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The Rolling Stone Boston Bomber Cover Photo Controversy

What a cover means

There’s an old saying: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s often quoted by teachers, parents and others to make a point about looking beyond surface appearances to delve deeper into the meaning of something or someone. That seems to be the defense offered by Rolling Stone magazine given the recent cover controversy over putting Boston Marathon Bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover.

Cover shots are meant to be eye catching – to quickly capture a person’s attention in hopes they will buy the issue. If you can get people to talk about the issue, and especially get the media to start talking about it even further, that’s even better. Editors want people talking about their publications, and sometimes even bad publicity is good publicity. Publicity often translates into sales, even if people threaten to not sell the offending issue.

Asking the public to look beyond the glamor shot of the young man accused of helping execute the most successful terror attack since 9/11 and to focus on Janet Reitman’s article in the issue – “Jahar’s World,” chronicling his slide into murderous mayhem – is a bit of a leap, even for a magazine that has been at the center of recording much of American culture for nearly 50 years.  The cover photo of the young man looks as if it could be a solo profile shot of any number of boy bands my teenage daughter might be listening to at the moment. With tousled hair and a chin and upper lip with fine whiskers, he could be crooning about love found on a beach, or the color of his girlfriend’s hair. His brooding dark eyes look forward and young girls, including my daughter, would probably melt with a heavy sigh if he were singing up on the stage or walking down the street in a music video. It is that cultivated shot that helps sell magazines and music, and for those reasons it makes an editor’s job easy to put it front and center.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Sean Murphy released the photos he took of Boston Marathon Bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, because of his disgust with the portrayal of Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. Massachusetts State Police photo by Sean Murphy

I have to say I completely understand the Editor in Chief at Rolling Stone‘s reason for choosing this shot.  It’s probably the same reason Time Magazine put a three-year-old standing on a stool being breastfed by his mother. Or a very naked and pregnant Demi Moore, or even a not pregnant and still naked, but body painted Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Cover shots are meant to be eye catching – to quickly capture a person’s attention in hopes they will buy the issue. If you can get people to talk about the issue, and especially get the media to start talking about it even further, that’s even better. Editors want people talking about their publications, and sometimes even bad publicity is good publicity. Publicity often translates into sales, even if people threaten to not sell the offending issue.

Let’s face it, the last time anyone was talking about Rolling Stone was three years ago when Michael Hastings wrote his explosive profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, “The Runaway General,” that cost him his military career.  Today we are talking about Rolling Stone again, but this time for glorifying an accused murderer.

There were any number of better images that could have been put on the front cover of this issue and complemented Janet Reitman’s article. It could have been of slain MIT police officer Sean Collier. It could have been of any number of the victims of the bombing; or even the law enforcement and emergency management professionals that dealt with the situation. All of those would have been better and far more tasteful covers, but frankly none of them would have captured the attention that this cover did.

I have to say I’m in solidarity with those repulsed by putting Tsarnaev on its cover. There were any number of better images that could have been put on the front cover of this issue and complemented Janet Reitman’s article. It could have been of slain MIT police officer Sean Collier. It could have been of any number of the victims of the bombing; or even the law enforcement and emergency management professionals that dealt with the situation. All of those would have been better and far more tasteful covers, but frankly none of them would have captured the attention that this cover did.

This cover was lightning on a page, and it was every bit as repugnant as Boston Mayor Thomas Menino declared it in his letter to Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. The glamor shot was a “reward” of sorts for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, when in fact it should have been the booking photo of him, scars and all, holding a plate of numbers identifying himself as an incarcerated individual.

Sean Collier

MIT Police Patrol Officer Sean A. Collier might have made a more poignant Rolling Stone cover. MIT photo

That type of photo, similar to that taken of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh shortly after his arrest in Noble County, Okla., in 1995 during a routine traffic stop (for not having any license tags on his car and an illegal firearm) is the image we should have of the young man known as “Jahar.” Or of McVeigh in an orange prison jump suit exiting the Courthouse in Perry, Oklahoma after having been formally charged with the largest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.

Such is the power of photographed images. They stay with us in our mind’s eye, and whenever that particular individual’s name is mentioned – the image appears. That’s the image people need to remember.

Murphy may pay for his actions by losing his job, but as a photographer he understands what an image captures in the immediate and long term. That’s the lesson that Rolling Stone and its editors overlooked in its cover shot selection. Images can capture joy and happiness as much as they can heartache and anguish, but also can sear into a public’s memory the legacy of a moment, and Rolling Stone’s cover image fails that test by all measures.

That’s exactly the reason why Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Sean Murphy released the photos he took of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s arrest, showing a bloodied, battered young man with a red dot from a sniper rifle’s laser sight locked on his forehead ready to end his life in an instant. In Murphy’s words, that is “the real Boston bomber. Not someone fluffed and buffed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.”

Murphy may pay for his actions by losing his job, but as a photographer he understands what an image captures in the immediate and long term. That’s the lesson that Rolling Stone and its editors overlooked in its cover shot selection. Images can capture joy and happiness as much as they can heartache and anguish, but also can sear into a public’s memory the legacy of a moment, and Rolling Stone’s cover image fails that test by all measures.

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...