Michael Brown Was 'No Angel'? Come On.

New York Times phrasing rankles a few readers

By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff

Posted Aug 25, 2014 12:40 PM CDT

(Newser) – Michael Brown "was no angel," according to a New York Times piece by John Eligon—and the phrasing hasn't gone unnoticed. At Vox, Matthew Yglesias recalls that he himself was hardly a model teen, but "you don't need to be one to survive into adulthood." Yglesias admits that he, like Brown, shoplifted and "dabbled in drugs and alcohol." One night he got caught smoking cigarettes and downing beers with friends in a New York City park, but they were ticketed, paid their fine, and moved on to productive careers. The officer "didn't shoot us," he writes. "I don't think I've ever heard a story where someone like me was killed and then proclaimed to the world to have been no angel. Angels, it turns out, are pretty rare." Other reactions:

  • At the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg is "particularly frustrated" by parts of the Times piece that equate Brown's "dabbling in hip-hop" with weakness of character. Eligon mentions Brown's rapping along with his drug and alcohol use, which "slur[s] Brown by treating his creative impulses as if they are evidence of some sort of criminal impulse."
  • Who else has the Times called "no angel"? Crooks, a Nazi, and men of color—including Al Capone, James "Whitey" Bulger, Erwin Rommel, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jackson, Vanity Fair reports. In 1992, the mother of an unarmed black boy murdered by four white men spoke to the Times, which reported that "her boy was no angel, she admits," because police had caught him stealing several times. "But he was young and I had hopes for him," she said.
  • Times National Editor Alison Mitchell defended the phrase, telling the Post that it echoed the story's opening paragraph—in which Brown "made out an angel" in the clouds and "saw Satan chasing the angel." Said Mitchell: "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."

A man wears a tie decorated with a picture of Michael Brown during Brown's funeral, Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis.
A man wears a tie decorated with a picture of Michael Brown during Brown's funeral, Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis.   (AP Photo/St. Louis Post Dispatch, Robert Cohen, Pool)
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