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Rolling Stone’s Tsarnaev cover is great journalism: Mallick

July 20, 2013


The photo of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone has been criticized for purportedly glamorizing him.

The photo of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone has been criticized for purportedly glamorizing him.

The scattered American anger directed at Rolling Stone magazine for its cover photo of alleged terrorist bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is absurd.

It’s an attack on good journalism, no change there, but I suspect much of it arises from a misunderstanding. The Tsarnaev capture photo leaked by the out-of-control Boston cop is the romanticized Hollywood screenshot. The Rolling Stone cover shot is the real thing.

There were a handful of Tsarnaev photos, all previously published, and Rolling Stone picked one, a selfie, meaning he took it himself in that narcissistic teenage tic expressly designed to irritate grown-ups.

There’s young Tsarnaev in a hip soft cream jersey — “exchange” is scribbled upside down all over it — that I would buy for myself if I didn’t abhor clothing with writing on it. Against an off-white background in golden light, Tsarnaev, 19, has mussed black hair curling around his dark eyes, his expression a little bewildered.

He has starter facial hair. He looks sweet. In fact, he looks a little like David Cassidy in 1972, an epoch-starting Rolling Stone cover that had girlish minds aflutter because you could see a hint of pubic hair at the bottom edge of the shot.

Rolling Stone doesn’t do ugly, unless it’s intentional ugly like Johnny Depp with a dead bird on his head. It does sexy. It was an Annie Leibowitz shot of Bette Midler naked on a bed of roses that had been carefully dethorned by assistants, the interns of yesteryear, that made me kill my subscription. The magazine, once authentic, had become another Tiger Beat, an organ of star worship, and I was sick of it.

But this time Rolling Stone has it right and hugely so. The 11,000-word piece by Janet Reitman, a distinguished investigative reporter, is solid, an intelligent study of the kind of root causes of terrorism that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau suggested investigating, to Stephen Harper’s scorn.

It reveals the worst thing possible: Tsarnaev’s self-portrait appears to be accurate.

Tsarnaev, known as “Jahar” to American friends who couldn’t pronounce his name, matched his selfie. He was a good kid, universally liked, attractive, smart, ambitious, polite, “superchill,” never flustered, never aggressive. Everything was always cool with Jahar.

And that’s just the problem. Rolling Stone’s critics — many of them, it must be said, from the fringe extreme American right — say the cover makes him into a celebrity. But he already is, like George Zimmerman or O.J. Simpson or Honey Boo Boo, famous in a way that’s not going to end well.

I’d say he is notorious rather than celebrated, but Americans tend not to make that distinction. They give everyone 15 minutes for anything and then lives sag and sour, as if brief fame had been magic love juice.

But Tsarnaev’s photo doesn’t lie. You’d hesitate to put 9/11 terrorist Mohamed Atta’s photo on a magazine because there’s no angle. A woman-despising killer feeding on fantasies, he looked as evil as he was, the only surprise being that a mug like that ever made it through airport security.

Atta was a type, much like Tsarnaev’s hateful older brother Tamerlan, who may well have slaughtered three friends in cold blood even before the bombing. So that’s the question Reitman tried to answer: how does someone who’s not the type become the type? Has the type changed? The answer may be yes. Read the rest in the Toronto Star.


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