Quick: How many angels do you know personally? Zero? Yeah, I guess nobody’s perfect. In fact, that’s the kind of wisdom so accepted you don’t need to stick it in a newspaper article.

Nevertheless, in a postmortem profile for the New York Times, Kansas City correspondent John Eligon pointed out that Michael Brown—whose death in an encounter with Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson has split the nation along raw, jagged fault lines—was “no angel.” His reasoning? Brown had “dabbled” in drugs and alcohol, and taken to rapping.

It’s not the Times’ duty to sanitize Brown’s image just because he was senselessly killed by a police officer who isn’t facing charges, and the “no angel” line makes sense as a pivot from Eligon’s lede—but the story doesn’t bear it out, and the troubling bias set readers off. 

After a slight bump for the sarcastic hashtag #NoAngel, a different conversation began:

Curiously enough, Eligon himself is black, and has lately been publishing coverage of the Brown story that critically scrutinizes local police, even pushing back against inaccuracies in their reports. Moreover, the content of this latest profile isn’t especially shocking: Brown’s problems were the sort shared by countless teens—so why the value judgement? 

Eligon has yet to weigh in on the backlash, but he is livetweeting Brown’s funeral.

Objective journalism is hard, but anything less isn't worth the headache.

Update: Times public editor Margaret Sullivan this afternoon published a post that characterized the phrase “no angel” as “ill-chosen” and a “blunder.” 

“Hindsight is 20/20,” she quotes Eligon as saying. “I wish I would have changed that.” He also noted that his article offers a “full, mostly positive picture” of Brown, one that has likewise drawn criticism for sympathetic overtones, while national editor Alison Mitchell argued that “the story basically says he’s human” and contains “no hint that this poor young man should have been shot.”

Eligon’s profile itself has yet to be altered or updated.

Photo by Josh McGinn/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)