The New York Times is drawing criticism for a Monday article about the life of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot dead by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri.
The paper's John Eligon wrote a lengthy profile of Brown, touching on the "problems and promise" he faced. Much of the piece could be seen as sympathetic towards him. It was this paragraph, though, that set people off:
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.
"No angel" struck many as a very jarring descriptor to insert. The reaction was swift: of course Brown was "no angel," because he was a regular human being, but what did that have to do with his death?
The paper further angered people by running a profile of Wilson which did not declare him to be "no angel." Instead, he was described as a "well-mannered, relatively soft-spoken, even bland person who seemed, if anything, to seek out a low profile."
The Times article also came after weeks in which reports of Brown's drug use and alleged shoplifting were seen as an example of the kind of treatment black victims of crime sometimes receive in the media.
The paper initially defended the article in an interview with the Washington Post's Erik Wemple. National editor Alison Mitchell told Wemple that the "no angel" line was meant to play off of a religious anecdote that the article began with, and said she saw no issue with its usage.
However, Eligon later told Times public editor Margaret Sullivan that the "no angel" line had been a mistake.
Read some of the reactions to the Times piece below.
I don't advocate lionizing the dead. But when we write about black men who've been killed by the police, "no angel" carries a new meaning.
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) August 25, 2014
— Kia Makarechi (@Kia_Mak) August 25, 2014
"On one hand, Brown was unarmed and by most accounts not a lethal threat. But I have to be objective! Better speculate that was a thug"
— Abraham Riesman (@abrahamjoseph) August 25, 2014
Okay @nytimes, we need a rewrite on that shameful article about Mike Brown because his parents are burying him today. Shame. On. You.
— Roxane Bey (@rgay) August 25, 2014
Here's the 3rd graf from the NYT article on Mike Brown. and the 3rd graf from the RS article on the Boston bomber. pic.twitter.com/BQ5wR6JQT5
— David D. (@DavidDTSS) August 25, 2014
I have long suspected I'm no angel. Luckily, no one's seen fit to put 6 bullets into me for it.
— Maaza Mengiste (@MaazaMengiste) August 25, 2014
oh see all this time I thought everyone was pissed because a literal angel died, glad that got cleared up
— alex pareene (@pareene) August 25, 2014
“Listened to rap music, drank alcohol, smoked weed, shoplifted, and got in fights” describes a good chunk of my white HS classmates.
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) August 25, 2014
— Boy Toy Troy (@pterosaur) August 25, 2014
NYTimes Mike Brown profiles parlays a story of a recent religious experience into a reminder that he was "no angel" http://t.co/ZZ2vn5jllT
— Craig Jenkins (@CraigSJ) August 25, 2014
NYT says Mike Brown was "no angel" because he "dabbled in drugs and alcohol," got into a "scuffle with a neighbor." http://t.co/sUs1p2uvZj
— Travis Waldron (@Travis_Waldron) August 25, 2014
Brown trying drugs/alcohol, shoplifting or rapping (!) does not mean "he was no angel." It means he was a teenager. http://t.co/pBVsq3TLlQ
— Jessica Valenti (@JessicaValenti) August 25, 2014
Did the NYT editor say to John Eligion, "John, a question about Michael Brown we need answered: Was he angel? Or maybe a griffin?"
— JeffSharlet (@JeffSharlet) August 25, 2014