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Rolling Stone’s New Heartthrob

With the latest issue of Rolling Stone, the magazine’s editors have achieved exactly what they set out to: they have generated an incredible amount of buzz. The cover image, a “Tiger Beat” rendering of a photo of the youngest Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, resembles images that Rolling Stone has used in the past for male rock stars like The Doors’ Jim Morrison. “Sultry eyes burn into the camera lens from behind tousled curls,” is how the Associated Press describes the headshot.

Hosts of every major talk show and countless blogs have spent a considerable amount of time discussing their cover story, with the image splashed across millions of screens nationwide. Anyone with experience in PR knows that it’s easier to create buzz with controversy than with thoughtful, measured pieces–a fact of which Rolling Stone is clearly well aware.

Several chains, including Walgreens and CVS, have decided not to carry this month’s issue of Rolling Stone based solely on its cover image, though the accompanying story is as sympathetic as one might expect. Here are some of the ways Rolling Stone describes the terrorist:

People in Cambridge thought of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – “Jahar” to his friends – as a beautiful, tousle-haired boy with a gentle demeanor, soulful brown eyes and the kind of shy, laid-back manner that “made him that dude you could always just vibe with,” one friend says.

Jahar, on the other hand, was the baby, his mother’s “dwog,” or “heart.” “He looked like an angel,” says Anna, and was called “Jo-Jo” or “Ho.”

“He was just, like, this nice, calm, compliant, pillow-soft kid. My mom would always say, ‘Why can’t you talk to me the way Dzhokhar talks to his mother?'”

Jahar, or “Jizz,” as his friends also called him, wore grungy Pumas, had a great three-point shot… A diligent student, he was nominated to the National Honor Society in his sophomore year, which was also when he joined the wrestling team. “He was one of those kids who’s just a natural,” says Payack, his coach, who recalls Jahar as a supportive teammate who endured grueling workouts and runs without a single complaint. In his junior year, the team made him a captain.

You get the idea. Those descriptions come from just the first two of the five pages dedicated to the individual that planted backpacks packed with pressure cookers filled with shrapnel designed to kill and maim as many innocent bystanders as possible at a sporting event. 

While many have accused the stores of censorship, a local Boston-area chain explained why they wouldn’t be giving Rolling Stone shelf space this month either: “Tedeschi Food Shops supports the need to share the news with everyone, but cannot support actions that serve to glorify the evil actions of anyone. With that being said, we will not be carrying this issue of Rolling Stone. Music and terrorism don’t mix!”

We’ve seen similar extreme tactics from magazines that were in their death throes in the past, Newsweek being the most recent example. While it’s not clear why Rolling Stone has stooped to this level, if indeed their bottom line demands it, the cover and the attached story are clearly an attempt to generate publicity, not well balanced or rational conversation on what led Tsarnaev to commit mass murder. In the end this sensationalism in the place of journalism was what helped ensure the demise of Newsweek‘s print edition.

If Rolling Stone were interested in “serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day” (as their statement on the cover story claims), less ink would be devoted to the family’s financial and emotional adjustment problems in the United States. Scant mention is made of the radical mosque that Tsarnaev attended that had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadists. Rolling Stone makes little effort to inform its readers on the roots of the terrorism that led to carnage in Boston or memorialize those lost.

Jeff Bauman, a young man who lost both legs in the blast and whose image became iconically linked to the attack, has been fitted with prosthetic legs and has made extraordinary progress in learning to walk again. Bauman, or any number of other victims, deserves the recognition that a Rolling Stone cover would offer before the man who placed a bomb next to him, a now deceased 8-year old boy, or his maimed sister. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino rightly stated today in a letter to the publisher of Rolling Stone, “The survivors of the Boston attacks deserve Rolling Stone cover stories, though I no longer feel Rolling Stone deserves them.”



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