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editorial

Rolling Stone controversy: Not every image is a celebration

The cover of the Aug. 1 issue of Rolling Stone.

Reuters

The cover of the Aug. 1 issue of Rolling Stone.

ADOLF HITLER, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Charles Manson are among the killers whose faces have appeared on the covers of major English-language magazines, and no one should conclude that a publication’s decision to examine the backgrounds, views, or deeds of these individuals is in any way a celebration of them. Rolling Stone magazine’s decision to publish a long story about Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in its upcoming issue, and to feature an image of him on the cover, should be interpreted primarily in this context. The story, which was posted online Wednesday, represents a major commitment of time and energy, and it appears to provide some new details about Tsarnaev’s background. So it’s worthy of prominent play in the magazine and of broader public attention.

Rolling Stone grew out of a 1960s-era alternative news movement that combined intense coverage of music and the arts with hard-hitting coverage of current events. Most recently, the magazine’s scorching 2010 profile of General Stanley McChrystal led to the Afghanistan commander’s downfall. Yet because the reading public has long known Rolling Stone primarily for its music and entertainment coverage, many Bostonians are understandably concerned that the magazine is giving the bombing suspect a celebrity treatment he doesn’t deserve.

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Most Rolling Stone covers do, in fact, depict celebrities in a flattering manner. Had the magazine been more self-aware, it might not have chosen a cover photo in which Tsarnaev wears a mop of unkempt hair and a brooding expression — much as musicians like Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, and Bob Dylan have on countless previous covers of Rolling Stone. In the photo, Tsarnaev looks less like a murderer than a shaggy troubadour in what appears to be an Armani Exchange T-shirt.

Making matters worse, the magazine’s advance hype for the story — “a riveting and heartbreaking account of how a charming kid with a bright future became a monster” — hinted at a somewhat more sympathetic portrayal of Tsarnaev than many readers might expect.

Then again, the cover also identifies him as a bomber — going farther in asserting Tsarnaev’s guilt than the criminal justice system has at this point. All of which suggests that Rolling Stone is better at trying to create buzz than at recognizing the sensitivity of a recent incident that led to four Boston-area residents’ deaths and inflicted horrifying injuries on many more. Still, readers shouldn’t assume that a cover story about a suspected evildoer represents an attempt to glamorize him. This issue of Rolling Stone should be judged not by its cover, but on the information that it brings to the public record.

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