George Lois, the ad guy and former Esquire art director, has added his voice to the excoriation of Rolling Stone and its publisher, Jann Wenner, for its soft-focus cover of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, which led to the issue being banned from the shelves of national retailers such as 7-Eleven, CVS, Walgreens, Kmart and Rite Aid, as well as numerous local chains.
Lois, who famously put a smiling Lieut. William Calley — convicted of the murder of 22 Vietnamese villagers in the 1968 My Lai massacre — on the cover of Esquire, draws a sharp distinction between his work and Rolling Stone’s. "He was a psychopath and I showed him with a big shit-eating grin sitting with four Vietnamese children. I was saying, 'Look at this son of a bitch,'" he tells Joe Coscarelli in New York.
Lois would have refused to use the Tsarnaev picture at all, he tells Coscarelli. "The cover of Rolling Stone says: This is an important person to our culture, in some way -- a terrific person or an emerging talent or a cultural icon. There can't be any debate about this.”
Former FCC commissioner Nicholas Johnson, writing in USA Today, points out that the same picture appeared on the front page of the New York Times Sunday edition of May 5 and says “Americans need that picture and story. Because Jahar is what bombers look like.” Janet Reitman’s 11,000-word piece “[provides] as much detail and understanding as anyone could about Jahar, and what caused him to do what he did.”
Slate’s Max Linsky concurs, writing that “lost amid the uproar over the cover was … an incredible piece of reporting by [Reitman] that helps explain how a charming kid from Cambridge became a monster.” Linsky also points out that it is “the latest in a long tradition of fantastic, chilling crime stories published by Rolling Stone” and specifically cites five others.
Retailers who have pulled the magazine are engaging in “censorship” that’s “reminiscent of Nazi book-burning, or Taliban reactions to pictures of Muhammad, and reveal a profound ignorance of the informative role of journalism in a democracy,” according to Johnson.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., yesterday added his voice to those who chalked the cover up to misguided marketing in an appearance on "State of the Union" on CNN. "I thought it was stupid, and I thought it was inappropriate," he said, Michael Walsh reports in the New York Daily News. "Rolling Stone probably got more publicity than they've had in 20 years." he added.
Last week, Boston mayor Tom Menino released a letter he wrote to Wenner that states, in part, that “to respond to you in anger is to feed into your obvious marketing strategy.”
“I’m guessing [Menino] was right when he said the controversy was part of the magazine’s marketing strategy,’ Melinda Henneberger writes in the Washington Post. “But is it wrong to want work you’re proud of to be widely read?”
Henneberger, who was living in Boston as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center at the time of the bombing and had a son enrolled in the high school the Tsarnaev brothers attended, also asks: “If publishing the photo was so outrageous, why was it OK for critics to share it all over social media?”
Meanwhile, a Massachusetts state police photographer who says he wanted to counteract Rolling Stone’s "glamorizing the face of terror" leaked photos he had taken of a bloodied Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as he was arrested to Boston magazine. He was suspended for a day and faces a hearing today, Antonio Planas reports in the Boston Herald. A “Save Sgt. Sean Murphy” page on Facebook has garnered nearly 40,000 “likes” as of early this morning.
American Society of Magazine Editors CEO Sid Holt, himself a former Rolling Stone editor, tells MTV News’ Gil Kaufman that the retailers bans are not that “rare.”
"It doesn't happen a lot but it's not unusual for mainstream magazines to be banned, usually because the cover offends local standards of taste (the most common reason is nudity on the cover)," he says.
All of the magazine experts NBC News contributor Steve James talks to say that the controversy is, as Menino himself suspected, a net plus for the magazine, which is largely subscription-based to begin with (its newsstand sales are about 75,000 out of a total circulation of more than 1.4 million in 2012).
"The number of people who never read Rolling Stone who buy this issue will outnumber the people who boycott it," Bob Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, tells James. "That cover made him look human, like us, and that makes people nervous," Thompson continues. "If they had used the police mug-shot, there would be no issue.”
There would be no very well read (despite what Nicholas Johnson feels) issue, I bet.