Karen Brassard wondered why her cousin wrote on Facebook that he no longer supports Rolling Stone magazine. So the Epsom, N.H., woman, who was seriously injured along with her husband and daughter in the first explosion at this year’s Boston Marathon, did some research and soon discovered the motivation: the cover of the August issue, which features a sultry, debonair portrait of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger bombing suspect.
The issue, which hit newsstands Friday but was previewed beforehand, includes an in-depth account of Tsarnaev’s evolution from a seemingly innocent adolescent to the alleged radicalized young adult capable of mass murder.
But it was the cover shot — depicting Tsarnaev with tousled hair and chin stubble — that had many outraged.
Thousands of people flooded the magazine’s Facebook page with comments, voicing disgust over the decision to display the 19-year-old so favorably and prominently. Some vowed to cancel their subscriptions. Others cautioned that glamorizing Tsarnaev could encourage people to emulate his actions and said the space should have gone instead to a survivor of the attacks. At least four retail chains announced they wouldn’t carry the issue: Walgreens, CVS/pharmacy, Stop & Shop and Tedeschi Food Shops.
Katlyn Townsend is a friend of and media contact for Jeff Bauman, who lost both his legs in the attacks and has since become a national symbol of resilience. In a letter she posted online to Rolling Stone co-founder and Chief Editor Jann Wenner, she denounced the decision.
“Your use of a provocative, borderline-sympathetic image and headline of someone who has caused so much pain to our country is appalling, insensitive and disgusting,” Townsend wrote. “This person does not deserve to have his name mentioned publicly, let alone be featured on the cover of a magazine.” In response to the vitriol, Rolling Stone editors published the article online Wednesday with a note acknowledging the bombing victims but defending the article and cover shot.
“The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens,” it read.
Those closely affected by the attacks had varying reactions.
Brassard, who said her family is still recovering physically and emotionally from the incident, called the cover selection “absurd.”
“There are so many deserving people who are a much better example of what we should be putting out there as Americans,” she said. “This is not what we want to be advertising. It’s not what we should be promoting.”
Brian Collins of Canterbury, N.H., who ran in the marathon and was with his son near the site of the explosions, said he disagreed with the decision but planned to read the article.
“I’m interested in what it has to say,” he said. “It seems like it’s been pretty plowed ground, but they may have some different insight.”
Ron Abramson, an attorney from Bow, N.H., who was near mile 25 of the race when the bombs were detonated, said he had yet to read the story but could respect Rolling Stone’s choice — noting that “infamy is still fame.”
“I don’t know about the marketing aspect or Rolling Stone getting away from its music roots, but if there is a thoughtful treatment of someone who had a seemingly promising childhood and then did this, then I think that’s a valid discussion,” he said. “We can’t just bury our heads in the sand and not acknowledge it.”
This isn’t the first time that controversy has circled around a Rolling Stone cover. The magazine has a history of publishing provocative lead shots, said Sue Hertz, a journalism professor at the University of New Hampshire, including one of convicted mass murderer Charles Manson.
“It’s a matter of taste rather than ethics,” Hertz said. “Rolling Stone was willing to take the risk to get some attention. Clearly it has been negative. But they knew perfectly well what they were doing. I saw someone comment on Facebook that they should have put Jeff Bauman on the cover. That’s not going to sell magazines, that’s just going to make everyone sad.”
Hertz said debate over the Tsarnaev photo will likely entice more people to read the story.
“Because people are so angry about the photo, they’re also reading about it and the teasers about what’s inside the article, and so my guess is they will read it,” Hertz said.
“Because it may get at what we all want to know, which is, where did this kid go wrong?”
Blackman can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.