‘No angel’: How the New York Times Michael Brown obituary sparked a Twitter frenzy

Twitter took the Times to task for calling Michael Brown “no angel.” Then the conversation changed.


Miles Klee

Internet Culture

Published Aug 25, 2014   Updated May 30, 2021, 5:25 pm CDT

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.

If Dahmer & Manson can make it to trial without getting killed by cops, why can’t an alleged cigar thief? #NoAngel pic.twitter.com/DmZeyAt19J

— Dare Obasanjo (@Carnage4Life) August 25, 2014

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. 

I need @nytimes to weigh in for me: Maya Angelou struggled with alcoholism, was a sex worker, from a community w/rough patches. Angel or nah

— Boy Toy Troy (@pterosaur) August 25, 2014

Wow @nytimes there’s ppl on your staff who dabble in drugs & alcohol. None of them have been executed by cops. Are they still angels or no??

— Boy Toy Troy (@pterosaur) August 25, 2014

I insist the tasteless @nytimes piece published at my [inevitably tragic] death includes the sentence, “Duchess Goldblatt was no angel.”

— Duchess Goldblatt (@duchessgoldblat) August 25, 2014

The NYT calling Michael Brown “no angel,” was pretty much predicted by this @MattBors comic: https://t.co/DnHDavu6NW pic.twitter.com/OHVoPC7LVB

— Emma Roller (@emmaroller) August 25, 2014

Here’s the 3rd graf from the NYT article on Mike Brown. and the 3rd graf from the RS article on the Boston bomber. pic.twitter.com/BQ5wR6JQT5

— David D. (@DavidDTSS) August 25, 2014

Innocent until proven not an angel.

— emptywheel (@emptywheel) August 25, 2014

He wasn’t an angel. Nor a unicorn. Nor a sylph. Nor a griffon. Nor a centaur. Not even an elf or hobbit.

— Benjamin Kunkel (@das_kunk) August 25, 2014

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

Yo @nytimes. I’m a white woman. If I was unarmed and was shot 6 times by police tomorrow, no one would say #ideservedit. Fix your bias.

— Olivia A. Cole (@RantingOwl) August 25, 2014

Incase I’m murdered by a cop, @nytimes should know I take an obscene amount of napkins/serviettes when I go to fastfood placces #ideservedit

— Ogaga (@Dandy_Lord) August 25, 2014

If I get murdered, please let @nytimes that last year I accumulated about £70 in library fines #ideservedit

— Tatenda|Ubuntu (@NeoAfrican) August 25, 2014

If I’m murdered by a racist cop, I want @nytimes to know that I try to make my 6’s look like 9’s if it means I’ll win Uno. #IDeservedIt

— A♭ (@AlexDon314) August 25, 2014

Dear @nytimes. If I’m murdered by a racist cop, note I..uh…got a parking ticket once? I dunno, I’m sure you’ll find something. #ideservedit

— Alan Henry (@halophoenix) August 25, 2014

If cops kill me, remember I smoked pot. I smoked the most when I was working 2 jobs & putting myself through college. @nytimes #ideservedit

— Bran (@kungfulasers) August 25, 2014

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.

#MikeBrown mother arrives at funeral. Very somber moment #Ferguson

— John Eligon (@jeligon) August 25, 2014

Silence is deafening as #MikeBrown family files in #Ferguson

— John Eligon (@jeligon) August 25, 2014

@jeligon “He’s no angel” I audibly whisper.

— Castleton Snob (@brheas) August 25, 2014

@jeligon I hope someone in his family sees you and kicks you square in your narrow ass for besmirching Mike on the day of his funeral

— Sasuke Uchiha (@FirestyleJutsu) August 25, 2014

@jeligon they’re probably silent bc they haven’t read your shit piece today

— No Angel Either (@ATXChristina) August 25, 2014

@jeligon after that article you wrote you should really leave. You have no place there.

— Shadera Parks (@iNeedA_Refill) August 25, 2014

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)

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*First Published: Aug 25, 2014, 12:24 pm CDT