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Explaining the Rolling Stone Cover, by a Boston Native

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Explaining the Rolling Stone Cover, by a Boston Native
Michael Thurston/AFP/Getty Images

I grew up in the Boston area, spent my whole early life there. To this day I'm a maniacal fan of Boston sports teams in fact, I was moved to write this column when (to my great distress) I heard my employers being bashed on the Mut & Merloni show on WEEI, one of Boston's two main sports talk stations, one of the places I turn to not think about the news.

I'm from Boston, but I also lived for almost 10 years in Moscow, Russia, where Chechen terrorist attacks were routine and a very real threat to the public on a daily basis. In fact, in the summer of 1999, I missed being blown up in a Chechen bombing of a Moscow subway station by just a few minutes. So I have no love for Chechen terrorists.

I also have tremendous sympathy and sadness for the victims in Boston of the recent attack, for the whole city in fact. Having spent such a long period of my life in the shadow of Chechen terrorism in Russia, I was mortified when it seemed that that war had arrived in my hometown.

Jahar's World: The Making of a Monster

I was particularly upset to learn that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had spent time at UMass-Dartmouth, a place where my friends and I would ride bikes as kids to shoot baskets or play touch football, back when it was called SMU, or Southern Massachusetts University – the school was right next to my home in Westport, Mass. I felt violated when I saw the TV images of the campus on TV after the attacks, and it's still hard for me to accept that Tsarnaev was ever anywhere near that part of the world, which is so special to me.

Anyway, I heard about the Rolling Stone cover controversy before I even saw the cover or read the magazine. I have to admit I was initially a little rattled when emailers told me my employers had "done a sexy photo shoot for Tsarnaev" and "posed him like Jim Morrison." I've known the editors of this magazine for over a decade now and didn't believe this could be true, but people get all kinds of surprises in life – you hear about people married for years before they find out the husband has a cache of Nazi paraphernalia in his basement, or the wife was previously a male state trooper from Oklahoma, or something – so I guess you can never really know. 

Then I actually saw the Tsarnaev cover, and honestly, I was stunned. I think the controversy is very misplaced. Having had a few days to listen to all of the yelling, the basis of all of this criticism seems to come down to two points:

 • Putting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone automatically glamorizes him, because the cover of Rolling Stone is all by itself a piece of cultural iconography that confers fame and status.

 • The photo used in the cover makes Tsarnaev out to be too handsome. He's not depicted with a big red X through his face a la Time magazine's treatment of bin Laden, or with his eyes whited out as in Newsweek's depiction of same, or with a big banner headline like "NOW KILL HIS DREAM" like the one employed by The Economist in its bin Laden cover. He is called a "Monster" in the headline, but the word is too subtle and the font used is too small, making this an unacceptably ambiguous depiction of a terrorist.

I think, on the whole, the people leveling these criticisms must not read the magazine, which is understandable. It would be beyond unreasonable to expect everyone in the country to be regularly familiar with the articles in Rolling Stone. On the other hand, pretty much everyone has heard of Rolling Stone, which is where the problem lay, in this gap between the popular image of the magazine and the reality of its reporting.

If indeed we were just a celebrity/gossip mag that covered nothing but rock stars and pop-culture icons, and we decided to boost sales and dabble in hard news by way of putting a Jim Morrison-esque depiction of a mass murderer on our cover, that really would suck and we would deserve all of this criticism.

But Rolling Stone has actually been in the hard news/investigative reporting business since its inception, from Hunter S. Thompson to Carl Bernstein to Bill Greider back in the day to Tim Dickinson, Michael Hastings, Mark Boal, Janet Reitman and myself in recent years.

One could even go so far as to say that in recent years, when investigative journalism has been so dramatically de-emphasized at the major newspapers and at the big television news networks, Rolling Stone's role as a source of hard-news reporting has been magnified. In other words, we're more than ever a hard news outlet in a business where long-form reporting is becoming more scarce.

Not everybody knows this, however, which, again, is understandable. But that's where the confusion comes in. It's extremely common for news outlets to put terrorists and other such villains on the covers of their publications, and this is rarely controversial – the issue is how it's done.

