Crimes and misdemeanors: Considering criticism of The New York Times’s Michael Brown profile

August 26, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
Aug. 26, 2014

The New York Times published dual profiles Sunday of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. The former man, of course, is an unarmed 18-year-old who was killed this month  in Ferguson, Mo., while the latter man is the police officer who fired the deadly shots.

The profile of Brown, written by John Eligon, was poorly received. The sticking point was essentially this, the fifth paragraph:

Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.

The complaints seem to boil down to the following two points:

• Why does Eligon mention Brown’s very minor offenses — experimenting with alcohol and drugs, scuffling at least once, making rap music — when these are things that many, many teenagers have done?

• Why does Eligon characterize the shooting victim as “no angel,” which many read as an implicit condemnation of Brown’s character?

I’m not impressed by either of these objections. Let’s examine them in order.

The first complaint is by far the flimsier one, to my mind. Brown’s use of drink and drugs, his one known fight, and his rap music are relevant because those are among the things that Eligon found in his reporting.

And Eligon didn’t exactly focus on Brown’s possible failings to the exclusion of all else. Here is the very next paragraph in his story:

At the same time, [Brown] regularly flashed a broad smile that endeared those around him. He overcame early struggles in school to graduate on time. He was pointed toward a trade college and a career and, his parents hoped, toward a successful life.

Might it have been better to put more emphasis on these details? Perhaps. But if the profile’s fifth and sixth paragraphs had essentially been flipped, I have a hunch that critics still would have focused on references to some of Brown’s questionable behavior.

The aim of journalism is not to prepare a care for the canonization or demonization of different people. It’s to present details that are (a) representative of people’s lives and (b) significant. It’s hard to judge the significance of the details in Eligon’s article, since we know relatively little about Brown. It’s also hard to decide how representative they are, but given how many people have written about how their teenage lives included the kind of peccadillos Eligon documents, they seem nigh universal.

Also, it’s worth noting that the companion profile of Wilson, which was co-written by Monica Davey and Frances Robles, devotes a fairly large portion of its text to the varying troubles of Wilson’s mother, who was convicted of financial fraud and died at a relatively young age. If people deem accounts of some of Brown’s recent behavior irrelevant to a profile of Brown, then surely references to criminal misconduct by Wilson’s mother, who died a decade ago, is far less relevant to his profile.

Yet I haven’t seen anyone complain about Wilson being treated unfairly by The New York Times. I understand that one profile subject is dead, while the other is alive. But either there are clearly defined journalistic standards that should be applied to everybody or there aren’t. If the former is the case, then critics of the Times seem hypocritical. If the latter is the case, then maybe critics would do better working to develop future guidelines that have more intellectual substance than “Speak no evil of shooting victims.”

(To be clear, I don’t think of Eligon’s profile as a smear job. Like Trayvon Martin before him, and countless other black male victims before him, there have been efforts to portray Brown as a thug. Anyone who confuses the Eligon article for that kind of rabble-rousing should take a deep breath and re-read his piece.)

So why did Eligon write that Brown “was no angel”? Why would a journalist try to slip in a sly dig about the dead teenager like that?

Let’s stipulate that writing that a deceased young man is “no angel” may not be the most polite tack to take. But in truth, nobody is an angel. I read the phrase as an essentially meaningless assessment.

Secondly, I quoted Eligon’s sixth paragraph earlier. Now, let’s turn to the fourth graph. It caps an anecdote about an urgent late-night conversation about spirituality between Brown and his father and stepmother:

In the weeks afterward, until his shooting death by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, on Aug. 9, they detected a change in him as he spoke seriously about religion and the Bible. He was grappling with life’s mysteries.

When viewed in the context of the profile subject’s budding interest in religion, I find the aside to be a rather innocuous transition.

Is it award-winning writing? Certainly not. Is it a slur on a teenager who was killed by a cop in suspicious circumstances? Eh, not really.

It’s important to attend to the language used in the discussion of public affairs, and it’s especially important to be aware of the assumptions — especially those rooted in racial and gender privilege — that underly that language. But in the end, I think that the controversy over Eligon’s profile shed far more heat than light.

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