[Editor’s Note: Yesterday we reported on the controversial Rolling Stone cover with outrage. Today, in the name of open discussion, Vanyaland staff writer Hilary Hughes is approaching the subject from a different angle, and we encourage and welcome open and respectful debate on the topic.]
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t was announced yesterday that the face of Dzohkhar Tsarnaev, who just last week pled not guilty to the crimes he’s accused of committing that tie him to the Boston Marathon Bombings, would be staring out at readers in between the headlines on the cover of Rolling Stone’s August issue. The reaction from Rolling Stone’s Bostonian readership was overwhelmingly furious: boycotts were called condemning the magazine, stern letters to the editorial staff were hastily written and shame-on-yous! galore splattered across every social network. That moron from Barstool Sports claimed that the magazine sympathized with terrorists. The chief offense in the din that presided over our news feeds last night was that Rolling Stone turned the prime Boston Marathon Bombing suspect into a “dreamboat” with a “glamour shot” that highlighted his “rosebud lips” and “tousled hair.” (These are all descriptions yoinked from a handful of Facebook statuses.) Others called out Rolling Stone for its presumably sympathetic slant towards Tsarnaev because it outlined Janet Reitman’s forthcoming investigative feature with these five “revelations” that humanize Tsarnaev and draw particular attention to the normal-seeming qualities of his life as just another teenager before April 15. Some were fixated on the text that ran in the bottom right-hand corner of the cover: “The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.”
These are all emotional takes — and valid ones! — on the fact that Dzohkhar Tsarnaev is on the cover of Rolling Stone. A logical take on the fact that the cover of Rolling Stone plastered with the face of the Boston Marathon Bomber goes something like this: “It is not outside the realm of possibility that a culturally relevant figure would be on the cover of a consumer magazine.”
That may seem harsh, but I don’t know how the hell to snap you Boston Strong-harping people out of it, so I’ll say it again: There is no logical justification for you being upset about a culturally relevant figure being featured on the cover of a consumer publication.
“But Hil, that’s uncalled for — we’re not part of the Boston Strong bro set!” Then read, for a minute, take in an opinion you don’t agree with, actually read the article that goes along with the cover once it’s eventually published and get back to me, because as of right now, your reaction is a knee-jerk one that conveniently ignores criteria that has been not only reported on prior but at length. Allow me to elaborate.
First of all, check your bias and your stance. Are you a Bostonian/do you live in Boston/do you have a connection to the city? If you’re reading this, you likely do. Hi, friend and compatriot! I am, too. You are going to have a very, very different reaction to seeing this kid’s face on the cover than Rolling Stone readers will in other parts of the country.
“The rest of the world cares about this, too! The rest of the world thinks he’s a monster!” That’s probably true. And the rest of the world has other demons to face at the moment, be it protests in Turkey or George Zimmerman or infinite bullets flying around in Syria and the like. For a bunch of people who are so invested in the Boston Marathon Bombings because it tangentially happened to them, your outrage may stem from the fact that this kid is directly responsible for hurling your city into lockdown, or the fact that you saw blood painting sidewalks you walked down the day before. Hell, maybe you’re sick of seeing his face because it’s been mooning out at you from the pages of the Globe and Herald for weeks now. I understand, and I empathize.
What I don’t understand is why you don’t recognize that his face being on the cover elevates the Boston Marathon Bombing trial to national relevancy and raises awareness about what exactly happened here, and what happened here involved a teenager and his brother making bombs and killing people with them. Rolling Stone calls him a monster on the cover, and agrees with you on that point, but to remain outraged without at least qualifying your stance — I am a Bostonian and this affects me both in an emotional and intellectual way — without even for a millisecond taking into consideration why Rolling Stone opted to go with this cover in the first place is, frankly, naïve.
And that brings me to my second point: It may be painful to confront, but Tsarnaev is a teenager who committed a horrible crime, and people want to know why he did this. And if putting Tsarnaev’s face on the cover of Rolling Stone not only ups the visibility for him, the Marathon and, by association, his victims, but helps start a conversation about why and how this happened, maybe it’ll shed some light and, I don’t know… prevent it from happening again? We’re doomed to repeat history if we don’t study it (Mark Twain, right?), and slapping Tsarnaev’s face on the cover to raise awareness for the story that goes along with it isn’t a crime in and of itself, it’s advertising for the points Reitman’s trying to make. The two are not mutually exclusive. If discussions about mental health and gun control were not only okay but encouraged in the wake of Newtown, and if a look at the influence of video games and popular music was a conversation topic post-Columbine, why are the influential factors at play in Tsarnaev’s life pre-Marathon off-limits?
