Did NYT unfairly portray Ferguson shooting victim?

Writer Maya Lang posted this tweet this morning, allegedly to show how blacks are portrayed differently than whites when it comes to profiles, at least in the New York Times.

Here’s the Times’ paragraph that Lang used to make her point.

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.

But this is the paragraph that followed:

At the same time, he 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.

For comparison, here’s one of the early paragraphs in the NY Times’ profile of Boston Marathon alleged bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

To even his closest friends, Mr. Tsarnaev was a smart, athletic 19-year-old with a barbed wit and a laid-back demeanor, fond of soccer and parties, all too fond of marijuana. They seldom, if ever, saw his second, almost watertight life: his disintegrating family, his overbearing brother, the gathering blackness in his most private moments.

And the paragraph that followed:

But there were oblique signs that the gulf between the private and the public person was widening. Between raunchy jokes and posts about girls and cars on Twitter, Mr. Tsarnaev described terrifying nightmares about murder and destruction. In the last year, he alluded to disaffection with his American life and the American mind-set.

And as the date of the marathon drew close, he dropped cryptic hints of a plan of action, and the righteousness of an unspoken cause.

rolling_stone_tsarnaevLang, however, was mistaken in her comparison. The article on Tsarnaev she quoted actually comes from the Rolling Stone profile, the one that already been attacked for putting a flattering picture of Tsarnaev on its cover.

Here’s the paragraph near the top of the article that concerns Lang:

People in Cambridge thought of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev – “Jahar” to his friends – as a beautiful, tousle-haired boy with a gentle demeanor, soulful brown eyes and the kind of shy, laid-back manner that “made him that dude you could always just vibe with,” one friend says. He had been a captain of the Cambridge Rindge and Latin wrestling team for two years and a promising student. He was also “just a normal American kid,” as his friends described him, who liked soccer, hip-hop, girls; obsessed over The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones; and smoked a copious amount of weed.

Is the comparison apt? Rolling Stone was attempting to show Tsarnaev, who is charged with a crime, could have been anyone. It was intentionally trying to put a soft face on Tsarnaev. Brown, it should be pointed out, obviously wasn’t charged with anything. The two are not equal, as Matt Taibbi, who didn’t write the piece, explained.

I can understand why this might upset some people. But the jarringly non-threatening image of Tsarnaev is exactly the point of the whole story. If any of those who are up in arms about this cover had read Janet’s piece, they would see that the lesson of this story is that there are no warning signs for terrorism, that even nice, polite, sweet-looking young kids can end up packing pressure-cookers full of shrapnel and tossing them into crowds of strangers.

Thus the cover picture is not intended to glamorize Tsarnaev. Just the opposite, I believe it’s supposed to frighten. It’s Tsarnaev’s very normalcy and niceness that is the most monstrous and terrifying thing about him. The story Janet wrote about the modern terrorist is that you can’t see him coming. He’s not walking down the street with a scary beard and a red X through his face. He looks just like any other kid.

No doubt intentionally, the Times also ran a profile today of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot and killed Mr. Brown. Its “character paragraph” described him, basically, as a nobody

As a teenager, Darren Wilson lived in St. Peters, Mo., a mostly white city of 54,000 about 20 miles west of Ferguson, where his environment was chaotic. He was the eldest of three children of Tonya Dee Durso, who, records show, carried out financial crimes, including against Sandra Lee Finney, who lived across the street and had believed they were friends.

“It’s a terrible thing that has happened now, but he did have a troubled childhood,” Ms. Finney said in an interview, adding that Officer Wilson’s family had somewhat awkwardly stayed in the neighborhood — moving just one door down — even after his mother was convicted of stealing and forgery in 2001.

But here’s the takeaway. Wilson’s mother was stealing from the neighbor, and the Times suggested that Wilson wasn’t “cop material.” It’s hardly a flattering profile.

Years later, Ms. Finney said she was stunned when she saw her former neighbor appear outside the old house in a police uniform. “My husband and I thought, ‘How did he get to be a police officer?’ ”

No doubt, Ms. Lang is correct in noting that whites and blacks are often portrayed differently in these sorts of stories. But in this particular case, she might be trying too hard to hide context in order to make her point a valid one.