Rolling Stone’s unsettling new “The Bomber” cover — featuring a dreamy, sepia-toned selfie of Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev — led to an immediate outpouring of dismay from online critics, outrage that has now led to real-world consequences. New England–based CVS Pharmacy, its parent company Walgreens, and Massachusetts’s Tedeschi Food Shops have all decided not to stock the issue out of respect for the victims of the attack, while Boston Mayor Thomas Menino followed up with a strongly worded letter to publisher Jann Wenner. “Your August 3 cover rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment,” he wrote. “It is ill-conceived, at best, and re-affirms a terrible message that destruction gains fame for killer and their ‘causes.’” Menino is right — and so far, the magazine has skirted the issue by defending the story rather than the cover.
Defenders have pointed out that Rolling Stone put Charles Manson on its cover in 1970, but anyone who doesn’t think the Manson family was glorified in popular culture hasn’t been paying attention. In the decades since, Rolling Stone has opted to stick almost exclusively with celebrity covers, relegating its often amazing, in-depth journalism inside. For example, the issue featuring the article that led to the resignation of General Stanley McChrystal featured Lady Gaga on its cover in a thong (with twin machine guns). That’s the context within which this image is received by the reader.
While the disarming image of Tsarnaev may fit the narrative of “normal teen to terrorist” — “By depicting a terrorist as sweet and handsome rather than ugly and terrifying, Rolling Stone has subverted our expectations,” Slate argues in a Slate-y defense — it’s also, knowingly or not, a nod to the well-publicized #FreeJahar cult, which emphasizes his boyish good looks and regular-dude interests.
Both Slate and Politico have pointed to magazines like Time depicting Hitler, bin Laden, and the Columbine killers on their covers, but in all of those cases the context is different: As with the New York Times, which ran the same photo of Tsarnaev months earlier, we’re used to seeing news images in those spaces. Rolling Stone covers are, as a rule, sexy, and usually from an exclusive photo shoot meant to make the subject look as desirable as possible. There’s no denying that its a beautiful, striking image, but that’s the problem — it could easily be a classic shot of Jim Morrison or Bob Dylan. Would a less glamorous photo have gotten the same treatment?
Mostly overshadowed by the controversy is the actual article, “Jahar’s World” by Janet Reitman, which is now available online. Interviews with “friends, teachers and coaches still reeling from the shock,” she writes, reveal “a portrait of a boy who glided through life, showing virtually no signs of anger, let alone radical political ideology or any kind of deeply felt religious beliefs.” That’s the boy on the cover, but it’s not the whole story.
This post has been updated throughout.