NYT Public Editor Responds to "No Angel" Piece

[Content Note: Victim-blaming; racism.]

Yesterday I mentioned a piece on Michael Brown in the New York Times in which Brown was described as "no angel," followed by a list of his supposed unangelic features, including an alleged theft, living "in a community that had rough patches," use of drugs and alcohol, and having "taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar."

There were an awful lot of objections to the piece, and the Times' public editor, Margaret Sullivan, has now responded, in a typically insufficient way:
Let's get the obvious out of the way first: That choice of words was a regrettable mistake. In saying that the 18-year-old Michael Brown was "no angel" in the fifth paragraph of Monday's front-page profile, The Times seems to suggest that this was, altogether, a bad kid.

Some people take their protests further; they say that The Times is suggesting a truly repellent idea — that Mr. Brown deserved to die because he acted like many a normal teenager.
Well, that's pretty much exactly what the police have suggested, by releasing footage allegedly showing Brown committing a theft before his was shot, by releasing a comprehensive police report of the robbery and a cursory report of the shooting, by accusing Brown of attacking the officer who shot him, etc. And by repeating the police justification of the shooting, tucked among details like Brown's residency in a rough neighborhood and his rapping, the Times, deliberately or not, made the same case. That's the point. It is a "truly repellent idea," but Sullivan should not act so surprised that people are accusing them of participating in this heinous victim-blaming.

Sullivan then makes sure we know that the author of the piece, John Eligon, is "a 31-year-old black man himself," before letting him defend the piece:
"I understand the concerns, and I get it," Mr. Eligon said. He agreed that "no angel" was not a good choice of words and explained that they were meant to play off the opening anecdote of the article in which Mr. Brown saw an angelic vision. That anecdote "is about as positive as you can get," Mr. Eligon said, and noted that a better way to segue into the rest of the article might have been to use a phrase like "wasn't perfect."

"Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I would have changed that," he said.
To say Michael Brown "wasn't perfect" would have had the exact same connotations. The point is that listing a victim's flaws, separate and sequential from any other characteristics, is always going to be interpreted as victim-blaming. And there is the problem of treating residency in certain neighborhoods, or rapping, as flaws in the first place.
There is other language in the article that some readers are objecting to — in particular, the references to Mr. Brown's interest in rap music with its sometimes provocative lyrics. Mr. Eligon said he pressed his editors to make changes on parts of the article that dealt with rap. "Rapping is just rapping. It's not indicative of someone's character," he told me.
And yet there it was, listed as evidence that Michael Brown was "no angel."

Sullivan concludes:
In my view, the timing of the article (on the day of Mr. Brown's funeral) was not ideal. Its pairing with a profile of Mr. Wilson seemed to inappropriately equate the two people. And "no angel" was a blunder.

In general, though, I found Mr. Eligon's reporting to be solid and thorough. I came away from the profile with a deeper sense of who Michael Brown was, and an even greater sense of sorrow at the circumstances of his death.
Not ideal. Inappropriate. Blunder. Oopsy! But it was a solid piece, so move along.

I guess that settles that.

The fact that Margaret Sullivan needed to read an article to feel "an even greater sense of sorrow at the circumstances of his death," because there was some mysterious reason to withhold some sorrow about the extrajudicial killing in the street of this unarmed black teenager, and that she doesn't imagine that's a very strange thing to say, pretty much says everything one needs to know about what the problem is here.

Our sorrow at any loss of life in this manner should not be predicated on the goodness of the victim.

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