More thoughts on the Rolling Stone cover photo

Rolling Stone Cover TsarnevMy post on the Rolling Stone portrayal of Tsarnev has, to say the least, generated a bit of an emotional response. Much of it positive, but there’s certainly a fair amount of disagreement.

I think the problem that some people have with the cover is that it has a tendency to humanize Tsarnev. On that cover, you see him as “normal.” Meanwhile, we prefer to see villains as one-dimensional. It is just so comforting to look at someone who did something horrible, and say “I could not even see myself hanging out with this guy, he’s just not like us.”

It makes it easier to deal with if we can look at this guy and say “he’s a monster.” There, the end. No texture. No substance to our analysis. We are good. He is bad. The end.

And along comes Rolling Stone and examines the guy in all dimensions. They use a photo of him that makes him look like he could fit in just fine as the guy in the dorm room next door. They have the audacity to dig into his life, and to tell his story to us.

Unfortunately (or fortunately) as human beings, we all have the capacity for both good and evil, love and hate, empathy, compassion, vindictiveness…. and it makes me uncomfortable too. Tsarnev is the wretched asshole who attacked my home town.

But, he is also someone’s son, brother, uncle. As evil as his ACT was, he’s a human being. Someone loved him. Someone still loves him. Someone sat him on their lap when he was a baby. Someone handed their baby to him, perhaps his brother, and he treated that baby with affection. He left a half used bottle of shampoo in the shower the last time he left his house. He went grocery shopping. He didn’t live in a lair, with bats and shit. He shared 99.999% of his human experience and genetics with you and me.

I don’t say this out of compassion or feeling for him. I’m pissed off at him too. I don’t wish for mercy upon him. I’m delighted at the thought of him locked in solitary confinement in a supermax prison for the rest of his life, with stark walls closing in on him as his mind eats away at itself in the most unspeakable tortures mankind can ever imagine. Fuck him.

I don’t want you to humanize him out of mercy. Better people than I would probably do so. I am just not that good of a person.

I say this to try and provoke you to think about your feelings of revulsion for this magazine cover (if you have them), and where they really come from. Would you be happier if it was a different picture of him? One that didn’t have a tendency to humanize him? Or is it simply the fact that he is on the cover at all?

The point of journalism is supposed to be to educate, to inform, to leave the reader more enlightened than before – and even that is not always the end in itself, but it should be the means to a more effective self-governing society. We get there by having texture, thought, and viewing even the worst of us in their full three dimensions.

This was ethical journalism. This was good journalism.

And, the fact is, one of the things that makes a society stronger, better, and “more American” (at least as I understand that term) is good journalism.

Don’t be part of dumbing it down by letting your revulsion for the event, the actions, and the man, rain down on one of the good things to come of it — the thought provocation that comes from effective journalism. When you do that, you let the Tsarnevs continue to wreak damage.

Mayor Menino’s call for stories about the victims, and “honoring” them, instead, completely misses the point. Focusing on the dead teaches us nothing. Focusing even on the heroes of that day, unfortunately, teaches us nothing. We already think about that. We already understand that. Hoisting the cops and firemen on our shoulders and mourning the dead does nothing for us.

Learning about the bad guy does. It really does.

The Tsarnevs lose if we are better after what they did. They win even more if we turn this into yet another victim contest and further dumbing down of what is left of real journalism.

You’re a citizen in the remnants of a democratic society. You have a responsibility to be smarter every day. Decrying Rolling Stone for trying to help you do that is not the right thing to do. Pressuring stores to take journalism off of their racks because you think you’re supposed to be offended, that’s not the right thing to do. Sending a warning shot across the bow of every newspaper and magazine with your outcry? You’re part of why American journalism is racing toward shlock and celebrity worship every day, and away from Edward R. Murrow. The “celebrity treatment” that you complain about? It is an invention of your own mind.

Stop it.

You might think you’re supposed to be offended. You’re wrong. You’re supposed to be better, smarter, and more informed. And so is everyone else.

18 Responses to More thoughts on the Rolling Stone cover photo

  1. Roy Wolgamuth says:

    You may be right; I just hope that 10-15 years from now you don’t see this very image on a tee shirt beside one with Guy Fawkes or Che Guevara

  2. CPlatt says:

    Does the RS piece go into the factors that led this guy to do what he did? I’m talking about the whole US foreign policy nightmare that has prevailed since the USSR opted out of the cold war: Drone strikes killing innocent civilians, various invasions of foreign nations, embargoes that deprive foreign children of milk and patients of medicines, kidnap and torture without due process, This does not excuse the massacre of American innocents in retaliation, but it certainly helps to explain it.

