How to read newspaper profiles: At the start of the week, the New York Times managed to start an Internet blasphemy rampage.
It did so with a rumination on the existence of angels. Here’s how the rampage was triggered:
On Monday morning, the Times ran profiles of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson side-by-side on the paper’s front page.
Front-page profiles of this type tend to be soft and unhelpful. Routinely, they include second-hand information and musings which may be, in the famous phrase, “more prejudicial than probative.”
The 1400-word profile of Brown was written by John Eligon. He touched off the blasphemy rampage with just his fifth paragraph.
(For an explanation of the term, “blasphemy rampage,” see this earlier post.)
Below, you see the first four paragraphs of Eligon’s profile. The information included there is utterly pointless. But it presented an upbeat portrait, as was perfectly sensible:
ELIGON (8/25/14): It was 1 a.m. and Michael Brown Jr. called his father, his voice trembling. He had seen something overpowering. In the thick gray clouds that lingered from a passing storm this past June, he made out an angel. And he saw Satan chasing the angel and the angel running into the face of God. Mr. Brown was a prankster, so his father and stepmother chuckled at first.On its face, that’s utterly pointless. But, by standard reckoning, it’s cheerful and upbeat. In the weeks before his death, Brown was growing philosophical. “He was grappling with life’s mysteries.”
“No, no, Dad! No!” the elder Mr. Brown remembered his son protesting. “I’m serious.”
And the black teenager from this suburb of St. Louis, who had just graduated from high school, sent his father and stepmother a picture of the sky from his cellphone. “Now I believe,” he told them.
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.
So far, so good! Readers thought they were getting to know what Brown was actually like.
At this point, Eligon slipped. He penned a slightly puzzling paragraph and due to a single turn of phrase, an Internet rampage began:
ELIGON (continuing directly): 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.Some of that paragraph doesn’t make much sense. The fact that you “live in a community that has rough patches” doesn’t mean that you’re “no angel,” if that’s what it was intended to say.
Meanwhile, had Brown had been involved in one scuffle? Had he dabbled in alcohol? Those don’t seem like hugely significant facts.
On the other hand, Brown had menaced a convenience store clerk just ten minutes before his fatal encounter with Officer Wilson. In that fifth paragraph, Eligon bumped the severity of that behavior down in several ways.
This was classic front-page profile writing. It started with some catchy nonsense, then segued ahead with a turn of phrase built out of Brown’s vision of Satan chasing an angel.
But uh-oh! As he segued out of his opening, Eligon said that Brown “was no angel.” (The young man had “both problems and promise.”)
In some precincts of the “left,” you aren’t allowed to say things like that at this point in time. And so, the rampage started.
We first became aware of the rampage when we read Joanna Rothkopf’s post at Salon. Let’s give credit where credit is due:
Quite correctly, Rothkopf saw that Eligon’s profile “was a generally poignant piece about Michael Brown,” a “generally respectful article.” To read her post, click here.
That said, the new Salon has little respect for its readers or for the truth. For that reason, the site’s famously frenzied editors refashioned what Rothkopf had said, offering these headlines:
Michael Brown was “no angel,” according to outrageously skewed New York Times reportTo Rothkopf, the profile was “generally respectful.” In Salon's headlines, editors changed that assessment to “outrageously skewed.”
People took to Twitter to express their outrage over the teen's skewed portrayal
Rothkopf was certainly right about the overall profile. It started in an upbeat way, envisioning Brown as the new Spinoza. As it continued, it put a largely cheerful spin on the events of the young man’s life.
Rothkopf was right about the overall tone. But by the time she composed her post, the blasphemy rampage was underway. Perhaps for that reason, she complained that “the generally respectful article has unwittingly demonstrated the media’s unconscious bias.”
How had Eligon done that? Rothkopf posted the text of his fifth paragraph. Then, she offered this:
ROTHKOPF (8/25/14): In an article that purports to be about the spiritual curiosity of a doomed teen, why is it necessary to hedge the writer’s argument with harmless details of his allegedly fraught youth? Because certain media outlets have aggressively spread certain details of Brown’s life, it seems that every news outlet needs to include details of Brown’s drug use and petty theft (which are normal teenage offenses) in order to remain “objective.” In reality, the inclusion of these details represents the public will to say that maybe, just maybe, Brown’s fate was unavoidable.Truthfully, none of that makes sense. (On the whole, does the article purport to be about the spiritual curiosity of a doomed teen?)
None of that makes sense. But according to Rothkopf, the profile shouldn’t have mentioned the “harmless details” of Brown’s life, including drug use and “petty theft.” Through some unexplained chain of reasoning, she judged that Eligon’s inclusion of those matters “represents the public will to say that maybe, just maybe, Brown’s fate was unavoidable.”
You’re right! That doesn’t make any sense. But this is the new Salon.
Rothkopf is two years out of Middlebury. She spent her junior year at the Sorbonne, studying literature and cinema.
Her journalistic chops are extremely slight. In a wonderful turn of phrase, the young scribe then offered this:
“Expectedly, people have taken to Twitter to express their outrage at the piece, zeroing in on the phrase ‘was no angel.’ ”
“Expectedly?” Was that the word she meant? According to Rothkopf, it’s now expected that people will voice their outrage over a single turn of phrase in a lengthy profile which is “generally respectful.”
Is that what Rothkopf meant to say? Sadly, what she said is all too true!
As always, the blasphemy outrage was majorly dumb, but that’s what our tribe has become. We used to laugh at Rush’s listeners for this. Today, we’re ditto-heads too.
Can we talk? Eligon’s profile of Michael Brown was largely pointless. But it was also upbeat and cheerful—you might even say respectful. No serious person would think it was some kind of attack on Brown, let alone a statement of “the public will to say that maybe, just maybe, Brown’s fate was unavoidable.”
That last assessment was very dumb, but Rothkopf writes for the new Salon. She posted tweets from outraged scribes, who rose in sacred fury.
You have to be dumb to rampage like that. But on one point, there can be no mistake:
Our team is reflexively dumb now too! There’s no way that this sad turn can really be good for the nation.