Friday, July 19, 2013

In Defense of the Rolling Stone Cover

The latest cover of the Rolling Stone, which features Dzokhar Tsarnev (the "Boston bomber"), has inspired a lot of backlash: a stern letter from Boston mayor Tom Menino, criticism from MA governor Deval Patrick, bans from stores like CVS, lots of media chatter and online discussion. I can understand why some people might be upset, but I think that their criticisms are misguided and will explain why.

Before I begin, I will cite the editorial note that precede's Janet Reitman's article "Jahar's World":
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. –THE EDITORS
Well-said.  Now, let me proceed to my own points. 
(1) There is a legitimate debate to be held about whether or not the photos of suspects should be published because the fame gained by such suspects could inspire copycat crimes among those who would seek such notoriety for themselves.  However, the “don’t publish the photos” side lost the debate—for better or for worse.  The FBI published the photos of the suspects online, and then in the ensuing days, the photos of the suspects (both from the incident and from the past) were plastered across every newspaper, website, broadcast channel, and cable news channel. Jahar has already gained his fame. If you have a problem with giving such excessive attention to a criminal, your criticism is misdirected and most certainly late.

(2) The photo on the cover previously appeared on the front page of the New York Times.  I remember no backlash. I would think the NYT has wider readership than the Rolling Stone.

(3) The Rolling Stone cover was not adulatory. Jahar is referred to unambiguously as a “monster.”  The language around the story that graces the cover highlights that it is a “narrative of decline.” Jahar did not have a “photo shoot” with the Rolling Stone; that would have been unarguably tasteless.  Had I not known who he was, I would have thought the reason why he appears only in an externally sourced photo was that he died in a heroin overdose.

(4) Those who commit such violent crimes are not horned creatures living in underground lairs. They do not always have bugged-out eyes, creepy glares, or awkward frames. Unfortunately, we do not live in a Disney film where someone’s moral character can be discerned merely by the color of his skin, the length of his nose, the shape of his eyes, the size of his mouth, the height of his cheekbones, and the style of his hair.  The world is more complex than that. And the Rolling Stone article—and cover—does a service in highlighting that fact.  If we cannot get past a tendency to “other” those who commit such crimes, then we will be unable to understand how they became radicalized in the first place and will be less likely to prevent future tragedies.

(5)  If you find the Rolling Stone cover insensitive because it features a man responsible for the death of young children (or, for that matter, adults), have you complained about the multiple Rolling Stone covers that featured President Barack Obama, the man responsible for the death of the sixteen-year-old American kid Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki as well as the scores of other innocent children in Pakistan and Yemen and their parents, grandparents, and cousins who have been killed with drone strikes in a targeted killing program more morally perverse than any “stand-your-ground” law?  Is such a cover insensitive to their families?  Or the families of those being held indefinitely without charges or recourse to a trial in Guantanamo Bay?  If you are going to be critical, at least be consistent.

(6) Yes, the Rolling Stone covers current affairs, not just pop culture.  And its coverage is better quality than a lot of what appears in Newsweek or TIME.  Financial journalist and prominent Wall Street critic Matt Taibbi writes for the Rolling Stone.  You can find many other well-researched, provocative articles here.

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