After describing Michael Brown as “no angel,” the New York Times caught some hell on Twitter and beyond.
The description came in a profile of Brown, the black 18-year-old whose death at the hands of a white Ferguson, Mo. police officer has generated weeks of racial tension.
Times reporter John Eligon now says he was merely trying to convey that Brown wasn’t perfect, but the phrase he used set off a collective groan on the Internet:
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.
The “no angel” line, Times national editor Alison Mitchell noted in an interview with the Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, was derived from the story’s opening scene, which served as an example of Brown’s recent religious conversion.
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. Mr. Brown was a prankster, so his father and stepmother chuckled at first.
The criticism over the phrase has been vociferous, particularly on Twitter, where the #NoAngel hashtag has been used as a bludgeon against the Times all day. The “no angel” line also provided an uncomfortable contrast with an adjoining Times profile of Darren Wilson, the white officer who killed Brown earlier this month. In that piece, which was written by Times reporters Monica Davey and Frances Robles, Wilson was described as “a well-mannered, relatively soft-spoken, even bland person who seemed, if anything, to seek out a low profile.”
The reporter who wrote the phrase believes much of the criticism aimed at his piece is unfair, even if he said he understands where it’s coming from.
In a phone interview from St. Louis, where he’s covering Brown’s funeral, Eligon told TPM that, if anything, his story was a mostly positive portrayal of the teen.
“I guess I will say I totally understand where people are coming from. But I think my problem is, I’m curious with a lot of the criticism if those people have even read the entire story because the opening anecdote involved Michael seeing an angel,” he said. “It’s more so like a metaphor for this guy, who had this kind of deeply personal religious experience, and what had happened in his life since then was he was really trying to find his faith a little bit deeper, almost searching for that angel, you know? So it’s kind of like comparing it to his own life. He was no angel.”
“I caution against cherry-picking one line or one paragraph because I would say largely everything before and after that is mostly positive about his life,” Eligon added.
Although the story mentioned Brown’s use of alcohol and marijuana, the reporter highlighted a number of other details in the piece that cast the teen in a positive light. There’s a quote from an athletic director talking about Brown’s determination to graduate, a story about Brown fixing his cousin’s PlayStation and Brown’s mother saying that her son “was so cool that he could just get along with anybody.”
Eligon argued that even the details about Brown writing rap lyrics, another source of criticism, weren’t really that bad.
“Even speaking of the rap thing, he raps about things like — he derides fathers who don’t pay child support,” Eligon told TPM. “I think most people would say that’s a positive message to put out there.”
The references to Brown’s love of rap music get to what several observers consider to be a racial double-standard in Eligon’s piece. There are plenty of white teenagers who smoke weed, drink alcohol and, yes, write rap music. Would Eligon have handled the story the same if Brown had been white?
“Yeah, I think I absolutely would have,” Eligon said, adding that the Times had already run a story about Brown’s alcohol and pot use.
Indeed, those facts have drawn the ire of many who believe that it should not matter if Brown did what so many other of his contemporaries do on a daily basis. There was a similarly negative reaction last week, when the Washington Post quoted an anonymous source who said the autopsy of Brown showed he had marijuana in his system at the time of his death. Much of the criticism that surfaced Monday seems to be centered on the phrase “no angel,” which Wemple noted is “commonly used to describe miscreants and thugs.” As one observer on Twitter noted, the Times previously used it for notorious mobster Whitey Bulger.
Eligon conceded that there might be “a connotation there that I didn’t fully consider when I wrote it,” but he insisted it wasn’t on his mind when he wrote the piece.
“Maybe the reaction would have been different if I had said ‘Michael Brown was not perfect.’ For me, I think it’s the same thing, saying he’s ‘no angel’ and saying he’s ‘not perfect,'” Eligon said. “But maybe if I would have said he’s ‘not perfect’ then the connotation would have been different and people wouldn’t have been so up in arms. I don’t know. But again, I understand. I get it.”
The reaction to the piece on Twitter has been pretty harsh. Eligon said emailers have also been critical of the story, but for very different reasons.
“As I was thinking about it, it’s kind of like a no-win situation because all the Twitter unrest over the story has been focused on me supposedly doing a character assassination,” Eligon told TPM. “But it’s interesting because almost every single email I’ve gotten — I’ve gotten probably like two-dozen emails or so — almost every single one has been the opposite, saying, ‘Oh, you’re defending this thug’ and saying all this bad stuff about Michael Brown and how I’m being sympathetic toward him.”
Eligon said that the complexities of his story might have been lost amid the Twitter uproar.
“I would argue there’s lots of positive things about him in that article — more positive than negative, I would say. And I think even the negative is to show a young man who, despite facing lots of hurdles or despite getting into mischief that lots of people his age get into, was still able to overcome all that and make something of himself. And I think that’s the overall message conveyed in the story,” Eligon said.
“It’s really easy in 140 characters to deride one little part of the article, but if you want to have a broader conversation about what the meaning of the story is it’s going to take more than a 140-character tweet.”