[Note: The following was prepared as a column requested by the Iowa City Press-Citizen. It was also published in the online edition of the Des Moines Register, July 19, 2013, under the headline, "Iowa View: Magazine cover not whole story," the version reproduced, below. Including the Press-Citizen and Register, it has appeared in at least 18 papers, such as USA Today, Wilmington News-Journal, Indianapolis Star, Louisville Courier-Journal, Shreveport Times, Lansing State-Journal, Jackson Clarion-Ledger, and the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
Media that provide text and photo/video journalism regarding major crimes and terrorism must weigh (a) the extent to which their coverage may make "celebrities" of evildoers, or worse still, encourage copycat behavior, along with the charge the media is just pandering to the audience in an attempt to increase viewership/readership and advertising revenue, against (b) what they know to be their constitutionally recognized responsibility to provide understanding and information to the citizens of a self-governing democratic society regarding the reality of their lives. The editors of Rolling Stone chose "b" with regard to the Boston bombing. Distributors of journalism have a comparable choice between their responsibility to an informed public and their shareholders, when the distributors fear publications potential customers might find disagreeable (because of stories or photos) might keep them from their stores, thereby reducing overall revenue. This column, below, addresses these corporate choices.
The Press-Citizen version contains the editor's full disclosure: "Nicholas Johnson was on the cover of the April 1, 1971, Rolling Stone, with photos by Annie Leibovitz; and was subsequently offered a position by editor and publisher Jann Wenner (which he was unable to accept at that time). The former FCC commissioner currently teaches at the University of Iowa College of Law. www.nicholasjohnson.org.]
Iowa City Press-Citizen
July 20, 2013, p. A10
One hundred years ago next month, the Piqua (Ohio) Leader-Dispatch carried an ad for the Piqua Auto Supply House containing the phrase, “One Look Is Worth A Thousand Words.” It’s considered a source for the oft-heard expression, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
What Rolling Stone magazine has discovered with its Aug. 1 issue is: The picture that can substitute for 1,000 words can also destroy, in this case, over 11,000 words of really first-rate journalism about Dzhokhar (“Jahar”) Tsarnaev and the April 15 Boston bombing.
The author, Janet Reitman, is an accomplished, award-winning investigative feature writer with 20 years distinguished experience, including Rolling Stone magazine. Her most recent book is The New York Times bestseller “Inside Scientology” (2011).
Few have criticized her Rolling Stone story. It would be hard to do so. She’s uncovered and provided as much detail and understanding as anyone could about Tsarnaev and what caused him to do what he did.
Of course, stores have the legal right to choose what magazines they sell. But it’s hard to understand, let alone approve of, these corporations’ censorship actions. They are reminiscent of Nazi book-burning, or Taliban reactions to pictures of Muhammad, and reveal a profound ignorance of the informative role of journalism in a democracy.
Time magazine put Adolf Hitler on its cover, as Person of the Year, in 1938; Joseph Stalin was similarly honored twice (1939, 1942). Each was responsible for orders of magnitude more deaths than Tsarnaev ever planned.
Rolling Stone was scarcely honoring the bomber, let alone declaring him the Person of the Year. The front page of the online version of the Aug. 1 Rolling Stone headlines the top story, “Jahar: The Making of a Monster.” The inside subhead reads, in part, “no one saw the pain he was hiding or the monster he would become.” Neither reads like the wording of a publicist working for Tsarnaev.
Rolling Stone’s editors explain, “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.”
The Boston Globe editorializes, “Readers shouldn’t assume that a cover story about a suspected evildoer represents an attempt to glamorize him. This issue of Rolling Stone should be judged not by its cover, but on the information that it brings to the public record.”
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino said Tsarnaev’s picture “rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment.” The police commissioner, Edward Davis, declared himself “disgusted by it.”
Danielle Marcus, CVS’s public relations manager, offered the explanation: “As a company with deep roots in New England and a strong presence in Boston, we believe this is the right decision out of respect for the victims of the attack and their loved ones.” Walgreens’ Tweet read simply, “Walgreens will not be selling this issue of Rolling Stone magazine.”
Americans need that picture and story — because Tsarnaev is what bombers look like. Neither Middle East wars abroad nor NSA spying at home can save us. What perhaps could help is trying to understand American citizens like Jahar in Boston and McVeigh in Oklahoma City.
There were probably thousands of comments about the Rolling Stone Tsarnaev cover story -- letters to the editor, readers' comments in online publications, blogs, texts and tweets, radio and TV commentary. It became a much bigger controversy than anyone could have predicted. I'm not going to try to reproduce even an immeasurably small fraction of that commentary. But I do want to reproduce two, plus one of my own.
