Sunday, July 21, 2013

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Rolling Stone

What happened to "innocent until proven guilty"?

People are upset over Rolling Stone’s cover depicting Dzhokhar Tsnarnaev — for all the wrong reasons.

Rolling Stone has earned a reputation for gutsy reporting, for articles and covers that did not shy away from controversy. And at first glance, this cover does that: it features a picture of accused, indicted terrorist Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who, at the time the photograph was taken, was a very attractive young man.

And that’s what the criticism is about:

They’re trying to make him look like a rock star and he’s a horrible person that did a horrible thing,” said Rachel Carfarella, who dislikes the magazine cover.

The new ‘Rolling Stone’ cover is disgusting. It sensationalizes Marc’s pain as well as all the other victims and survivors. It is an insult to the families and people impacted that day,” said the friend of a victim — reported in 7News, Boston’s NBC station.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino wrote to Rolling Stone: “Your August 3 cover rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment. It is ill conceived, at best, and reaffirms a terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their “causes”… — r
eported in Time magazine online

People are upset because of way Tsarnaev looks. Definitely, the picture makes Tsarnaev look like a rock star. He’s handsome, well dressed, his hair is perfect, and the setting — the cover of the Rolling Stone, which, as the song says, is a place for rock stars — well, it all evokes the sex symbol.

But read the cutline on the cover: “How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell Into Radical Islam and Became a Monster.”

Rolling Stone is telling the world that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a monster.


Tsarnaev has been charged and indicted in connection with the Boston Marathon bombings in April. He has pled not guilty. He has not been tried, yet.

It seems to me that in the US, a country that loves to remind itself and the world about its constitution and bill of rights, that an accused is assumed innocent until proven guilty in court. And I remember in journalism school, how professors admonished students to be very careful about describing accused people. In Canada in the 20th century, as I recall, even using the word “alleged” was risky for a journalist — it could lead to prejudicing a jury.

The cover headline is not the only place where Rolling Stone crosses that line. Read the article, and you’ll find a lot of language that assumes Tsarnaev’s guilt.

The author, Janet Reitman, spoke with Tsarnaev’s teachers, friends and family, then presented their memories and opinions as facts. While it is a fact that these people said these things, Reitman is a professional journalist and Rolling Stone is a long-standing publication whose editors know how publication in print adds weight to opinions like this.

The article begins with a description of the Tsarnaev family, how they came from Russia and settled into Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dzhokhar began calling himself “Jahar,” and sometimes “Joe” as part of assimilating, and hung out with American friends. He became legendary for selling pot and getting high.

At one point during his junior year in high school, he expressed sympathy with some acts of terrorism. One of his friends says “he said he felt some of those acts were justified because of what the U.S. does in other countries, and that they do it so frequently,dropping bombs all the time."
That’s where the article begins subtly characterizing Tsarnaev as a monster, condemning him in text.

In retrospect, Jahar's comment about 9/11 could be seen in the context of what criminal profilers call "leakage": a tiny crack in an otherwise carefully crafted facade that, if recognized — it's often not — provides a key into the person's interior world. "On cases where I've interviewed these types of people, the key is looking past their exterior and getting access to that interior, which is very hard," says Tom Neer, a retired agent from the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit and now a senior associate with the Soufan Group, which advises the government on counterterrorism. "Most people have a public persona as well as a private persona, but for many people, there's a secret side, too. And the secret side is something that they labor really hard to protect."

The article goes even further in characterizing Jahar’s brother, Tamerlan, who was killed in a gunfight in the pursuit of the Tsarnaev brothers, by quoting his family: “His uncle Ruslan had urged him to join the Army ... But Tamerlan laughed, his uncle recalls, for suggesting he kill ‘our brother Muslims.’"
The article cuts abruptly from detailed descriptions of the brothers’ daily lives to generalizations about terrorists. The impression of the Tsarnaevs as terrorists in inescapable.
... in January, Tamerlan and his wife reportedly lost the Section 8 housing subsidy that had enabled them to afford their apartment, leaving them with the prospect of a move...Why a person with an extreme or "radical" ideology may decide to commit violence is an inexact science, but experts agree that there must be a cognitive opening of some sort.
This next paragraph makes the huge leap from journalism to conjecture:
For Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the explanation for his anger was all around him. And so, dissuaded from his quest to wage jihad in Dagestan, he apparently turned his gaze upon America, the country that, in his estimation, had caused so much suffering, most of all his own.

By the last page of the article, Reitman completes the transition from reporting facts to presenting others’ opinions as facts, and painting her subject as a monster. She desbribes how three of Jahar Tsarnaev’s friends, Robel, Dias and Azamat, came to the apartment Tsarnaev shared following the Boston bombing and noticed
Jahar's backpack, which the boys noticed had some fireworks inside, emptied of powder [apparently, Jahar’s backpack did not match the one on the surveillance videos]. Not sure what to do, they grabbed the bag as well as Jahar's computer, and went back to Dias and Azamat's off-campus apartment, where they "started to freak out, because it became clear from a CNN report . . . that Jahar was one of the Boston Marathon bombers," Robel later told the FBI.
Did you notice that: the interview subjects, Tsarnaev’s friends, started to freak out because it became clear from a CNN report that Jahar was one of the bombers. Rolling Stone is not the first to assume Tsarnaev's guilt.

