Rolling Stone magazine was founded more than 40 years ago at the height of the counterculture movement and last week injected itself into the national conversation in a way it hadn’t since the 1970s with its decision to put suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of its most recent issue.
There have been howls of indignation from across the political spectrum over the 19-year-old, tousle-haired undergraduate landing on a cover that has previously enshrined the likes of John Lennon and Lady Gaga. Some chain stores that usually stock Rolling Stone, such as Rite Aid and Walgreen’s, have said they won’t be displaying this issue on their shelves, arguing that it shines a sympathetic spotlight on an accused terrorist and disrespects the families of those who were killed in the April 15 attack and those who are still struggling with debilitating injuries.
Will Dana, the managing editor of Rolling Stone, responded that the magazine was not attempting to glamorize or endorse Tsarnaev’s alleged crimes, and that journalism’s purpose “is to understand, explicate and confront. In this case, we set out to explore why this young man … would turn to the dark side.”
First, let it be said that the article on Tsarnaev, penned by investigative reporter Janet Reitman, is a deeply-reported, insightful piece on the tortured path that apparently led Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who was killed in a getaway attempt, to fall under the spell of radical Islam and plant explosive devices at the race’s finish line. It’s part of a long line of solid journalism Rolling Stone has produced over the years; though its emphasis has traditionally been on music and pop culture, Rolling Stone has also been a home to top-notch journalists like Joe Klein, William Greider and Timothy Crouse, who have delivered penetrating reporting on society and politics. Unlike such newsstand brethren as People and Us, it doesn’t subsist entirely on “baby bumps” and a glut of photos of celebrities taking their offspring out for ice cream.
And, like many publications in a rapidly shifting media landscape, Rolling Stone is eager to grab eyeballs and create that precious, elusive commodity known as “buzz.” Its editors must have realized that putting the younger Tsarnaev out front, whom they noted was about the same age as their target readership, would set tongues wagging.
While we obviously don’t advocate censorship and revel in good journalism no matter the source, those who feel squeamish about Tsarnaev being placed on Rolling Stone’s cover are not out of line. The magazine’s cover carries a special symbolic and cultural heft – Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show notched a hit in 1973 with a Shel Silverstein song about seeing their “smiling face on the cover of the Rolling Stone.” If you make the cover of Rolling Stone, you have well and truly made it.
We wonder if, sitting in his jail cell, Tsarnaev feels a special sense of satisfaction at being a Rolling Stone cover boy and having his life dissected on its inside pages. Does he hope that someone out there “buys five copies for his mother,” like the song suggested?
We also worry that a malcontent who’s suffering from delusions or hounded by demons will draw inspiration by seeing Tsarnaev on Rolling Stone’s cover. Perpetrators of many high-profile crimes in recent decades have often been driven not only by their own obscure, inexplicable grudges, but also by a desire to have the world, at long last, sit up and take notice of them. Is there someone out there right now who is looking at Rolling Stone and thinking about what monstrous act they could commit to get on its cover?
We hope not.