bomberThe New York Times has weighed in on the great debate over Rolling Stone magazine this week putting a portrait of the alleged Boston Marathon bomber on its cover. Much ado about nothing, The Times says.

In an editorial Friday morning, The Times correctly points out that the particular image selected by Rolling Stone has been used by other publications in the past. It also writes,  “Time magazine, for example, had quite a few covers featuring Adolf Hitler during the war years….”

OK, stop right there. The world’s greatest newspaper, which I love and respect, is as wrong here as it was in its support of the invasion of Iraq.

I applaud the investigative journalism of Rolling Stone. I read those long pieces. But, with the stray exception of a president here or there, the cover of Rolling Stone is territory assigned to musicians of the moment and entertainers. Often nude (if you’ll recall Christina Aguilera and her python), and always presented as eye candy. The sole consideration for editors of the magazine, when choosing their cover subject, is: What will make people pick up this magazine and buy it?

Time selects its cover subjects with the intent of selling its magazine as well. But as a news magazine, its subjects are expected to range from Adolph Hitler to Bruce Springsteen. As a largely entertainment magazine, it’s a little too coy of the editors of Rolling Stone to suggest that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is being featured because it has a Big Story to reveal.

I didn’t just look at the cover. I read the story. It’s interesting.  That’s all. No big revelations. The Boston Marathon bombers were just two self-absorbed punks with really bad ideas. There are hundreds of story ideas out there just like this one. The guy who shot up the movie theater in Aurora, Colo. The guy who killed children in Newton, Conn. The guy who shot a Congresswoman in Phoenix. The guy who shot Lincoln in Ford’s Theater. None of them made the cover of Rolling Stone. And their stories were the same. Self-absorbed punks with really bad ideas.

Here’s what’s even more telling. Two tears ago, Rolling Stone ran a story called “The Runaway General.” It was an outstanding investigative piece by the late Michael Hastings, a scorching portrait of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. McChrystal’s arrogance and disrespect for his commander in chief was so startling, he was immediately dismissed. As investigative journalism, it was far better, and far more important, than this week’s story on the two Boston Marathon bombers.

gagaYeah, I was curious as to who was on the cover of Rolling Stone that issue. I looked it up. In the judgment of the magazine’s editors, the 55-year-old McChrystal apparently wouldn’t sell nearly as many magazines as Lady Gaga, wearing nothing more than a black thong and a bra made from two automatic rifles.

As a journalist myself, I don’t want to put a freeze on the decision-making processes that go on in an editor’s office.  In fact, I want to see the mainstream media take more chances. And if an idea doesn’t work, you learn and move on to the next issue. But context was ignored here: Putting Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of a trend-driven magazine, looking like the alt-rocker boy of the moment, did not advance the story. Perhaps a picture of one of his victims would have done so.

Certainly the people who want to burn all copies of Rolling Stone are over-reacting. The proper reaction is to simply put the magazine back on the rack and walk away.