Rolling Stone's March 27 article 'Kill Team,' written by Mark Boal, is shocking, revealing and a prime example of hard-hitting investigative journalism. Unfortunately, Rolling Stone did not see fit to let the contents of the article stand for themselves.
Boal exposes a U.S. Army unit's murders of Afghani civilians and the propensity of some soldiers to kill for sport. The words are stunning:
Holding a cigarette rakishly in one hand, Holmes posed for the camera with Mudin's bloody and half-naked corpse, grabbing the boy's head by the hair as if it were a trophy deer.
The story is filled with similar, and often more grotesque examples, including corpse mutilation and staged killings. The story also details the Pentagon's attempts to cover up the incidents, including suppressing the release of pictures that showed American troops celebrating with the dead bodies of their victims.
The gruesome detail and scandalous implications of the article were sure to generate a firestorm of controversy, resulting in the great deal of traffic and publicity for Rolling Stone. But the magazine didn't stop there.
The banner on Rolling Stone's website promoting the story reads like a supermarket tabloid:
How U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan murdered innocent civilians and mutilated their corpses - and how their officers failed to stop them. Plus: An exlusive look at the war crime phots censored by the Pentagon
It's difficult to understand why Rolling Stone felt the need to resort to the type of promotional language usually reserved to announce the latest celebrity breakup or alien landing. Whatever the reasoning, it only serves to trivialize the story. The article itself serves the media's role as a watchdog, exposing truth and bringing buried information to light. Rolling Stone's marketing of the story makes it seem no more than a salacious "gotcha" moment published to generate traffic and, as a result, revenue.
The biggest draw to the story appears to be the photos. The link on Rolling Stone's home page declares tantalizingly: "More war crime photos the Pentagon doesn't want you to see." The images are sickening. Mutilated corpses and decapitated heads litter the ground as soldiers revel in the carnage.
The gallery is preceded by a graphic content warning, but even so, many viewers will be unprepared for the horrific sights. Whether the photos are essential to the story is debatable, and no one will dispute they increase the shock factor of an already stunning report. The ethics of publishing such pictures is very much up for debate.
The same cannot be said for Rolling Stone's presentation of the photos. The teasers and promotional language should be beneath an otherwise quality piece of journalism. Boal's story aims to deliver justice on behalf of the victims. Rolling Stone's package disregards their dignity and exploits them for Web hits.
The soldiers in the article killed civilians to satisfy twisted, violent impulses. Now the editors at Rolling Stone are using their deaths to satisfy their profit impulse.