Rolling Stone’s Tsarnaev Story Is a Lot Like Their Cover Image

The magazine has posted the article associated with the already-controversial cover.

Photo via

Photo via

Rolling Stone has posted the article on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev attached to a cover image that has already enraged many corners of the city, along with an editor’s note defending their choices. Whether you think the article’s news value merits giving a bad guy a sought-after cultural space like the cover of Rolling Stone—the alternatives being that they choose a less dreamboat-y photo, as I’ve suggested, or throw some celebrity up on the cover and hope you dig into the issue to find the article anyway—the offending image does come off, in context of the article, as appropriate to the themes explored by the author, Janet Reitman. Just looking at it as a strict question of whether the cover appropriately reflects the story, and not whether the image should have appeared where it did, you’d have to admit that it’s a good fit. That’s because Reitman portrays Tsarnaev as someone with some serious inner turmoil who nonetheless let almost none of it show through. Peter Payack, Tsarnaev’s high school wrestling coach who lost some of his hearing the day of the Marathon while at the finish line, tells Reitman:

“Listen,” says Payack, “there are kids we don’t catch who just fall through the cracks, but this guy was seamless, like a billiard ball. No cracks at all.” And yet a deeply fractured boy lay under that facade; a witness to all of his family’s attempts at a better life as well as to their deep bitterness when those efforts failed and their dreams proved unattainable. As each small disappointment wore on his family, ultimately ripping them apart, it also furthered Jahar’s own disintegration – a series of quiet yet powerful body punches. No one saw a thing. “I knew this kid, and he was a good kid,” Payack says, sadly. “And, apparently, he’s also a monster.”

What better way to reflect this apparent paradox than a photo of a seemingly attractive guy with the word, “monster,” as the cover does? The impression given off after interviews with Tsarnaev’s Cambridge friends, teachers, and coach isn’t an unfamiliar one. From pretty much the first day Tsarnaev’s name came to light, the narrative was that he seemed like a normal, assimilated teenager who had fallen under the influence of his older, more radical brother. Rolling Stone did not invent this angle. They didn’t even invent the idea of pairing this exact photo with stories exploring this angle. They’ve just added more nuance to it, and in the same moment, made a misstep by underestimating the cultural value to which people assign their cover space.

Given the state of indignant rage with which many of us are arriving to the article, there are passages that are sure to irritate. A description of Tsarnaev, as he appeared to friends in Cambridge years before his apparent descent into radicalism, reads:

People in Cambridge thought of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – “Jahar” to his friends – as a beautiful, tousle-haired boy with a gentle demeanor, soulful brown eyes and the kind of shy, laid-back manner that “made him that dude you could always just vibe with,” one friend says.

He’s described as being sort of a heartthrob in high school. (Although, he was also affectionately nicknamed “Jizz,” so that’s … less flattering.) These are, of course, the “Before” snapshots in a very long story that does not pull its punches when evaluating his acts of evil, but they’re not ones that a lot of people feel comfortable airing out or paying much attention to in light of those evil deeds.

Reading the article today, you get the sense that Tsarnaev’s friends, many of whom are having difficulty reconciling the guy they knew with the perpetrator of the Marathon attack, would be saddened by the reactions to the cover. That is, if this passage is any indication:

That day’s Boston Globe has run a story about the nurses at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital who took care of Jahar those first few days after his capture. They were ambivalent, to say the least, about spending too much time with him, for fear of, well, liking him. One nurse said she had to stop herself from calling him “hon.” The friends find this story disgusting. “People just have blood in their eyes,” says Jackson.

This article and its accompanying editors note, though not particularly incendiary, probably won’t do much to change that. Such is life when, for whatever complex and opaque reasons, you commit devastating atrocities on innocent people.

  • DC Montreal

    News is news, whether we like it or not.

    Rolling Stone, Tsarnaev, Lanza, Hitler and Manson

  • Will

    If you read the Rolling Stone article hoping for
    undiscovered truths about the Dzhokhar and Tamerlan, insight into how terrorism is born, or descriptions of the Tsarnaev
    brothers’ heads on a spike, you’ll most likely come away upset or disappointed.

