I can't decide if it’s the cute photograph of alleged Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of the August issue of Rolling Stone, or the hard-luck story headline across it, that turns the stomach more.
No doubt, the younger Tsarnaev brother had a tough childhood. Maybe he would never have been suspected of involvement in a terrorist act were it not for his now-dead older brother, Tamerlan, who seems to have been a genuinely violent and disturbed person. And there's no question that what made Dzhokhar interesting from day one was the gut suspicion that he was a normal kid gone bad.
So, "The Bomber: How a Popular, Promising Student Was Failed by His Family, Fell into Radical Islam and Became a Monster" is a great story to write. And the picture, already well known, is the one to go with it. I assume that the article inside will be excellent, well reported and balanced. I look forward to reading it.
That isn't the point. Magazine covers make celebrities -- and editors -- think hard before they give them up. They are the attention that unbalanced kindergarten killers and terrorists crave. How else can a messed up suburban kid with no known musical talent hope to occupy the same rock star real estate as Jim Morrison? And with a picture that even makes Tsarnaev look like the Doors singer when he was on the cover in 1981?
Admittedly, it could have been worse. (The Morrison headline was "He's hot, he's sexy and he's dead.") At the risk of self-righteousness, though, editors surely have some responsibility to avoid encouraging others to believe that if only they can plant a bomb in a crowd or shoot up a school, they may get a Rolling Stone cover too.
This isn't a new issue for the media, of course. Rolling Stone also put Charles Manson on the cover in 1970, and got an exclusive interview with him behind bars. (OK, the madman wanted his album plugged). Other magazines have glorified villains, and TV news does it almost by default. Time magazine put Oscar Pistorius on the cover -- once the amputee Olympic runner was suspected of murdering his girlfriend. They also ran the Columbine killers on the front. I think these are bad decisions, too.
The 10,000-plus comments on Rolling Stone's Facebook page today make an interesting read -- every other one is a promise to cancel a Rolling Stone subscription. But provocative magazine covers sell, and no doubt this one will too. As a business decision, the editor no doubt made the right call. I just have to wonder if he would have made the same decision if he had once had an 8-year old son named Martin Richard.
(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)