In Defense Of Rolling Stone’s Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev Cover Story [UPDATED]
UPDATE: Rolling Stone has released the full article online, which you can read here.
Just a few days ago, my mom mentioned to me that she thought it was odd that we hadn’t read much in the media lately about Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev, the accused Boston Marathon bomber. I agreed and made a mental note to do a little internet digging for the latest information. But I didn’t have to. Yesterday, Rolling Stone revealed the cover for their upcoming issue, featuring the now infamous photo of Tsarnaev sitting against a wall, looking like your average college student, alongside the headline, “The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.” The cover image and the story itself immediately inspired “outrage” from three different camps: 1) Crazy Jahar fangirls who think Tsarnaev is cute and therefore innocent, and believe the mag has already presumed his guilt; 2) those who think profiling Tsarnaev at all, and investigating what led to his actions, somehow justifies them; and 3) those who believe the music magazine is glorifying a terrorist as they would a rock star like, say, Jim Morrison, by putting him on the cover. I happen to think they’re all wrong.
(Full disclosure: From late-2002 to mid-2004, I worked at Rolling Stone as an editorial assistant, and I know and respect a number of people still involved with the magazine. Additionally, for 10 months in 2007, I worked closely with Rolling Stone contributing Janet Reitman on her book, Inside Scientology, organizing all of her research and transcribing her interviews. Reitman happens to be the journalist behind Rolling Stone’s cover story about Tsarnaev. These two bits of background information make me both biased, I suppose, but also privy to at least some inside knowledge of how Rolling Stone works and what Reitman is like as a journalist — brilliant, thorough, and full of integrity, for the record — which definitely contributes to my opinions on this topic.)
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s go down the list of outraged parties.
Jahar fangirls, yes, Tsarnaev has not been convicted yet — but I’d be willing to bet that Rolling Stone dotted all their i’s and crossed all their t’s when it comes to reporting what is alleged and what is fact. Otherwise, y’all are pretty crazy, moving on.
Rolling Stone has also been criticized for doing the story at all, mostly by people who seem to believe that by exploring what led to Tsarnaev’s alleged actions somehow absolves him of responsibility. As the issue hasn’t hit stands yet, this criticism of the article’s content is based on the cover line referenced in the first paragraph of this post, and the preview of the article on RollingStone.com, which details five “revelations” from Reitman’s story. Those revelations include what exactly happened the night Jahar Tsarnaev was caught; how and when Jahar and his older brother and alleged accomplice, Tamerlan, became interested in Islam; what Jahar’s relationship with Tamerlan was really like; and details the one time the younger Tsarnaev discussed the terrorist attacks on 9/11. These are all things I want to know. I want to know as much as possible about what led to a, yes, “popular, promising student” becoming an (alleged) “monster.” Because all of the information that has been reported thus far about the Tsarnaev brothers has indicated that Tamerlan was the one with extreme views and a history of violence. The portrait of Jahar, however, has been far less clear. Many of those close to him expressed utter shock about his alleged involvement in such a heinous crime. How he got there is a mystery; people, for the most part, are not born “evil.” Investigating the people and experiences that influenced Jahar throughout his life to the point where he would be capable of the crimes of which he’s accused does not absolve him of responsibility for his choices and actions. This is journalism. And Reitman happens to be one of the best.
Lastly, the most valid, I suppose, criticism of the Rolling Stone cover comes from those who think putting Tsarnaev’s photo on the cover — and this photo in particular — glorifies him in the same way the magazine glorifies pop and rock stars. After all, the magazine, for the most part, features famous folks like Justin Bieber, Britney Spears and the Kings of Leon on the cover. I understand why, if you’re not a frequent reader of the magazine, suddenly seeing the accused Boston bomber on the cover of the world’s most famous rock music magazine might catch you off guard. But this is not without precedent. The magazine won a National Magazine Award for their 1970 cover story and interview with Charles Manson. The magazine has always supplemented their music coverage with deeply reported features about non-pop culture subjects, and has become almost better known for those stories than their album reviews and profiles of Top 40 acts. Yes, Rolling Stone is a music magazine, but it also features some of the highest quality journalism in print. I, for one, read the magazine for those features more than anything else within its pages.
Ultimately, though, Rolling Stone is also a business. They have produced the most in depth reported story about the Boston Marathon bombing and the men allegedly behind it. Of course they want to make it the cover story. They want people to read it! Shocking! That they chose this particular photo of Tsarnaev (which has already been compared to a Rolling Stone cover featuring the Doors’ Jim Morrison, seemingly because they share the same haircut) doesn’t bother me in the slightest. This is what Tsarnaev looks like — like your average, good-looking college student. I don’t, as some claim, think it gives him a “rock star appeal.” It’s the same photo used on the cover of The New York Times and in countless online articles. That he doesn’t look like a “monster” has contributed to the questions surrounding his actions — and those are questions Rolling Stone seeks to answer in their cover story.
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