I have a few mixed feelings on the decision by Rolling Stone to put one of the Boston bombers on the front cover of its latest issue.
According to BBC News, the decision to put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover has caused outage and disgust, as it appears to make him look “like a rockstar”. This is Rolling Stone though, the magazine who put a then 18 year old Britney Spears as an even greater schoolboy fantasy in a magazine targeted at 20s and 30s readers and Eminem with a strategically placed stick of dynamite.
Is this a magazine that just writes about music and who was free that week for a press interview, or who was releasing an album and whose PR officer was able to persuade the editor that they were worth interviewing.
To use the line from the 2001 film Almost Famous, “the magazine that trashed ‘Layla,’ broke up Cream and ripped every album Led Zeppelin ever made”, amusingly declared as “all true” by the editor. In the same way, we have seen Playboy do challenging journalism, and while I cannot imagine the Hefner estate putting a bomber on the front cover, mainly because its demographic is not one for political debate.
Where are you expecting to read a profile of a bomber? The Guardian Weekend magazine? Time? The Economist? Journalism should be challenging and while many will see this as bad taste, it has arguably encouraged me to actually go and buy a copy.
I recently watched the Channel 4 documentary on the “Hunt for the Boston bombers” and the extent to which they were detected, tracked and found was very revealing. Why would I not want to read that? After all Channel 4 were not sympathetic to either side in their excellent documentary, and gave the bare facts, and I am sure that Rolling Stone have done the same here.
Let’s get around the fact that Tsarnaev does look like a member of the Strokes, and would not look out of place in any interview were he from an early 2000s (or even 1970s) New York band. The issue is that he is displayed in such a fashion, and the criticism has been on the cover image.
The BBC story did not given any detail on the article, but it did say that the image was a “selfie” and that Rolling Stone defended itself saying that the “article falls within the traditions of journalism and reflects the publication’s commitment to serious, thoughtful coverage”. I agree, as I said before journalism should challenge the norm and do something outrageous. This is time when journalists have lost the trust of the public due to phone hacking, and when there is a struggle for advertising revenue due to six years of tough market conditions.
Doing something different? Rolling Stone will be aware that there is no such thing as bad publicity and the BBC writing about its front cover will do its sales no harm.