For Square Businesses, Rolling Stone Cover Presents Tricky Decision

A Controversial Cover
Rolling Stone Magazine

The cover of Rolling Stone Magazine's upcoming issue, which features a photographic portrait of Boston Marathon bombings suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, has provoked strong reactions since the magazine posted it online on Tuesday.

Is it censorship to vow not to shelve a magazine bearing a cover photo that has ignited controversy in a community still raw from a terrorist attack? Businesses in Harvard Square grappled with that question this week as they decided whether to stock Rolling Stone Magazine’s upcoming issue, which depicts on its cover Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the man charged in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Critics, including Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, have argued that the cover photo glamorizes Tsarnaev as a celebrity. The full-page image, a soft-focused photograph of Tsarnaev that he posted online, teases a long article inside the magazine detailing what sources described as Tsarnaev’s evolution from “a charming kid with a bright future” into a “monster.”

With its cover attracting national attention, the magazine has stood by its editorial decision, saying in an editors’ note that the story “falls within the traditions of journalism.” But a number of businesses have said they will not sell the issue in their stores.

Within Harvard Square and the surrounding area, CVS, Tedeschi Food Shops, and Out of Town News will not shelve the magazine. The Coop, however, will stock the magazine as usual, and the Harvard Library will provide access to the controversial issue both online via database subscriptions and on the shelf in some libraries, Kira Poplowski, the library’s director of communications, wrote in an email.

Businesses that decided not to shelve the issue cited concern that the cover photo could offend patrons and others in the community.

“As a company with deep roots in New England and a strong presence in Boston, we believe this is the right decision out of respect for the victims of the attack and their loved ones,” Michael J. DeAngelis, CVS’ public relations director, wrote in an email.

Out of Town News, a newsstand near the Harvard Square T-stop, decided Wednesday not to carry the issue in part because it had offended people and attracted notoriety in the news media, according to manager Raj Patel. He said that although some customers have asked about the issue, they have wanted to see the cover because of the controversy but not actually buy it.

But for the Coop, a longstanding policy against censorship trumped concerns about the cover image.

“We think Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a despicable human being and we do not agree with Rolling Stone Magazine’s decision to feature his picture on their front cover,” Coop general manager Allan E. Powell wrote in an email. “However, the Coop operates in an academic community where it is expected that there will be free expression on any topic, issue or point of view.”

Powell said that he and Coop President Jerry P. Murphy ’73 met Thursday to discuss how to proceed after receiving two emails from customers, including one Coop member, asking the company not to shelve the next issue of the magazine. They made their final decision, he wrote, in an effort to avoid “bad precedent.”

Tsarnaev, who attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and formerly worked as a lifeguard at a Harvard pool, pleaded not guilty in federal court last week to 30 counts stemming from the April 15 bombings and their aftermath. Among other charges, he is accused of killing four people and using weapons of mass destruction. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

—Maya Jonas-Silver and Rebecca D. Robbins contributed to the reporting of this story.

—Staff writer Madeline R. Conway can be reached at mconway@college.harvard.edu. Follow her on Twitter @MadelineRConway.

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