By Jennifer Jean Miller
NEW YORK, NY – This past week, I sat in a courtroom for one of the publications I work with, to report on a man who was sentenced to 75 years behind bars, for taking the life of a young woman.
The murderer, Giuseppe Tedesco, tried to duck from his appearance at the sentencing, something that was upheld by the Supreme Court of New Jersey that he must show to.
While at the hearing, photos of the victim, Alyssa Ruggieri, were prominently displayed, as the victim’s family members spoke about this special lady, and the beautiful life snuffed out too soon by a heinous crime.
The hearing was of course, to take care of business, which that business was punishing the criminal for the heinous crime he committed.
It was also about the victim, and an opportunity for the family, not the defendant, to have the final say.
When Rolling Stone decided to write the article, “Jahar’s World,” which officially hit newsstands on Friday, it chronicled the life of the young Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, aka “Jahar,” and explored his transition from student, to terrorist. A former coach and classmates of his were interviewed. Some expressed sadness, others surprise, others recalled times spent with a boy that they wrestled and smoked pot with, and who descended from a stellar student, to academic failure and a jihadist fixation.
The author, Janet Reitman, spent several months since the April 15 attacks on Boston, interviewing those who know the bomber.
What I have written here about the topic of the Rolling Stone article, I hope, is an objective and balanced analysis of the entire matter, which is my goal; although this is partly an opinion piece, it will, in tandem, indicate where I have been as a journalist, and what direction I would have taken on this road. It is my First Amendment right to be able to do so.
I do recognize Reitman’s efforts for her journalistic research on the article, though I do not personally agree with the subject she decided to (or her publication asked her to) focus on. Her article though is a testament to Reitman’s talents as an investigative journalist and writer, and I will commend her for that.
Rolling Stone already has a history for writing about controversial figures including Charles Manson (which the publication won an award for), Julien Assange, and Bradley Manning, and do a thorough reporting about their subjects.
I have presided over a number of trials and hearings, including the one on Wednesday, have met a number of victims, and if they have not survived the crime, I have met their families. It is always heart-wrenching to watch the struggles victims, and/or their families endure, after having been sentenced to a new life themselves, due to the actions imposed on them by the hatred of those who harmed them.
I sat in the courtroom this last week, and watched a father tremble with emotion, as he addressed the nightmare he imagined his daughter experienced in her final moments, pleading with the judge for the harshest sentence for the man that killed her. I saw a mother as well, describe her daughter’s inner and outer beauty, and lamented that she will never see her married, nor experience many other life milestones together that most parents are fortunate to experience. A family cousin also spoke on their behalf, appearing stoic on the outside yet obviously sensitive, as he pleaded for a tough sentence. And lastly a brother, who looked up to his sibling, and recounted some times just before her death, and cried about what could have been for his sister.
The courtroom was filled with tears, as friends of the victim choked back their sobs, and court employees also dabbed away the wetness from their eyes.
As family members and friends of the victim gathered outside the courtroom following the sentencing, several members of the media also huddled together. One recounted how difficult it was to hold back her tears.
I explained that I often have a difficult time holding back my tears in these cases, and expressed how I think it is acceptable for the public to see members of the media cry in these cases, as it shows our human side. My own lips trembled and eyes welled in the courtroom.
The reply from this reporter was that we should not be seen crying, or we could be accused of being biased in our stories.
I absolutely disagree with this viewpoint, and it was pointed out to me by Richard Pompelio, Victims’ Rights Attorney, whose eyes were also very welled up, that he has even seen judges break down in such sad situations.
As members of the media, we are often thought of and generalized as “the media,” “the press,” or “the paparazzi,” which, in the public view, is often classified as one huge heap of heartless and cruel journalists, reporters and photographers.
I have been lumped into that category, and unnecessarily so, as most times as I gather details for my stories in these sad situations, my heart breaks. It is these times as well, and from within these reserves of sensitivity, that a journalist gathers the true essence to develop a story that digs deeply into the very heart of the situation itself. Those tears are liquid gold for a journalist.
In spite of the choice of a subject, I also see this sensitivity in Reitman’s writings.
While covering the hearing last week, another local reporter and I were summoned over to speak to the victim’s mother, who thanked the local media, and gave each of us a hug.
She hugged me warmly, and I told her, “God bless you.”
