When I first saw the photos of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I was on the way to Boston with my daughter on our first trip to tour colleges. We never made it to Boston. Frightened at the attack and saddened by the losses, we diverted to Rhode Island, where we were transfixed by the manhunt. I couldn’t bear the photos. This beautiful boy with soft curly hair and soulful eyes looking at me. How could he have performed an act of such horror and destruction? He could be my son, my son’s friend, my daughter’s boyfriend. A boy poised on the brink of manhood, on the brink of his unique life journey. But he went terribly wrong. How? Why? What made him face his array of possible paths and choose the violent one? What drove him to feel so angry and hopeless, so angry and determined, that bombing innocent people made sense to him?
When the May 5th issue of the Sunday New York Times arrived with the photo of Tsarnaev on the cover, I couldn’t leave it lying around the house. I read the article and then slid the front section with his photo, those eyes looking at me, under a pile of other newspapers in the recycling bin. I couldn’t stand to look at his young face. I wanted to hate him, as I hate the terrorists who attacked us on September 11th. The profile that was emerging was of a young man who was a chameleon, moving quietly among different social circles, well-liked, compliant, private, unknowable. As grown up life got more challenging and confusing, he seems to have been influenced by his brother and other extreme influences, inciting his anger and demanding his loyalty. For someone without direction, it must have felt good to feel close to the brother he revered and to have a sense of purpose. Even an awful purpose.
Two months went by and those of us not directly affected by the bombing went on with our lives. Then that photo showed up again. The same photo we all saw on television, the internet, and on the cover of the New York Times, but this time Dzhokhar Tsarnaev made the cover of Rolling Stone, with his rock star nickname Jahar. Same photo. New context. Rolling Stone, the iconic magazine that confers rock star status with its iconic cover images. The magazine with songs written about its power and glamour. How dare they put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover, recalling young Bob Dylan or Jim Morrison with their moody and handsome good looks? My gut reaction was, and is, outrage – even after I’ve calmed down, read all the articles, and digested all the arguments defending journalism and free speech.
Having spent my entire career in the magazine industry, selling magazines, I know how impactful the cover is for branding and for selling copies. A strong-selling cover can make a hugely significant difference in the profitability of a magazine. Frankly, a compelling cover with important editorial content is what magazines are all about and why I love them. I could imagine the meetings at Rolling Stone. The excitement building. It’s a gripping story. It has some new quotes from friends and classmates. Published in a timely way, just as Dzhokhar is pleading not guilty and back in the news. The editor is under pressure to sell copies. Magazines are under pressure to be relevant. And who is going to say no to Jann Wenner? I wonder how much they anticipated the backlash or whether they were beguiled by the thrill of knowing they had a story that would provoke tremendous publicity and sell a lot of copies? I wonder if they considered putting an unflattering image of Tsarnaev on the cover? An image vilifying Tsarnaev, like Sgt. Murphy’s now famous photo, might have gotten the same media attention and would have changed the context from rock star to anti-hero. Now that would have taken guts.
If I worked at Rolling Stone, would I have gotten pulled into the excitement and optimism about having a provocative cover that would get attention and sell copies? Would I have jumped on the bandwagon disparaging CVS and Walgreen’s for being cowards and refusing to sell the issue? Or would I have had the nerve to say no to Jann Wenner? Urged him to anticipate the understandably righteous indignation of Boston and the friends and family of the victims? Insisted that the cover malign Dzhokhar not glorify Jahar? Suggested that he put Jay-Z or Willie Nelson or Robin Thicke on the cover and Tsarnaev in a smaller inset? Always able to see both sides of every argument and eager to be accepted into the inner circle, I suspect that I would have suppressed any misgivings and gone along with the collective corporate enthusiasm for a major piece of relevant long form journalism.
If the accused bomber looked more like what I have come to imagine a terrorist looking like, post 9/11, a bearded and menacing 20-something middle eastern man, would Rolling Stone have put him on the cover? I doubt it. It’s the image of a western-looking youth that is so jarring. It is easier to hate someone who looks and lives so differently from us. It is more deeply disturbing when it is the boy who lives next door. Perhaps that is the point Rolling Stone was trying to make. Mocking us for our racial profiling. Demanding that we look at our assumptions about what evil looks like. The magazine certainly achieved publicity, traffic, clicks, and sales through provoking controversy. After deep reflection, I remain outraged by the cover and mourn the tragedy of it all.