Why Is The Rolling Stone Cover Controversy Even A Controversy?

The internet lost its collective shit yesterday after the cover for the latest issue of Rolling Stone was released. It features Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to accompany a story written by Janet Reitman. This is what it says at the bottom of the cover:

The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster

For some, this was too much—they charged Rolling Stone with sensationalizing and glorifying a terrorist. That Tsarnaev had been made up to look like Jim Morrison or Bob Dylan. Several retailers, including CVS and Walgreens, have refused to carry the issue. There are petitions (there are always petitions) calling for a boycott of Rolling Stone

I can't help but feel that this is a controversy for people who lack critical reasoning skills.

Because, on the surface, it's the ultimate example of "judging a book by its cover," which is a thing we're not supposed to do. The fever pitch for this controversy hit yesterday when the article wasn't even online, so no one had actually read it. It goes deeper than that, too. Into a disturbing trend where we add caveats to the First Amendment so we can maintain a veneer of moral integrity.

I wonder how many people who got upset about the cover yesterday are even going to bother reading the story today. The trouble with it is: It takes about a half-hour to read, which isn't nearly as easy as being upset for the length of a withering status update on Facebook.

The article is live. I just read it. You should too. Everyone should. A lot of people won't. And it's unfortunate that a scary and enlightening piece of journalism is getting drowned out by people who can't see past a picture. 

What glory?

The charge that this is glorifying Tsarnaev is a tough one. I do, on the one hand, understand that his placement on a magazine that usually reserves this space for celebrities and rock stars is a little startling. Rolling Stone never does stuff like this. Except for the 1970 cover featuring Charles Manson.

Where exactly is the glory in this? It it hard to reconcile our ideas of terrorism with the fact that this kid is young, and handsome, and light-skinned? Would it be easier to process if his skin was darkened, like when Time made O.J. Simpson blacker? 

This is a photo that hundreds of news organizations have run since the bombing, and yet Rolling Stone is the one to get dinged for it. Some have accused the magazine of making Tsarnaev look good, which indicates that Photoshop was involved or that this was a photo shoot. But looking at the cover and the original photo side-by-side, there doesn't seem to be any difference.

A photo is a fact, and facts are sacrosanct in journalism. Alter it in any way, and it's not a fact. That the photo is untouched and unaltered shows only that Rolling Stone is following the rules. While it might be easier to run a picture of Tsarnaev with devil horns scrawled on his head, or with blood splattered on his face, it's sort of getting away from the point. Which is, what the fuck happened to this kid? 

Rolling Stone released a statement in response to the controversy: 

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.

And isn't that sort of the point? That's not just a photo. It's context. It's perspective

Wanting to understand what turned Tsarnaev into a terrorist is a question we need to ask. It's something we need to understand. To dismiss Rolling Stone's attempt to do so as approval of his actions is borderline dangerous.

Maybe part of this is a question of reputation. Rolling Stone's investigative journalism is, often, unparalleled. And they brought in the big gun for this. Janet Reitman is no lightweight. But I guess because Rolling Stone also sometimes interviews Kanye West they're not allowed to do highbrow stuff? 

Ultimately, I could understand this being glorification if the kid wasn't in jail, probably headed for a shanking or the death penalty. I could understand this being glorification if the photo accompanied a story about the awesome thing he did. I could understand this being glorification if they snuck a photographer into jail and did a flattering photo shoot, or mocked him up to look like Che Guevara.

This, I don't see as glorification. I see an unaltered photo of the person the story is about. I see journalism. What's so hard about that?

The trouble with freedom

Only certain kinds of speech and expression are permissible in the aftermath of tragedy.

Maybe we've always been like this, but it feels more true in the age of social media. When a bunch of school kids get gunned down, if you dare to say that we should address this country's incredibly lax gun laws, you get shouted down for sensationalizing a tragedy. You can be sad, but you can't look for answers. Someone might get offended

There are people who sensationalize tragedy and deserve to be shouted down, the Westboro Baptist folks being a great example. They're not looking to understand or fix a problem. It's about getting attention. 

Which, honestly, is what this is about: Attention. Social media has trained people to be professionally offended by things. It gives them an opportunity to publicly laud their ideals. But any chance for reasoned discussion is extinguished when people are scrambling over each other to be king of the moral highground. 

There's a cultural thing here, for sure. We're so used to things being sensationalized that we're always a little on edge. We expect things to be taken out of context to illicit a passioned response. "What did these assholes do this time" is sort of our default setting.

But wanting to understand what turned Tsarnaev into a terrorist is a question we need to ask. It's something we need to understand. To dismiss Rolling Stone's attempt to do so as approval of his actions is borderline dangerous. 

