Rolling Stone magazine’s cover story about the accused Boston Marathon bombers is a fine piece of journalism. Well researched and written, it is primarily an inquiry into how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, went from being “a boy who glided through life, showing virtually no signs of anger, let alone radical political ideology or any kind of deeply felt religious beliefs” to being accused of a deadly act of terrorism.
It is not the journalism itself that is causing all the fuss. It’s that cover: a photo of a tousle-haired Mr. Tsarnaev looking – some charge – just a little too rock-star. Some U.S. retail chains won’t stock the issue, subscriptions are being cancelled, and an outraged police photographer countered by leaking to Boston Magazine the photos he had taken of Mr. Tsarnaev hiding in that dry-docked backyard boat during the manhunt. (The officer was relieved of his duties, according to Boston Magazine.)
The photo is a self-portrait that has been used by other media outlets. But Rolling Stone has done more than merely follow others in reproducing the image. The magazine has used it to, if only inadvertently, slap a patina of glamour on Mr. Tsaranev, by giving him the same visual treatment typically reserved for up-and-coming indie bands. Almost as problematic is the cover headline, The Bomber, whose matter-of-fact tone seems to honour him with a title.
The magazine has responded to the outcry with an online note stating, “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.”
People – particularly in Boston – are still grieving over the attack. The bombing killed three people – including an eight-year-old boy – and injured more than 200. It targeted a beloved annual event. It was dreadful. An MIT security officer was also killed, and the city experienced a surreal and terrifying lockdown.
Contributing editor Janet Reitman spent two months interviewing dozens of sources, according to the magazine. As her story makes clear, answers in horrific cases such as this are not easy to arrive at – which is why journalism such as this is crucial. This kind of long-form journalism should be devoured and celebrated.
But her editors have undermined that effort with a provocative treatment, lacking nuance or empathy, of a horror that is all-too fresh in the minds of Bostonians, Americans and so many others. Rolling Stone has a long history of publishing not just rock ‘n’ roll profiles, but solid political journalism – and of using provocative covers to make statements (and to sell magazines). In this case, the publication is getting attention for the wrong reason.