A few days ago, I got my mail after getting home from work, as I always do. And I was excited to find my issue of “Rolling Stone” had arrived. My excitement tripled when I saw the cover. It was the Boston bomber, which meant that inside was one of those fantastic stories, the quality of which I seem to only be able to find in “Rolling Stone” and “Esquire.”
I promptly changed into shorts and a tank, went outside, and read the story.
At the end of it, I was feeling, of all things, appreciative. I can’t imagine how difficult that story must have been to write for reporter Janet Reitman. She got herself in with the friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, called Jahar by his buddies and teachers. These friends were being questioned by the FBI about this man, this boy, they knew as a jokester, a pothead, a sweet guy, a wrestler. I was floored at the tone of the story, which was entirely nonjudgmental. Writing like that, journalistically, about a man who bombed the Boston Marathon, could not have been easy. (Yes, the final line in the story editorializes a bit. But it’s a doozy of a final line, and spot-on.)
I sent a tweet out to Rolling Stone thanking them for their wonderful journalism, and I started to look around at what else had been said about the cover. And stupid me, I was surprised at the reaction. Just do a search for “Rolling Stone,” you’ll find them. People are angry at the “rock star” treatment of his person, and they are shaming the magazine for choosing to run with … that particular photo? The story in general? It depends what you read.
I’ve discussed the issues with friends, in person and on Facebook, and my opinions boil down to this: No, of course I didn’t think Jahar got rock star treatment. I suppose if you look at the cover and don’t read the story — or heck, even the coverline that calls him a monster, which is not exactly the stuff compliments are made of — it might look like he’s a rock star: He does bare an uncanny resemblance to a young Bob Dylan. But that’s what the guy looks like. He’s a cutie. Not all bombers and bad people are pock marked and hunched.
But the story … it’s honest. It’s what I as a reader have been wanting to read. It’s thorough. It tells us about how Jahar and his family moved to the States from Chechnya, and how his parents moved back recently. It tells us how Jahar did in school, and how close he was to his wrestling coach. It’s easy to want to vilify a villain, but before he bombed a marathon, Jahar was just a teenager who appears to have been heavily influenced by a radical older brother in a culture where the oldest brother is akin to a god.
The story doesn’t sympathize with Jahar. It just tells a story. And for a music magazine that prides itself on its exposes, it was the right story to tell.
In the online version of the story, Reitman actually added a disclaimer explaining the magazine’s thought process in featuring Jahar. It’s not sensational. It’s not shock and awe. It’s just a magazine that reports on political and cultural topics doing just that. Even if you are judging this entire issue by a photo and nothing else, and even if you have no interest in reading Reitman’s full story, her disclaimer will take 10 seconds of your life, and it’s worth your time.
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Update: Turns out, Rolling Stone wasn’t the first major publication to use the photo to grace its cover.