“Let’s get the obvious out of the way first,” wrote New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan after a day of criticism and mockery launched by the Times’ tone-deaf profile of Ferguson shooting victim Michael Brown, “That choice of words was a regrettable mistake.”
The words, by now internet infamous, were “no” and “angel,” as in, “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.” That paragraph, as discussed at length yesterday, went on to define Brown by his teenage indiscretions:
[H]e 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.
Alison Mitchel, the Times’ national editor, was first into the fray, explaining the unfortunate phrase was a literary turn on the opening of the story, and that explanation was echoed later by Sullivan and the article’s author, John Eligon, with Eligon concurring with Sullivan that “no angel” was ill-chosen.
Sullivan and Mitchell urged critics to read the whole piece (as did I). After doing so, Mitchel said readers would see the Times ran a “nuanced story about the young man,” adding that “if it had been a white young man in the same exact situation, if that’s where our reporting took us, we would have written it in the same way.”
That misses the point and underscores the problem, according to Salon politics writer Katie McDonough. Brown, of course, “wasn’t a white young man.”
We rarely have to read about white young men being shot and killed by police officers for the crime of walking in the street, wearing a hoodie, coming to a stranger’s front door and asking for help. I have little doubt that Michael Brown had “problems and promise.” He was human, after all. But writing about his death, only the most recent in a staggering number of deaths of young people of color, demands greater thought, more nuance, more context than the Times piece provided.
McDonough noted, “We don’t find many white young men ‘in the same exact situation’ that Brown found himself in.” And so the Brown obit, with its skewed internal logic and its placement alongside its seemingly opposite-but-equal Darren Wilson profile, falls into what her commentary called “a body of journalism that vets ‘good’ and ‘bad’ victims.”
It is a treatment, McDonough wrote, generally reserved for dead people of color and victims of sexual assault.
To buttress her point, McDonough recounted a 2011 NYT story about the brutal gang rape of an 11-year-old in Texas by 18 teenaged boys and twenty-something men.
Clicking through to the Times’ piece, it indeed asks in the channeled voice of the townsfolk, “[H]ow could their young men have been drawn into such an act?
For the portrait of the victim, as McDonough detailed, the Times pulled a “some said” out of its bag of tricks to drop in that the girl “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s,” and that she “would hang out with teenage boys at a playground.” It’s an approach that mirrors the Brown article.
This information is inserted in the most neutral way imaginable, as though it’s just creating a full picture of the moment and circumstances that preceded the rape. The chosen details of Brown’s history are delivered just as innocuously. But there is no neutral in a culture that presumes black criminality and women’s share of blame in sexual assault, and the selected framing of each piece prompts the reader to imagine how these details could make each victim complicit in violence committed against them. If this little girl had dressed differently, perhaps she wouldn’t have been sexually assaulted by a group of men. If Brown had been an above average student about to leave for a four-year college, maybe Wilson wouldn’t have looked at him and immediately seen a threat. Maybe things could have been different.
All of which is right on, but all of which also both underscores and misses the point made here yesterday. The racism, sexism and classism that infect these stories gets to exist — and gets excused — under the color of the authority granted by the Times’ (and other establishment enterprises’) insistence that they are “fair,” “balanced,” and “unbiased.”
The information is rolled out “in the most neutral way imaginable” because it is very important to the top tiers at the Times that they not be seen as taking sides, not in political stories, not in the shooting death of an unarmed teen, not even in the gang rape of a child.
It is, as discussed here yesterday, probably useful to the branding and marketing teams at the Times, not to mention the players at the paper that like access to bold-faced sources and invites to all the right parties, but it does the reader a great disservice.
Why? Look no further than the examples above. The account of the rape, the profile of Brown, those stories are not free of bias. As explained by McDonough, as observed in yesterday’s dueling profiles or as illustrated in the Matt Bors cartoon featured yesterday, “nuanced” pictures of victims are not the balanced counterpoint to wondering how privileged or powerful (and so, by inference, good) people could have strayed.
To hide behind this sort of binary equanimity is to ignore the wide gaps in power and influence that color every aspect of American life. McDonough is right to call the Gray Lady on its obvious bias, but it is the claim of being unbiased that actually predisposes the paper to prejudice. How, after all, can establishment vectors like the Times really assess balance when their cohort not only has a thumb on the scale, it pretty much owns the scale.