July 19, 2013

The Rolling Stone Uproar

August 1, 2013, Rolling Stone cover
I am appalled by the reaction to the cover photo of Boston bomber suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev published by Rolling Stone. The objection seems to be that the cover photo makes Tsarnaev look handsome. (I’m not personally impressed, but some seem to find the photo sexy and, therefore, objectionable.) Rolling Stone is hardly glorifying Tsarnaev, however. The photo is labeled “THE BOMBER,” with a subtitle “How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster”—not the stuff of hagiography!

On the radio today, I heard people saying that Rolling Stone should have printed pictures of the damage done by the Boston bombing, not pictures of a perpetrator. Apparently, these folks believe there is only one way to cover this story—their way, of course—and covering it any other way is shameful, unpatriotic, making the bombers heroes, etc. These people need to read and contemplate the implications of the First Amendment.

Rolling Stone introduces the cover story on its Web site with this perfectly reasonable introduction:
Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families. The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens. –THE EDITORS
Of course, those who are indignant over the Rolling Stone cover are unlikely to have read the story, much less the editorial justification for it. (In a perfect world—even in a somewhat less defective world—such an explanation would be totally unnecessary.) The editors are right in thinking that their story is all the more important because Dzhokhar Tsarnaev looks so normal. That he doesn’t look like a mad bomber begs for an explanation of what went so horribly wrong in his short life.

I cannot be too upset at the hand-wringing by those always on the lookout for the next imagined journalistic faux pas about which to be outraged. What I am very upset about is the number big retailers who, in a paroxysm of self-righteousness (or monumental cowardice), have announced that they will not sell the August 1 issue of Rolling Stone. Among those retailers are 7-Eleven, CVS Pharmacy, Walgreens, Kmart, Rite Aid Pharmacy, and a local supermarket chain, Giant Eagle (details here). I don’t actually plan to boycott any of these merchants, but I would like them to know that I don’t like their censoring what magazines I have access to. Others should do the same.

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