A New York Times profile of Michael Brown published the day before the teenager’s funeral has offended and enraged Times readers, driving some to cancel their subscriptions in protest.
Brown, 18, was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 9 by local police officer Darren Wilson. His funeral services took place on Monday.
“Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise” was published on the same day as a profile of the police officer who killed the unarmed teenager. The police officer’s story, “Darren Wilson Was Low-Profile Officer With Unsettled Early Days,” opens with an anecdote about a career success, and is largely uncritical of the officer. Though the profile notes that Wilson had a somewhat troubled childhood, a reader would be likely to come away with the impression that he was a victim of a chaotic environment rather than someone who contributed to it.
Conversely, Brown is characterized as “no angel” early on in his profile, which points out that he had “dabbled in drugs and alcohol” and “had taken to rapping.” In his early childhood years, “Brown was a handful,” according to the Times, as he would sometimes write on the walls of his home and tried to climb a security gate.
Late Monday, New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan addressed the "no angel" characterization, calling it 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," Sullivan said.
Sullivan's post was written after the story drew widespread criticism from media outlets and individual Times readers. From Gawker: “Is the Times cryptically gesturing at some unpublishable knowledge of Brown's behavior or juvenile record? Or has no one at the paper ever met a teenager before?”
In the view of Brooklyn Magazine, the Times article “serves no narrative other than that which seeks to find Brown complicit in his own murder,” one Brooklyn Magazine reporter wrote. “If Justin Bieber was judged as harshly as Michael Brown has been, he would be on death row and not raking in millions of dollars and posing shirtless on Instagram,” wrote another.
Brooklyn Magazine looked into previous instances in which the Times described a subject as “no angel” and found evidence of a racial divide: White subjects described as “no angel” were guilty of or associated with violent crimes. Among the white “no angels”: Al Capone; the perpetrators of Columbine High School massacre; a murderer; Erwin Rommel – once an ally of Adolf Hitler, but who later turned on him; and a gang leader whose death-row murder conviction was overturned. But Paul Robeson, a black singer and Civil Rights leader who committed no crime beyond (alleged) adultery, was likewise “no angel,” according to the paper of record.
Dueling screenshots of the Times’ profile of the dead black teenager and that of a living white teenager, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of two brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing, have been circulating on social media. Tsarnaev’s profile described him as a “beautiful, tousel-haired boy with a gentle demeanor, soulful brown eyes and [a] shy, laid-back manner.” Tsarnaev was described as “just a normal American kid” by his friends, one who smoked “a copious amount of weed.” But drug use on Brown’s part is listed as one of many offenses that some readers and critics have interpreted as subtly, insidiously placing some of the blame of his apparently senseless death onto the victim.
“The general tone of the article was extremely offensive, essentially drawing the conclusion that because [Brown] ‘dabbled in drugs and alcohol’ he was worth less than his teenage counterparts,” said Tristan Massalay-Ellis, a 26-year old political strategist from Queens, who cancelled his subscription in response to the profile. Matthew Yglesias of Vox also took the Times to task in a post titled “Michael Brown didn’t do anything as a teen that I didn’t – but only one of us got killed”:
When I was Brown's age I also dabbled in drugs and alcohol. Even used Swisher Sweets to roll blunts from time to time. For that matter, I also did some shoplifting. Got caught one time by a security guard at the K-Mart on Astor Place who confiscated the stuff I'd stolen and yelled at me a bunch. So I suppose that, when an undercover officer came upon me and two friends smoking cigarettes and drinking beer on a park bench that night, he could have shot us dead and then the Times could have reported that we were no angels. We weren't.
The author of the profile, John Eligon, told Sullivan that the choice of phrase was intended to echo the story’s opening anecdote of Brown telling his father that he saw a vision of an angel in the clouds not long before his death. But it’s not the only questionable choice of words and organization:
“In the ninth grade at McCluer High School in Florissant, Mr. Brown was accused of stealing an iPod. His mother said she went to the school, eventually showing a receipt to prove the iPod was his.”
If the iPod belonged to him, which means that he did not in fact steal it, why not say that Brown was “falsely accused?”
Another curiously worded passage referred to his absence of a criminal record.
“He did not have a criminal record as an adult, and his family said he never got in trouble with the law as a juvenile, either.”
Yes, juvenile criminal records are sealed, so it’s possible that one existed without the New York Times being aware of it. The same way a juvenile record could exist for anyone else. Why did the Times need to point out the hypothetical possibility in this case?
On Twitter, New York Times subscribers announced plans to cancel their subscriptions and encouraged others to do the same.
â€” Danielle (@knottyyarn) August 25, 2014
â€” J. Jerome Harris (@mratlanta) August 25, 2014
â€” Mimi (@BeautyBrains713) August 25, 2014
Anthea Butler, a Religious Studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, felt the timing of the profile – the day before Brown’s funeral – made it particularly insensitive and tone-deaf.
“It’s kind of disgusting,” Butler said. “Today is his funeral.”
Butler said she plans to cancel her subscription – which she’s had for 10 years – and write a letter to the newspaper explaining why.
“You expect the Daily Mail to do something like this,” Butler said. She feels that Brown’s profile is a reflection of “systematic bias” at the Times. “It’s about structural racism,” she said.
Like many other critics, Butler was offended that the article chronicled minor offenses typical of teenagers as the basis for describing Brown as “no angel.”
“Even the reporter [Eligon, who is black] has bought into “respectability politics,’” the idea that “if you behave properly, ie. dress well, don’t talk back, don’t curse, don’t smoke, don’t drink… all these prohibitions, that nothing will happen to you,” Butler said. “And that’s just not the case.”
Asked if he felt that the reporter’s race was significant, Massalay-Ellis said yes. “His race is significant because he was Mike Brown. He was an 18-year-old black man preparing for college at one point in his life,” Massalay-Ellis said. “I make the safe assumption that he understands and has been privy to racial profiling and similar tactics by American law enforcement.”
In fact, he has. Eligon spoke to Sullivan for the public editor's post on the story, which was published after Massalay-Ellis made the above comments. “I’ve had the cops called on me twice for looking suspicious," Eligon told Sullivan of reporting in the Midwest. Eligon also said that he is being attacked on social media by those who feel his story was too sympathetic to Brown.
“I’m hearing things like ‘you’re defending this thug,’ ” he told Sullivan.