Most news organizations spent yesterday giving significant attention to the latest cover of an issue of the Rolling Stone featuring a photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the young man on trial for his involvement in the Boston bombing. The controversy did not merit the kind of attention it received, although the decision by CVS, Walgreens, Rite-Aid and Kmart to not allow the issue to be sold in the stores may because it is an act of censorship.
However, to the extent that individuals with histories in government, especially the administration of President Barack Obama, are going on cable news networks to make hysterical claims about what they think the cover might do, that is worthy of comment.
During CNN’s “The Situation Room” with Wolf Blitzer yesterday, former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor appeared in a segment on the cover. He said, “There is the potential that the cover could make kids feel like terrorism is cool like you are going to get the rock star treatment by murdering people.”
No kid in America was thinking that until Vietor opened his mouth and suggested this as a “potential” effect of the cover. But now that he said this on CNN, there are many kids who are thinking about how they could one day be on the cover of the Rolling Stone if they launch an attack on America.
Vietor was also on CNN for an interview on Jake Tapper’s program, “The Lead.” He articulated the following:
VIETOR: My concern about the cover vs. the article is you look at the cover, this is a kid who looks like John Lennon without the glasses or Jim Morrison, as you said. He looks cool. This is something you might aspire to.
A lot of what you do to try to prevent people from getting self- radicalized here in the U.S. undercut the al Qaeda narrative, the extremist narrative that there is something noble behind these sort of actions. Right? We all know, as reasonable people, that these are nihilistic, self-destructive, murderous actions that will lead to nothing good for you life, but when you see something like this immortalized for lack of a better word on the cover of a magazine, I think that’s appealing to young people that are depressed or disaffected or looking for some meaning. [emphasis added]
Again, no depressed or disaffected young people were thinking a good way to handled their depression or disaffection was to become a terrorist and kill innocent Americans so he could get on the Rolling Stone. That is, until Vietor said this on air. No many depressed or disaffected young people exposed to this broadcast have this idea and they may choose terrorism as a way of acting out.
The point being made is that covers of magazines with terrorists or news stories on terrorists or news stories with national security leaks do not inspire terrorism to the extent that United States government officials (and former officials like Vietor) like to believe. And what is far more likely to inspire terrorism is the reaction—the combination of a backlash from officials in government and commentators in media.
The reaction, the widespread suggestion that Rolling Stone “glorified” a terrorist by putting a photo on the cover of their magazine that went with the article and happened to be aesthetically pleasing creates the perception that the cover, in fact, does glorify a terrorist.
Pfc. Bradley Manning, the soldier charged by the military with several offenses after disclosing United States government information to WikiLeaks, is charged with “aiding the enemy.” The military prosecutors have said that he gave intelligence to WikiLeaks knowing that would end up in the hands of the enemy. They cited as evidence the fact that Osama bin Laden requested copies of documents Manning is charged with releasing. However, according to his defense attorney, that does not fully reflect why bin Laden was interested in reading the information.
Bin Laden did not request the information immediately when it was published. According to Manning’s attorney, David Coombs, the evidence shows that bin Laden was only interested in reading what WikiLeaks had published when he heard US government officials making claims that the information could be helpful to terrorists.
Similarly, there have been suggestions by officials at the National Security Agency and other agencies in government that terrorist groups are now changing their tactics after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden disclosed information on massive secret surveillance programs that civil liberties groups and multiple congressmen have contended violate the law and are unconstitutional.
It is not like Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups do not know they are under mass surveillance by the US government. However, perhaps, they did not realize that there were ways around it and, after hearing this talking point multiple times from officials, they finally decided there must be a way to get around US government surveillance. It is possible now that terrorist groups are dodging surveillance because they were listening to public statements from officials—statements similar to the ones Vietor has decided to make a career delivering.
Vietor also patronizingly said:
This is why your job and the job journalists do is tough, because you deal with these delicate issues like suicide or simple things as when a fan runs onto the field at a game. They don’t show that activity because they don’t want to get people to mimic it.
So these are tough things you journalists weigh when you look at really different important issues and how to cover them, but making sure we’re not giving the people who do bad things what they want, which is publicity.
However, going on television and contributing to CNN’s day-long coverage of this cover is just exactly the kind of publicity a terrorist who hates America would want.
In conclusion, media critic for the Washington Post, Erik Wemple, addressed this fake controversy best when he appeared on “OutFront” with Erin Burnett on CNN:
WEMPLE: I don’t see this glorification and see this as humanization. OK, I mean, this picture it humanizes Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and that’s a problem for a lot people because they want to see him as an animal from day one. Well, look, Erin, the facts are he wasn’t an animal at least to his peer group for the longest time. They remembered him as a dear friend. That is a problem because he was part of our society and he turned on it by all indications or allegedly.
That is a huge problem and that is very disconcerting because we would like to think and I think it is true that the more people become integrated in our society, the more they love it and the less inclined they would be to do something as ghastly as this. That is what is really upsetting about this. It is not that “Rolling Stone” used an image that is out there that has been used before to illustrate a story that is perfectly congruous with the picture. There is nothing about these two things. They exists side besides very harmoniously.
That is a much more responsible and reasonable reaction to the cover. It is why Rolling Stone should be defended as stores refuse to sell this issue in stores.
It is also why statements by people like Vietor of this nature should be challenged because generating this kind of a controversy is far more likely to give terrorists ideas about attacking America than any acts of journalism or free speech.
For greater glimpse at Vietor, here’s video of him showing off his ability to instantly utter newspeak when asked to engage in spin.