Friday, July 19, 2013

Rolling Stone and the alleged bomber

Rolling Stone has been making a lot of waves in the past couple of days – or at least its cover has. In case you are not aware, the venerable magazine used a (self-)portrait of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its August issue.

Criticism has come from many quarters, most of it seeming to claim that using this image, in this way, on this magazine infuses the image of an alleged bomber (a qualification the main coverline overlooks) with too much glamour. Some newsagents and chains have refused to sell this issue.

Rolling Stone has used many contentious, and possibly glamourising, cover images in the past, perhaps most memorably Charles Manson:

For what it is worth, I think Rolling Stone was as right to use the Tsarnaev image in this way as it was to run the story about General Stanley McChrystal:

There is an easy response to those who think the image glamourises Tsarnaev – what are potential terrorists supposed to look like? Not all of them are wild-eyed, or balding, or scarred; some are just like you and me. They could be the kids in your class, teacher.

There may, however, be an argument about how the cover was art directed, and former RS art director Andy Cowles has considered that on his Coverthink blog.

Magazine heavyweight David Hepworth has also contributed to the debate (cunningly citing one of his own apothegms as "magazine lore") for the Independent.

There are a couple of really interesting magazine-cultural points in Hepworth's piece:

1) 'people have come to regard an appearance on a magazine cover as an automatic endorsement.'2) 'heroism is something the magazine format itself lends to any subject it places in its frame, which is why musicians, actors, sports stars and even politicians hire PRs to “get them the cover” (and nothing less), and at the same time to exert as much control over the tone of the picture as they can.'

In the end, however, Rolling Stone's apologia seems entirely convincing:

The cover story we are publishing this week falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day. The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens. 
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