The outrage over Rolling Stone’s cover photo of the Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev seems to me radically misplaced. The crimes of which Tsarnaev is accused were barbaric and deserve deep condemnation, but for people to be scandalised by Rolling Stone’s cover image is a projection of anger and hurt onto the wrong object.
If Rolling Stone had somehow arranged a photoshoot with Tsarnaev and had a stylist artfully tease his hair, then I’d be down with the rage. But this photograph we’ve seen many times before in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. It was the profile picture from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s own Twitter account, in fact.
More importantly, the photograph precisely speaks to the purpose of the story: an investigation into what made a capable young student, apparently better assimilated into American culture and society than his alienated older brother, turn from a bright future to the dark, destructive path of jihadist terrorism. That is the compelling question about Tsarnaev.
And it’s not just that we want insights and answers for our own voyeuristic reasons. There is a genuine public interest in discovering the mechanisms of self-radicalisation in cases of ‘homegrown’ and ‘cleanskin’ terrorists. The illustrative point of the Rolling Stone cover is that Tsarnaev looked and acted, to almost all the world, like an archetypal young American — so, as the cover line asks, what made the curly-haired kid next door such ‘a monster’?
Of course, magazines use eye-catching cover images to court controversy and get attention, as they fight for news-stand presence and print circulation. Remember the storm over the 2008 New Yorker cover depicting Michelle and Barack Obama doing a ‘terrorist fist-bump’? The get-out clause in such cases is usually that such images are themselves commenting on the phenomenon they’re reporting on inside. As media pundit Anthony De Rosa points out on twitter: ‘Were people outraged when Manson was on the cover of Rolling Stone?’
So yes, sometimes magazines are trolling: a furore wins sales. But that doesn’t change the fact that this is journalism, all the same.
The somewhat synthetic scandal over this cover will have given the magazine a tremendous free marketing boost. Whether that was worth the collateral damage to its reputation, its editors will have to judge. Rolling Stone can justifiably point to its history of tough, rigorous investigative reporting — the work of Matt Taibbi and the late Michael Hastings being just the readiest examples at hand — and contributing editor Janet Reitman’s article on Tsarnaev is solidly in that tradition.
Not before time, and introduced by a rather mealy-mouthed statement from the editors, Rolling Stone has now posted online and free-to-view the full version of Reitman’s report. I wish they’d let their journalism do the talking from the start: they would have been in a much stronger position to fend off this backlash and the charge of cynicism.