Tsarnaev cover: Poorly played, Rolling Stone, poorly played

The cover of the Aug.1 issue of Rolling Stone magazine fails because it simultaneously broke the magazine’s traditions while being typical of them.

130723TsarnaevRSYes, I am a little late to this party as the release of the cover coincided with a scheduled long weekend. But during that time I have been processing a lot of the arguments pro and con about the cover featuring accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev looking like a dreamy indie rock star.

And I totally get the point made by Rolling managing editor Will Dana who told NPR the image was illustrating Janet Reitman’s inside story about how a, “seemingly normal, well-adjusted guy who appeared to be on a path — if not to achievement — at least to success” turned into “a monster.” That question started stirring in my head the morning of the Boston area lockdown as police hunted for Tsarnaev, and Here and Now host Robin Young was on on NBC talking about how her nephew was friends with Tsarnaev and he seemed like a normal Boston-area teen.

How do the seemingly normal, nice kids in our lives go astray?

I have just read a bit into Reitman’s story, and it is compelling, starting with the fact that Tsarnaev’s high school wrestling coach sustained a serious injury at the bombing, losing half of his hearing.

“To think that a kid we mentored and loved like a son could be responsible for all this death,” he says in the story, “It was beyond shocking. It was like an alternative reality.”

It is the kind of journalism I expect from Rolling Stone. People who have said Rolling Stone doesn’t usually do stories like this show they just don’t know Rolling Stone. It has a long, sustained track record of excellent, in-depth reporting, often on stories no one else is covering. It is a sad irony that the page before Reitman’s Tsarnaev story is an obituary for Michael Hastings, the Rolling Stone reporter whose 2010 profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal was one of the most consequential news stories of the last few years.

But the cover of Rolling Stone is a different story.

It is generally a place for pop icons from legends to flavors-of-the-month photographed, sometimes provocatively, by some of the elite photographers of the day — shooters like Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger made their careers shooting for Stone. (The issue with the McChrystal article had Lady Gaga in her machine gun bra on the cover, which also caused quite a bit of controversy.) And generally, these are people the magazine seems to have an affinity for; A few days before the Tsarnaev cover appeared, I was contemplating that Stone had once again put Johnny Depp, one of their favorites, on the cover even though his Lone Ranger movie was DOA.

The cover of Stone has long been prized real estate for rising stars, an achievement that signifies the star has made it. That is even evidenced by Stone itself, which has recently run several cover contests for emerging artists. It is fair to argue that Stone has just given their vaunted editorial space away to a guy who is famous because he’s an accused terrorist.

Interested in checking out my perception, I called up a few galleries of Rolling Stone covers. The most recent one I could find of a negative, non-pop culture story was the Sept. 13, 2012 issue featuring Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who the magazine did not like, in an illustration that made him look like a robber baron with the headline “Greed & Debt.”  Clearly, this story would not be kind to the candidate.

But the message is much more muddled in the Tsarnaev cover, prompting people to wonder what exactly the magazine is trying to say about Tsarnaev. Yes, I know, read the story. But that ignores the fact that the cover is a huge statement in-and-of itself.

A lot of defensive responses have said that the photo, a self, portrait by Tsarnaev taken before the bombings, has been featured elsewhere and pictures of Tsarnaev have been on the covers of other publications such as The New York Times. But the Times and other outlets such as Time magazine are primarily news outlets that have probably had every noteworthy miscreant of the last century on their covers. We do not take their covers as endorsements.

That has not been Rolling Stone’s modus operandi, at least in the last few decades.

And this cover does make the accused bomber look right in line with the pop stars it has featured over the decades.

If the magazine had wanted to highlight its extensive story on Tsarnaev, there were other images it could have used that were more real, and less glamorous.

As it is, Stone’s Tsarnaev cover raises more questions about the magazine itself than the ones it hoped to raise about Tsarnaev.

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