of monsters and men

I think it’s safe to say most of us were glued to the coverage of the Boston bombings when things went down several weeks ago.  Me?  I found myself listening to scanners and following along with Twitter–completely riveted–especially once the suspects had been identified.

Mostly because these were kids, basically–who had shut down one of America’s most prominent cities.  And, well, I have intended to move to that city for some time–and live with someone who knows that place intimately.


Fast forward to this week, and Rolling Stone put the younger, surviving suspect (Dzhokhar Tsarnaev) on the cover.

Source: Rolling Stone

Source: Rolling Stone

Which has created much hullabaloo from many people.  A lot of people are completely outraged that this person is getting more coverage–which they see as glamorizing what he did.  Others have said, “What’s the big deal?”  They say Rolling Stone is justified in doing this–that they’ve done it before with Manson.  That Time put Hitler on its cover.

I probably fall into the former camp.  But maybe not for the reasons most people cite.  Still, I have a LOT of problems with the editors of Rolling Stone.

Cover Choice

Tsarnaev, with his baby face & curly mop, is an attractive guy.  If you didn’t know what he looked like, you might mistake him for a Goo Goo Doll.  He’s scruffy and indie enough, for sure.  If you saw this cover, sans text, you’d probably think he was a rock star.

Now, there are many pictures of this kid floating around.  Why did this magazine choose this photo?  Why not this one?

Source: Boston Magazine

Source: Boston Magazine

Of the two photos, this second photo tells more of a story.  No one would ever mistake Tsarnaev for a rock star here.

If Rolling Stone is going to cover hard news–doing investigative exposes–wouldn’t this second photo be more compelling?  It illustrates the contradiction inherent to this whole thing: a young, harmless looking kid…covered in blood, with a scope trained on his forehead.

Let’s be real: the magazine chose the first picture because it’s sexier, and they knew it would sell magazines.  They knew it would cause controversy.  So, really, this is just another news organization exploiting a story rather than doing their damn jobs.  They didn’t do a cover story on Adam Lanza.  Was he not pretty enough?  Not enough rock & roll?

Source: Salon

Source: Salon

Add to that the sensationalistic headline of “The Bomber”–which includes a sub-head referring to Tsarnaev as a monster.  This is pretty textbook yellow journalism.

Appropriateness & Consistency

When people excuse the choices these editors made, they refer to other news outlets putting Hitler on the cover.  They talk about how this magazine has done it before.

In the case of the Hitler cover, that was a hard news magazine documenting a period in our history.  In this case, this is a music magazine covering a national tragedy.  The Manson cover is a little less inconsistent because, at least, Manson was an actual musician.  I’ve heard people excuse this whole thing by saying MTV no longer plays music videos.  True.  But MTV also doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t.  They don’t have documentaries going 24/7 in between episodes of Cribs.  They appeal to the same audience as they always have.  Their stuff is just as light as always.

If Rolling Stone wants to cover this sort of topic, more power to them.  But they need to redefine themselves first as credible.  They really haven’t done that.  It’s like any other organization that’s known for something.  When your public identity is unclear, it’s far easier to be misunderstood and for mistrust to develop.  It’s also far easier to be unintentionally offensive.  Maybe that’s not your intention, but–as a news organization–that’s something you’re responsible for and must address.


The editors’ note at the beginning of the article talks about their hearts going out to the victims of the bombing.  If that was the case, why not focus on them?  Why not glorify their lives or give people more insight into the problem of young men killing people for no apparent reason?  Why not highlight the city of Boston and how it’s recovered?  Why not give people hope and something to do by suggesting ways to change the world for the better?  Something that goes far beyond terrorism and violence.

Why add to the speculation of what motivated these crimes before any conviction’s been made?  With sources that mostly want to stay anonymous or experts who’ve never actually spoken to the suspect?  If this magazine was so incredibly concerned about victims of violence, why come out with this near the anniversary of the Aurora shootings?  Insensitive much?

They claim that this sort of coverage “falls within the traditions of journalism and Rolling Stone’s long-standing commitment to serious and thoughtful coverage of the most important political and cultural issues of our day.”  Long-standing?  Really?  Most important, huh?  That Robin Thicke article?  “Pretty fly for a white guy”?  What exactly does that illuminate?  And is that really appropriate for THIS cover?

