July 17, 2013

The top image, from Rolling Stone magazine, has sparked a populist social-media revolution:

The bottom image, from the New York Times, didn’t spark much. From all indications, of course, it’s the same image. “They look the same,” says Michael Wines, a Times reporter who shared a byline on the piece that accompanied the picture (Headline: “The Dark Side, Carefully Masked”). Given that the Times chose to place this sultry, flattering photo of accused Boston marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on the front page of its Sunday paper on May 5, what kind of nasty backlash did Wines face?

When the Erik Wemple Blog first contacted Wines on this matter, he vowed to go back and check. Later he called back, reporting that he’d sifted through his electronic mails from the period in question. Results? Negative. “I went through my e-mails and I generally save all my e-mails for a long time. I don’t see anything dealing” with this, he says. “I have to assume there was no backlash.”

That’s not to say that Wines didn’t get some negative reaction to the story. In the piece, the reporters (Wines and Ian Lovett) write the following: “In sophomore year, he joined the school’s wrestling team as a novice and quickly grew so strong and skillful, one teammate said, that he could take down even coaches. His teammates say they looked up to him as a teacher and motivator.” Someone out there contested this depiction of grappling virtue. “He wasn’t the great wrestler you said he was,” says Wines, summing up the complaint. “The guy was actually a lousy wrestler.”

“I don’t specifically remember anybody getting to me saying this photo glamorizes this guy,” says Wines.

Determined to find evidence of the public’s consistency in raging against pleasant photos of an alleged terrorist, The Erik Wemple Blog turned to the Times national editor Sam Sifton. Surely he would have gotten an earful from America. Asked about the level of gripes, Sifton replied: “I didn’t get a one. I can’t speak for the rest of the newsroom, but I think I would have heard about it if a bunch had come in.”

Margaret Sullivan is the Times public editor, whose job consists in large part of complaint intake. She had to have been overwhelmed! E-mail overloaded dysfunction! “I don’t remember a great deal about it, but I remember [complaints] from a couple of readers. It is a common theme,” says Sullivan, referring to the routine occasions on which the paper will write about someone who’s done something bad. “I’ve often heard readers object to what they see as the glorification of someone who’s in the news for a negative reason, whether it’s the shooter after the Newtown massacre or the Boston bombing suspects, but there is often legitimate news value in using those photos.”

Yup. That last sentiment says it. All those protesting Rolling Stone’s use of the photo in July should be forced to declare whether they objected to the New York Times treatment in May. If not, what’s the fuss?

The disparity in responses to the Times and Rolling Stone tells us everything we don’t know about the impact of journalism on the public. It’s utterly inscrutable and unpredictable. Timing, presentation, mood, photo-cropping, differing perceptions of the role of these two publications — they all play a role in explaining why today we have a baseless explosion of public outrage and had very little reactionback in May.

RELATED: Tsarnaev just the latest in magazine cover controversies

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.