Media: Rolling Stone’s Accused Boston Bomber Cover Was A Commercial Success, For Better Or Worse – Adweek Reports

As controversial as it was, Rolling Stone’s July issue featuring an attractive photo of accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover was a hit for the magazine. Adweek reports:

Rolling Stone posted a preview of the cover on BPVOMoYCUAIPdIVRollingstone.com on July 16 and posted the cover story “Jahar’s World” the following day. (The practice of posting cover articles online is relatively new for Rolling Stone, which has been upping its digital game lately.) Together, the stories brought a sizable traffic surge: During the week ending July 21, the website attracted 1.5 million unique U.S. visitors, according to comScore—a 41 percent increase over the previous week’s traffic. For all of July, Rollingstone.com traffic was up 20 percent year over year, with 3.6 million uniques.

Sales for that issue also jumped 102 percent over the average issue sold within the last year.

The Rolling Stone magazine cover photo – Commentary #2

We have received many e-mails criticizing us for our support to the Rolling Stone magazine and to independent journalism. So let’s get to the point bold-and-clear:

I understand pain and not wanting to see. But with all due respect, it’s the role of independent journalism to seek truth and insight, not to comfort or protect from unpleasantness.

I also fail to see how this reflects RS’ “haste to make a few extra dollars on lost lives.” Surely, marketing on the part of news organizations is a reality of our times, but I cannot agree that RS is driven by this in this instance. There has been an onslaught of outrage about their decision to use this photo, much of it accompanied by decisions or threats to cancel subscriptions or boycott, and several retailers have even pulled the magazine from their shelves (censorship lives on!). This actually represents a financial LOSS for them. They had to know this would be a possibility before they published the article and the photo, but they made the decision to do it anyway, and therefore risk some financial loss.

As for tastelessness, that is in the eye of the beholder, as the cliché goes. I do not feel that the photo was tasteless, but rather that it was the absolutely appropriate picture, among those available to them, to complement the article. As I wrote before, The Rolling Stone journalistic story is a different story — a story examining how and why an otherwise normal and likeable young man could do such horrible things – if he, indeed, is found guilty – and if there were any clues or warning signs that perhaps might help us prevent similar tragedies in the future.

As Ian Crouch (New Yorker magazine) has aptly pointed out, the fact is, he DOES kind of look like a rock star. That fact alone gives food for thought. In any event, it is not the role of independent, serious journalism (or their attendant photos) to try to anticipate what readers think is tasteless. If that were the case, no good reporting would ever get done. I am dismayed by what appears to be an alarming lack of ability on the part of the American public to understand the function of journalism in a democratic society.

Having said this, I tell all of you who sent us those nasty e-mails and threatened with not visiting our music website anymore that we wish instead of all your vitroil against the RS cover story and picture, you should have invested your time protesting the decision to acquit George Zimmerman, a white man, over the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a young black male unarmed, and a recent decision by the Supreme Court to strike down key sections of a law that protects black voters (civil rights live on!). Perhaps the murder of a young black American unarmed and the acquittal of his assassin who took the law and the gun in his own hands instead of notifying the police, doesn’t deserve your attention and uproar. And what really bothers you about the RS cover picture is not that the 19-year-old Tsarnaev is handsome, talented and looks like a rock-star, but that he is not a “real” American but an ethnic Chechen who came to the U.S. as a child and was later granted the American citizenship.

~ AA

The Inconvenient Image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – By The New Yorker

By Ian Crouch

Photograph: Wenner Media / AP.

Photograph: Wenner Media / AP.

The magazine cover retains its unique cultural power—to amuse, to inform, to agitate, or, as is the case with the forthcoming August 1st issue of Rolling Stone, to enrage. That cover, unveiled on Tuesday night, features a photographic self-portrait of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who last week pleaded not guilty to thirty charges, including using a weapon of mass destruction to kill, and could face the death penalty for his alleged role in the April attack. The image accompanies a reported piece by Janet Reitman, which, according to a blog post published by the magazine, includes dozens of interviews with people who knew Tsarnaev and is “a riveting and heartbreaking account of how a charming kid with a bright future became a monster.” The full article was posted on Wednesday afternoon, two days earlier than originally planned, but public opinion regarding it, and the issue in which it appears, was already fixed earlier in the day. On the magazine’s Facebook page, thousands of comments express some version of what appears to be a popular refrain: “Rolling Stone, fuck you!” The cover has been called “shameful,” “disgusting,” “tasteless,” and a “slap in the face to America.” Boston public officials have issued similar appraisals: Mayor Thomas Menino called it “a total disgrace.” CVS, Walgreens, and other local retailers have promised not to sell the issue.

