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Q&A With Ronald Bishop: Looking Past Rolling Stone’s Cover

July 22, 2013

Rolling Stone cover

Ron BishopRolling Stone magazine’s Aug. 1 cover photo stirred controversy across the nation when it was released last week. Politicians rebutted. Victims raged. Retailers refused to sell the edition.

The face plastered provocatively on the cover like a rock star? Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

Ronald Bishop, a professor in the Department of Culture and Communication, looked past the cover and into the story. He found it fascinating.

The former journalist, trade publication editor and public relations manager said the article is an example of quality reporting—it tells a compelling story about young Jahar, as he was known to his friends, and his motives on that April morning, something Bishop thinks is valuable to understand.

Did you have a chance to read the Rolling Stone story?

I did read the story—and it's excellent. If we could all get past the manufactured crisis about the cover, we might actually learn something about what compelled this young man to act as he did.

Why do you think Rolling Stone printed the story?

The fact that Rolling Stone printed the story and then backed up their decision is all too rare in our “make a mistake/apologize immediately and profusely or else lose your job immediately” world. I applaud their bravery. It's so important that we understand what would motivate someone to act this way. I don't think Rolling Stone published the piece to change how we feel about Tsarnaev—persuasion isn't always about trying to convert someone; sometimes it’s done just to convince folks that you have something valid to say. Any media outlet in this country is going to be concerned with selling magazines and compelling page views, but I like to think that there's always a little education going on in all that entertaining.

Do you think Rolling Stone glamorized Tsarnaev?

Fascination with "bad boys"—not to diminish at all what Tsarnaev and his brother did—is not new. Jesse James was as revered and as idolized as he was feared. The media of the time went along for the ride, with breathless accounts of his nefarious deeds. A main difference perhaps is that today we spend a lot more time and energy analyzing the contours of fame and celebrity. We don't just soak it in or revel in it—we dissect it. As a matter of fact, knowledge of fame mechanisms is a relatively new way to gain a smaller-scale sort of fame. This trope has been a calling card at Rolling Stone for some time.

Underlying this fascination, I think, is an ongoing narrative concocted by the media to persuade us that our lives are boring, and that figures like James—or Tsarnaev—even though they've done horrible things, represent excitement. They may also stir in us the usually unrequited desire to question/challenge authority—the "stick it to the man" mindset. I think too, though, that it's one of many narratives in our culture that reduces women to brainless, crazed caricatures. The discussion about the cover proceeds from that assumption, or reinforces it.

Was it too soon? Was printing a story like this too sensitive for Americans?

The "too soon" argument is a well-worn rhetorical tool employed to persuade us not to talk about controversial or uncomfortable things. It's like when the media refer constantly to a woman being the first to run for office, or become a CEO—if they keep referring to them as the first, their progress will never be truly recognized.

It definitely was not too soon—this kind of in-depth, probing analysis should have been published a while ago. Of course, it takes a considerable amount of time to mount the kind of reporting effort that produces an excellent piece like this. But we live in a time when most of us get our news in digestible nuggets, so the thought that it might take a reporter months to compile a piece is unfathomable—to their editors, too, I'm afraid.

The "too sensitive" argument is an excuse for censorship, too.