After a mountain of backlash over John Eligon's New York Times profile of Michael Brown, public editor Margaret Sullivan weighed in on what she called bad phrasing, but not bad intent. The article, published on the same day as Brown's funeral and the same day a profile on Darren Wilson ran, said that Brown was "no angel" after describing a conversation Brown had with his parents about seeing an angel in the clouds.
"Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: That choice of words was a regrettable mistake," Sullivan wrote. "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." Others suggested that the story implied Brown deserved to be shot. As Sullivan notes, it wasn't just the "no angel" phrase. In that same paragraph it mentions his "dabbled" in drugs and drinking, rapped and fought with a neighbor.
The reaction to the piece — at least that first section — was swift. Max Read at Gawker suggested an alternative headline of "Despite Facing Discrimination and Suspicion, Young Man Looked Forward to Future Before Police Killed Him." Matt Yglesias at Vox described his own "dabbling" with drugs and alcohol — the difference between him and Brown is that no one shot him. And as Vanity Fair's Kia Makarechi explained, The Times has a history of using the phrase to describe white Nazis and murders alongside unarmed black shooting victims and, in one case, Magic Johnson.
At the same time, Sullivan notes that Eligon, "a 31-year-old black man himself," has personally experienced racial profiling. Eligon said he thought the piece offered a "full, mostly positive picture," but "hindsight is 20/20. I wish I would have changed that,” he told Sullivan, referring to the phrase. In regards to the sections about his rap music, he said he asked his editors to make changes.
Alison Mitchell, The Times' national editor, told Sullivan that “if you read the full profile, it’s a sensitive, nuanced account of this young man." She then asks that people read all of the paper's Ferguson coverage, instead of cherry picking a single section of a single story. On that point, when The Wire first looked at how different sites were covering Michael Brown's shooting, The Times was an example of how to cover the situation without being sensationalist. And yet, it only takes one phrase to overshadow all that good work.