Four Reasons Why Rolling Stone’s Cover Is Upsetting

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Objections to Rolling Stone’s article about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have ranged from the fact that the coverage humanizes Tsarnaev to the choice of photo to the fact that Rolling Stone usually, though not always, puts a celebrity on its cover. Here, four compelling arguments from those who have voiced disapproval:

1. In a July 17 letter to Rolling Stone’s publisher, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino wrote,

Your August 3 cover rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment. It is ill conceived, at best, and reaffirms a terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their “causes”… To respond to you in anger is to feed into your obvious marketing strategy. So, I write to you instead to put the focus on where you could have: on the brave and strong survivors and on the thousands of people — their family and friends, volunteers, first responders, doctors, nurses and donors — who have come to their side. Among those we lost, those who survived, and those who help carry them forward, there are artists and musicians and dancers and writers. They have dreams and plans. They struggle and strive. The survivors of the Boston attacks deserve Rolling Stone cover stories, though I no longer feel that Rolling Stone deserves them.

2. Also on July 17, Katlyn Townsend, a friend of Jeffrey Bauman, who lost both legs in the Boston bombing, posted an open letter on Facebook:

I have seen firsthand the physical and emotional devastation left in the wake of the marathon bombings. The people of Boston have lost so much. We have lost family and friends. We have lost limbs and suffered life-altering injuries. We have forever lost our sense of security. We lost an 8-year-old child. All at the hands of your cover boy. While I respect and support the media’s right to freedom of speech, I do not condone your blatant abuse of that right to sell magazines. Your use of a provocative, borderline sympathetic image and headline of someone who has caused so much pain to our country is appalling, insensitive and disgusting. This person does not deserve to have his name mentioned publicly, let alone be featured on the cover of a magazine.

3. On July 18, Ty Burr of the Boston Globe wrote:

There are many, many ways Rolling Stone magazine could have put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover ... Rolling Stone went with a selfie. That, in itself, says everything — most of it ill advised … The selfie is our modern mirror. It’s less a way of looking out at the world than reminding ourselves that the world is looking at us, even when it isn’t. When you take a selfie, you are imagining yourself as how you’d like to be — as who you’d like to be. You are engaging in persona management: the creation of a cuter, cooler, more glamorous you. There’s a reason that adolescents take selfies at the rate of about 100 per minute. They’re trying on masks. And the ones they release to the world are the masks they want us to see.

In Tsarnaev’s selfie, he stares just off the camera’s eye-line with an opaque but calm expression. A tangle of hair falls over one eye; it’s very possible he worked for a minute or two to get that lock just so. The faintest ghost of a smile hovers around the corners of his mouth. He’s slumped against a white wall, wearing a white Armani Exchange T-shirt whose letters cluster like artful scribbles. He is the picture, literally, of a relaxed, sincere, slightly mysterious young dude … By putting this Tsarnaev on the cover, Rolling Stone at best plays with and at worst buys into the accused’s own manufactured image, casual but potent, speaking in a language we all understand.

4. Richard Donahue, the MBTA officer shot in a standoff with the Tsarnaev brothers, told NBC:

I realize the importance of journalism in covering this person’s story, but to see the face portrayed in that way will deeply impact the victims who were affected the most by what happened in April … The objection is the photos. I read the story myself last night … Covering the story is all well and good, it should be talked about, but they could have picked a better cover that’s not going to be as sensational and offensive to many people.

In response to the outcry, Rolling Stone has posted this editor’s note:

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. 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.

MORE: We Need to Learn More About Young Men Like the Boston Bomber, Not Less