When is the right time to talk about bad things that happen? Three months? Six months and two days? Is it better to ignore them and just hope really hard that they never happen again? And anyway, why are we so opposed to having a mature conversation about the origins of evil? 

Is it because when we see a picture like this of a totally normal-looking kid, it reveals troubling things about our own ideas of terrorism? With the way we process the world around us? With aspects of our own personality? 

I don't know. I don't have answers to these questions because they're huge and we should all be involved in answering them. Instead people yell at each other over whether we should even be allowed to address them.

Mature debate, maybe?

I'm sure a lot of people are going to accuse me of being an unwashed liberal hippie or a heartless scumbag. For the sake of perspective, I was a reporter for a daily newspaper in New York City. As a former journalist, I've always admired Rolling Stone. I still do. 

If you want to charge anyone with sensationalizing this, go after the "news" organizations that breathlessly report incorrect facts because they're so desperate for a scoop. 

And if you want to have a mature conversation about this, let's do it.

Please read Reitman's story first

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ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig July 18, 2013 - 11:37am

I agree, and I will add that I find it a bit ironic that all this outrage and refusal to carry the magazine will only serve to make this particular issue worth more in the long run-- which means people will go out and buy it when they wouldn't normally buy Rolling Stone.

Further, I dont think Rolling Stone is going to lose a lot of regular readers. Regular readers know that they have always, and continue to, publish journalistic and op-ed pieces on politics and current events. They aren't "surprised" by an article about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and have probably given the benefit of the doubt and read the article.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like July 18, 2013 - 11:51am

I don't care that they used that picture. I don't feel like it "glorifies" him. But the fact is they chose that picture over others. We can't believe such a big magazine would choose their cover image willy-nilly, so they must have had a reason. If they meant to choose a picture which appears to be the furthest thing from an indiscriminate killer (as he is thought to be), then it was for effect: contrast and dissonance. And no surprise that effect is off-putting for a lot of people.

Marc Ferris's picture
Marc Ferris from Carmel, California is reading Animal Attraction by Anna David July 18, 2013 - 12:04pm

Here's the thing I need to say first: I have not read the story - yet.


First off, the cover's lead subtitle calls him a monster so it's not like they're starting a fan club. Second thing is that it is every magaziine editor's job to sell their product, and sometimes you can do this with pretty girls, other times it's a big-time celebrity, and sometimes you have to put an asshole on the front.

It is not Rolling Stone's fault the kid is photogenic.

As a horror writer I love it because it is the ultimate reminder that those who do monsterous thing don't look like monsters. This is how evil works - by coming through the front door with a written invitation. I haven't read the story but I'm hoping that is the subtext.

Finally, for the last three weeks America has had its panties inn a wad over the NSA spying issue because it is an violation of our civil rights. And now this week many are assaulting RollingStone's civil right to print whatever the hell they want to in any way that they want to.

If you don't like it then it is your right not to buy it. Bitching about it drives folks like me, who would never buy a Rolling Stone, to purchase an issue on freedom of speech principles alone. So way to go.

Mickerdoo's picture
Mickerdoo from Brooklyn via the Center of The Universe July 18, 2013 - 1:28pm

I haven't read the article yet, but I will. 

I generally scoff at Facebook overreactions, and this one occured so soon after the Trayvon Martin verdict that it seems some people ran to the Rolling Stone protest while still wearing their freshly purchased hoodies. Anger of the day, injustice of the moment, etc. That's sort of how things roll these days.

In this instance, I understand why a few friends were so angry. I didn't join the chorus because I think our digital soap box is stupid and people should get outside more. That being said, some of my friends grew up with one of the victims that was killed. Anything mentioning the guy is going to cause a reaction. With just a few words on the cover and this photo, my friends are thinking, "Who gives a fuck what made him do it?", and that's perfectly fair, IMO. He took their friend, and changed the lives of hundreds, thousands of people when you factor in families. The last thing they're interested in is hearing about how he was a lost soul. Does it matter if that's what the article actually says? Not to people dealing with it less than 90 days later. That's just the reality of it, and I don't think people should have to apologize for it. I didn't think TV stations should've aired video and sounds of bodies falling to the ground on 9/11, either. 

A magazine, it could have been any, used easily the most appealing photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for their cover. If you do a Google Image search and put in a date search between say, the day of the bombings to July 1, the cover photo isn't the most common result. It's the 2nd result, but it doesn't repeat as frequently as other shots that are less personal in nature, IMO. It's not just a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it's the most interesting, appealing, engaging photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. His face has been splashed on TV's and magazines everywhere, mostly with a photo that had a white background or were security camera blurry photos. 

