact.

What it says about us as media consumers: The bombings happened in April, and the media has slowly stopped covering the victims’ stories (unless you watch Nightly News with Brian Williams). We as media consumers have very short attention spans, and even though the mayor of Boston believes magazines, newspapers and broadcast should continue to cover the event through depictions of victims’ strength and perseverance, our ADHD-style of getting news will eventually turn such stories into white noise. If you want to keep the bombings in the news, it has to be from a different angle. Rolling Stone gave us a side of the story with a different taste, but the presentation was too enraging for Americans to come at it with anything but knives.

One last thought: We don’t mind seeing Photoshopped models or glamorized actors on magazines when they’re our “loved” celebrities. Demi Lovato back from rehab and selling sex on Cosmopolitan? Bring it on! But remind us of how we iconize not only our beloved pop culture figures, but also our enemies? That we won’t stand for, and we’d sooner convict the editor who put it right in front of us than ourselves for asking for it.

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One Comment

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  1. Thank you for this articulate post. I agree that a lot of the offense is because the accused looks too much like a nice kid, and not enough like a “monster.” And thank you for at least mentioning the libel issue (which is how I arrived at your blog). The most troubling thing for me about this cover controversy is the comparable lack of outcry over RS referring to him as “the Bomber” on the COVER, in huge letters, before going to trial. Tsarnaev has plead “not guilty.” While we can say that with a roll of our eyes and air quotes, by our legal system, that plea stands until a jury determines otherwise. So yes, RS has committed libel in this case. I don’t like that this particular objection for the cover is only rooted in the accused’s friends/supporters – this is an issue for anyone who doesn’t wish to see the Bill of Rights become a casualty (or a minor “fun fact,” subordinated to all the emotional arguments) in all the argle-bargle surrounding this cover. By making this a 1st Amendment issue, the 6th Amendment has been marginalized and castigated. RS should be able to publish the cover and the story how they like, but they do NOT have the authority to declare a verdict. The American Justice system is far from perfect, but it is what we have, and this cover, with its enshrinement of the court of public opinion, sets a dangerous precedent.

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