Outrage Over Boston Bombing Suspect On 'Rolling Stone' Cover

Marathon bombing suspect Dzhohkar Tsarnaev is featured on the August 1 cover of Rolling Stone. The photo is a somewhat glamorous shot that's got people talking about the magazine's editorial choice.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene. Good morning.

Rolling Stone magazine expected to get attention with its latest cover photo. But editors were not fully prepared for the level of criticism it's touched off. The latest issue shows the face of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

MONTAGNE: The magazine used a photo of the 19-year-old that shows him with a loose shirt and tousled hair. The headline reads: "The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam, and Became a Monster."

GREENE: Critics say this is not proper treatment for a man accused of killing three people and wounding more than 150 others.

MONTAGNE: Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana stands by the cover. Here he is speaking last night on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILL DANA: This is a person who is the same age as many of our readers, who to his peer group seemed like one of them. And that's what we thought made this story so powerful and disturbing. And, you know, to no way to endorse or glory what he did, I think the opposite, is we're trying to understand it and to explain it.

GREENE: Now, that explanation was not enough for big retailers - including CVS and Walgreen's, which say they won't sell this issue of Rolling Stone.

We reached NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik to talk more about why so many are reacting to this cover.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, from a lot of people, particularly on social media outlets - as is so often the case - there's been a bit of an outcry. If you look at this young man's countenance, you know, he looks appealing. He looks like he could be a cousin or a friend or someone you know, someone who went on to do cool things, someone who might be in the early stages of their lives. And this is, after all, a magazine that, you know, has run similar pictures. You know, people online compared it to a cover of Jim Morrison, the lead singer for The Doors all those years ago. I thought of old sort of archival pictures of a young Bob Dylan. And, you know, that's a very different kind of figure than somebody accused of these killings. That's very different than someone you might want to think of as being in a sense lionized or enshrined with this honor of being on the cover.

A lot of people were upset by that treatment and they say, look, focus on the victims. Focus on the heroics of first responders. Why are we focusing on the guy responsible for the bombing as is alleged by authorities?

GREENE: And this photo, it's not just the photo. I mean we should say that the magazine has a story that goes along with it, and they really delve into a lot of details of this young man's life.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, that's right. They were careful to have an editor's note that accompanies it. They say, look, the contributing editor, Janet Reitman, interviewed dozens of sources. They say she spent two months on the piece talking to people from childhood, from his high school days, teachers, law enforcement agents and the like. And there's a phrase in there which I think indicated what they're trying to convey. They say: This is a riveting and heartbreaking account of how a charming kid with a bright future became a monster.

And indeed, it's also worth pointing out that this same picture appeared on the front page of The New York Times on a Sunday above the fold in early May for a similar profile of the young man. So, you know, this is not that Rolling Stone is alone in doing this; it's a journalistic decision, but obviously a provocative one as well.

GREENE: Well, tell me about the journalistic decision. I guess photo editors have to note that a photo that they choose can on its own carry a whole lot of meaning and tell a story and convey something.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, in a sense they are forcing you, I think, to have some sympathy for this young man who's alleged to have turned into a killer - a bomber - as that word says in such big letters on the front of the cover. They're transporting you to a different place and what, you know, journalistically they intend to do is then take you to a very different place and see how the promise goes awry and see how a bright future becomes quite deadly and quite horrible; that's the narrative that they're going to tell. But they want to root you in this different place and obviously they want to move magazines. They want to make sure they get your attention. They assuredly did so here.

GREENE: And the fact that you and I are talking about it could be in a way part of what they intended.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. That's right. I mean that said, I think we have to remember that there is something, you know, he could be the lead singer for a young new indie group with that picture as well. And it could be that the phrase the bomber is a play on words on their group. I mean you think of Rolling Stone, by definition somebody put on the cover of Rolling Stone becomes a little bit of a rock star.

There was a picture decades ago of Charles Manson that almost evolved into hagiography, even as they're writing about him as this horror, and it's hard for Rolling Stone to get away from that fact. There was a song by Shel Silverstein in the early '70s played by Dr. Hook and his band, and this is a lyric from the song: The thrill we've never known is the thrill that'll get you when you get your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone. There's something about that, there's something about being on the cover of Rolling Stones, it's not just that you're a person in the news, it makes you a little bit of an icon. People on Rolling Stone knew what they were doing. It is a haunting shot of a guy alleged to have caused incredible pain for so many people in Boston and beyond.

GREENE: We've been talking to NPR's David Folkenflik about the cover photo on the new Rolling Stone. It's the photo of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. David, thanks a lot.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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