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The Problem With ‘Rolling Stone’s’ Dzhokhar Tsarnaev Cover Isn’t the Image — It’s the Reaction

Perhaps you saw, yesterday, the newest cover of Rolling Stone featuring the image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Perhaps you had an opinion about it. And perhaps you expressed that opinion on social media hours before the long, reported cover story about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev by noted journalist Janet Reitman was even posted online with an attached non-apology of sorts from the Rolling Stone editors. “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,” read the message. “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.”

Meanwhile, those of us at the Flavorwire HQ all wondered what the fuss was about. I asked peers at other publications, who also expressed that they couldn’t explain where the outrage about the cover came from. (It’s not without recognition that I write this having a few weeks ago railed against The New Yorker‘s meme-courting cover dedicated to the defeat of DOMA.) To plenty people in the media, this is business as usual, and even an amazing moment: a long-form piece of serious journalism got the cover treatment on Rolling Stone, and it wasn’t about Lady Gaga or Jay-Z or Brad Pitt, but rather a subject seemingly more serious than a pop star or an A-list actor and his or her career ambitions. Instead, it was a story about how a young, conventionally attractive American citizen committed a massive act of violence, that tried to explain with level-headedness and critical thought why he did what he did.

But people were angry. CVS, Walgreens, and Rite Aid announced their refusal to carry the magazine in their stores. (CVS has no problem carrying this sort of magazine, however.) Boston mayor Thomas Menino issued an open letter to Rolling Stone‘s Jann Wenner, stating the magazine should have devoted its space to those affected by the bombings. Yet there are plenty of people who defend the cover; Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern calls it “brilliant,” and The New Yorker‘s Ian Crouch writes, “The victims of the Boston Marathon bombing deserve our attention, and will continue to teach us about perseverance and the best parts of our common nature. But the dark stories of the bombing need to be told, too. And we need to hear them.”

It’s a day later, but it feels like weeks. That’s how the Internet works: we manufacture our outrage to push forth a daily narrative, and our limited pop culture memory keeps us from recognizing what a short shelf life our anger has. It’s also worth noting that no one was angered about The New York Times using the same image of Tsarnaev above the fold of its May 5 issue. Luckily, a few people did remember yesterday that Rolling Stone also featured Charles Manson on its cover in 1970, and that image was an illustration rather than a found photo, and one that actually did, in hindsight, seemingly glamorize him as a cultural icon. (Without the help of Rolling Stone, that is what Manson eventually became.)

The problem here isn’t the cover itself, or the image: it’s the reaction. Sure, Rolling Stone rarely devotes its cover space to someone who isn’t a performer (although politicians do tend to pop up there quite often, depending on the election cycles), and the recognizable logo above the image invokes the sarcastic sentiments of the song written by Shel Silverstein and recorded by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show:  “Rolling Stone, wanna see my picture on the cover / Wanna buy five copies for my mother / Wanna see my smilin’ face, on the cover of the Rolling Stone.” That’s a satirical song about the notion of rock ‘n’ roll fame, not murderous infamy. It’s why the same image on the cover of Time wouldn’t likely cause such an uproar. But at the end of the day, it’s Reitman’s piece that is the important journalistic artifact, and one that’s now likely to be eclipsed by the controversial cover. This is the fault of Rolling Stone‘s editors, who assumed their cover line calling Dzhokhar Tsarnaev a “monster” would be enough to avoid the accusations that the image sexualized or glamorized him. But more importantly, it’s our fault — the audience — for falling into the trap so obviously set for us: rather than taking time and thinking critically about the images we are delivered on a mass scale, we’ve accepted that a knee-jerky, short-form response is more suitable and more powerful.

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