When Rolling Stone’s upcoming August 3rd cover sprang up repeatedly on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, I was understandably shocked. The grainy and hazy face of one of the brothers behind the Boston Marathon bombing stared back at me from my computer screen. Within hours of the release of the cover, Boston’s Mayor Menino released a letter addressed to the magazine’s publisher denouncing the glossy for its sensationalism. Menino wrote, “The survivors of the Boston attacks deserve Rolling Stone cover stories, though I no longer feel that Rolling Stone deserves them.” I write this next sentence fully aware I’ll probably piss some people off, friends even, but what the hell. Mayor Menino’s statement was at best premature (written and published prior to the release of the whole feature article, as Menino acknowledges), but I also think it was plain wrong. Bostonians deserve Rolling Stone, a magazine that was bold enough to publish a well-researched, nuanced piece of investigative journalism that sheds just a little light on a senseless tragedy and market it with a cover that subverts our expectations.
On April 15th, I joined some of my college friends in cheering on a student running in the Boston Marathon. I stood next to a police officer on a street that runs parallel to Boylston, waiting eagerly to jump into the stream of sweaty, moving bodies for the last mile in support. The first loud pop went largely unnoticed, and the second prompted the police officer to ask me and my friend if we’d heard something. Yeah, we had. Sirens wailed, officers sprinted down crowded sidewalks and jumped into swerving cop cars like action movie heros. My friend and I ran too, through unaware spectators and straight into another frantic group of close friends that had been watching from near the finish line. They wore evidence of the tragedy on them, and it still pains me to picture it. I spent the rest of that week in a daze, vaguely fearful and utterly anxious. The morning of April 19th, I sat in my dorm room absorbed by a manhunt being broadcasted live, and that night I foolishly sang “Sweet Caroline” on the Boston Common because it felt good to finally be able to relax. However, the sounds of helicopters and sirens still make my stomach turn, and, until recently, I was still unsatisfied by the lack of context for an event that rocked me and my community deeply.
Unlike many of those outraged over the cover of Rolling Stone, including the creator of the Facebook page Boycott Rolling Stone Magazine for their latest cover, I lived through the chaos that was Marathon Monday. (No, I don’t think that being in Boston at the time elevates my opinion above anyone else’s, but it is a relevant context.) I stayed up almost every night, especially the night of the manhunt, listening to “breaking” news just trying to understand. Now, about three months later, I would like to applaud and thank Rolling Stone for providing a glimmer of understanding.
While Rolling Stone is known for it’s coverage of the music industry, its content is not exclusive to it. Every issue features articles on current events and politics; recent non-music topics include: the California prison hunger strike, the George Zimmerman trial, credit card collection lawsuits, protests against anti-abortion laws, statistics on climate change, FBI nominees, and drone strikes in Yemen. By recent, I mean this month. If that extensive list didn’t make my point, let me spell it out: Rolling Stone publishes *journalism*. You know, like serious, good, thought-provoking journalism!
The magazine has won 14 National Magazine Awards—in the the category of Reporting they won awards for a two-part feature on AIDS in 1986, a story on gender reassignment in 1998, a reporter’s account of time spent with deployed Marines in 2004, and another piece titled “The Man Who Sold War” in 2006. In 1970, they pulled a similar stunt by putting Charles Manson on the cover, and yeah, they also won an award for the feature that accompanied that cover.
I hope those enraged by the image of the Boston Bomber, appropriately labeled in giant block-serif font, have taken the time to read the article written by Janet Reitman (also once nominated for a National Magazine Award). If they had, calamitous reactions may not be endangering the distribution of a fantastic piece of writing. Two months of researching and interviewing went into the final article, which, at 11,315 words, captures the complexity of a teenager who was not born a monster (but certainly became and acted like one) and his family. The article provides context that I think Bostonians deserve, and I’m so disappointed that the buzz of criticism resulted in major retailers like CVS and Walgreens vowing to not put the issue out for sale.
Magazine covers are meant to reflect the feature story, they are meant to get you to pick up the damn thing and READ it. I understand that many who grew up with Rolling Stone when it was in its heyday looked to the magazine’s cover for icons, and a domestic terrorist is not Bob Dylan (did that even need to be said?). But it was a logical choice and appropriately advertises the contents! There was no intentional malice. Let’s also remember that the art staff likely didn’t have many choices of images of Tsarnaev, and has an artistic style which all of its covers abide by, like any magazine. The photograph selected of the Boston Bomber isn’t a monstrous image of a villain, and if it were, there’d likely be less flack. But what does a teenager-turned-radical-terrorist look like? What image of the boy would have been acceptable? One that clearly vilified him? Slate provided an analysis of why the cover is, in fact, brilliant: “The cover presents a stark contrast with our usual image of terrorists. It asks, ‘What did we expect to see in Tsarnaev? What did we hope to see?’ The answer, most likely, is a monster, a brutish dolt with outward manifestations of evil. What we get instead, however, is the most alarming sight of all: a boy who looks like someone we might know.” And it’s this subversion of expectations that appropriately reflects a story about a boy no one could have guessed was capable of doing what he did! Is it a sensational cover? Yes. But does the fact that the image (which has been widely used by the media and was on the front page of The New York Times) has the iconic overlay of Rolling Stone’s red logo instead of, say, Time’s red logo make it offensive? In my opinion, no. Furthermore, is controversy grounds for suppressing the distribution of something that is otherwise valuable? Heck no!
In a society that thrives on 140-character messages and skimming, it’s not hard to imagine that few would bother making it through the first couple paragraphs of a feature article that’s over 10,000 words long. Though the article is available in full online, denying the Rolling Stone space on a newsstand for a controversial cover is irresponsible. That cover advertises an exquisite piece of journalism that deserves to be read. And I hope that, regardless of personal feelings, those with an interest in gaining further insight into the biggest act of domestic terrorism in recent history will take the time to read it.