Judging the cover

A 'Rolling Stone' cover featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev raises questions about celebrity in our time

The artfully tousled locks of many a young man have adorned the cover of Rolling Stone, that most iconic of music magazines. But none of those men has been on trial for bombing a marathon. It was inevitable, then, that the magazine's decision to extend the symbolic, "you've arrived" kind of honour that rock stars have sung about in the past to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, prime accused in the Boston Marathon bombing, has touched a nerve. There has been outrage over putting Tsarnaev on the cover at all, and using the "glamour shot" for a story that paints him as another kid failed by the system. There have been calls for a boycott of the magazine and widespread criticism on social media.

Other people who have done despicable things have graced magazine covers for instance, Adolf Hitler in Time. News weeklies closer home have featured Veerappan. This very picture of Tsarnaev was published on the front page of The New York Times. Rolling Stone has pointed to its own record in defence it prides itself on being a publication that balances coverage of the arts with investigative journalism into current events. A magazine feature cost the then commander of the ISAF, General Stanley McChrystal, his job in 2010.

Yet, much of the backlash isn't directed against simply the fact that Rolling Stone chose to do a story on Tsarnaev. It frames a larger and niggling unease with the definition of celebrity, and its portrayal. A Rolling Stone cover carries with it connotations of legitimation and fame. By putting a dreamy photo of Tsarnaev on its cover, the magazine, even while calling him a monster, projects him as a star.

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