Portrait of the (alleged) terrorist as a young man. Source: Family photo via Bloomberg.
Portrait of the (alleged) terrorist as a young man. Source: Family photo via Bloomberg.


The controversy over Rolling Stone's decision to put a pretty picture of Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of its August issue rolls on.

Rolling Stone has defended itself by saying this is just part of its tradition of committing good journalism. Indeed, the article itself is very good. But, as I said in a recent post, that's not the point. The decision to put Tsarnaev on the cover is.

Sgt. Sean Murphy, the Boston police photographer who documented Tsarnaev's capture, certainly sees it that way. Upset at Rolling Stone, he decided to give his pictures to Boston Magazine, to show "the real face of terror." I'm not sure the photos he took really do that -- they show a bloodied young man with a sniper's red laser dot on his forehead. It's worth reading what Murphy had to say, though, including this:

“Photography is very simple, it’s very basic. It brings us back to the cave. An image like this on the cover of Rolling Stone, we see it instantly as being wrong. What Rolling Stone did was wrong. This guy is evil. This is the real Boston bomber. Not someone fluffed and buffed for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.”

You don't have to think in such Manichaean terms to believe that the New York Times struck the wrong tone with its editorial today, in which it decries the decrying of Rolling Stone. The newspaper said the "hysteria" over the magazine's cover must be the product of the heat wave that's gripping New York at the moment. That's probably sarcasm, which is a tactless way to respond to a murderous bombing that only took place in April. Some people are still mourning their dead family members or lost limbs.

The editors at Rolling Stone doubtless knew there would be a reaction when they made their decision, so I don't think there is any reason to be outraged by the outrage against them. It comes with the territory of being deliberately provocative. The Times also argues that a decision by some stores to refuse to sell the Rolling Stone issue is wrong -- I'm with it on that. People can make their own choices about what to buy, they don't need stores to decide for them, any more than they need government censors.

The Times says that readers know that magazines put bad guys out front. It cites Time magazine's Person of the Year covers, which have included Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. But this is apples and oranges. Time's annual competition has well understood rules: The person of the year is the one who most affected events in the time period, for better or worse.

Time also put the faces of the Columbine killers on the cover in 1999, and I think that was a mistake. There were a lot of ways to illustrate that story. The editors chose the only one that risked feeding a fascination among other disturbed young kids. Had Rolling Stone decided to front pictures of the Columbine killers in 1999 and had it used photos in which they happened to look like rock stars, then you can bet your last guitar pick that a lot people would have been upset. They would have been right. As are those who think the magazine made the wrong choice with Tsarnaev.

(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.)