If the Rolling Stone editors had brought Tsarnaev in to its offices near Rockefeller center, wined and dined him, and then posed him for that Jim Morrison shot, then yes, that would be reprehensible.

But that's not what the magazine did. They used an existing photo, one already used by other organizations. The New York Times, in fact, used exactly the same photo on the cover of their May 5 issue.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev new york times
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of The New York Times.
Courtesy The New York Times

But there was no backlash against the Times, because everyone knows the Times is a news organization. Not everyone knows that about Rolling Stone. So that's your entire controversy right there – it's OK for the Times, not OK for Rolling Stone, because many people out there understandably do not know that Rolling Stone is also a hard-news publication.

As to the question of why anyone would ever put a terrorist on a cover of a magazine for any reason beyond the opportunity to slash a red X through his face or depict him in crosshairs, there's an explanation for that. Terrorists are a fact of our modern lives and we need to understand them, because understanding is the key to stopping them.

But in trying to understand someone like a Tsarnaev, there is a delicate line between empathy and sympathy that any journalist has to be careful not to cross. You cannot understand someone without empathy, but you also have to remember at all times who this person is and what he or she did. I think author Janet Reitman did an excellent job of walking that line, but certainly this kind of approach is going to be inherently troubling to some, because it focuses on the criminal and his motivations and not his victims and their suffering.

Which brings us to point No. 2, the idea that the cover photo showed Tsarnaev to be too nice-looking, too much like a sweet little boy.

I can understand why this might upset some people. But the jarringly non-threatening image of Tsarnaev is exactly the point of the whole story. If any of those who are up in arms about this cover had read Janet's piece, they would see that the lesson of this story is that there are no warning signs for terrorism, that even nice, polite, sweet-looking young kids can end up packing pressure-cookers full of shrapnel and tossing them into crowds of strangers.

Thus the cover picture is not intended to glamorize Tsarnaev. Just the opposite, I believe it's supposed to frighten. It's Tsarnaev's very normalcy and niceness that is the most monstrous and terrifying thing about him. The story Janet wrote about the modern terrorist is that you can't see him coming. He's not walking down the street with a scary beard and a red X through his face. He looks just like any other kid.

I expect there will be boycotts, but I wonder about the media figures calling for them. Did they seek to boycott Time after its "Face of Buddhist Terror" cover? How about Newsweek after its "Children of bin Laden" cover?

newsweek time magazine
"The Children of Bin Laden" cover of Newsweek Magazine; The Face of Buddhist Terror cover of Time Magazine.
Courtesy Newsweek Magazine; CourtesyTime Magazine

Or the New York Times after it used exactly the same photo of Tsarnaev? What about all those times that people like Khomeini and Stalin made it to Time'"Man of the Year" cover? On the other hand, there will be critics who will say that Rolling Stone is making money off the despair of the Boston victims, and they will be right. But this will also be true of every media outlet that covered the story. (It's even true of the outlets whose pundits are chewing up airtime bashing this magazine this week). That aspect of journalism is always particularly hard to defend, so I won't try.

However, it's been suggested, by (among others) Boston Mayor Tom Menino, that Rolling Stone expected this controversy and planned to use the image and the notoriety as a way to gain free publicity. I can't speak for everyone at the magazine, but my belief is that this is not true in the slightest – I know people in the office this week are actually in shock and very freaked out. They didn't expect this at all.

It's impossible to become too self-righteous in the defense of something like a magazine when the bottom line of this story is, has been, and always will be that people were cruelly murdered or mutilated through Tsarnaev's horrible act. That truth supercedes all others and always will.  So this is a defense of Rolling Stone that I'm not shouting at the top of my voice. What happens to the magazine and its reputation is really of little consequence in the grand scheme of things. But I do think this has mainly been a misunderstanding, one that hopefully will be cleared up in time. 

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ABOUT THIS BLOG

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He’s the author of five books and a winner of the National Magazine Award for commentary. Please direct all media requests to taibbimedia@yahoo.com.

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