Tribune's Eric Zorn regrets 'chilly tone' of column on shooting of 13-year-old

Eric Zorn (Photo: Chicago Tonight/WTTW)

Saying he "should have done better," Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn is expressing regret for what he called the "chilly, analytical tone" of his piece about the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old boy by Chicago police.

Zorn's Tuesday column, headlined "Let’s wait before turning slain 13-year-old Adam Toledo into a martyr," urged people to withhold judgment until more facts are known. He argued that it's too early to say whether police acted in justifiable self-defense, but "it’s not too early to stop romanticizing and infantilizing 13-year-olds." (Here is the link.)

Toledo was shot in the chest after he ran from officers in the Little Village neighborhood shortly before 3 a.m. on March 29. He died at the scene and a gun was recovered.

As soon as his column was posted, Zorn came under blistering attack on social media — including from some of his own colleagues — for what they saw as a defense of police murdering a child.

After more than 40 years as one of the Tribune's most thoughtful and compassionate progressive voices, it was an unaccustomed position for Zorn, 63, to be pilloried as a "soulless monster" who was insensitive to the feelings of an angry, grieving community.

In a followup column Friday, Zorn said he reflected on the criticism and took it to heart. (Here is the link.)

"The less supportive response — in places so hostile and voluminous that a Newsweek reporter in London wrote an entire article based on it — took fair exception to my chilly, analytical tone and to my reminder that the news frequently shows us that 13-year-olds are not necessarily harmless, a reminder that some took as an indictment of the dead child," he wrote.

"I regret that tone. In focusing on details and marshaling evidence and arguments, I can neglect the emotional resonance in situations, as though I’ve forgotten or don’t care that a child who was loved has died, and that the death of someone with so much life ahead of him is always, always a tragedy. I should have done better.

"My suggestion that we wait for the police bodycam video and other evidence to emerge before issuing conclusions about this case was not meant to imply conclusions about Toledo or his family, nor was it in any way a defense of police violence."

Earlier Zorn told Newsweek his goal in writing the column was to "analyze the situation and seek truth and clarity; to shed light rather than generate heat" — not to justify the shooting. (Here is the link.)

"Aside from the profane and threatening insults on Twitter, few of which even bother to make a point, I've received a number of thoughtful letters of disagreement arguing that I minimized the inherent, fundamental tragedy of the violent death of a 13-year-old, no matter the circumstances, and gave too much deference to the idea that the police might have been justified in shooting him," he said.

"As time has permitted I've responded to these notes to try to clarify our points of disagreement and to underscore my belief that it's urgent to continue to demand answers from the police but important not to jump to conclusions before more facts are in.

"It's impossible to have anything like productive dialogue in the performative, rock-throwing environment of Twitter. I value the medium for many things, but it's a lousy forum for debate."

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