Reactions to the Rolling Stone Cover Controversy
We can be angry about the photo, but it underscores an important context.
July 16th started out the way all my weekday mornings have this summer. I got up, got in my car, and turned the radio dial to 93.7, home of the Dennis & Callahan Morning Show. I can’t say that I’m ever particularly motivated to tune in, and the All-Star Game had been one of those low-scoring, pitching premium affairs that would have been more impressive had it been done by one pitcher. Nonetheless, I tuned into 93.7 because there is a quintessential Bostonian— even American— joy at hearing hot-heads yell over each other in a live format. Except the subject this morning wasn’t sports, it was a castigation of the Rolling Stone editorial staff.
I’m no big fan of Rolling Stone nowadays; I understand what it signifies— somehow the last vestige of “mainstream music journalism”— and have seen the many articles that make even a Massachusetts liberal blush. The reviews, once a bastion of Questlove’s musical upbringing, have simply become a “5 stars to the highest bidder” format. Yet they have—on brief occasions—published rather brilliant articles like the late Michael Hastings’ “The Runaway General” the stuff of journalistic legend, able to compel action out of the highest office in the land.
Gerry Callahan, one of the namesakes of the WEEI morning show, has a much simpler definition for the much maligned magazine, “a worthless left wing rag,” a stance that he’s entitled to. He’s also been clear about his feelings for the accused Boston Marathon Bomber, Dzhokhar “Jahar” Tsarnaev:”scum of the earth,” “dirtbag,” “piece of filth,” about everything you can get away with saying without the FCC knocking on your door. He—as do we all— has a right to be angry; the horrific events on April 15th and 19th shook Boston to its core, resulting in 4 dead and 260 wounded. And thanks to a copious amount of evidence, only an inexplicable few think that Tsarnaev could possibly be innocent.
The famous Benjamin Franklin quote “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither” is not just a libertarian codpiece, it holds an important lesson. Too often in the heat of tragedy our passion for “justice” strips the very codes we live by. Whatever the article said—unless it was inciting genocide or hate crimes— it had the right to say it, even if it was in bad taste. Whatever horrific crimes Tsarnaev may have committed, he had the right to be presumed innocent, at least in public writing, until proven guilty.
Without reading the article—which Callahan later says he has— Callahan and company immediately targeted the content as giving sympathy to something that needs none. In a later editorial, Dennis & Callahan compatriot Kirk Minihane likened Rolling Stone’s motivations as being “done for profit and buzz only. They used the murder of four people to trend on Twitter.” They felt outraged that an alleged terrorist was being “glorified”.
At least in part, I hazard to agree with them. Cover story or not, Rolling Stone shouldn’t have put Tsarnaev as the cover photo. I don’t think it would be fair to the victims, and this is a magazine that tends to flaunt the ideal of making the cover, not a place for a re-sized “selfie.” However, I’m not entirely convinced of the “glamorization” argument. Even a cursory Google image search doesn’t turn up a photo relatively unflattering of the accused. This line of reasoning also ignores the responsibility of the audience. Do we not have a responsibility to recognize Rolling Stone’s intent? Was “Monster” not a strong enough lede?
That was a choice that Rolling Stone had the right to make, and one that will probably make their sales suffer if the relative New England-centric ban is any indication. But like it or not, it’s a story that many wanted to hear. I’ve read “Jahar’s World,” and it’s far from glorifying him—or making him a passive victim; Janet Reitman did her homework.
Most journalists follow one of the basic tenets of journalism: explain the who, what, where, when, preferably in as short a word count as possible. Investigative journalists have to dig at the how and why, the curious bystander and someone in the know.
Janet Reitman didn’t touch on Jahar’s human side to “lay out the case for the defense”, she did it as proof positive for how inexplicable the event was. With it, she explained the importance of one’s family.
That sense of camaraderie was Boston’s trump card. In the minutes following the horrific blast when my roommate and I made our way to Commonwealth Avenue, that strength became self-evident. In the chaos of looking for loved ones strangers connected, they gave water to the confused Marathon runners, comforting hugs, some even lent out their cell phones.
When my roommate heard the first reports of Sean Collier’s untimely death, he ran across the Harvard Bridge with little more than his iPhone to the scene. He wasn’t looking for a quick buzz-worthy story, he was looking to provide answers to a stunned public. This journalistic devotion, the quest for who, what, where, and when led him to be one of the first journalists at the scene in Watertown, where first responders engaged in a heroic standoff against two men who were considerably armed.
We don’t need to read some byline about how Boston persevered, we were there. We didn’t need to exploit the deaths of Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu, Martin Richard, or Sean Collier, or the countless injuries, physical and mental, because we already knew, and their families and friends had already suffered enough pain to last a lifetime.
That Rolling Stone and Reitman wrote a story about the still-living accused Marathon bomber didn’t come out of a desire for buzz, it came out of a hope to help understand what drove Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to commit such a horrific act, to go from being an immigrant with promise to “a piece of filth,” a “monster.”
After the events of 9/11, we stuck together, emboldened that in the light of tragedy, the American way would get us through. And as a war raged on thousands of miles away we thought “never again.” Despite our hopes, the world is contrary and unpredictable. We could plunge into a thousand what-ifs that could have prevented this from happening, but it did happen, we got through it, we persevered.
After the news of Dzhokhar’s capture, I joined many of my college peers who were walking through the streets for a celebration on the Boston Common. What had been stunned faces and tears of sorrow had turned into smiles and tears of joy and chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A”. I made sure to walk up to every police officer I saw that night, look them in the eye, offer them my hand, and say thank you.
I can’t pretend to think that makes everything better, nor can I pretend that terrorism is forever a faceless enemy I will never have to see. While on the streets of Boston I could have walked by Sean Collier, or Richard Donahue, or Jeff Bauman, or even Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, blissfully unaware that all our lives would be changed in an instant.
We might never fully understand the human psyche, but as much as we are guilty of “rubber-necking” when we’re passing by an accident on the highway, we can’t help but hope for an explanation of why and how during the most tragic and stunning occurrences. Truth is, we like to know there is some semblance of order in a world where there is often none. It’s the reason that we look for conspiracy in the Lincoln & Kennedy assassinations, and 9/11. It’s also one of the most ignoble truths of journalism.