    • emerald98

      I agree. There was nothing so surprising or relevant, I am not sure why she even wrote it. And to say she interviewed hundreds of people, I don’t see it. You might have liked the article, but I saw it as big piece of fluff to go along with his picture. I was in the court and saw him with my own eyes, this guy is not the guy on the RS. They could have done better, and what about his brother, both are BOMBERS. But RS was really trying to write to the 18-25 crown who in all accounts, many sympathize with him and want to see the proof, as though this was some staged event or set up.

  • emerald98

    this Jackson is stupid, not to give his real name, yet to pass judgment on this nurse, she did take care of him and he was not treated badly, but this clearly shows the immaturity of this friends – and especially as they on about how they no lawyer when talking to the FBI. Do you need a lawyer to answer a question, the FBI doesn’t have to make nice with you when trying to figure this guy out, and if you nothing to hide, then all is good. Quit acting bunch children. I still don’t get why most of these students, except for a few like Baudy would not give their name, and whether they believe he did or not, it does not matter, their friend had evil and nice side to him, any man that blows up a small child should be haunted – none to of these students were hurt or their families, or lost a child or a leg, so they can just shut the F#### up. The RS article did little answer any real questions, most of the stuff written is has been floating in the media, anyone following this case knows that.

  • Martin LaBelle

    I cannot believe that Rolling Stone would put a man, tried and convicted of terrorism on the cover of their magazine.

    • Citiboy67

      Um. He hasn’t been tried and convicted yet. Innocent till proven guilty? Isn’t that a cornerstone of the US justice system?

      • Laura Jean

        You must be fucking blind Citiboy or a complete idiot. Is there something mentally wrong with you? Are you a terrorist? Did your city go through this? Do you believe in evidence? Do you have empathy for the victims? Are you a human? You seem very uneducated and ignorant. Why don’t you read that you piece of shit.

        • Paul Smith

          Based on your vitriolic outpouring (look that up if you need to) I would suggest that it isn’t Citiboy who’s the uneducated and ignorant one here. Just saying.

          • Citiboy67

            No offence intended. I was just pointing out the error in Martin’s original piece. I accept ‘he’ has been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion, just not yet in a court of law. I’m no apologist, Paul, ‘um’ was just an English way of pointing out something without coming across in any way as aggressive or point scoring. Yes, Laura Jean, my city has been through things like this – and worse. I’m a Londoner, I know what being caught up in attacks feels like. So I feel for you guys. We need to work together to understand why these things happen and to find ways of preventing them.

          • Martin LaBelle

            I was not in error, I was actually making the exact point that he has NOT been tried or convicted. ( I just chose Colbert’s method for making the point)
            The only thing anyone knows is what they heard and saw on the news. No one has seen the evidence, only what the media has presented as “the evidence”.
            Whatever he is accused of, we have an obligation to treat him as innocent until he is proven guilty before a jury of his peers.
            The outrage over this cover story is just another example of the pathological need of Americans to be energized about something.

      • Paul Smith

        Um? What is this “um’ thing…some sort of apologist throat noise ? Are you ashamed to state your view ?

  • Martin LaBelle

    Lets keep things in perspective. Time Magazine made Hitler the man of the year in 1938

    • HeywoodJa

      Time magazine wasn’t in the habit of putting Benny Goodman, the Dorseys, Kate Smith, Billie Holliday, etc. on their covers. They weren’t a MUSIC magazine. Rolling Stone is, and they need to stick to their knitting.

      • kimmah

        They are not just a music magazine, which you would know if you had ever read it.

    • Paul Smith

      Perspective ? Hitler in 1938 wasn’t yet the monster that this kid is now.

      • samuelpepys

        Yes, he most certainly was a monster in 1938. You might read In the Garden of The Beast’s, Eric Laursen’s chilling account of 1936-39 in Berlin, from the POV of the American ambassador and his family.

        • Paul Smith

          Nope. Perspective wins out, again. Laursen’s account was one man’s view in a then non-wired world where news took a long time to spread. He also lived squarely in Berlin. In those early days the world at large had no idea what Hitler was to become. Tsarnaev’s rampage is clearly documented on every news source and he is without question a terrorist. Are you suggesting that his appearance on the mag cover is morally justifiable ? Some soul-searching is called for, mate.

