In a recent profile of Michael Brown, a New York Times piece describes an anecdote in which Brown claimed to have seen an angel in the clouds. He told his dad that “he saw Satan chasing the angel and the angel running into the face of God” — and said that the experience had made him a believer.
In the fifth paragraph, after describing the anecdote about the angel in the clouds, the reporter, John Eligon, goes on to say:
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.
At the same time, he 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.
Now the reporter and the New York Times are taking grief for using the phrase “no angel” to describe Brown. They are pushing back, explaining that the phrase is a reference to the angel story at the head of the piece — and anyway, they add, he’s on tape committing a robbery, which is hardly angelic.
Ah, who am I kidding? The last sentence of the previous paragraph is fictional. Actually, the Times is in full backpedal mode. Here’s their public editor:
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: That choice of words was a regrettable mistake. In saying that the 18-year-old Michael Brown was “no angel” in the fifth paragraph of Monday’s front-page profile, The Times seems to suggest that this was, altogether, a bad kid.
Some people take their protests further; they say that The Times is suggesting a truly repellent idea — that Mr. Brown deserved to die because he acted like many a normal teenager.
What’s “obvious” to the public editor is not obvious to me, but an intense Twitter backlash has apparently moved the Overton window on what phrases are acceptable to describe Brown. The Twitter mob has even managed to get the reporter, a black man who wrote a balanced piece about Brown, to express regret over his choice of words:
Mr. Eligon told me in a phone conversation that he proposed the idea of a profile of Mr. Brown — an in-depth article that would give readers insight into his life. . . . As a 31-year-old black man himself, Mr. Eligon told me, he is attentive to many of the issues in the Ferguson case.
. . . .
“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.”
“Hindsight is 20/20. I wish I would have changed that,” he said.
In general, he said, the profile was a “full, mostly positive picture” of the young man.
Reading the full profile, I don’t get the impression that Brown was an altogether bad kid. He had some positives going for him: a dad in the picture and a diploma from high school. But it is true he was no angel; most people caught on video committing a robbery aren’t. For that matter, most people aren’t, period. There are very few angels out there. But I think it’s safe to say that the Venn diagram of “angels” and “robbers” doesn’t really intersect.
Apparently it’s no longer allowed to tell the truth, even if the truth is told with sensitivity and balance.
Eligon deals with words on a daily basis. I guarantee you he thought about whether to use the phrase “no angel” — and consciously decided to go forward with that wording because it provided an artful and truthful transition from the story about the angel in the clouds to the grittier story of Brown’s actual life.
The most irritating thing about this is that of the horde of whiners on Twitter, my guess is that not one in 100 has read the whole piece. They just take a phrase out of context and run with it, because OUTRAGE!!!!
So, you have your marching orders, folks. Michael Brown was an angel after all, and don’t you dare say otherwise.
P.S. The story also says:
Mr. Brown’s uncle Bernard Ewing remembers talking to his nephew about how to interact with police officers.
“I let him know like, if the police ever get on you, I don’t care what you doing, give it up,” Mr. Ewing said. “Because if you do one wrong move, they’ll shoot you. They’ll kill you.”
Good to advice. Is it wrong of me to say it’s a shame Michael Brown didn’t take it?
P.P.S. There is now unconfirmed audio of the gunshots. Apparently some guy was chatting it up with his girl and recording the conversation on his computer, as you do, and in the background can be heard what CNN claims may be the shots that killed Brown. If these are the shots, it sounds like a cluster of six, a short pause, and a cluster of four. Bear in mind: Brown was hit six times. If he was advancing on the officer during the shots, the cop probably missed him more in the first cluster than the second, meaning Brown might have been hit only twice in the first cluster. Was he really still coming at the cop after the first cluster and the pause? If so, why? And another question: was the recording on during the first gunshot — the one that went off when Brown was struggling with the officer in the car? Why didn’t we hear that one?