Blogging requires neither expertize nor the quantity and quality of dissertation-level research. Usually, but not always, I have at least a speck of both to support my intuition. But it's always reassuring to find out after a blog essay has been posted that someone more knowledgeable than I, or closer to the scene, has come up with similar thoughts or analysis.
And so it was with this column. I sent what was to be my Saturday column off to the Press-Citizen, as requested, at 8:17 p.m. CT, Thursday, July 17. The following week, July 22, thanks to the reference by "Stu in Iowa," whose comment on this blog essay is below, I read a column written by a Rolling Stone writer, Matt Taibbi, that made some of the same points I had: the New York Times had used the same picture, that Time put Stalin on its cover as "Man of the Year," "that's what bombers look like," and why we need to understand them.
Here are some excerpts from Matt Taibbi, "Explaining the Rolling Stone Cover, by a Boston Native," Rolling Stone, July 19, 2013 (posted 2:50 p.m. ET). More significant than our shared positions, Taibbi has come up with some creative insights about the causes of the backlash produced by the cover photo (insights I am quick to confess had not occurred to me).
I think the controversy is very misplaced. Having had a few days to listen to all of the yelling, the basis of all of this criticism seems to come down to two points:At the same time, I'm embarrassed to say, I've learned more than I had formerly internalized about the power of still and moving images. It has been said (actually by my father) that "humans are the only animals able to talk themselves into difficulties that would otherwise not exist." In recent years we have been discovering more and more ways in which more and more species are equal or superior (in some ways) to our own. But for the most part, our ability to create and manipulate symbols (and thereby manipulate fellow humans) remains one of our areas of superior expertise.
• Putting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone automatically glamorizes him, because the cover of Rolling Stone is all by itself a piece of cultural iconography that confers fame and status.
• The photo used in the cover makes Tsarnaev out to be too handsome. He's not depicted with a big red X through his face a la Time magazine's treatment of bin Laden, or with his eyes whited out as in Newsweek's depiction of same, or with a big banner headline like "NOW KILL HIS DREAM" like the one employed by The Economist in its bin Laden cover. He is called a "Monster" in the headline, but the word is too subtle and the font used is too small, making this an unacceptably ambiguous depiction of a terrorist.
I think, on the whole, the people leveling these criticisms must not read the magazine, . . .. On the other hand, pretty much everyone has heard of Rolling Stone, which is where the problem lay, in this gap between the popular image of the magazine and the reality of its reporting.
If indeed we were just a celebrity/gossip mag that covered nothing but rock stars and pop-culture icons, and we decided to boost sales and dabble in hard news by way of putting a Jim Morrison-esque depiction of a mass murderer on our cover, that really would suck and we would deserve all of this criticism.
But Rolling Stone has actually been in the hard news/investigative reporting business since its inception, . . ..
[W]hen investigative journalism has been so dramatically de-emphasized at the major newspapers . . . we're more than ever a hard news outlet in a business where long-form reporting is becoming more scarce. . . .
It's extremely common for news outlets to put terrorists and other such villains on the covers of their publications, and this is rarely controversial . . ..
[T]he Rolling Stone editors [did not pose him]for that Jim Morrison shot, . . .. They used an existing photo, one already used by other organizations. The New York Times, in fact, used exactly the same photo on the cover of their May 5 issue.
But there was no backlash against the Times, because everyone knows the Times is a news organization. Not everyone knows that about Rolling Stone. So that's your entire controversy right there – it's OK for the Times, not OK for Rolling Stone, . . ..
Terrorists are a fact of our modern lives and we need to understand them, because understanding is the key to stopping them.
Which brings us to point No. 2, the idea that the cover photo showed Tsarnaev to be too nice-looking, too much like a sweet little boy.
I can understand why this might upset some people. But the jarringly non-threatening image of Tsarnaev is exactly the point of the whole story . . . that there are no warning signs for terrorism, that even nice, polite, sweet-looking young kids can end up packing pressure-cookers full of shrapnel and tossing them into crowds of strangers. . . .
[T]he cover picture is . . . supposed to frighten. It's Tsarnaev's very normalcy and niceness that is the most monstrous and terrifying thing about him . . . you can't see him coming. He's not walking down the street with a scary beard and a red X through his face. He looks just like any other kid.
There's little agreement regarding our first use of language, though most agree however one defines "language" it would have been thousands of years ago. Of course, the use of images has at least as long a history. But between the time of printing (Tenth Century Korea; Fifteenth Century Europe) and photography (Nineteenth Century) -- indeed, I would say until the widespread adoption of television (1960s) -- aside from casual conversation, text was our primary use of language and means of communication, whether the Bible, novels, or the daily news.
