Rolling Stone’s ‘The Bomber,’ America and that prickly First Amendment

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Boston Marathon bombing suspect, The bomber, Rolling Stone Cover

Rolling Stone’s cover “The Bomber,” which shows Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has sparked anger among the public, many of whom say the magazine was insensitive to bombing victims and their families. (AP Photo/vk.com)

Rolling Stone magazine validated rock journalism at a critical crossroads of the 20th Century and pioneered the legitimacy of pop culture in America.

It gave the world the New Journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, arguably revolutionizing the way politics is reported in the country.

When historians of the next millennium pause to study our time, they could very well rely on Rolling Stone in understanding how a nation could be so galvanized as to peacefully bring down two presidents, transform its laws on race, sex and religion and end wars that in the past could only be done through near annihilation.

Rolling Stone didn’t do this through its journalism or its writers or even its influence. It did it by providing an outlet for voices that couldn’t be read or heard anywhere else in America – voices that could write and say what no other publications would allow – and to basically practice the much ballyhooed First Amendment, which everyone preaches about but few actually will allow to be practiced in its purist form.

Rolling Stone is obviously still doing what it has – trailblazing – in the past as is evident by the outcry, especially in social media, over its cover treatment and glam photo of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, “The Bomber,” who appears on the magazine looking like some “American Idol” winner trying to perhaps imitate the look of a young Bob Dylan.

Outcry over Rolling Stone cover of Boston bombing suspect

Boston Marathon bombing suspect, The bomber, Rolling Stone Cover

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, “The Bomber,” appears on the cover of the Aug. 1, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone. (AP Photo/Wenner Media)

The criticism, especially in the Boston area, charging that the cover portrayal attempts to turn the accused killer into a “rock star,” was so strident and pervasive that Rolling Stone had no choice but to defend itself Wednesday, calling its “The Bomber” cover another example of being within the magazine’s tradition of “serious and thoughtful coverage” of important cultural and political issues.

Politicians like Boston Mayor Thomas Menino have reacted by doing what political hacks always do in these instances – accuse the news media of publishing a controversial story to sell papers.

There have been calls for a boycott of Rolling Stone, and not surprisingly retailers like Walgreens, the CVS pharmacy chain, Roche Bros. groceries, Cumberrland Farms convenience stores and others have announced that they are will not sell copies of the magazine when it goes on sale Friday.

Rolling Stone’s cover, good journalism

Of course, Rolling Stone here is doing nothing more than what good journalism demands at these times:

In 1963, reporters were there trying to understand Lee Harvey Oswald – who he was, what his motivation might have been, who had influenced his thinking – after his arrest in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

In 1968, journalists again were trying to figure out what was behind the mindset of the men who shot Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

In 1981, it was this same kind of dogged reporting that led to learning about the thinking of John Hinckley Jr. and how he had hoped his attempt to kill President Ronald Reagan might win the heart of the then young actress Jodie Foster.

Mass killers and serial killers have been no exception. Rolling Stone and others have reported long and hard on the Boston Strangler, the Night Stalker, the Hillside Strangler, the Zodiac Killer and many more, with some of these newspaper and magazine stories ending up as books and movies that many protested glamorized the sick killers.

This is exactly what Rolling Stone was trying to do in a reporting the story of the alleged Boston bombing suspect in a lengthy piece that relied on interviews with his childhood and high school friends, teachers and neighbors as well law enforcement authorities.

Rolling Stone editors said in a statement that their hearts went out to the victims of the April 15 bombings, but maintained that the story and its cover was an attempt to deal with an important issue.

“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,” the editors said.

Of course, the big turnoff for many of those criticizing Rolling Stone was the cover showing Tsarnaev looking rocker handsome with long, curly hair, mustache, goatee and a dead stare on his face.

But isn’t that the image that has been floating around of Tsarnaev ever since his arrest? Was it touched up? Probably, but likely no more than the mug of New England Patriots’ star quarterback Tom Brady on all those sports magazine covers and his Uggs ads. If you’re going to buy covers with touch-ups of your heroes, you better also expect touch-ups of your villains.

The real problem here, as it usually is when it involves the news media in these controversies, is this:

Sadly, as many newspapers gulp their last breath, as television news disappears behind entertainment, as celebrities like Mario Lopez become increasingly confused with journalists, Americans still have no real idea of what the role of reporters and the news media is – and likely still have some jumbled notion that we’re little more than shoe salesmen ready to bring them their favorite pair of Bostonian oxfords in their exact size.

Reaction to ‘The Bomber’ on Rollin Stone Cover

 

 

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