This month, Rolling Stone magazine has put Boston marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsaranaev on its cover.
Let’s talk about that.
The cover has made a lot of people decidedly uneasy. Some are outraged. Some have defended the magazine for their investigative journalism. Few have no opinion.
The cover story is a several-page feature on Dzhokhar ‘Jahar’ Tsarnaev’s journey from well-liked teen to terrorist, via pot dealing, college and radicalised Islam. It’s an interesting piece, and writer Janet Reitman has certainly done her research. Rolling Stone’s editors have defended the cover in a note preceding the article:
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 Boston bombing may reflect one of the most important cultural issues of our day; but very few people are criticising the piece itself. Rather, it’s the cover that presents the problem. My issue is not with the fact that they put Tsarnaev on the cover, but how. There are a number of things that make me uncomfortable about it.
Let’s consider the image first. Hundreds of column inches have already been spent on analysing the grainy, camera-phone quality photo. Taking a picture of yourself enables you to control the image; it’s uncomfortable because it allows Tsarnaev some power over how we perceive him. Because of that, it’s an appropriate image for the piece. When you’re telling the story of a young man growing up, a selfie – the self-portrait every teen with a smart phone has taken at least once – shows him to be the boy next door. It’s shocking because he looks so ordinary (‘dreamy’ is the word that’s being used a lot), which is the where the investigation begins. The decision to choose a photo that disquiets the audience is, I think, a valid one.
I’ve more of an issue with how the photo is presented – how it’s framed by the layout of the cover. The main argument that people have used to defend the cover is that the photo has already been used on the front page of several major national newspapers. At best, this argument is ill thought through. Rolling Stone, though it deals with news, is not a newspaper. The front page of a newspaper is not, I would argue, a glamorous place. Cover ‘stars’ can be anyone from sports heroes to suspected paedophiles to disaster zones. There is no category into which all of these can be sorted. Sometimes they’re not even people.
The claim that few people have complained about the coverage given to other suspected murderers has been repeated a lot recently. This strikes me as rather disingenuous, because it plainly isn’t true. Plenty of people have condemned the obsession with the perpetrators of tragedies such as the Columbine and Aurora shootings. I don’t know how many people complained when the Columbine shooters appeared on the cover of Time magazine, but that’s not something I’d condone either. In March 2009 Charlie Brooker spoke about the coverage of school shootings on an episode of Newswipe, which went viral after the Newton tragedy:
Boston’s city council president, Stephen Murphy, said that Rolling Stone was guilty of “marketing Tsarnaev as a hero”. Writing for Indy Voices, David Hepworth responded by saying that the reaction “underlines how people have come to regard an appearance on a magazine cover as an automatic endorsement”. I don’t wholly agree with either view. “Hero”, no. Antihero, maybe.
The cover star of a major magazine doesn’t have to be a hero, but they do have to be glamorous. Here are a few covers from the last year:
Film maker, actor, pop superstar, American president… all of Rolling Stone’s cover stars are glamorous in some way. All are celebrated for their talent or achievements. All of them have something that’s widely coveted – money, fame, sex appeal, a TV show, millions of adoring fans and, most importantly, power. Whether it’s political power or pop culture celebrity, all are in the position to influence a huge number of people.
Now let’s consider the aesthetics of the magazine. There’s the background – usually plain, so that it doesn’t detract from the subject. In the few instances where there’s a more elaborate backdrop, it’s in order to add something to the story. Barack Obama sits in an office with the American flag hanging in the background ahead of the presidential elections; Katy Perry on a bed in her underwear to show how what a sexy “fallen angel” (eurgh) she is; and Tina Fey and co. flying through the air to show what Big Damn Heroes they are for making 30 Rock. Tsarnaev’s backdrop remains the wall of his bedroom, rather than the block-colour Photoshop background used for most issues.
The positioning of the subject is also important (side note: there would be some interesting points to raise on how men and women are presented, but that’s one for another day). The majority of cover stars face straight to camera, and many are the same kind of head-and-shoulders shot used for Tsarnaev. There are several more examples here if you fancy browsing.
So Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appears in pretty much the model Rolling Stone cover format – that of an icon. Is that what we want him to become? I don’t.
Worse still is the headline. What’s another way to make someone into an icon? Give them a title. ‘The Bomber’ – the man who achieved infamy by detonating a bomb that killed three and injured hundreds. It seems to me an incredibly dangerous thing to do.
With all this in mind, Andy Cowles has written a really interesting blog post entitled ‘Why the picture’s not the problem’ about how the cover could have been done. As former Art Director of Rolling Stone, he’s able to offer a good insight into how these things are done and the options the editorial team had. He talks about the importance of using design to create ‘creative distance’ – something I agree with wholeheartedly. I’d recommend taking a look.
One thing remains undisputed: Rolling Stone set out with an aim – to create a buzz and sell magazines. That, it’s achieved very well. If only it had done it a little differently.