In any event, that was my experience. Pictures were something that, sometimes, accompanied text. But you read books, you didn't flip through collections of photographs. Newspapers had photos, but you read the paper, you didn't just look at it. I don't know, maybe that was just me. We didn't get a TV until after I'd graduated from high school and gone away to college -- where I couldn't afford one. Maybe I was raised weird.
Anyhow, it seems to me that we are today much more visually oriented. From small film cameras we have evolved to digital cameras, and now our multi-function smart phones include digital camera capability that exceeds the earlier single-function digital cameras. Facebook is not, primarily, a photo gallery, and yet it receives some 300 million digital photos a day. Flickr, Picasa, Pinterest, and others add to that number. Roughly 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.
There is some evidence that both still and moving pictures can better play upon the viewer's emotions than can text, and that they can even override the message of associated text -- as appears to be the case with the Rolling Stone cover story. There is a classic story which I am recalling from memory when CBS' Lesley Stahl did a somewhat critical piece about President Reagan, with her voice over video of Reagan. Polls afterward showed viewers came away with a more favorable opinion of Reagan -- the somewhat flattering video having essentially silenced her voice-over text. Another example would be the big pharma TV commercials with happy people in beautiful scenes, with a voice-over describing a long list of side effects from the medicine ranging from ingrown toenails to instant death. Nonetheless, the top selling drugs are the ones most heavily advertised on TV.
To be fair about all this, I wanted to reproduce an opinion column from the Press-Citizen by another Boston resident who was highly offended by the Rolling Stone cover, to put into this mix of opinions how those emotional reactions were felt by at least this one person -- reacting in part to my column.
Here, then, is Kathy O'Donnell, "Cover Photo Was a 'Punch to the Gut' to Bostonians," Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 27, 2013, p. A13.
In regards to Nicholas Johnson’s recent column on the controversy over the Rolling Stone cover of the Boston Marathon bomber, please allow me to offer the perspective of a Bostonian.
There is no denying that the reaction to the Rolling Stone cover from every Bostonian I know, from all ends of the political spectrum, all ages, living in Boston and disbursed around the country and world, was a visceral, punch-to-the-gut pain.
Johnson made the point that the cover distracted from story, but then like many (outside of Boston) went on to defend the story while glossing over the magazine’s choice of that specific cover picture.
Let’s be clear — Bostonians did not react to the story; they reacted to the cover.
The magazine’s hastily constructed rationale for that picture was that it supported the premise of the story that this boy was not a monster, but an ordinary American teenager.
Um, actually, anyone in Boston following this story already understood that. Every interview with every person who knew him since he was identified has said the same thing — he was a good kid, no one can believe it, his brother was trouble, his mom and brother had become more radicalized, his family was messed up.
We understand that the bloody note he scrawled in the boat where he was found talked about the “collateral damage” inflicted on innocent Muslims by the U.S. and that his family was troubled about the U.S. actions in the Middle East.
Yup, got that.
But the cover did not portray this boy as a regular teenager; it presented him as a pop-culture celebrity icon in exactly the same way as all of their other covers. They could have used the cell phone picture of Tsarnaev walking away from the scene of the second bombing in his backward baseball cap and sneakers with the wake of destruction behind him.
They could have used any number of pictures of him that could be found in a quick Google search where he looks like an average teenager. But they chose the full, soft-focus, dreamy-eyed cover photo.
Either it was a thoughtful, courageous decision made in the name of journalistic integrity or a cynical, calculated move to generate attention and buzz. I vote for the latter.
I wonder what the reaction would have been in New York had the Rolling Stone put a similar, soft-focus, sweet picture of Mohammed Atta on its cover three months after 9/11? Rolling Stone is not the New York Times, and the medium matters.
While journalists have an obligation to report news-worthy stories, they also have a responsibility to minimize harm and show compassion and sensitivity to victims of tragedy.
I’m not suggesting that Bostonians are fragile creatures whose delicate sensibilities have to be protected from hard truths. Hardly. However, I am suggesting that the selection of this cover was cruelly insensitive to the Boston victims.
The finger wagging from some parties to Boston’s “overreaction” only adds insult to injury. They condescendingly explain to us provincial and parochial Bostonians how this picture tells an important and meaningful truth that we just have to hear.
We respectfully disagree. We didn’t need a finger in the eye to tell us something we already knew. Write a story, hell, put him on the cover, just don’t make him look like all the other celebrity covers.
Boston is an overgrown town, and we all are connected to people killed or injured in these attacks. This is still very raw and very real to us, and we don’t believe that putting this particular picture on the cover this soon was the right thing to do.
It’s really that simple.