          • samuelpepys

            What in my comments suggests support of Tsarnaev? I added a fact to the debate in the interest of perspective: Hitler was a monster in 1938 and everyone in Berlin who wasn’t also a monster knew it. Ambassadors, visitors and journalists–including German journalists–were not shy of spreading the word outside Berlin and Germany either: I only suggested Laursen’s book because it’s easily available–there’s a library full of material on the appalling 30s under the 4th Reich. The English were already anxious enough about the Nazi regime that as early as 1934, for instance, the entire library and staff of the famous Warburg Institute (whose founder and several important staff were Jewish), was moved to London, via various subterfuges, by the English: for the moving story see: As for 1938, that was the year of Kristallnacht, a rather worse crime than Tsarnaev’s.

          • Paul Smith

            Fair enough. It’ s been good to exchange thoughts with another thinking being, a rare species. Have a good weekend there.

          • samuelpepys

            I know what you mean! You have a good weekend too–or anyway a cool one if you can.

      • Zabunia

        Time Magazine’s 1939 motivation for picking Hitler as the MotY doesn’t exactly paint him, or Nazi Germany, in a positive light.

        “[…]Hitler became in 1938 the greatest threatening force that the democratic, freedom-loving world faces today.”

        “Germany’s 700,000 Jews have been tortured physically, robbed of homes and properties, denied a chance to earn a living, chased off the streets. Now they are being held for ‘ransom,’ a gangster trick through the ages. But not only Jews have suffered. Out of Germany has come a steady, ever-swelling stream of refugees, Jews and Gentiles, liberals and conservatives, Catholics as well as Protestants, who could stand Naziism no longer”

        It also mentions putting political enemies and Jews in concentration camps.

      • hodgicus

        oh my god, we are doomed.
        how how how, is it possible for you to be so ignorant of so much, so soon?

    • stj

      Time magazine is a news journal. The cover of Rolling Stone is reserved for celebrities.
      Putting Tsarnaev’s portrait–he’s a good-looking young
      man–on the cover has given Tsarnaev *star quality*. Rolling Stone has glamourized him, and the editors knew when they printed the cover that it would be controversial.

      They want publicity for their rag, and they have been given it

  • Anon

    Struggling from down under at this point to understand how a publisher
    can put up a glamorous shot up and its ok, but an unglamorous one finds
    the person in trouble. Couple of things feel real wrong from my
    perspective. First, neither publisher owned the photo they published,
    yet only the supplier of one photo is in trouble – yet neither supplier
    owned the photo published, so why is one in trouble and the other
    isn’t. Bit of a dig on ownership in part and ‘public domain’, but also
    corporattion versus the invdividual. Second, surely the images released
    by Murphy are relevant to the discusssion (content not the issue) –
    nobody and certainly not a government department (when government is
    there to serve the people) should be allowed to dictate their
    exclusion. the fact Murphy has been suspended says more about recent
    rules (last decade ish) about how we can and cannot interact in a
    scosiety and who’s at fault – because nowadays someone has to be at
    fault apaprently. No, I don’t accept the government department owns them
    and therefore Murphy is in trouble, because government (at any level)
    work for the people – nothing any government department does should be
    removed from public scrutiny. Unless of course it risks lives – unglamourous images of someone alrady in custody doesn’t meet that condition.

    Grant from Sydney, Aus

    PS apologies if not the right location for this post, but having read a couple articles over the last couple of days from Rolling Stone and Boston Mag, feeling disassociated that Murphy is somehow in the position they currently find themselves in. Something screwy with the way society is headed if the truth causes people to be in trouble but stories based on parts of the truth are ok. we the people have enough brains to make a decision we don’t need people trying to manipulate that. Or worse putting people in trouble for breaking rules that do not serve the publics interest.

  • Stuhdp

    They should have not put it on the cover, it is an insulting to so many great artists who have appeared there, let alone to the relatives, victims and citizens of the United States of America and the free world. Publishing the story would be enough already but they knew they were going to sold out hence create controversy, it is sad really.