    So long as we support or tolerate a foreign policy that kills innocents abroad, sooner or later the people we pick on will find ways to kill our innocents at home. If that’s how it is, are we partly responsible for those poor victims in Massachusetts who died or will never walk again? Is that why people are so angry at this bomber–because they’re really angry with themselves?

    I’m no friend of the moslem religion. I think it’s appalling. But I’m no friend of an interventionist, punitive, sadistic foreign policy, either. All such acts eventually have consequences, and this guy is one of them.

    • I agree that all of those things we do are wrong, but I don’t connect the Tsarnev brothers with our foreign policy. From what I have read about them, they were just idiots – not politically sophisticated or educated activists. I suppose that if I was missing a leg because of them, it might not matter to me, but I would not call these clowns political terrorists, just common criminals.

  3. jessica says:

    Best. Post. Ever. Xoxo

  4. jessica says:

    P.S. I agree with you about the RS article. It is good journalism.

  5. Jeremy says:

    I think most of the arguments I have seen were not so much that the cover makes him human or handsome, but rather that it makes him seem like a Rock Star. It glorifies him in some way. I am not saying that I agree with that sentiment (nor that I don’t), but that is the gist of the bulk of the complaints I have heard from friends and hysterics. I think if this same picture were on the cover of Time or Newsweek or the NY Times magazine or whatever it wouldn’t have registered. In this case it was a magazine that we see our musical heroes and idols on the cover. This is what led to the outcry in my opinion. It feels to some like the cover photo (not the article) is somehow everyone should warship this guy like he is a rock star.

    • Which is still silly.

      George W. Bush was on the cover. I don’t see anyone dropping to their knees to worship him, unless they live in the South.

      • Roy Wolgamuth says:

        It was an editorial decision by this particular magazine to put an attractive picture of this kid on its cover, for that they are going to have to take some criticism because no matter how balanced the article the photo will be the thing that lasts. It is a statement onto itself.

  6. The scary part here is this is placing me in a weird quandary. A lot of stores are refusing to carry this issue. Personally I support their right to carry whatever they want. I also do not want them making the decision of what I can read. I do not need Wal-Greens, CVS, and Hy-Vee (a local chain) deciding what is appropriate for me to read. I am an adult. I can make up my own mind. The celebrity schlock at the checkouts offends me more than the RS cover does. So what is my choice here? Boycott the stores that are boycotting a magazine I don’t care for? Or ignore they are treating me like a child?

    I still think it was a crap cover, but I’m not going to get upset RS did this. It’s their magazine. I won’t buy it, but that’s not going to hurt them, since I wouldn’t have bought regardless.

  7. Marc, I would be interested in your take on Sergeant Sean Murphy, the State Police tactical photographer who released photos of Tsarnev being captured in reply to the RS cover. Do you think he should lose his job? Would you have been bothered had RS decided to use one of these photos instead?

    • On one hand, more information is better, right?

      On the other, if he took the photos as part of his official duties, and department policy is that they should not be released, then he should be disciplined. When cops break that rule, this happens.

      • I think that link’s broken.

        My take on him releasing the photos…I’m all for it unless it compromises the legal case in some manner or opens them to some sort of liability. I can see why the police administration would want to keep control of the photos though and not have the photographer just decide this on his own.

  8. […] to remember that society’s worst criminals are often someone else’s loved ones and that the monster in question might appear to be normal, or even likable when you see them. Villains don’t always look like Dick Tracy caliber freaks. Randazza’s blog post talks […]

  9. Great post, Marc – great to see you actively blogging again.

  10. “Rational discourse”? That is sooooo 1789.

  11. AlphaCentauri says:

    Any parent worries that their teen will start “hanging around with the wrong crowd” and will end up getting into trouble that will ruin their lives. For your child to end up doing something this evil is the ultimate parental nightmare. I’d welcome anything that helps us understand how good kids can do 180-degree changes in attitudes and behaviors around age 17, or that helps us learn how we can raise them to have ethics that can withstand any group pressure to do something that could really harm themselves or someone else.

    Of course in this kid’s case, his mother seems to have a near-psychotic inability to see her child as anything but angelic. It would be interesting to know what her style of childraising was when they were young.

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