Rolling Stone cover of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Boston bombing suspect, stirs controversy

A Massachusetts State Police photographer has released images he shot of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing, in response to a controversial Rolling Stone cover:

In one of Sgt. Sean Murphy’s photos, a dazed and bloodied Tsarnaev emerges in surrender from the parked boat in which he hid from a police dragnet days after the bombing in April. Tsarnaev is disheveled in the photo; his face and upraised hand are bloodied, as is the hull of the boat. A police marksman’s red laser dot lights up Tsarnaev’s forehead.

Murphy said he released the photo and several others to Boston magazine, which published them online Thursday, because he was upset by the Rolling Stone cover, which featured a shot Tsarnaev took of himself looking tousled, relaxed and friendly.

The Rolling Stone photo has sparked widespread outrage, and several chain stores said they wouldn’t sell the issue in sympathy with those who deemed it inappropriate.

Murphy was apparently the only police photographer behind the lines during the hunt for Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, who was killed in a shootout with police officers. Boston magazine said Murphy photographed “high-level conferences, the mobilization of law enforcement, and the dramatic capture.” His photos have never been made public until now, the magazine said.

He brought the photos to the magazine “because he was outraged” by the Rolling Stone cover and because he appreciated Boston magazine’s coverage of the aftermath of the bombings, Boston magazine editor John Wolfson said in an interview. “He’s been sitting on them for months. I don’t think he ever intended to release them at all.”

In a statement to Boston magazine, Murphy said, “As a professional law-enforcement officer of 25 years, I believe that the image that was portrayed by Rolling Stone magazine was an insult to any person who has ever worn a uniform of any color or any police organization or military branch, and the family members who have ever lost a loved one serving in the line of duty. The truth is that glamorizing the face of terror is not just insulting to the family members of those killed in the line of duty, it also could be an incentive to those who may be unstable to do something to get their face on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.”

Paul Farhi

The image on the cover of the magazine, although enhanced slightly for technical reasons, is substantively the same as the one featured on the front page of The New York Times earlier this year, writes Erik Wemple:

Given that the Times chose to place this sultry, flattering photo of accused Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the front page of its Sunday paper on May 5, what kind of nasty backlash did Wines face?

When the Erik Wemple Blog first contacted Wines on this matter, he vowed to go back and check. Later he called back, reporting that he’d sifted through his electronic mails from the period in question. Results? Negative. “I went through my e-mails and I generally save all my e-mails for a long time. I don’t see anything dealing” with this, he says. “I have to assume there was no backlash.” . . .

Margaret Sullivan is the Times public editor, whose job consists in large part of complaint intake. She had to have been overwhelmed! E-mail overloaded dysfunction! “I don’t remember a great deal about it, but I remember [complaints] from a couple of readers. It is a common theme,” says Sullivan, referring to the routine occasions on which the paper will write about someone who’s done something bad. “I’ve often heard readers object to what they see as the glorification of someone who’s in the news for a negative reason, whether it’s the shooter after the Newtown massacre or the Boston bombing suspects, but there is often legitimate news value in using those photos.”

Yup. That last sentiment says it. All those protesting Rolling Stone’s use of the photo in July should be forced to declare whether they objected to the New York Times treatment in May. If not, what’s the fuss?

The disparity in responses to the Times and Rolling Stone tells us everything we don’t know about the impact of journalism on the public. It’s utterly inscrutable and unpredictable. Timing, presentation, mood, photo-cropping, differing perceptions of the role of these two publications — they all play a role in explaining why today we have a baseless explosion of public outrage and had very little reaction back in May.

Erik Wemple

Melinda Henneberger supports the magazine’s decision to feature Tsarnaev’s image:

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, who is from Boston, castigated Reitman’s work at some length on his cable show, claiming that her piece “spends most of its time in romantic reminiscence of what a great kid Jahar was, as described by many of his friends. Now, I talked to many of those kids myself on the streets of Cambridge,” O’Donnell added, “and I found them — as the article does — completely mystified about how their nice guy friend could possibly have been involved with the bombing. I, therefore, found them ultimately rather uninteresting people to talk to once that point was made.” Then again, O’Donnell often finds many of his own guests uninteresting people to talk to — or to listen to, anyway . . .

Previous Rolling Stone cover boys include Charles Manson and O.J. Simpson, but the fact that most covers do go to music stars made the decision to put Tsarnaev there automatically controversial. As understandable — and predictable, too — as the outrage is, however, I’m still glad Rolling Stone ran the piece — and continued to work on a puzzle we’ll spend years trying to fit together . . .

At the time of the bombings, I was living in Cambridge, where my son was enrolled in the high school Jahar and his older brother Tamerlan had attended, and I do know how much pain was inflicted on a city I came to care about and admire, too, in my short time there.

But if publishing the photo was so outrageous, why was it okay for critics to share it all over social media? And isn’t the corporate censorship carried out by the stores that have elected not to carry this issue of the magazine in a sense scoring one for the terrorists by undermining free speech? They shouldn’t sell Boston so short. Because ultimately, as Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham wrote, her city is way too tough to be knocked around by any picture in a magazine.

Melinda Henneberger

For Wemple, both Rolling Stone and Boston presented important and equally valid aspects of Tsarnaev’s story:

There’s no questioning the purity of Murphy’s motives. His statement reflects a sense of duty and a loyalty to those afflicted by the Boston bombings.

Yet his view of reality appears limited. In professing that his photos captured something “real,” he is suggesting that the image on the cover of Rolling Stone represents something less than “real” — that the Tsarnaev that looks at us from the magazine cover is somehow fake or artificial. Only it is not. That is a version of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev that’s just as real as the weary, bloody version that we see in the police photos. It’s merely taken at a different point in his life. No amount of gory manhunt photography will undo the fact that Tsarnaev was once, by all accounts, a gregarious and well-adjusted part of our society. Rolling Stone set out to tell that story.

These photos show the “monster” terminus of the evolution that Rolling Stone documented in its feature-investigative piece. By pairing the story with a photo of Tsarnaev looking relaxed and inviting, the magazine, critics have argued, glamorized him and even provided incentives for others to follow his example.

Erik Wemple

For past coverage of this story, continue reading here.

Max Ehrenfreund is a blogger on the Financial desk and writes for Know More and Wonkblog.
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