Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Art of Vilification

In the last day or two Rolling Stone magazine has been taken to task by many observers for publishing a cover photo of accused Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Some major magazine sales outlets have refused to sell the issue.

At root is emotionalism, which, although it is understandable, must be tempered in a society that claims and expects to be governed by the rule of law. The operative term is accused. In the American justice system a person stands innocent until proven guilty. But Dzkokhar Tsarnaev has been judged by the court of public opinion. In that court, he’s already guilty.

If Rolling Stone should be taken to task, it would be more justifiably because the magazine is pandering to public vilification of this accused bomber, not by putting his photograph on the cover but by underlining it with the words “The Bomber.” The magazine has already judged him guilty, like much of the public.

That the photo has caused such outcry seems disingenuous. Perhaps the outcry is because Rolling Stone is more often thought of as a popular culture magazine than a serious commentator on hard news. Perhaps it is because the photo is not the usual image of a bedraggled prisoner awaiting trial that has become a standard form of public vilification, often of those not yet judged to be guilty but, like Dzkokhar Tsarnaev, awaiting their day in court.

Taken merely as subjects of current interest, accused and convicted criminals, murderers all, are frequently featured on magazine covers. It is a stock device of longstanding for Time magazine in particular. In 1943 Time featured a heroic portrait of Russian dictator Josef Stalin and named him its Man of the Year. More recently, in 1999, Time featured the smiling faces of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. They look like fresh-faced teenagers, but they are better remembered as the Columbine High School shooters. Saddam Hussein, Adolph Hitler, Muammar Gaddafi, Idi Amin, Timothy McVeigh, the list goes on, foreign and domestic—all have been featured on magazine covers.

This instance of featuring a killer, accused or convicted, is not a one-off for Rolling Stone. In 1970 Rolling Stone put mass murderer Charles Manson on its cover; Life had done the same the previous year. Does putting Dzkokhar Tsarnaev on Rolling Stone make him a “rock star,” as some have commented? My guess is that it doesn’t have that effect for most viewers, any more than putting Saddam Hussein’s smiling face on the cover of Time made him into a kindly father figure.
The old saw is that a picture is worth a thousand words. What those words are must be conjured up in the mind of the viewer. Rolling Stone’s use of this particular image of the accused Boston bomber feeds the imagination of different people in different ways. Those who have already judged Dzkokhar Tsarnaev guilty find the image too positive, too apparently innocent. The art of vilification demands a darker vision.