Tsarnaev has already been tried and convicted by tabloid TV news. Not by a court and jury, which has high standards for those silly things called “facts.” Instead, the US public are making conclusions based on TV reporting, which is notoriously inaccurate and unreliable, and then taking that as indisputable truth.

From the first release by police of surveillance video, the mainstream media have all immediately accepted the Tsarnaev brothers' guilt as fact.

Reitman makes a concluding statement about Dzhokhar Tsnarnaev, where she completes her portrait of a monster she has created:
The contents of Jahar's closely guarded psyche, meanwhile, may never be fully understood. Nor, most likely, will his motivations — which is quite common with accused terrorists. "There is no single precipitating event or stressor," says Neer. "Instead, what you see with most of these people is a gradual process of feeling alienated or listless or not connected. But what they all have in common is a whole constellation of things that aren't working right."
In her own terms, author Reitman has succeeded. She brought the readers of her article from a conception of her subject, Dzhokhar Tsnarnaev, from cute American kid to monster terrorist.

But in terms of justice, of human rights, her article contributes to the demonization of a human being. Will it be possible for Tsarnaev to get a fair trial now?
I anticipate a backlash to this post; there are people who will say that a monster who bombs innocent people does not deserve a fair trial.

But here’s the thing, as the young people say: Tsarnaev has pleaded not guilty. What if he isn’t the one?

It is possible. One purpose of a trial is to sort out this kind of question, and Reitman’s article, and the similar coverage in all other US media, makes that trial more difficult.

That’s why people should be upset about the article — about the text, but not about the image. 


  1. You got it right. It's such a stretch to say that because Jahar (like most people) can see why someone might want to retaliate against a murderous foreign military occupation, would make him a terrorist. Again and again, the FBI is rounding up young Muslim Americans for political comments, even jokes they made on the internet, making a huge leap to accusing them planning to think about committing terrorism, and putting people in jail who never committed any crime. This case is particularly bizarre since the Federal government is not authorized to charge an individual with a "weapon of mass destruction" - this is the first time anyone in the US has been charged of this.

  2. Agreed 100%. An American citizen denied basic rights to innocent until proven or admitted guilt in a court of law. Boo for that, Rolling Stone, not your cover.

  3. Anonymous4:04 PM

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. Professional journalism has apparently gone out the window. I'm glad there are some people like you who still have integrity instead of just parroting what the public wants to hear.

    1. What's more disturbing is that the so-called independent mass media are parroting what the federal government wants people to think. And even more often, what big corporations want people to think.

  4. I don't see Jahar as a monster. I see him as a human being who is loving, caring, respectful, humble, shy, loyal and confused. I think Jahar had to struggle with two lives and to keep them separate. One life with his family and one with his friends. It must of been very hard and yes he made mistakes but he had to learn how to balance both lives. His family devotion was something no one could break. Yes Jahar knows right from wrong but when it came to Tamerlan he could never go against him. In a split second Jahar's free life was taken away from him. I also believe Jahar was going through depression and separation disorder.. I hope he does get a fair trail and i hope Jahar takes it all the way to the end.

    1. These may be your beliefs, but remember, nothing has been proven in court yet. That's the point: Rolling Stone presents these debatable, unsupported ideas as facts.

    2. Anonymous5:11 PM

      Unfortunately RS isn't the only media outlet to present their "information" as facts. It's just such a shame one can't trust the (american) media at all anymore. Here in Europe we tend to translate a lot o.t. American articles, but it seems to be in a somewhat softer tone (well at least mostly)

  5. Anonymous6:53 PM

    My sentiments exactly! I was wondering why the Tsarnaev family doesn't sue for libel. For one thing it trashes the family, most of which is speculation, and for another the cover proclaims him the bomber and a monster. As you point out not only has it not been proven but the truth to this story may never come out. I was dismayed to see Rolling Stone, who is known for hard hitting journalism, do such a softball piece.
    At the very least I thought they'd delve into what happened to him after being taken into custody. Throat wound, no throat wound? Confession, no confession? Etc.
    I have followed this case avidly and there are many inconsistencies and things that defy logic.
    To me, the reason the cover is so poignant is because no, he doesn't look like a monster. My gut tells me he isn't one.

    1. Anonymous1:18 PM

      thank you !

  6. I can't believe so much people took his guiltiness as a fact, not even they questioned at least once if could be a chance he's not guilty? Something HAS to change, and for better, people just can't accept things so easily and take them as the pure truth without think before.

  7. Anonymous6:53 PM

    Right On! The presumption of innocence has flown out the window on this one! This guy has been tried in the media and court of public opinion all based on one sided accounts. I am perplexed as to why the American public is so willing to believe anything the government says without question and is so full of hate for this guy. ??