More to the story than just the cover

The current scandal over Rolling Stone’s August cover is painful evidence of just how messed up our culture is when it comes to current events and any interest in understanding them. As the increasingly vapid demands of our ever-shortening attention spans continue to decimate long-form journalism in favor of sound bites and pithy tweets, our society is over-entertained and under-informed.

Even when we think we are being educated by outlets such as the cable-news networks, we are mostly being titillated, manipulated or provoked. Magazine covers mean a lot to folks who don’t take the time to read.

An unbelievable outcry has arisen from Rolling Stone’s decision to put a picture of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its once-legendary cover. I don’t know about you, but my Facebook and Twitter is blowing up in reaction. People, many of whom have not picked up a copy of Rolling Stone in years, called for a boycott, calling Tsarnaev a “cockroach” and “unworthy” of this kind of exposure.

I’ve been a subscriber to Rolling Stone, off an on, since middle school. It’s still one of the few magazines I read on a regular basis. Of course, I seldom agree with its premises or conclusions. However, I do believe some of the best journalism being done comes from its writers.

That said, if Rolling Stone or any other media outlet had set out to make a hero, or even a martyr, out of Tsarnaev they would deserve the backlash. But the article, excellently composed by veteran journalist Janet Reitman, does nothing to aggrandize either of the Tsarnaev brothers. In fact, Reitman digs deeply into the story that the ADHD-addled, entertainment-news media has mostly ignored.

Numerous friends, family members, former teachers, law-enforcement officials and experts on terrorism, sociology and mental-health issues are probed for clues as to how and why Dzhokhar Tsarnaev transformed from a successful, happy, popular young man into someone allegedly capable of such cold, calculated evil. It’s a fascinating and deeply troubling read that should be of particular interest to parents, pastors, teachers and others involved in reaching and ministering to young people in crisis.

Thus, many of those who would benefit from this kind of insight are boycotting what may be the most relevant and useful article Rolling Stone publishes all year. Would they be happier with more tripe about Rihanna?

None of the early, online critiques of the cover that I saw referred to the content of the piece. That’s interesting. Even the secondary headline on the cover (“How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster”) doesn’t seem to assuage the angst.

To be perfectly honest, I’ll admit my first reaction was to be offended, and then a bit cynical. Obviously it was a savvy move on Rolling Stone’s part. I assumed stirring a little controversy was the sole motivation behind the decision. Of course, that may be true. But now, having read the article, I am struck by how important and rare this kind of journalism is.

Reitman’s piece reveals that Tsarnaev was a promising kid with a troubled family caught up in a seemingly misguided pursuit of the American Dream. The story doesn’t answer every question about him, but it certainly provides a heck of a lot more context than anything I have seen so far. If he is another example of a young person seduced into deadly darkness, then shouldn’t we be paying attention?

It seems to me it would be a good idea for people of faith to start caring about such troubled souls before another one lashes out.

But I guess if a cover story is automatically “glamorizing” then, sure, Rolling Stone is guilty. But then so is the Henderson Daily News (and every other media outlet) when we run pictures of car wrecks or the small “mugshot” photos that accompany our obituaries.

I don’t think it needs to be that, though. I think that, in fact, assuming that it is glamorizing it is to cede a point to the shallowness our culture celebrates. Additionally, I think the “dreamboat” nature of the picture is part of the story. It forces us to approach the subject in a different way — or avoid it altogether I suppose. It’s not that they doctored a photo — or created an illustration or caricature. This is a photo that Tsarnaev posted online of himself — and it perfectly captures the way his friends describe him.

That’s the point I fear too many are missing. Isn’t it more than a little upsetting to think a normal, ordinary kid — a kid who looks like pop music idol — could be so incredibly dangerous?

I do think that far more people will read the story precisely because it is on the cover. That’s the point! Sure, they could use a police mugshot or something, but this shot really bothers me — which is what it is supposed to do.

Ultimately evil is far more alluring than we want to believe. The wicked seduction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev makes that all too apparent.


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