The photo was not conceived, staged and shot by Rolling Stone, as the majority of its covers are. It is an image that has either been provided by a Tsarnaev family member or friend, and this image has been seen on “FREE JAHAR” t-shirts sported by a troubling amount of teenage girls who seem to have taken up his innocence as their cause. As the arraignment’s come and gone rather recently and some writers are focusing their efforts on reporting on the thoughts and feelings and reactions of this group of teenagers, this image is relevant because it is a part of the still-developing narrative and because people are interested by the fact that this kid has some sort of bizarre following.
That in itself is worth exploring. If Rolling Stone had said, “Hey, Dzohkhar, can you swing through our office? Gonna shoot the cover this afternoon, bring a couple of looks!” I would absolutely understand the outrage. That isn’t what happened. Reitman’s story — as the dek implies — focuses, from the sounds of it, on testimonies provided by those who know him in an effort to shed light on why or how this kid decided to get up on April 15 and kill some people. As teenage girls were at the Moakley courthouse in support of Tsarnaev as recently as last week, I think the cover, if anything, brings another side to the Boston Marathon Bombing and its presumed perpetrator by employing a photo of the kid’s past that’s been repurposed as a banner for support while on the same page they refer to him as a “monster.”
It’s a complicated, messy, multidimensional clusterfuck, showing a photo of Tsarnaev back when he was still just a teenager while juxtaposing that with a title he’s earned since becoming Boston’s Public Enemy #1. And that duality — between the Dzhohkhar plastered on the shirt fronts of teenaged supporters and the Dzhokhar that’s grunting “Not Guilty” in a thick Russian accent at his arraignment — isn’t irrelevant. It’s inconvenient, for those who wish that he’d just get his sentence already, but to write off Reitman’s reporting — which, according to Rolling Stone, includes interviews with “dozens of sources, from childhood and high school friends, teachers, neighbors and law enforcement agents” — without understanding that the cover could mirror a point she’s trying to make is taking the cover at (oof, I know) face value.
The cover subjects of Rolling Stone aren’t necessarily good or bad or popular or revolutionary. They’re notorious. When the girls from The Hills were on the cover in 2008 clutching pillows seemingly caught in the middle of a scantily clad pillow fight, people freaked out and threatened to boycott the publication. The same thing happened when Snooki straddled a rocket. This is a music magazine! They’re publishing reality TV bullshit! The magazine is going to hell in a handbasket because they’re writing about this shit instead of music that matters! This is where they’re wrong: Rolling Stone isn’t strictly a music publication and never has been, really. It’s always been a magazine that’s focused on popular culture through the lens of music — John Lennon sported a war helmet seemingly pulled from the Vietnamese brush on its first cover, after all. Its film critic, Peter Travers, is one of the most lauded voices in the world of movies; Matt Taibbi is one of the most prominent political commentators in the country due to his coverage; The exposes and investigative reports, like Reitman’s, that have been published in recent years are compelling reads, though yes, they were usually cover mentions at most and not cover subjects themselves.
This must be a doozy, then, to warrant that kind of exposure and to push the boundaries of convention and expectation for what we perceive to be the norm and criteria for a Rolling Stone cover. But hasn’t the cover of Rolling Stone always done that? Redefine the controversial? And if that’s the case, how is the Tsarnaev cover any different in a highly desensitized world where shock value is no longer a trick but a requirement for getting your point across?
You cannot bash a publication for a piece you haven’t read. I know it’s hard to believe, but — gasp! — people are usually on the cover of magazines because there is an article about them on the inside. And you know what’s crazy? Janet Reitman’s article hasn’t been published yet, either in print or online, and yet people are ready to march into the offices at Wenner Media and tar and feather Jann. I said this earlier, and I’ll say it again: the cover and the piece that go along with it are not mutually exclusive and should be looked at as a whole, and the cover’s egregious or apt nature can’t be written off as such without reading the subsequent feature. If you’re reading a book by its title and can’t get past the dek, I don’t know what to tell you other than you should probably go read BuzzFeed or Barstool or something.
So, it comes down to this: recognize how and why you’re invested in the Dzohkhar Tsarnaev Rolling Stone cover and the article, and frame your reaction within the context of the developing story and the facts we already know. It may surprise you. We know he’s 19. We know he killed people and maimed others. We know that he was found in a boat and that he apparently liked wrestling. These are indisputable facts that have been regurgitated in countless headlines since April 15.
We don’t know why the kid pictured on the cover of Rolling Stone decided to blow up the Boston Marathon, and the feature, from the sounds of it, aims to do just that: figure out why this kid, pictured on the cover, decided to do this. It’s enraged and infuriated and upset millions of readers before its publication, and maybe that’s the point: we should be enraged and infuriated and upset as to why this kid is a relevant news byte in the first place. And we should also feel compelled to figure out why he did it so that it never happens again, and if Reitman’s story sheds light on any of that, maybe the screams and the Facebook rants and the photo snapped of a teenager before he turned into a monster staring out at us from the newsstand won’t seem so disconnected after all.