Rolling Stone’s Boston Bomber Cover Is Brilliant, Not Crass

Slate's Culture Blog
July 17 2013 4:16 PM

Rolling Stone’s Boston Bomber Cover Is Brilliant

rolling_tsarnaev

Rolling Stone has unveiled its next cover, featuring a dreamy photo of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and many people have erupted in outrage. Some critics say the image depicts Tsarnaev as a kind of celebrity; others believe it turns him into a martyr. Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick called the cover “out of taste,” while CVS has banned the issue “out of respect for the victims of the attack and their loved ones.” A smaller chain of New England stores is also boycotting the magazine for “glorify[ing] evil actions.” Never mind that the picture itself once appeared on the front page of the New York Times; when Rolling Stone uses it, they’re “tasteless,” “trashy,” and “exploitative.”

As the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple points out, the image is exploitative—but it isn’t just exploitative: It’s also smart, unnerving journalism. By depicting a terrorist as sweet and handsome rather than ugly and terrifying, Rolling Stone has subverted our expectations and hinted at a larger truth. The cover presents a stark contrast with our usual image of terrorists. It asks, “What did we expect to see in Tsarnaev? What did we hope to see?” The answer, most likely, is a monster, a brutish dolt with outward manifestations of evil. What we get instead, however, is the most alarming sight of all: a boy who looks like someone we might know.

Advertisement

Judging from the article itself, the image is disconcertingly apt. The story, a two-month investigative report by Janet Reitman, tracks Tsarnaev’s tragic, dangerous path from a well-liked student to a monster, focusing on the increasing influence of radical Islam. (The headline on the cover suggests as much; those immediately outraged by the picture might do well to read the accompanying text.) That slide from likable teenager to troubled murderer is a potent narrative—and not a new one. Time magazine profiled the Columbine shooters through a similar lens, calling them “the monsters next door” on their cover and asking, “What made them do it?”

Few people complained, however, when the Columbine shooters graced the cover of Time, perhaps in part because that magazine is devoted primarily to news, whereas Rolling Stone devotes more space to music and culture. And it’s certainly true that Rolling Stone’s cover is prime celebrity real estate; many forget that the late Michael Hastings’ explosive piece on General Stanley McChrystal was tucked in an issue featuring Lady Gaga on the cover.

But Rolling Stone has published several other terrific works of journalism, and its editors have stood by their cover. And they are right to do so. They are not “glorifying” anyone. Whatever “glory” this cover brings is more in line with infamy than celebrity; after all, the text of the cover describes him as “the bomber” and “a monster.” Yes, the editors were surely aware that Tsarnaev has attracted a bizarre fan base of young women professing their crushes and asserting his innocence. But it’s ridiculous to assume that the magazine was playing off his strange cult following—an assumption we would never make for Time or the New York Times.

We may want the media to reconfirm for us that psychopaths are crazed, nutty, creepy recluses whom we can easily identify and thus avoid. But, as this cover reminds us, that simply isn’t the case. Some psychopaths point guns at cameras; others snap selfies in T-shirts. As Tsarnaev’s many friends could attest, we aren’t as good as we’d like to believe at spotting the evil beneath the surface.

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

TODAY IN SLATE

History

Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.

Doublex

Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
History
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
  Life
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Doublex
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.