  • Spinner

    I read the article. Rolling Stone wanted to be edgy and they thought it was cool that pic looked like Jim Morrison since you know they are like magazine about iconic rock stars. But they went too far. The article romanticizes terrorist Jahar and is just as DISGUSTING as the Teen Beat cover. Beautiful, soulful eyes – R U Kidding me? Who says this about cold blooded remorseless killer??? Brothers were lazy potsmokers who never had real jobs and Americans paid for their welfare and this dirtbag Jahar even got scholarship to go to college. Jahar wasted his college by smoking pot and he was failing classes. They blame financial problems on parents who left for Russia and “boring” college. The article was more about blaming society and everyone else to humanize Jahar as the poor soul victim. Even though he killed maimed 250+ Americans and partied and prob smoked pot after bombing. It was SICK OFFENSIVE COVER and ARTICLE and Rolling Stone just trying to be edgy and sell magazine. Too bad the author and editors did not lose any family members to the bombings to see how disgusting and hurtful to victims this had caused. Oh yeah that Manson cover was 20 years ago and at least the editor at that time had decency not to use Manson picture that looked like Teen Beat or teen rock star. Mugshot would have shown this is what happens when you KILL PEOPLE! IDIOT EDITORS! Irresponsible abuse of JOURNALISM

    • stj

      couldn’t agree more with your comment.

      • Spinner

        The defense by Rolling Stone was for normal kid becoming terrorist but there can can be multiple other meanings from the cover and story that is HURTFUL and PAINFUL to the victims that the editors choose to ignore? “Beautiful boy… Soulful Eyes” – who says this BS about a cold blooded killer unless they have AGENDA and want to romanticize the MAN. I repeat a MAN and not clueless innocent BOY. A MAN who chose to smoke pot, fail class, KILL and MAIM hundreds of innocent Americans and then PARTY afterwards. Just because Rolling Stone says it was all for journalism does not mean it was not DISTASTEFUL, HURTFUL, PAINFUL to victims and any sensible person who saw the cries and screams that he caused. Jahar is in jail smiling because he got his favorite facebook picture on glamorous cover of Rolling Stone. The editor is such a heartless idiot. They could have used a mugshot that did not reward a killer.

    • christina m posey

      Couldn’t AGREE MORE!! I’d like too elaborate, if I may. Jim Morrison HAS NO BUSINESS BEING COMPARED TO THIS LITTLE F&*^ER!! Morrison, certainly no angel, was NOT A MURDERER. If I were a family member of Morrison-I would have a WHOLE LOT to say about this comparison.

      • Spinner

        Place the cover next to every RS cover from last 10 years of rock stars and celebrities. It makes you sick that Jahar looks like he should be one of the rock stars. Rolling Stone editors made huge mistake and should apologize the victims for glamorizing a terrorist

  • Jennifer Berry

    The rightful cover …

    • Spinner

      Rolling Stone wanted to be edgy and different and they weren’t thinking about the victims. The cover can have many meanings. It can be creepy and weird showing regular guy next door as editors said was their intent but it can also glamourize especially on magazine cover that consistently shows celebrities and rock stars that people idolize. It does not have to be one or the other. The problem is Rolling Stone was blinded by their goal to be edgy and different that they didn’t think about about how it can make Jahar look glamorous. If they had thought more about the victims who lost the most from this then they would have done the responsible thing and changed the cover or photoshoped it and made it less like Jim Morrison, Dylan, teen beat. It was failure of their arrogant editors and art directors who should have known better. Let me put it this way – if they had put a young good looking White Supremacist on cover of Rolling Stone and and he happens to look like Jim Morrison, Dylan and saying how its a beautiful boy turned monster, I am 100% sure someone would be FIRED.

  • hodgicus

    no kidding? a sales stunt? really? wow. who woulda thought?

  • paula

    The exact same photo was on the front page of the Sunday New York Times about 2-3 weeks after the attacks and nobody batted an eyelash.

  • The American people

    The people that complain about RS covers have never read the magazine stories. But why not, it takes more than a 62 IQ to understand them. So get a life.