A common thread I've seen on my Facebook is the question of why didn't the cover include my friend's friend, or the cop killed, or the 8 year old boy killed. Simply, they're not ready to hear about what drove this guy to do this. They're still dealing with the sudden loss of a friend. Many victims with missing limbs are still finding ways to cope with life. There's no timetable when it's okay for discussion, if it's brought up in an appropriate context. Any time is okay for discussion, but if Rolling Stone wanted to have a mature discussion, they could've pursued it differently. Do 18-19 year old kids still read Rolling Stone regularly? Serious question. 

As far as stores banning the issue, I'm not sure where I stand. I think it's partly publicity, and mostly a puffed up chest on the part of businesses. 

rmatthewsimmons's picture
rmatthewsimmons from Salt Lake City, UT is reading I just put down 'A Game of Thrones' after 6 chapters....Couldn't do it. July 18, 2013 - 4:07pm

To me, this cover is much more menacing than any of the photos taken by the police during his arrest with the lazer sight pointed at his forehead. There's a lot more to be read into an image like this than one that simply casts the person in question in a particular light.

But maybe this is the point at which American culture has come. This seems to be more of an outcry at putting people in a position of having to think critically rather than laying out a particular side of a story so that passersby only have to glance over to read a guilty verdict without being engaged any further. The cover Rolling Stone chose to use allows the reader to make their own decisions about the person in question after reading the article rather than succumbing in a knee jerk manner, to a unflattering photo that says only one thing.

But, there are much more important issues going on right now and this is just a really dumb distraction.



Gretel: The Children of the Sun, Book One

Robert Alexander II's picture
Robert Alexander II is reading nothing because he just finished a book, but he very well may start another one today July 18, 2013 - 4:47pm

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that there are plenty of apathetic 17/18 year olds to be found in my city, and presumably all over the country. I have had the pleasure of trying to evoke interesting conversation only to be met with either an unjustified popular opinion or a complete lack of one. There is a serious lack of critical thought found among my peers; admittedly, I could probably speak up a little more, so there is that. What bothers me most is not the lack of activism or anything like that, but the fact that virtually nobody has a well-thought out opinion of anything, except for gossip, which I hate with a passion. I just wish wish that people would realize that there is a world out there full of complex issues with nuanced problems and answers that require more than a five minute shouting match (as you often see on the "news"). 

Then again, maybe I'm just disillusioned because everybody secretly gets together every Friday night to deliberate important issues like that [insert name] is pissed off at [insert other name] because of [insert pointless offense]. But I doubt it.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list July 19, 2013 - 12:18am

I like to torture myself by reading the comment sections on Huffington Post articles. Today, I skipped past the articles and went straight to the comment sections to see what people were saying about this controversy. The thing I saw most in the comment sections was the outrage that this cover "humanizes him" or "makes him seem human". I take issue with this because he is, in fact, human. What he did was horribly inhumane, but he is still a man and is made of flesh and blood. I've always argued that the scariest people in this world are the ones who we never see coming. The Iagos in this world scare me more than anything else. He is the person you think is your friend, or the person you thought was just like you. This kid is an attractive guy, and looks harmless. He looks normal, which is why people are so freaked out by this cover. At least, that is how I view this issue.

Rolling Stone is asking the same question that popped into my head the first time I saw this kid's picture on the news. They are just at an advantage to answer it through journalistic resources, whereas I am not. It occurs to me that I probably viewed him differently than most people, because I teach high school and work with teens. I have mostly kept silent on my initial thoughts upon seeing this kid, but I felt that it was tragic to see a young kid with a bright future throw everything away. Does that mean I approve of him or support what he did? No, it doesn't. I'm horrified by what he did. He put his faith into the wrong people, and he did become a monster.

On a side note, Rolling Stone was the first magazine I subscribed to in high school and it has always been my favorite.

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing July 19, 2013 - 6:29am

Let's face this other uncomfortable fact: the kid is hot. I'm not being (entirely) facetious. If Tsarnaev had been ugly, his face wouldn't have made it to the cover. The fact is, he's terrifically cute. Rolling Stone's editors were scarcely unaware of this truth.

That said, I have no problem with Rolling Stone's decision to make him the coverboy. I'm going to read the article - I like Rolling Stone's investigative pieces, especially by Matt Taibbe. I'm sure this will be an intelligent - possibly the most intelligent - article about the terrorists so far.


Deets999's picture
Deets999 from Connecticut is reading Adjustment Day July 19, 2013 - 7:23am

I just think the venue for this photo doesn't make a lot of sense.  The point was made that Manson (before my time) was on the cover about 45 years ago. Otherwise, the cover is reserved for artists, people we admire, controversial people, probably even people we despise e..g certain politicians - but a mass murder and terrorist on the cover of Rolling Stone?

If you saw this cover on a news magazine, same photo and all, I don't think there would be nearly the same outcry - Rolling Stone is so iconic with "celebrity" that it has tripped a nerve, particulalry because it is more and more alarming how people who do horrific things are being turned into celebrities or they also do them in part hoping to get their 15 minutes.

