The August 2013 cover of Rolling Stone magazine is the subject of national buzz lately. It doesn’t feature a glammed-up actress or a bedazzling singer, like one would normally expect of the generally music-oriented magazine. Instead, readers come face-to-face with a figure whose hair is unkempt with eyes like deep black pits. There is no real expression on his face as he gazes out at everyone who looks his way.
This is the image of the person who injured over 250 people and killed three—including an eight-year-old boy. It is the face of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was dubbed the Boston Bomber. The tagline underneath gives insight to the topic of the article inside the magazine: “How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.”
Screams of outrage, chants of boycotting and expressions of anger swamped Rolling Stone. People all around the country were disgusted, saying the magazine was glorifying the killer, that the way the story was written was trying to defend the murderer in some ways by blaming parents and peer pressure. There were complaints that it dishonors those who died and it brings back pain for those who were still alive. It got so out of control that the Rolling Stone editors even had to release a statement that they felt justified their choice. While the whole letter can be read online, the most important part of it that should be highlighted is probably this:
“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.”
Despite the letter of ‘reassurance’, many stores around the United States—such as CVS, Walgreens, Wegmans, Rite-Aid, and some 7-11 stores—are refusing to sell the controversial issue. Maybe even more importantly is that the Boston Mayor, Thomas Menino, was so appalled by the decision he wrote a letter to the magazine stating, “Your August 3 cover rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment.”
This isn’t the first time Rolling Stone has made a provocative decision on their cover choice. In a 1970 issue of the magazine, the cover featured the notorious Charles Manson. Granted, he was a musician, but the topic of the article was about his criminal history. Even though Manson himself did not kill anyone by his own hand, it was still a bold decision to feature him during that time period.
This is by no means something that is singly done by Rolling Stone. Other magazines have also made editorial decisions to feature notorious domestic terrorists. Time magazine has had the Unabomber, the Oklahoma Bomber Timothy McVeigh, and the Columbine shooters featured on different covers.
The controversy isn’t that magazine covers inherently glorify murderers. Seeing criminals, dictators and warlords on the cover of Time magazine is rather normal, and those go without public outcry. Rolling Stone simply did something out of its genre norm, and when Tsarnaev’s image is compared to the other rock stars who have shared that same cover, there is room for misinterpretation. His face is an unexpected sight for Rolling Stone subscribers, and that makes the general public uncomfortable.
Will Rolling Stone’s marketing attempt ruin their reputation? Doubtful, because the magazine has been operating for over 50 years, and one poor decision often cannot destroy a company. However, the obviously insensitive cover choice has already caused negative repercussions, and more may be to come before the topic has faded from people’s minds.