August 25, 2014

To the consternation of social media, the New York Times, in a retrospective on the short life of Michael Brown Jr., stated that the victim of a high-profile police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., was “no angel.”

Twitter wanted to know whether the New York Times would have used such a characterization if Brown had been white.

Time for a descent into Nexis. A search in the archives of the New York Times for “no angel” yields 294 results, and a random scan of recent ones shows that the paper has applied the term to a variety of individuals and things. For example:

Dr. William P. Rush*

Rush is a fixer in the USA network series “Rush.” Writes Neil Genzlinger in a recent television review in the Times, “This fixer, like Ray Donovan, is no angel.”

Unique Smith

In a May story in the paper’s Metropolitan section, Michael Wilson profiled one Unique Smith, who was arrested in the midst of an alleged robbery attempt. Writes Wilson, “Days earlier, Mr. Smith had spoken hopefully of an upcoming job interview. Sure, he was no angel. But robbery? In Manhattan?”

Paul Robeson (famous performer/activist)

In a May piece about an artist who portrays Robeson, the New York Times’s Scott Timberg writes, “Despite all his accomplishments, fame (at times, he was the best-known black man in the world) and courage, Robeson was no angel: He had affairs, while playing Othello, with at least two of his Desdemonas; his integrity could become stubbornness; and he refused to criticize Stalin publicly despite awareness of his crimes.”

Clayton Lockett

In May, columnist Charles Blow discussed the Oklahoma execution of Lockett: “To be sure, Lockett was no angel. He was convicted of first-degree murder for shooting a young woman, Stephanie Neiman, and watching as accomplices buried her alive.”

Suzy Cat*

In an October 2013 review, Sarah Harrison Smith takes a look at the book “Drat That Cat“: “Suzy Cat has so much white fur she looks like a cross between a puli and Cousin Itt. Though beloved, she is no angel: she scratches a sofa to ribbons, piddles in Dad’s golf bag, bites Grandpa and pulls down the curtains.”

James (Whitey) Bulger

Here’s an interesting case. A June 2013 New York Times story about famous criminal Bulger carries a URL with relevance to today’s New York Times dustup: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/13/us/bulger-is-no-angel-but-an-informant-never-jury-is-told.html. The story focused on the trial in which Bulger was ultimately convicted of an array of charges, including murder and drug trafficking.

Yet there appears to be no “no angel” moment in the piece itself.

Ted Gup’s son.

In a compelling April 2013 piece in the New York Times, Ted Gup, a fellow of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, writes about the death** of his son:

My son was no angel (though he was to us) and he was known to trade in Adderall, to create a submarket in the drug among his classmates who were themselves all too eager to get their hands on it. What he did cannot be excused, but it should be understood. What he did was to create a market that perfectly mirrored the society in which he grew up, a culture where Big Pharma itself prospers from the off-label uses of drugs, often not tested in children and not approved for the many uses to which they are put.

Argentina

In a November 2012 story on the South American country’s status as a “sometime deadbeat debtor,” Steven Davidoff Solomon writes, “Argentina is no angel. It is deliberately avoiding repaying these bondholders, and it used its sovereign immunity to force a disadvantageous situation.”

This smattering shows no particular pattern in the usage of “no angel.” Like most English phrases, it gets tossed around here and there on the pages of the New York Times. Over at Brooklyn Magazine, Kristin Iversen breaks down several “no angel” iterations in the New York Times by race, concluding that “the term’s employment is used regardless of the race of the subject,” but that “it is only used for white people when they are guilty of the most offensive crimes against humanity—even once, literally, a Nazi.” That finding is based on a “quick survey.”

What we have here is an unfortunate choice of words at the most unfortunate of moments — calling an 18-year-old victim of a police shooting “no angel” just as he’s being laid to rest amid a national outcry. The term is a cheesy attempt at the literary — a riff off of Brown’s dream involving an angel and Satan that’s referenced in the story’s opening paragraph. It reflects one quick, bad decision, though hardly a systemic problem with the coverage, let alone the article itself, which is otherwise well researched and worthy of the front page of the New York Times.

*Fictional

**Correction: A previous version mistakenly termed this a suicide.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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