So if Rolling Stone wants to write what I'm sure will be an excellent piece about the bomber, have at it. But knowing what kind of an instituion they are, what they're cover means to pop culture, was that really the best photo to use? What about the mug shot photo? If you didn't know the context, the kid actually does look like a musician posing for the cover.

And sadly, since they are in the business of selling magazines, I think this photo is doing exactly what they hoped it would do. I certinly don't think they are stupid over there, so this was a calculated decision - to say it wasn't, would not be fair. The question of this article was "Why is the Rolling Stone cover controversy even a controvery". And the short answer is because Rolling Stone wanted it to be.

rmatthewsimmons's picture
rmatthewsimmons from Salt Lake City, UT is reading I just put down 'A Game of Thrones' after 6 chapters....Couldn't do it. July 19, 2013 - 8:24am

Thanks for the laugh Ed - so true, made my morning.



Gretel: The Children of the Sun, Book One

ReneeAPickup's picture
Class Facilitator
ReneeAPickup from Southern California is reading Wanderers by Chuck Wendig July 19, 2013 - 5:42pm

Deets-- politicians have also been on the cover, as well as celebrities who were known more for their terrible deeds than their actual creative work. I feel like people are trying very hard to find a reason to be upset about this. Rolling Stone has always covered current events and hot button issues, and they've regularly featured horrible people, and people who were not rockstars or movie stars on the cover.


Deets999's picture
Deets999 from Connecticut is reading Adjustment Day July 19, 2013 - 8:06pm

Well, I made mention of that on my post, I understand RS tackles controversy. But there is a world of difference between politicians / artists who behave badly as opposed to a mass murder terrorist. Who was the last horrible person they put on the cover that compares to this young man? I don't know, the closest comparison I heard about was Manson 45 years ago.

People aren't trying hard to be upset - people are upset, and there are fair reasons to be upset with RS decision. The same way there are reasons one may agree with the decision. I don't think it's the biggest deal in the world, it will have its time in the news cycle, and we'll all move on. But at the end of the day, I think it's fair to be sensitive towards the POV of those genuinely disappointed with the bomber making the cover, and perhaps it's not people wanting to be censors or running RS's business, just folks who disagree and think a different cover would be more appropriate.


Amanda Roberts-Anderson's picture
Amanda Roberts-... July 20, 2013 - 1:09am

It isn't that Rolling stone isn't allowed to have "high-brow" investigative reporting. The imagry, context, history of the magazine, and the story all go together. You can't say "oh, ignore the gorgeous photo on the cover because the story inside is a resonable discussion about how one boy turned into a monster." Rolling Stone is a magazine that glorifies icons of popular culture. To get on the cover of Rolling Stone is the dream of every artist from Aerosmith to Adele. I don't think these artists would appreciate now being in that elite club along with a terrorist. 

The argument "don't judge a book by it's cover" is totally fallacious. That is like saying a video game like Scarlet Blade, which features nude female avatars in sexual positions, is really a boon for women because if you actually read the plot (which no one does in computer games) is all about female empowerment. That is bollocks because the imagry is still degrading to women. The imagry of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on this magazine glorifies him, no matter what they claim their intention actually was.

Their true intent was to sell magazines; that is what people need to realize. Even though I won't be buying one (I've never bought an issue before and I don't plan on starting with this one), I'm sure plenty of other people did.

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes July 20, 2013 - 6:01pm

I like Rolling Stone too, but in this case I think they blew it.

A buddy I went to college with was there, man with his kid and his kid's kid. At the finish line. They didn't get hurt but Rob I can't help but think that if 9/11 wounded you or somebody you loved you'd object to Rolling Stone giving the asshole mastermind the cover.

Just cause it's Boston and not your home metropolois, does that make it so easy to be rational? Screw rational thought at moments like these. I say Mr. Whoever the F. from where ever forfeited his right to be treated as a human being when he willingly followed in his older bro's footsteps to terror. So? That's his call and I think he's worthless as a result and I half read the article and found it a bore.

Michael.Eric.Snyder's picture
Michael.Eric.Snyder July 20, 2013 - 6:55pm

Rolling Stone must be desperate for any publicity they can get. Well, they got it, on the backs of those lives and families destroyed by that terrorist.

Rolling Stone makes its money on pop idol glorification, just like most entertainment publications. That there won't be some confused kids who find justification for their own nihilistic beliefs when they see this "cool kid" glorified on the cover is to have one's head buried in the sand. We all know what those nihilistic beliefs can turn into. Should I go down the list?

RS had every right to do what they did. And I have every right to call them irresponsible, pathetic, gratuitous, and dangerous.