Henneberger: Rolling Stone, gathering mess in Boston

Published: Monday, July 22, 2013 5:30 a.m.CDT

“Well, we’re big rock singers, we got golden fingers and we’re loved everywhere we go. We sing about beauty and we sing about truth, at $10,000 a show. We take all kinds of pills to give us all kind of thrills, but the thrill we’ve never known is the thrill that’ll getcha when you get your picture on the cover of the Rolling Stone.”

– Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, 1972

The biggest question Bostonians have about the bombing in their city on Patriot Day is the one they’ve had since after suspected terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested in April: What turns a kid who was not just loved but beloved – the favorite of multiple teachers and coaches, and of many classmates – into someone who could look his victims in the eye before blowing them up, then head off to the gym?

Janet Reitman’s Rolling Stone piece about Jahar, as the younger Tsarnaev brother was known to his American friends, is an earnest attempt to answer that question. Some critics insist it’s mostly the glam photo on the cover that offends them; it does look like a PR shot for a member of a boy band.

But that Reitman has been getting death threats and around-the-clock calls on her cellphone from strangers who say they hope she dies in a terrorist attack suggests the push back is about a lot more than a soft-focus selfie. Is terrorizing her standing up against terrorism, or becoming what you hate? The magazine writer isn’t giving interviews but said on her Facebook page she is surprised and scared by the reaction.

Saying that Boston is protective of its own is like saying that Washington summers are on the warm side; Bostonians want the feelings of the bombing victims put first, second and third, and who can blame them?

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, who is from Boston, castigated Reitman’s work at some length on his cable show, saying her piece “spends most of its time in romantic reminiscence of what a great kid Jahar was, as described by many of his friends.” He added, “Now, I talked to many of those kids myself on the streets of Cambridge, 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.”

Although Reitman’s profile does not romanticize Tsarnaev, the profile is an inherently friendly form, by which I mean that hostility is a barrier to figuring out what makes any story subject tick. Even if the result is withering, a writer has to feel some empathy for the subject to make such a piece work. Previous Rolling Stone covers featured Charles Manson and O.J. Simpson, yet the fact most covers go to music stars made the decision to put Tsarnaev there controversial.

Jeff Seglin, who writes a weekly ethics column called the Right Thing and is a public policy lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, says the negative reaction is a little like that of the Polish peasant in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Enemies, a Love Story,” who after coming through the Holocaust is shocked there are books on the subject of Hitler: “They write books about such swine?”

Seglin thinks the Rolling Stone cover photo is journalistically defensible – and that it is perfectly in keeping with the article’s point that this was an ordinary kid gone terribly wrong. Defensible if, that is, the magazine’s editors at least grappled with the ethical issue of how using the photo might upset bombing victims and others.

The magazine isn’t answering questions about the piece, beyond a statement of sympathy for the victims posted on its website. I’m guessing Boston Mayor Tom Menino was right when he said the controversy was part of the magazine’s marketing strategy – but is it wrong to want work you’re proud of to be widely read?

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

• Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and She the People anchor who spent the past semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

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