Many people were outraged by last week’s Rolling Stone cover featuring a selfie of alleged Boston bomber Dzhohkar Tsarnaev. Many others shrugged their shoulders and asked, “What’s the big deal?”


Count me among the outraged. Here is the big deal:

A quick internet search of RS covers shows from the last few years shows they give their cover subjects one of two treatments. The first is the “Hero/Rock Star” treatment:

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The second is the “Bad Person” treatment:

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Notice the difference?

Rolling Stone gives George W. Bush, Mitt Romney and John McCain the “Bad Person” treatment. Fair enough—everyone knows RS leans, um, a tad left. But… why the “Hero/Rock Star” treatment for Tsarnaev? Was their caricature artist on vacation?

The cover of Rolling Stone, though perhaps not as hallowed as it once was, is still a place where pop culture icons burnish their images. RS created its own rules for how to treat cover subjects, and now it has violated those rules. Incoherent marketing? Damaging to their brand? Yes and yes. What’s worse: with this cover, they are defining themselves as a magazine with no moral compass whatsoever—how else to explain giving an alleged murderer the “Hero/Rock Star” treatment when they’ve created a style specifically for bad people?

I’m sure every person on the RS staff would tell you they deplore the Boston bombings–but that only makes their cover layout all the more puzzling. Why didn’t someone–anyone–stand up and say, “Wait a minute. What the hell are we doing here?” Why didn’t anyone see it?

To see more recent RS covers: