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Editorial: Portrait of a Young Man; Critics of ‘Rolling Stone’ Are Off Target

“You can’t judge a book by its cover” is a cliche precisely because the truth it states is so commonplace as to have become trite. In fact, we know hardly anyone who would argue otherwise — at least in the abstract.

The concrete example is sometimes another matter, as demonstrated by the controversy that has erupted surrounding Rolling Stone magazine’s use on its cover of a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Thousands of people have registered their disgust with the magazine’s decision, apparently because they think the picture — which shows Tsarnaev with tousled hair and a vaguely dreamy expression — glamorizes a young man who stands accused of heinous acts that killed three people and wounded 260 others.

The flavor of these objections is captured in the comment of a bombing survivor who told the Concord Monitor that, “There are so many deserving people who are a much better example of what we should be putting out there as Americans. This is not what we want to be advertising. It’s not what we should be promoting.”

One can certainly sympathize with the ordeal many bombing victims have been through without sympathizing with these sentiments, which are wrong on so many counts that one almost loses track.

First, of course, is that Rolling Stone long ago ceased to be concerned only with music and has published much distinguished long-form journalism over the years. So appearing on the cover is not equivalent to having acquired rock-star status. As The New York Times notes, Hitler and Osama bin Laden are among those who have appeared on the cover of Time magazine, which decidedly did not endorse their actions.

Moreover, quality journalism does not promote or advertise; it documents and explains the world. And as to the notion that Rolling Stone is “just trying to sell magazines” by putting Tsarnaev on the cover, all we can say is that selling magazines (or newspapers for that matter) is the way the time-consuming and expensive business of reporting, writing and editing is underwritten. It’s also important to journalists to have as many people as possible read and look at their stories and photographs.

The second way in which this criticism goes wrong is that Tsarnaev’s physical appearance, which projects a sort of insouciant charm, is exactly what makes the Marathon bombings so perplexing and scary. The headline that appears with the picture on the cover conveys this quite effectively: “The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.”

That word “Monster” is a dead giveaway to the end point of the journey detailed in the accompanying article, which is the most insightful of the many that we have read on the subject. It reports that all appearances to the contrary, there were some hints along the way that Tsarnaev led an interior life quite different from the ordinary one his friends thought they knew.

It is just this contrast between the seeming ordinariness of a laid-back teen and the terror he allegedly unleashed that makes understanding the hinge on which Tsarnaev’s life turned so important. Because if he demonstrated anything, it is that you can’t judge a book by its cover.