I have written about numerous other victims, beginning with Richard Pompelio, who is essentially known as the “godfather” of the victims rights movement in New Jersey. His name is synonymous with his extensive work as an attorney with victims in high profile cases. He is the founder of the New Jersey Crime Victims Law Center, the first established pro-bono law center of its kind in the nation.
Richard developed his heart for helping victims after he became a victim himself when his son, Tony, was murdered. Tony and I attended high school together. Last year, I was bestowed the honor to present a scholarship award to a boy who was chosen for his courageous acts, an award given out annually in Tony’s name.
There have been other victims whose lives have touched mine, with varying degrees of separation.
I was present at the sentencing hearing for Dharun Ravi, who was the trigger for Tyler Clementi to have jumped to his death. Although I did not speak to Clementi’s family, our paths crossed that day as we passed one another while they exited from a rear door stairwell (I was standing in the hallway near it, waiting for the restroom), with anguished looks on their faces, and I simply watched them slip away, feeling a sense of emptiness for them. It was this day that Ravi was sentenced 30 days in jail, assigned 300 hours of community, and fined $10,000. My piece reflects words from Tyler’s brother, a statement from M.B., who was the boy that Ravi saw Clementi with (Richard Pompelio read his statement), and balances out with a statement from Ravi’s mother on the stand.
I also spent an afternoon in the home of Dorthy Moxley, the mother of slain girl, Martha Moxley, who was bludgeoned to death by Kennedy cousin Michael Skakel; I interviewed Dorthy to hear more about how she has carried on following her daughter’s tragic passing. She is such a brave woman, who has given an example to all, about how to carry on and shed light on the world, after such a senseless tragedy; it is a story all could easily be inspired by. I was in awe as I listened, and then wrote about Dorthy’s incredible courage.
More recently, I witnessed a victim situation of a different kind, breaking the news for the one publication I write for, and providing on the scene reports, when two boys slipped under the ice this past winter in Budd Lake, N.J. This was a double tragedy, with two sets of families and friends waiting in the bitter cold for word, as a rescue mission turned into recovery. Watching the sorrow in the family members of the boys, and listening to their sobs as their sons were found, plus watching a candlelit vigil among tween and teen contemporaries of the boys, was so much to bear.
With all of the above, my heart has been knotted with sadness, and my eyes filled with tears. Returning home to my own family, I just want to hug them even closer, and count my every blessing.
At times I do question if others in the media feel the same, or if it is just another day, as I watch them trample over one another, and over barricades or police tape, for the best photo, or to approach a victim for a statement. One enterprising cameraman from a large network, rested a video camera on my head when I was in Budd Lake, to attempt the best view. His focal point suddenly changed from award-winning to blurred, as I ducked and quickly removed myself as his breathing tripod, and expelled the obnoxious and unwelcome squatter and his audacious equipment from my noggin.
It is important for members of the press to recognize the decorum required in these situations, and operate with class, and respect, for the victims involved (and of course towards one another as in my anecdote above). In most cases, there are families who are devastated because of the acts of another group. To behave badly, and to rub the perpetrators in their faces by focusing on them, returns their pain all over again.
Though many of us are curious what would make Jahar do what he did, to do an in-depth story, with focus on him that includes a sexy-looking cover photo glamorizing him, is giving him a rock star presence, literally. First, to make the cover of Rolling Stone is rock star enough. There are also comparisons being made to other famous covers since it was unveiled, including the late great talent, Jim Morrison, that Jahar’s look emulates.
It is the public, not the publication, that has been glamorizing the idea of the Jahar photo. However, even as a journalist, I do agree with the public on this one based on observation and comparison.
One of the arguments has been that The New York Times ran the same photo in May. Here is a link to that article. They did, however, it does not seem to have the same impact, in my opinion, as the magazine cover does. Additionally, that photo was more journalistically approached in the Times, published as the full and original shot. The Rolling Stone cover is zoomed up and cropped, even appearing slightly softened, which seems to give it a more personal edge.
The story itself has that feel too. More in-depth, emotional, and closer to the subject. Although the Times unraveled some mysteries about Jahar, it is written from a news standpoint, and also that writer’s voice appeared more neutral in nature. The Rolling Stone article borders on some empathy for Jahar at times, which is another something outraging the public who has read it, one I read accused the author of having a teenybopper crush on her subject. In my opinion, this critique is a bit harsh towards Reitman (as was the Twitter comment a troll left on her page, who unacceptably referred to her as the “c” word, a comment which has since been removed), who delved into her subject with a reporter’s curiosity and understanding that reflects, “What happened to this kid?”
