I have great affection and respect for Rolling Stone, and the people making its editorial decisions are not only friends of mine but some of the smartest and most professional people I ever had the privilege to work with. Which is why it pains me to say I think that putting the Boston bomber on the cover was an unfortunate decision. Doing an in-depth story on Tsarnaev is a great idea and very much in keeping with Rolling Stone’s historical mission. But putting his picture on the cover is a different animal.
Billy Bob Thornton once said there are two basic cultural signifiers of importance left in America: hosting Saturday Night Live and being on the cover of Rolling Stone. And it’s wrong to make this killer into a figure of cultural importance. It’s unfortunate that the magazine is sort of boxed in by its own history, and unfortunate that Tsarnaev looks like he’s in the Strokes, but there’s no getting around that. He looks like a rock star, not unlike the hundreds of other rock stars who have graced the cover. People wouldn’t be nearly as upset if they had put a middle-aged shlub like the Unabomber on the cover.
Some people have pointed to the 1970 Charles Manson cover as justification for this one, but that doesn't make much sense. The magazine also gave five stars to the last Mick Jagger solo album, but that wouldn't justify giving five stars to the next one.
And I'm sure the story is fantastic (I haven't read it), but that's also beside the point. No one is upset about publishing the article; they're upset about the seeming glamorization of a terrorist.
Finally, it sends a horrible message. If you’re a young person of no discernible talent yet you still want to be on the cover of Rolling Stone - which is a highly desirable goal for hundreds if not thousands of young Americans - you can just go out and kill a few people. Years ago, the magazine made the editorial decision to never again mention the name of John Lennon's killer, which is eminently sensible to me. There's no reason to accord fame to someone for committing an atrocity. The same principle ought to apply here.