Why Rolling Stone’s “Bomber” cover triggered explosion of outrage

On April 15, pressure cookers exploded at the Boston Marathon, wounding 264 people and killing three others. Earlier this week, Rolling Stone magazine generated immense controversy when they placed suspect Tsarnaev Dzhokhar on their cover, in a flattering image that portrayed him as some sort of rock star. Many believe it was a terrible move – and they may be right.

In the photo, Tsarnaev looks casually at you off the magazine rack with seemingly friendly eyes and nicely-tousled hair. Superimposed over him are two bold words: “The Bomber.” It’s a seemingly perverse juxtaposition of camera-ready glamour and dark, troubling words. The 19 year-old Chechen-American who struck fear into the hearts of Bostonians is here depicted beneath the same sort of spotlight that has been shone on major musicians and actors; that alone is troubling.

Not long after the cover photo went online, it sent people throughout the country into fits of fury.

The International Association of Firefighters, whose union workers responded to the disaster, called the cover photo “despicable,” and added, “Journalism is one thing. Blatant glorification of a murderer in the name of selling magazines is wrong.”

The Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts (PFFM) decried the decision to publish an “empathetic-looking” photo of the terrorist. “We witnessed firsthand the trauma that unfolded that day.” The Tsarnaevs “are not victims. They have not been failed. They are cowards. They killed people and caused disabling permanent injury to hundreds.” The PFFM subsequently called for a boycott of the magazine.

Celebs were no less infuriated. Actress Eliza Dushku tweeted, “Bad taste doesn’t even cut it, Rolling Stone,” concluding that with the hashtag ‘BostonHorrified.’ Game show host Tom Bergeron tweeted, “Just saw the latest Rolling Stone cover. Unbelievable. Was this instead of their al-Qaeda swimsuit edition?”

Hard rock musician David Draiman tweeted, “I used to dream of making the cover of Rolling Stone…until this. You have glorified this cowardly and unforgivable act. You validated the act to a whole new generation of wannabe terrorists seeking martyrdom and infamy. I condemn this act, this notion, and this magazine.”

Strong words, the perspective behind which some may disagree with. But nonetheless, such comments are reflective of how angry and hurt people feel by Rolling Stone’s decision.

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell went a step further, criticizing the content of the Rolling Stone article itself. “It spends most of its time in romantic reminiscence of what a great kid [Dzhokhar] was. And we never discovered anything in the article that we didn’t already know.”

After reading the piece on Dzhokhar, I drew more or less the same conclusion as O’Donnell. The writer goes to painstaking measures to show us just how normal, fun, and charming young Tsarnaev was, noting how he was popular with girls and that people insisted that Tsarnaev was “a good kid,” and it doesn’t make sense how he became a “monster.”

Not only did the article come off as a bit of a sympathy case for the terrorist, it also became an exercise in redundancy, repeatedly raising the same question: how did this seemingly good kid go bad? It never provides any answers, except by shifting the guilt from Dzhokhar onto his older, more radicalized brother Tamerlan, suggesting that the former was “brainwashed” by the latter.

Neither profound nor revelatory, the writer presented a snapshot of a young terrorist’s life – not unlike that of a celebrity. That, combined with the cover, succeeded only in glamorizing that which is contemptible. It did not focus on the people affected by the attacks, or the first responders that came to their aid. Instead, it promoted a harsh notion: the aggressor is the one who walks away with a legacy, while those who suffer fade into obscurity.

Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University, thought along the same lines, remarking, “Rolling Stone sends young people this message: If you want to become famous, kill somebody.”

“I can’t think of another instance in which one has glamorized the image of an alleged terrorist,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, communications professor and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. “This is the image of a rock star. This is the image of someone who is admired, of someone who has a fan base, of someone we are critiquing as art.”

“Victim Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs, should be on the cover,” wrote one commenter on Rolling Stone’s Facebook page; his post was liked over 1,428 times.

Rolling Stone had every intention of generating controversy. This was done in the name of capitalism and consumerism, and it isn’t hard to see the logic behind it: controversy sells magazines. And yes, we have something in this country called freedom of press, but some feel that it does not justify the exploitation of tragedy.

In fact, publications like Rolling Stone have a heightened responsibility, in the spirit of journalistic integrity, to provide the facts of the matter. In short, was there really a need to spend five pages pontificating about the true nature of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Of what does this inform the reader? That Dzhokhar is just like any of us? There are plenty of people who, as the article said, “feel alienated” from society and become depressed; not all of them become killers.

Stores including CVS, Walgreens, 7-11, Rite-Aid, and Stop ‘n Shop have refused to carry the issue of Rolling Stone. Dosomething.org has a petition that can be signed to let the magazine company know just how outrageous their decision has been. And the article itself can be read here.

Writer Matt Murray, meanwhile, had a bit of advice for publications looking to cover these sorts of tragedies in the future: “After September 11th,” he said, “we all became New Yorkers. After the Boston bombing, we all became Boston Strong. Remember the heroes, not the villains.”

Photo: A scene of the pain and devastation caused by the Tsarnaev brothers. AP Photo.



Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the People's World home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Erie, Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and their cats. He enjoys wine, books, music, and nature. In his spare time, he operates a music review channel on YouTube, creates artwork, and is writing a fantasy novel, as well as a self-help book and several digital comics.