There is something different about the Jahar Rolling Stone cover versus the Charles Manson one. The Charles Manson cover does not have that attractive look as the photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev does, and still looks creepy, while the Rolling Stone picture of Jahar looks fresh and hip.
And there are some commentators who see nothing wrong with the Jahar choice, because the magazine reports on current events like this, almost as if the world has become desensitized to the idea of plastering an Emo terrorist on a magazine cover. That to me, is a sad thought and commentary about today’s world, almost as if to say that violence is more and more commonplace each day, so, this type of publicity is completely acceptable.
Why would Rolling Stone focus on Jahar? As the public has been up in arms about this, I decided to ask myself, and reached out to the magazine’s public relations department.
The spokeswoman there explained, “We’re not really doing interviews, the editors have released their official statement.”
The official statement the spokesperson pointed me to, was the blurb at the start of the article, where the publication acknowledges the victims of the tragedy, and then proceeds by clarifying how they journalistically have approached the subject of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
I would agree they have objectively done so, as the story has balance in terms of looking into the various facets of Jahar’s character and life, leading up to the event, including the activities and developing obsessive nature of his brother, Tamerlan, which eventually led to the decisions to engage in acts of terror.
We journalists have to report what is newsworthy, and, as we do, we have to report on people or things which may be upsetting to the public. I can see what Rolling Stone has done, though I do not agree, as stated previously, with their topic choice. It is a slippery slope at times, however, publications do have an option to report on what they report on, or if they do not have the choice, how they approach the story.
What people are up in arms about is the focus on a terrorist, not the victims. I can agree with that. If one clicks here, all the comments from Facebook posters, many using obscenities, and also stating they will cancel their subscriptions, express this.
I have served as both a reporter and editor, and also of course, have been a reader, so I can understand, justify, and, explain the many sides of this issue.
When I have written feature stories myself where there is a victim and perpetrator, I report both sides. I have never written an in-depth story yet about an assailant, outside of writing just the basics, and detail of the crime they have committed. This is a personal choice of mine, and, we can, as journalists, make a choice at times.
There is a person, in fact, who has been in trouble with the law in my region, and who rants like a madman (this post might incite a tirade, I will find out). This person has called me, and sent me letters, which, I question if these notes might someday have the serial killer obsessive feel, with cut out letters or code, as this person has that type of aggressive personality. What their diatribes are about, are tall tales that I have fully investigated and make no sense, so I refuse to give someone like that a stage, otherwise my pieces would be a work of fiction, since this person is not credible. If I made an effort to write about this person and the chaos they create, giving them their own feature story, after knowing the angst they have caused to many, what greater good will that accomplish to give a deviant a voice?
I instead strive to honor the victim first in my stories, such as in this attached story about Tony Pompelio.
Although we journalists are not here to gain public brownie points, and instead must report the facts, we can still do so in a way, that brings not just dignity to our subjects, but dignity to ourselves in turn.
Rolling Stone also pointed me in the direction of an NPR article and interview for their public statement.
Melissa Block of NPR interviewed Will Dana, Rolling Stone Managing Editor. Block acknowledged what she described as the “torrent of criticism” the publication has received since unveiling their cover, ironically on the same day as the sentencing hearing I attended, July 17.
“This is a picture that has been seen a lot, we want to tell the story behind this person,” Dana said to Block during the interview.
He said the publication wanted to show the contrast of what an “incredibly normal kid he seemed like,” versus what Tsarnaev has now turned into.
Block asked if the publication might be treading on drawing stardom Tsarnaev’s way, which Dana disagreed. He said Rolling Stone is known for reporting on important issues.
“We did not do this lightly,” he said.
Dana added how Tsarnaev is the same age as much of their reading base, and to these people he appeared “like one of them.”
Block asked if Rolling Stone would make a choice like this again.
“I am completely comfortable with the decision we made,” Dana said. “It is in no way to minimize our feelings of sadness or sympathy for the victims.”
Feeling the heat from the cover controversy, Rolling Stone Senior Editor Christian Hoard tweeted after the cover’s release, “I guess we should have drawn a d*** on Dzhokhar’s face or something?”
He later deleted his tweet, and has since retracted that comment with a two part apology tweet on July 18, “Yesterday I made a sarcastic remark here in response to the RS cover controversy. I stand by our cover, but not my tweet – it was (1/2) inappropriate and disrespectful. I’m sorry. (2/2).”
