The Rolling Stone Tsarnaev Cover is Upsetting — If You Haven't Read the Article

Is it just me, or are we addicted to outrage? It seems like there isn’t a day that goes by when there isn’t some new controversy for us to rage against. So it was when Rolling Stone unveiled its new cover, featuring a picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the accused Boston Bomber. Almost immediately, the publication’s Facebook page was inundated with angry comments, with many demanding that the victims be given a cover story instead, and some threatening to cancel their subscriptions. Thomas Menino, the mayor of Boston, wrote a letter to the magazine, saying the cover was “ill-conceived, at best, and reaffirms a terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their ‘causes’” and calling on people not to be drawn into their “obvious marketing strategy.” Many retailers have already pledged not to carry the magazine on their shelves. These reactions, particularly from Boston, where emotions are still raw, are understandable. Even I was originally skeptical of the cover choice. But looking closer, the treatment Rolling Stone has received seems unfair and disproportionate.

For starters, depicting murderers on the cover of magazines is nothing new. TIME magazine has a long history of doing this. Over the years, it has awarded the title of “Man of the Year” to Hitler, Stalin, and Khomeini, among others, putting their pictures on the front cover. This was not an endorsement of their actions — only an acknowledgement that these individuals had a significant impact on world events during the respective years they were depicted. Likewise, Rolling Stone’s cover story does not endorse Tsarnaev’s action’s, labeling him a “monster” in the caption next to his picture.

Some complain that Rolling Stone should not have run the picture because it was too favorable to Tsarnaev. They complain he looks too handsome in it. One wonders, if he were an ugly or mean-looking kid, would there have been objections to his being on the cover? More importantly, the kid-next-door image is exactly how those who knew him all those years remember him, and the entire point of the article is the juxtaposition of a good looking, seemingly ordinary kid against the evil he was apparently capable of. In that light, the photo fits the story.   


Not only that, but the New York Times ran the exact same picture on their front page, yet received no criticism for it. Some will argue that because Rolling Stone is primarily music-based and its covers are often reserved for rockstars, the magazine is glorifying Tsarnaev and making him into a celebrity. But Rolling Stone also has a long and respected history of doing hard reporting. It made a name for itself running articles by such noted writers as Hunter Thompson, Joe Klein, and Carl Bernstein, among others. More recently, it has run acclaimed and influential stories on the financial crisis and the War in Afghanistan, by Matt Taibbi and the late Michael Hastings, respectively.  

So can everyone just take a deep breath? Rolling Stone is not glorifying terrorism. The cover photo has been used by other outlets with no complaint, and murderous, obviously “bad” people are given cover stories all the time. And the article itself, like much of Rolling Stone’s work, is excellent, with original journalism and solid writing. And arguably, Rolling Stone is giving us more credit than most of the mainstream media. When Trayvon Martin was killed, the photo most outlets went with was of a sweet-faced 17-year-old gazing into the camera, and rightfully so, since Trayvon was a young kid who was tragically killed. A quick search online reveals other, less pleasant pictures of him, including some with his middle fingers extended. They’re no different from those posted on Facebook by millions of adolescent boys trying to look cool, but we did not see them because they don’t fit with the sympathetic story of his death. But so what? Apparently the media thought we couldn’t see past the tough-guy posturing and see the injustice in the death of a young kid. The Rolling Stone cover does expect more of the reader, asking us to look past the sweet face of a killer and try to understand why and how he was capable of such evil.

Surely we're capable of that; after all, a handsome monster is still a monster