By now the media circus headlined by Rolling Stone’s Dzhokhar Tsarnaev cover has decamped for London, trailed by a cloud of intemperate tweets. But before Baby Windsor became the new celeb, everyone, it seems, had an opinion on the magazine’s decision to feature the languorous Tsarnaev, looking startlingly like a rock star. Ryerson magazine journalism professor Lynn Cunningham weighs in.

By Lynn Cunningham 

By now the media circus headlined by Rolling Stone’s Dzhokhar Tsarnaev cover has decamped for London, trailed by a cloud of intemperate tweets. But before Baby Windsor became the new celeb, everyone, it seems, had an opinion on the magazine’s decision to feature the languorous Tsarnaev, looking startlingly like a rock star. And a big majority really, really didn’t like it. Even George Lois, creator of Esquire’s iconic covers in the 1960s and ’70s, had a go: “I feel like they’re saying we should feel sorry for him,” said Lois in New York Magazine. “It looks like The Onion.”  

Huffington Post helpfully ran a poll, which revealed that 65 percent of the 1,000 respondents found the cover “inappropriate,” and close to half endorsed the idea of a boycott.

Personally, I wish HuffPo had asked a few more questions. For one, “Did you read the story’s cover line?” “The bomber: How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster” hardly suggests a puff piece “glorifying an accused terrorist,” as HootSuite, and about a gazillion others, grumped.

For the fraction whose answer to supplementary question one was yes, the follow-up could have been “Did you read the article?” Contributing editor Janet Reitman’s 11,000-word piece is the most in-depth exploration of Tsarnaev’s background, psychology and worldview that I’ve encountered, and I believe it is a masterful piece of investigation and storytelling.

It put me in mind of what legendary editor Harold Hayes once said about magazine journalism: “To land on the moon is to make news which transcends form: the faster the word gets out, the better. But once established, the fact moves from the simple to the complex, begging interpretation of a thousand varieties. A magazine’s promise is the delivery, on a fixed schedule, of its own version of the world, its special attitude toward the reader.”

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Rolling Stone’s special attitude toward its readers clearly included the assumption that they were curious as to how an apparently assimilated, “average” young man could have wreaked the murderous havoc he is alleged to have done. Far from being anomalous or opportunistic, this type of long-form journalism addressing serious issues has been a hallmark of the magazine since its inception, and it has the National Magazine Awards to prove it, including the General Excellence nod in 2007. Famously, one of those prizes was for another cover story about a high-profile killer: Charles Manson, in 1970. It was a top-selling issue.

It’s no scandale that making Reitman’s story the cover was simply another example of the economics-driven pragmatism that obtains in the magazine industry, where cover decisions are based on what the editors think will sell best. As for the choice of picture, given that the cover subject was in jail, there was no chance of a studio session (and it’s worth noting that the same image had appeared on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post without a fuss arising.)

I suspect that if Tsarnaev hadn’t appeared so attractive, the level of fury would have been lower: a lot of the outraged seemed to be suggesting bad guys should look like bad guys. It was avoiding this type of cognitive dissonance that presumably prompted Time to Photoshop O.J. Simpson to make him appear more thuggish on a 1994 cover.

Perhaps what was most disconcerting about the whole flare-up was the pro-censorship undertones. Commentators didn’t just condemn the cover — they wanted it suppressed; maybe not burned, exactly, but gone. Anti-free-speech sentiments, which seem to have become more common in the age of Twitter, or perhaps just more public, should make any journalist queasy. My remedy: go buy the August 1 issue.

Lynn Cunningham is a former magazine editor and is an associate journalism professor at Ryerson University.