Meanwhile, a police sergeant who was present when Tsarnaev was apprehended, released police photos of the bomber, that shows a disheveled and bloodied person, with a sniper laser red dot covering his forehead like a bullseye. The Massachusetts State Police Sergeant was so outraged by the Rolling Stone cover, he wanted the world to see what he considers the true Jahar. For this act, the sergeant has been suspended from his job.
Murphy has described Tsarnaev as evil, turned over the photos to Boston Magazine, and has told several media outlets, these were photos of the “real Boston bomber, not someone fluffed and buffed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.”
Murphy told Boston Magazine, “As a professional law-enforcement officer of 25 years, I believe that the image that was portrayed by Rolling Stone magazine was an insult to any person who has every worn a uniform of any color or any police organization or military branch, and the family members who have ever lost a loved one serving in the line of duty,” he said. “The truth is that glamorizing the face of terror is not just insulting to the family members of those killed in the line of duty, it also could be an incentive to those who may be unstable to do something to get their face on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
“I hope that the people who see these images will know that this was real. It was as real as it gets. This may have played out as a television show, but this was not a television show. Officer Dick Donohue almost gave his life. Officer Sean Collier did give his life. These were real people, with real lives, with real families. And to have this cover dropped into Boston was hurtful to their memories and their families. I know from first-hand conversations that this Rolling Stone cover has kept many of them up—again. It’s irritated the wounds that will never heal—again. There is nothing glamorous in bringing more pain to a grieving family.”
Something we here at InsideScene.LA found that the Rolling Stone article really did not focus on, and believe should have, is all the carnage that resulted from this troubled youth’s act. And why he really did it. It was more the viewpoint of his friends being sad that their friend turned out to be a mass murderer. And, that the friends are still grasping for straws that the “real” Jahar is still there somewhere inside of that body.
What the friends of Jahar fail to recognize is the “real” person now is not their good buddy who they smoked weed with, the “real” person is the brutal killer. The other person who they knew was just an invention, a facade, or he would have remained, and never committed the horrific acts of terror that he did.
I agree with the many who are requesting instead that one of the victims be featured on the cover. Here is the list of some of the many who could have been spotlighted.
Krystle Campbell, Martin William Richard, and Lingzi Lu were three who were mortally wounded that day, a day in which they innocently and peacefully attended what they thought would be an enjoyable event, an event that the Tsarnaev brothers ruined, and from which they would never return home.
How about Jeff Bauman, Jr., whose image flashed around the world when he was whisked away with only bones visible where his two legs had once been? Medical personnel, and a volunteer named Carlos Arredondo who gripped an artery in Bauman’s leg, after wrapping his limbs with pieces of a sweater as tourniquets, were other heroes who brought Bauman to safety. Can one see Arredondo on the cover of a magazine, with his cowboy hat? I sure could.
And of course, it was Bauman, who, when he first woke up in the hospital, ended up being the downfall of the bombers. As soon as he was able, Bauman spoke immediately to authorities, and identified the Tsarnaev brothers as the culprits. Bauman literally eyed up the faces of evil that day, as they glared into his eyes, before laying down the explosives, and fleeing the chaotic bloody scene. If it had not been for Bauman, the bombers may have committed further acts of terror as they had plotted, having made plans to head to New York City’s Time Square as well.
Let us not forget others who were severely injured, including Martin Richard’s mother, Denise, who suffered severe head and upper body injuries, and his seven-year-old sister, Jane, who enjoyed Irish Step Dancing before the bombing, and now a local Irish Dance School in my area, the Endean Academy has raised funds for her since she also lost a leg in the bombing.
How about Sean Collier, the innocent MIT Police Officer, who was slaughtered in his police car by the Tsarnaev brothers following the bombing, and during their reign of terror in the Boston area?
Those who were injured or who died, and those who helped in the aftermath, are the real heroes and rock stars of this whole matter.
And in keeping with what our publication, InsideScene.LA feels is right, this post is dedicated to all the victims, residents, and the public safety and emergency workers, who endured this crisis in Boston. This is our cover below that we have created for them, featuring several of the individuals mentioned above.
Although we as a public deserve to know what happened, and us here, as members of the media need to get the word out, let us always have hearts for the victims of unspeakably malicious acts, while we do both.
Click here to find us on Facebook.