An outrage plume is now settling over the New York Times over two words in a retrospective on the life of Michael Brown Jr., the victim of the Ferguson, Mo., police shooting whose funeral takes place today. Here’s the objection-producing passage, written by John Eligon:
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.
Just dial up the hashtag #NoAngel on Twitter, and soak up the reaction:
— E. Catherine Tobler (@ECthetwit) August 25, 2014
If I had time on my hands today, I’d poke around and find out what makes the NYT’s John Eligon #NoAngel
— tony (@tone_def) August 25, 2014
If you’re asking “what were they thinking?” about the “no angel” paragraph, they THOUGHT they were advertising their non-aligned status. 1/2
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) August 25, 2014
They THOUGHT they were separating themselves from people who might be tempted to angel–ize Michael Brown. “You can do that, we cannot.” 2/2 — Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) August 25, 2014
Alison Mitchell, national editor for the New York Times, noted in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog that the “no angel” line derives from the lead paragraph of the piece, which narrates a moment in Brown’s life:
FERGUSON, Mo. — 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.
“It comes out of the opening scene,” says Mitchell, who notes that “like many teenagers,” Brown was indeed “no angel.” Okay, but would the New York Times have chosen this term — which is commonly used to describe miscreants and thugs — if the victim had been white? Mitchell: “I think, actually, we have a nuanced story about the young man and if it had been a white young man in the same exact situation, if that’s where our reporting took us, we would have written it in the same way.” When asked whether she thought that “no angel” was a loaded term in this context, Mitchell said she didn’t believe it was. “The story … talks about both problems and promise,” she notes.
UPDATE 4:55 p.m.: In an interview with New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, Eligon acknowledges some merit in the backlash.
“I understand the concerns, and I get it,” Mr. Eligon said. He agreed that “no angel” was not a good choice of words and explained that they were meant to play off the opening anecdote of the article in which Mr. Brown saw an angelic vision. That anecdote “is about as positive as you can get,” Mr. Eligon said, and noted that a better way to segue into the rest of the article might have been to use a phrase like “wasn’t perfect.”