Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

New York Times public editor calls Shonda Rhimes article “astonishingly tone deaf”

Illustration for article titled New York Times public editor calls Shonda Rhimes article “astonishingly tone deaf”

On Friday, the New York Times posted an article by its TV critic Alessandra Stanley, “Wrought In Rhimes’ Image,” that created immediate controversy before it was even printed, centered on its casual use of the term “angry black woman.” (Slate’s Willa Paskin has an excellent breakdown of the problems with that term, while Rhimes herself responded on Twitter.)


Now the Times’ public editor, Margaret Sullivan, has joined the fray: In a column posted today, Sullivan calls the piece “at best—astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.”

The bulk of Sullivan’s post is a letter to the editor from longtime Times subscriber Patricia Washington, who told the paper she was considering canceling her subscription:

Ms. Stanley’s story was a backhand to me and it hurts. For the first time, I am considering cancelling my New York Times subscription because this story is much more than disagreeing with the writer’s opinion. This story denigrated every black woman in America, beginning with Shonda Rhimes, that dares to strive to make a respectable life for herself. No matter what we do, as far as Ms. Stanley is concerned, we will always be angry and have potent libidos as we have been perceived from slavery, to Jim Crow, and sadly in September 2014, the 21st century.

Washington ends her letter by asking for Stanley to be fired. Sullivan says that she’ll be posting more about the topic in that space over the course of the day, as the Times figures out how to handle the situation. But she clearly comes down on the side of the critiques of the article:

There are some big questions here—about diversity, about editing procedures and about how The Times deals with stories about women and race. They are worth exploring in depth.

This is a preliminary post, and I’ll be adding to it later today, or posting again. But I’ll say this much: The readers and commentators are correct to protest this story. Intended to be in praise of Ms. Rhimes, it delivered that message in a condescending way that was—at best—astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.

Over the weekend, Stanley blamed Twitter for fueling the negative reaction and offered a one-sentence defense of her article to The Root: “The whole point of the piece—once you read past the first 140 characters—is to praise Shonda Rhimes for pushing back so successfully on a tiresome but insidious stereotype.”

Alessandra Stanley has been the New York Times television critic since 2003. This is not the first time she’s had run-ins with controversy and with the newspaper’s public editor. In 2009, a story she wrote on Walter Cronkite went to print with seven errors in it, leading to a lengthy correction. Clark Hoyt, the public editor at the time, observed then that Stanley had historical issues with fact-checking: “Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts.”