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A New York Times article said Michael Brown was 'no angel' — Is that fair? (+photos)

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 27 2014 5:20 a.m. MDT

Michael Brown, Sr. wipes the top of the vault containing the casket of his son Michael Brown, Monday, Aug. 25, 2014, in Normandy, Mo. Hundreds of people gathered to say goodbye to Brown, who was shot and killed by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer on Aug. 9. (AP Photo/St. Louis Post Dispatch, Robert Cohen, Pool)

Robert Cohen, AP

Eighteen-year-old slain Michael Brown, whose death has ignited violent protests and rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, was "no angel," according to a profile in the New York Times — a comment that has caused renewed furor on Twitter.

Times writer John Eligon justified his comment about Brown, who was shot multiple times and killed after a scuffle with a police officer, amid details that Brown had been involved in shoplifting cigars, lived in "a community that had rough patches," and had dabbled in writing rap music.

As the Daily Dot reported, Twitter users erupted in angry response to the article.

"Brown trying drugs/alcohol, shoplifting or rapping (!) does not mean 'he was no angel.' It means he was a teenager," Guardian columnist Jessica Valenti tweeted.

The Times' Margaret Sullivan defended Eligon in a post Monday afternoon, though she did call Eligon's phrasing "ill-chosen."

Eligon told Sullivan that the phrase was his attempt to giver readers a multi-dimensional look into Brown's life beyond his death.

"(The story) is about as positive as you can get," Eligon told Sullivan.

But the criticism of Eligon wasn't confined to Twitter. Other media outlets have also spoken out against the Times' choice of words. Salon's Joanna Rothkopf called the article "outrageously skewed" and said the entire article illustrated an "unconscious bias."

"Because certain media outlets have aggressively spread certain details of Brown’s life, it seems that every news outlet needs to include details of Brown’s drug use and petty theft (which are normal teenage offenses) in order to remain 'objective,’ ” Rothkopf wrote. "In reality, the inclusion of these details represents the public will to say that maybe, just maybe, Brown’s fate was unavoidable."

But could Eligon's word choice have been blown out of porportion? An isolated incident? Not really, argues Vanity Fair's Kia Makarechi.

Trying to put Eligon's words into context, Makarechi found other examples of when the Times applied the "no angel" term to others. She found that the Times used the term most often for hardened, historical criminals like Al Capone, Whitey Bulger, Larry Flint and the Columbine High School killers.

"A sample of the white folks the Times has called 'no angel' includes infamous mobsters, murderers, a pornographer and a Nazi," Makarechi wrote. "Black Americans described similarly by the paper include a basketball player, a singer, criminal suspects, and unarmed men killed by white people."

The final insult, Makarechi postured, was the contrast of the coverage of Brown's life with the life of the officer who is accused of shooting him, Darren Wilson.

"The headline of the Times piece on Wilson: 'Darren Wilson Was Low-Profile Officer With Unsettled Early Days.' Wilson left a 'muted, barely noticeable trail,' and was 'a well-mannered, relatively soft-spoken, even bland person who seemed, if anything, to seek out a low profile,’ ” Makarechi wrote. "It seems the officer is lucky that he didn’t have a documented interest in rap music."

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson

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