"Wanna see my picture on the cover
Wanna buy five copies for my mother
Wanna see my smilin' face
On the cover of the Rolling Stone"
-- Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show
Looking like a modern-day Jim Morrison, the late singer of the band The Doors, Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev graces the cover of this month's Rolling Stone magazine, setting off a firestorm of protest and outrage that has retailers refusing to carry the magazine on their newsstands.
It's not so much the content of the article that has critics steaming -- it's fairly balanced and seeks to understand the motivation behind what would lead someone to such a ghastly act -- but rather the gauzy treatment of an alleged murderer that gives him just the sort of notoriety he seeks. That it also could inspire other acts of terrorism in the hopes of landing on the cover of a magazine also rankles.
In response to the outrage at highlighting a terrorist instead of his victims, including 26-year-old MIT cop Sean Collier, who was killed in the shootout between the Tsarnaev brothers and the police, and 8-year-old Martin Richard, who was standing next to one of the bombs when it detonated, retailers including CVS Caremark (NYSE:CVS), which operates 7,300 stores nationwide, Walgreen (NASDAQ:WBA), with more than 8,500 stores, and Sears Holdings (NASDAQ:SHLD) chain Kmart have all decided not to sell the new issue of the magazine.
Grocery store chain Stop & Shop, convenience store chains Tedeschi Food Shops and Cumberland Farms, and Roche Bros. Supermarkets have also said they would not put the magazine out.
Yet it's not the first time Rolling Stone has put a mass murderer on its cover. In 1970, Charles Manson was featured with the tagline "The incredible story of the most dangerous man alive," which is somewhat more phlegmatic than Tsarnaev's "How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster."
Other magazines have also put murderers on their covers. Time magazine used O.J. Simpson's mugshot after the murder of his former wife and a waiter, and it's also made some controversial decisions for its "Man of the Year" covers, including Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Ayatollah Khomeini after the Iranian hostage crisis.
There is something that irks about seeing criminals glamorized, which shows the power an image still has, and while the Rolling Stone article is balanced, do writers really need to humanize the sick and depraved? Is the description of Tsarnaev as a "popular, promising student" of value when stacked up against the enormity of his crime?
Images may be powerful, but social media may be more so. Rolling Stone's Facebook page has been flooded with more than 17,000 comments on the article so far, most excoriating the magazine for its decision. But CVS used Twitter to make its announcement that it wouldn't be selling the magazine "out of respect for the victims and their loved ones," as did Kmart. Both Tedeschi and Roche Bros. used their Facebook accounts to make their statements, while Walgreen used both social media platforms.
So strong has been the outcry that Rolling Stone was forced to defend its decision by amending an editor's note to the article expressing sympathy for the victims but also saying it's part of its heritage of "serious and thoughtful coverage" of political and cultural news. To me, it's more like the Kardashians or any of the "Housewives" shows on TV where the entertainment industry attempts to popularize and normalize the most base, crass aspects of society.
Although print media has stemmed the worst of its declines as circulation slipped just 0.3% in 2012 (while paid subscriptions inched up 0.7%), the visceral reaction to this cover shows why the printed medium is not dead, or shouldn't be, if only publishers would stop trying to kill it off by angering and alienating their readership. Indeed, Rolling Stone's paid and verified circulation of 1.46 million, up from 1.28 million a decade ago, is among the highest it's ever been.
But edgy doesn't always mean cutting edge, convey gravitas, or even suggest good reporting, and giving a terrorist the "celebrity cover treatment" seems more a shameful push to garner eyeballs during a manufactured controversy than a throwback to the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson, who used to spill ink in Rolling Stone's pages.
What about you? Do you think Rolling Stone's decision to put the bombing suspect on its cover is deplorable, or is it simply an attempt to generate magazine sales through controversy? Take our poll below.
Fool contributor Rich Duprey has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Amazon.com, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.