The music and popular culture magazine Rolling Stone announced late Tuesday via blog post that Friday’s issue will feature a cover story on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev–the surviving suspected bomber of this year’s Boston Marathon. Titled “Jahar’s World” and written by contributing editor Janet Reitman, the forthcoming cover story poses its own set of issues regarding the events last April, law enforcement authorities’ handling of the immediate and subsequent investigations, and the news media’s treatment of it all. However, the item that’s particularly ruffled everyone’s feathers is the issue’s cover image.
The cover, which features a young Dzhokhar with long, unkempt hair and the barest hint of trimmed facial hair, recalls the magazine’s typical practice of featuring notable figures from music, movies, and politics. As one reactionary article describes it, the image is “reminiscent of the magazine’s iconic shots of rock and roll royalty like The Doors’ Jim Morrison.” And, when compared to the kinds of shots the article’s author has in mind, the criticism rings true. Tsarnaev’s young face paired with the magazine’s big red title and the names of contemporary figures like Willie Nelson and Jay-Z seems odd at best–and utterly tasteless at worst.
Most of the attention engendered in the last thirty-six hours has focused on Rolling Stone‘s questionable focus on Dzhokhar (per the magazine’s known format) at the expense of the bombing victims, first responders, and the like. This, of course, comes as no surprise. However, what does surprise me is the lack of attention given to what this frame seemingly ignores about Dzhokhar (per publicly known information), and to Reitman’s published track record with Rolling Stone. One might simply explain these quips away as “semantics” or my “personal opinion”. Either way, both queries are worth a quick look.The manner in which Reitman and the magazine editorial staff want to frame this cover image and story is quite clear.For starters, the cover not only frames Dzhokhar’s face with the magazine’s title and celebrity names, but also with the words “THE BOMBER” in large, black text. Aside from the title, this caption is the largest copy on the page. Its connection to the pictured suspect is just as solid as the title–if not more so. Also, there’s the smaller string of copy below: “How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster”. Keywords or phrases of note include “popular”, “promising”, “failed by”, “family”, “radical Islam”, and “monster”. Use these context clues and think, people! (In writing this, I know it’s a lot to ask of the general public.) The manner in which Reitman and the magazine editorial staff want to frame this cover image and story is quite clear.
Reitman’s topical interests revolve around a specific word: failure.And then there’s Reitman. A quick survey of past publications reveals a number of character-based investigative reports. Previous subjects include former members of the Church of Scientology, the activist hacker Jeremy Hammond, and the United States Army whistle-blower Bradley Manning. That a writer of her particular thematic interests would take on the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev shouldn’t be surprising. Not because she thinks he’s innocent–nor Rolling Stone for that matter–but because his case is undecided. Additionally, Reitman’s topical interests revolve around a specific word: failure. Just as the cover story’s caption promotes the term “failed”, so too do many of Reitman’s previous articles–especially those in relation to the media’s handling of Manning, Hammond, and the people of post-earthquake Haiti. In this case, it seems that Reitman wants to argue that Tsarnaev’s family (and not just older brother Tamerlan) is partially to blame for influencing his thoughts, beliefs, and actions.
Whatever the case may be, I’m leaving it up to the magazine to get the story out. This doesn’t mean that I’ll accept what Rolling Stone has to say at face value, but I’m honest enough to admit that I’m not in a position to accurately judge them as I do not possess all of the variables. Do I think the cover’s in poor taste? Sure. Am I harboring ill will toward Reitman and the editors for their choice? No. Why not? Because it’s not Friday yet.
I’ll just stand aside and reserve my soon-to-be informed judgment while everyone else in the news media casts their stones. For now.