Columns > Published on July 18th, 2013

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

About the author

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor. His latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, will be released on Feb. 22 by Ballantine. He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. Other titles include the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. Find more at

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