Beyond that, they say that because Tsarnaev is young that they owe it to their readers to cover this story.  I don’t know very many 20 year olds who read Rolling Stone. In fact, their own ad kit says their readers’ median age is about 35.  Given that argument, James Holmes might be a better subject–especially given the timing.

They claim to want to understand–to truly understand and “examine the complexities” of this young man.  Yet, most of their examination involves several sources that are mostly anonymous and decidedly American.  A few aren’t, but most of it boils down to one person’s opinions of things not yet proven or fleshed out.  Or there are the expert sources who have never met the man and are basically just spewing out hypothetical research that may or may not apply.

We don’t see interviews with Muslims in his community–with anyone who knew about his faith in an up-close way.  We don’t have any family sources.  We don’t talk to the suspect himself.  And really, if you’re going to investigate someone, that last bit might be important.

It’s pretty much all gossip and speculation, at this point, which no one can really fact-check all too deeply.  Rather than waiting till things are further along in terms of legal proceedings so that certain people could be more free to talk candidly, they released this story to get the first inside scoop.

What annoys me more is how Tsarnaev is repeatedly referred to as a “monster.”  While it’s pretty much decided he did all of this, he has not been convicted or sentenced.  We don’t really know his exact role or the extent he was involved in planning.  We don’t know the full extent of his connections.  We don’t know his motives or feelings now that this is all over.

We may never know, really.

I have a huge problem with painting any human being as a monster–no matter what they did.  Mostly because it dehumanizes them and–in a way, makes what they did excusable.  After all, monsters will be monsters.

People who do incredibly stupid/shitty things do so for reasons only they really know.  People make mistakes all the time.  People see things through lenses we may not understand.  We are far too quick to call people crazy or evil when we simply don’t understand.  He might have very real justifications.  And just because our ethnocentrism contradicts those reasons doesn’t mean he’s any of the labels we’ve put on him.  Yes, it IS possible to have values and do bad things.  That’s apparently shocking to the reporter who wrote this piece.

In other countries, what the US says is justifiable is labeled horrible.  Consider for a moment that not everything is black and white–that people are complicated beings with a whole host of needs, motives, and desires.

It’s also pretty offensive that so much of this article tries to blame the creation of this “monster” on his immigrant roots as well as his supposedly effed up family.  The effed up qualification coming from a filter of typical American values.  There also seems to be a lot of focus on poverty as a factor here.

I’m sure being different and being poor DID play some sort of role in this event.  Because these things make us who we are.  And yes, looking at those things, we can gain some understanding of the PERSON.  But it should also be noted that there are plenty of immigrants and poor people from effed up families who don’t commit mass murder.

To me, the more prominent thing to note is this suspect’s sense of disenfranchisement.  It wasn’t the act of being poor or different that seemed to fuel his turn toward Islam.  It was his lack of identity.  It was the feeling of not having anchors.  It was helplessness at witnessing injustice and being impotent to stop it.  It was a need to control and a possibly undiagnosed mental illness.

But that’s MY interpretation.  It my not be reality, and I am only speculating.  We may never know.


The thing is–it’s important to look at this stuff.  It’s natural to want to understand why.  To grasp at straws and look into things.  To talk to others to try to construct meaning.  That’s human.  We all do it.  But journalists are supposed to be held to a higher standard.

It isn’t about one terrorist.  It isn’t about one tormented guy who decides to shoot a bunch of people.  It isn’t about evil.

It’s about a broken society that routinely chews people up and spits them out.  It’s about a bunch of forgotten people who grasp at anything to be seen.  It’s about a lack of compassion and responsibility.  It’s about a hype machine that sensationalizes all of the above.

Let’s talk about that.

If Rolling Stone wanted to understand the Dzhokhar Tsarnaevs of the world, it should have gone to Chechnya and talked to kids who’ve lived there.  It should have talked to kids here.  It should have documented what life is really like for young Americans who feel lost and alone.  It should have told an earnest story about what it’s really like to come to this country with absolutely nothing when people like you are labeled boogeymen.

That might tell us something.


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