Rolling Stone: Portrait Of The Alleged Killer As A Young Man

I get the outrage. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev looks like Bob Dylan. And Jim Morrison. He made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone.

But, you know what, I’m not going to cancel my Rolling Stone subscription. Or search through the magazine and write down the advertisers I’m going to boycott. My blood pressure still feels normal. The outrage is just not there.

Well, that’s not quite true. I am outraged at the outrage. Whether Rolling Stone made a mistake or not in choosing a photo that makes the alleged bomber look cool, there’s an essentially anti-Democratic tenor to much of the debate, at least among those who want to punish the magazine by pulling it off shelves or calling for boycotts.Is this what the culture wars hath wrought, scoring political points by censuring ideas? And, make no mistake, this is all about ideas, not images. While the editor in me would have recoiled at the thought of publishing the photo, the counter-argument is more compelling. The whole point of the story — and, really, the point of almost every story about Tsarnaev — is to ask how someone who had the outward appearance of a normal, popular, kid could turn into what the caption clearly describes as a “BOMBER’’ and “a monster.”

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone. (Courtesy, Wenner Media)
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone. (Courtesy, Wenner Media)

But the call for boycotts began even before the magazine hit the stands. John Dennis, on Wednesday’s Dennis and Callahan show, began calling for stores to pull the issue on pain of customers taking business elsewhere and agreed with a caller who said that the advertisers in the magazine should be targeted. Gerry Callahan was equally outraged and nattered on about the Rolling Stone editors smoking dope, not taking baths for three months and making Tsarnaev a victim (the piece does nothing of the kind).

Now you would think that two guys who compared black children in METCO to an escaped gorilla in 2003 would be very wary of calling for boycotts. As would the stations who love them, WEEI and NESN. According to stories back then WEEI wimpily suspended Dennis for two days (NESN wasn’t in the picture at that point) before bowing to community outrage and raising it to two weeks for both of them and sending them to sensitivity training. (Insert joke here.) WEEI also provided METCO free advertising.

If Rolling Stone deserves to be boycotted for a photo that is at least intellectually defensible shouldn’t these two guys have been boycotted for life for their utterly indefensible racism?

No, they shouldn’t be. The point of this isn’t to dredge up ancient history. It’s to say that boycotts are the nuclear option and in situations like these the result is diminishing the free flow of ideas whether it’s from the right, like Dennis and Callahan, or from the left, like Rolling Stone. Should those of us who believe in the free flow of ideas now boycott those stores who pulled the issue? Should people who dislike Dennis and Callahan boycott their sponsors? Should people who dislike WBUR boycott its underwriters?

Would any of this help anything? No, least of all democracy. Boycotts should be saved for apartheid, not journalism.

We are stuck with Tsarnaev in our collective consciousness. He is no more glamorous, victimized, or charismatic than he was before the article.

While there has been no end of trashing Rolling Stone for turning Tsarnaev into a rock star, very little has been written about the magazine’s dedication to go beyond celebrity journalism since its inception. Whether you agree with the magazine’s leftist perspective or not, its coverage of politics has always been serious, provocative and often distinguished.

It was in that context the article was written and, I’m guessing, displayed. It would be reassuring to write Tsarnaev off as an impressionable loser, but there was much more going on in his life as well. I don’t know that the writer, Janet Reitman, came up with all that much that’s significantly different from what I’ve read or heard in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal or on WBUR, but it’s a good piece that puts the many faces of Tsarnaev into perspective. The cover photo helps, doesn’t hurt, that process. Two photos showing the duality of Tsarnaev would have been closer to the literal message of the article, but the one photo is starker, more dramatic, and ultimately more chilling.

The victims are understandably upset by the Rolling Stone cover. It’s a depressing fact of life, however, that monsters live on in the public’s memory and imagination long after their victims do. Whether that’s what makes a Hitler or a Tsarnaev do what they do, who knows. My guess is it’s more complicated than that.

We are stuck with Tsarnaev in our collective consciousness. He is no more glamorous, victimized, or charismatic than he was before the article. If we are closer to understanding the monstrous act he's charged with because of Rolling Stone — and I think we are, a bit — that can only be a good thing.

This program aired on July 18, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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