But just because something sparks outrage doesn’t mean that it is outrageous. Menino, on Wednesday, added that the cover, or perhaps the story itself, “should have been about survivors or first responders.” There have been many moving and illuminating stories about the victims of the marathon attack, and the people who selflessly came to their aid, but this is not one of them. Instead, the Rolling Stone article is about the still largely mysterious backstory of a young man who transformed, in what appears to be a short amount of time, from a seemingly normal college student into an alleged terrorist. The facts of his life are important, the larger social implications of his biography are important—and so this story has the potential to be a valuable contribution to the public record and to the general understanding of one of the most serious incidents of domestic terrorism in American history. And so, in the plainest terms, Rolling Stone chose to promote an article about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—one that other news outlets, including the New York Times and Washington Post, had previously published. It does not appear that the magazine altered the image in any meaningful way. Nor does the photograph convey an editorial opinion about the subject; the accompanying cover text, meanwhile, identifies Tsarnaev as a “monster.” It shows him as he looked when he allegedly killed four people and injured hundreds more.

Many commenters on Facebook have complained that the image gives Tsarnaev the “rock star” treatment—that his scruffy facial hair; long, curly hair; T-shirt; and soft-eyed glance straight at the camera all make him look like just another Rolling Stone cover boy, whether Jim Morrison or any of the many longhairs who appeared in the magazine’s nineteen-seventies heyday. But these elements are not engineered. What is so troubling about this image, and many of the others that have become available since April, is that Tsarnaev really does look like a rock star. In this way, the photograph on Rolling Stone is of a part with the often unexpected, and unsettling, portrait of Tsarnaev that has emerged over the past few months.

The earliest image, made available by the F.B.I. while Tsarnaev was still the target of a massive manhunt, showed him near the bomb site in a backward white baseball cap. He looked young, and chillingly anonymous, just another dude in a hat, a kind of bro-bomber. Then others surfaced: of him as a baby-faced young man; a shot of him at his high-school graduation, in a black robe with a red carnation pinned near his left shoulder; others of him smirking, smiling; one in which he wears aviator shades—the kinds of digital snapshots that every young American projects into the world. What we didn’t see, and what perhaps we longed to see in our grief, or anger, or confusion, were any familiar images of the Islamic terrorist. The stories didn’t match the crime, either: the pot-smoking kid, the skateboarder, the student at the diverse Cambridge high school, the anonymous undergrad at the state college. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s older brother, Tamerlan, fit our expectations much better. He looked older and angrier, and the accompanying biographical information was consistent with the appearance: he was alienated, radicalized, adrift, and dangerous. But the police killed Tamerlan during that frightening night in Watertown. He is dead, and Dzhokhar is alive.

This may be the most inconvenient fact about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: that he has survived to face trial, and so to keep facing the rest of us who live in Boston, and in the rest of the country. On Wednesday, defenders of Rolling Stone pointed out that the magazine doesn’t only put musicians and celebrities on its cover: in 1970, it ran a cover piece about Charles Manson. Looking at that image now, Manson himself resembles something of a rock star of his time. And it was true then, too: much of what made him so terrifying had to do with the ways in which he was inseparable from his greater zeitgeist. Manson was a murderer and a kind of twisted celebrity, and in that way a forerunner to the modern terrorist. The angry commenters on Facebook today can be forgiven for not wanting to look at Tsarnaev, or preferring instead to think of the victims and the heroes, and for worrying about the ways in which some have elevated Tsarnaev as a martyr and an object of obsession. The photo on the cover of Rolling Stone is the same one that “Dzhokhar Is Innocent” advocacy groups and #FreeDzhokhar Web groupies, mostly young women, use to honor their cause and crush. Everyone, in this age, understands the power of images, and the ways in which that power can lead to troubling ends—including, as Paul Bloom wrote in a recent post, misdirected empathy for an alleged mass killer.

Yet the vitriol and closed-mindedness of the Web response to the Rolling Stone cover, before anyone had the chance to read the article itself, is an example of two of the ugly public outcomes of terrorism: hostility toward free expression, and to the collection and examination of factual evidence; and a kind of culture-wide self-censorship encouraged by tragedy, in which certain responses are deemed correct and anything else is dismissed as tasteless or out of bounds. The victims of the Boston Marathon bombing deserve our attention, and will continue to teach us about perseverance and the best parts of our common nature. But the dark stories of the bombing need to be told, too. And we need to hear them.

Photograph: Wenner Media/AP.