People on the Left rarely complain about news coverage by the New York Times, but it took only two words to generate a torrent of criticism -- which is usually reserved for conservative Republicans -- regarding an article that profiled Michael Brown, the young African-American man who was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson on August 9 in Ferguson, Missouri.
In a front-page obituary timed to coincide with Brown's funeral on Monday, John Eligon -- a 31-year-old black reporter for the left-wing newspaper -- stated that the 18-year-old victim spent his “last weeks grappling with problems and promise” but was nevertheless described as “no angel.”
While most of the article was sympathetic to the plight of the “gentle giant,” Eligon noted in his fifth paragraph that Brown “was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life.”
The reporter continued:
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.
It wasn't long before torrents of harsh criticism turned up on Twitter under the hashtag “#NoAngel.” Several other posts were collected on the Twitchy.com website, where the posters didn't hold anything back while slamming Eligon's article.
@BloodyBHoney declared that “'He was no Angel' is the most blatantly racist codeword,” while @a_girl_irl charged that if “Mike Brown was 'no angel' in comparison to the rest of humanity, who are all angels. Every one of us.”
Meanwhile, @mollycrabapple focused on the police officer involved in the shooting, declaring that “Darren Wilson is no angel. He murdered a teenager named Mike Brown.”
By late afternoon, Margaret Sullivan used her Public Editor's Journal column to agree that the phrase had resulted in a “storm of protest” since it seemed “to suggest that this was, altogether, a bad kid.”
Sullivan noted that those two words “have become a flash point for many of the difficult, contentious, entrenched issues that have arisen in Ferguson.”
She continued: “Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: That choice of words was a regrettable mistake” that has led some people to say that the “Times is suggesting a truly repellent idea -- that Mr. Brown deserved to die because he acted like many a normal teenager.”
“I understand the concerns, and I get it,” Eligon told her. He also agreed that “no angel” was “not a good choice of words,” and that a better way to segue into the rest of the article might have been to use a phrase like “wasn’t perfect.”
“Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I would have changed that,” he added. In general, the profile was intended to be a “full, mostly positive picture” of the young man.
Sullivan noted that some readers are objecting to “other language in the article” -- in particular, the references to “Brown’s interest in rap music with its sometimes provocative lyrics.”
“Eligon said he pressed his editors to make changes on parts of the article that dealt with rap,” she noted. “Rapping is just rapping,” the black reporter explained. “It’s not indicative of someone’s character.”
In addition to criticism of the “no angel” phrase, Eligon said his email contains another point of view. “I’m hearing things like ‘You’re defending this thug.'”
However, many people have overlooked parts of the reporter's article that dealt with the more positive aspects of Brown's life:
[H]e 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.
He did not have a criminal record as an adult, and his family said he never got in trouble with the law as a juvenile, either.
Nevertheless, Sullivan faulted the timing of the article (on the day of Brown’s funeral) as “not ideal” and asserted that pairing it with a profile of Wilson “seemed to inappropriately equate the two people.”
And in one final attempt to quell the backlash over the article, she repeated that using the words “no angel” was indeed “a blunder.”