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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, July 19, 2013

On the Cover of the Rolling Stone

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's head shot on the cover of the Rolling Stone magazine has evoked considerable anger at the magazine's editorial choice. 

The photo of Tsarnaev is glossy and slightly out-of-focus. It conveys a dream-like quality that could be seen as evoking youthful idealism. 

In celebrity journalism, it is a "glamour shot." The implication for many people is that the magazine was attempting to glamourize terrorism. Tsarnaev and his dead brother are accused of setting the Boston Marathon bombs that killed three people and injured more than a hundred others - many permanently disabled. 

In Boston the reaction is understandably intense. Mayor Thomas Merino has denounced the magazine and called for a boycott. Some distributors are refusing to deliver copies. The Boston police photographer who took photos of a bloodied Tsarnaev at his capture is similarly angry. And the conversations on line are equally tense.

Of course, the goal of all journalism is to be interesting and even provocative. Attracting eyeballs is a part of what media are all about.

But was this responsible journalism, or just an attempt to boost circulation at a time when much of print journalism is floundering?

Probably both.

I think this was a brilliant cover because of the conversations it has started. That is one of the real purposes of journalism - to be convenor of discussions. So bravo to Rolling Stone for starting that.

The nature of that discussion as I've seen and heard them, is fascinating because it directly connects to a film that happens to be playing around North America.

The film is called Hannah Arendt

Arendt was a brilliant German-Jewish refugee, living and teaching in New York who was asked to cover the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for the New Yorker magazine. Adolf Eichmann was the Nazi officer who literally made the trains to Auschwitz run on time. After the war, he fled to Argentina where in 1962, Israeli agents kidnapped him and brought him to trial in Israel.

This was a historic moment, not only for questions of accountability for war crimes, but whether Israel in fact, had the legal right to try Eichmann for a crime that was committed before the State of Israel was founded in 1947.

Arendt wrote what was a historic piece of long-form journalism. Entitled "Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil."

Her thesis was that Eichmann was not an evil genius. Just ordinary. A man who simply followed orders from above and help commit one of the greatest crimes in history.

The film demonstrates the outrage that Arendt's journalism caused. Many were appalled that Arendt seemed to be rationalizing what Eichmann had done. The cultural role of the Holocaust in American life was only just emerging, less than 20 years after the war. For many in the Jewish community, the beginnings of that discussion were so painful, that Arendt appeared to be minimizing the horror.

That's why the Rolling Stone cover evokes similar outrage: the photo shows Tsarnaev to be a modern young man, poetic and attractive in his way. The media have conditioned us to see terrorists as "mad mullahs." We are more comfortable with terrorists who are so not like us and our children, that we can easily demonize them.

Dzokhar Tsarnaev is probably more ordinary than we would like to believe. Arendt's phrase, "the banality of evil" still has the power to move us and upset us.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Professor Dvorkin,

    I am an Arendt fan and taught her for the course we had in January. I think the parallels you've made here are quite striking. This nineteen-year old was more a pawn of a larger system than Eichmann was and what happened in Boston was quite dramatic and sad on multiple levels.

    Warm Regards,