As with anything controversial, the explosion of debate and chatter about the latest Rolling Stone cover has muddied the issue, injecting straw men and red herrings. So here are five simple observations about the latest Rolling Stone cover, and why any blustery claims of journalistic principle are actually bogus.

  1. Context matters. “But this photo was published all over the place! It was on the cover of the New York Times!” Yes, it was. The difference is, photos in the New York Times are presented in a news context, and that context is instantly recognizable. It’s part of what we bring to the table when we process the media around us. If that photo was on the cover of Tiger Beat, it would convey a very different impression — because of that imputed context. Rolling Stone — which features covers of rock stars looking like rock stars being rock stars — brings a different context to the fore. There’s even a song about it. That’s why publishing that photo on the cover of (the) Rolling Stone, as opposed to the New York Times, amounts to the irresponsible glamorization of a terrorist.
  2. Context matters, ii. I hear that Rolling Stone published the full accompanying article online and that it’s actually a nuanced, complex look at the downward spiral of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Who cares — this is about the cover. When I walk past a magazine rack, I see covers. I might know that there are 79 sex tips awaiting me, but I have to open up the magazine to find out what they are (or if they’re any good). The key is to get my attention over all the other magazines offering sex tips. Guess what the hook is? Riiiight, the cover. Magazine people know this and have tons of data on the kinds of covers that work for their demographic — and for getting the buzz that also serves to bump newsstand sales. Anyone in the magazine biz who protests that they are being unfairly treated for a cover because mean critics haven’t bothered to read the actual story is an astonishing hypocrite. Magazines know exactly what they are doing when they publish their covers (right, Wired?) So - when Rolling Stone published an image of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev looking doe-eyed and dreamy and Stroke-ish, they knew exactly what they were doing: irresponsibly glamorizing a terrorist.
  3. But — freedom of expression! Wow is it ever annoying when smart people invoke this argument. Criticism of expression is actually part of the point of free expression — to encourage public debate. It’s the difference between disagreeing with what you say but defending to the death your right to say it. So I was dismayed to see that argument advanced by the New Yorker’s Ian Crouch yesterday, who cited “hostility toward free expression” and “the culture-wide self-censorship encouraged by tragedy, in which certain responses are deemed correct and anything else is dismissed as tasteless or out of bounds.” No. This was not hostility toward free expression — this was hostility toward this expression. No one said, how dare you publish a thorough, nuanced report on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev! They said, how dare you put him on your cover like a fucking rock star. It is okay to dismiss as tasteless something that actually is tasteless — like, say, the irresponsible glamorization of a terrorist.
  4. Oh, come on. Rolling Stone has been publishing important, non-music journalism for decades. Yes, it has — I actually pointed that out in 2010 after Michael Hastings’ McChrystal bombshell was published: “The magazine has a history not only of award-winning war reporting, but political reporting, literary reporting, literary-political reporting, cultural reporting, business reporting and, of course, music reporting…” The magazine has received scores of National Magazine Award nominations (including one for Janet Reitman, the author of the Tsarnaev piece), many of them winners. But this, too, is a red herring, because whatever may be inside its pages, the Rolling Stone covers are almost exclusively devoted to pop culture (with some political covers here and there). The McChrystal story was actually teased in a smaller headline on a cover featuring Lady Gaga in a gun-bra, and odds are this cover didn’t move merch because of that article on the religious right. Oh look, an important 2009 article on the bailout, shot by Terry Richardson! C’mon. There’s the reporting, and then there’s the cover — which typically features rock stars, movie stars and/or half-naked starlets. It’s how they let us know what’s important, sexy and cool — which is why this cover amounts to the irresponsible glamorization of a terrorist.
  5. Wait. Why is this the irresponsible glamorization of a terrorist again? Fair question. It’s already been well-established that the photo has been glamorized (see points 1 - 4, above). But why is that irresponsible? What duty does Rolling Stone have to make a terrorist look un-glamorous? Shouldn’t we, as Crouch suggests, be embracing the uncomfortable truth that not all terrorists look like scary caricatures? This, again, is a straw man. The issue is not about Tsarnaev’s pretty face, it’s about how it is presented — and what impact that can have. Crouch notes that the Rolling Stone photo is the same one that Tsarnaev’s fans and devotees swoon over, the same one that has inspired “misdirected empathy.” It’s part of the mythology around Tsarnaev not as a pathetic fleeing killer who almost bled to death hiding in a boat, but a misunderstood heartthrob who won the world’s attention — and, girls. Could that glamour make a Tsarnaev-type path seem more attractive to a troubled kid? Make his angry claims about injustice seem more compelling? Copy-cat concerns after high-profile mass killings are real. If a swoony Rolling Stone cover is glamorizing Dzhokar Tsarnaev, then by extension it’s glamorizing what he did to get there. Which — if I may — amounts to the irresponsible glamorization of a terrorist.

This is the only reason I disapprove of the Rolling Stone cover. It may be an authentic representation of Tsarnaev, it may be a perfect match for the accompanying story,it may be Rolling Stone’s editorial prerogative. It may be all those things, but it is also the irresponsible glamorization of a terrorist.

(And they knew that.)