Chuck Ross

The Puzzling Reaction by the Editors of The New York Times to Its TV Critic’s Wrong-Headed Essay About Shonda Rhimes

Sep 29, 2014

There’s been a lot of good journalism written in the past week or so about a poorly reasoned, stilted and vexing essay penned by New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley about Shonda Rhimes.

One of the must-read critiques countering Stanley’s piece is Margaret Lyons’ “There Are Just So Many Things Wrong With The New York Times’ Shonda Rhimes Article,” in Vulture. Another must-read article addressing the Stanley commentary head-on is “The Only One: A Talk With Shonda Rhimes” by Linda Holmes, who writes the pop culture “Monkey See” blog for NPR. Finally, I also recommend Anne Helen Petersen’s discourse in Buzzfeed that traces the history of TV criticism at The New York Times, and illustrates how, Buzzfeed says, “a decades-long blind spot culminated” in Stanley’s piece about Rhimes.

Personally, I’m most puzzled by the reaction to Stanley’s piece by her bosses at The Times, as they have expressed themselves in conversations with Margaret Sullivan, The Times’ public editor. According to The Times’ website, “The public editor’s office … handles questions and comments from readers and investigates matters of journalistic integrity. The public editor works independently, outside of the reporting and editing structure of the newspaper; her opinions are her own.”

Sullivan spoke last Monday, Sept. 22, 2014, to Dean Baquet, The Times’ executive editor. Writes Sullivan, “His opinion is of particular interest because he made history a few months ago when he became the first black editor to lead The Times … .”

Later in her piece Sullivan writes, “On the specifics, Mr. Baquet said he fully understood that many readers were deeply upset about the article on Ms. Rhimes. He said that its author, Alessandra Stanley, ‘was trying to make a profound point’ about breaking down stereotypes of black women, but ‘clearly, it wasn’t read that way.’ He declined to comment on whether the article was insensitive or offer any other praise or criticism.”

Come on, Baquet, that’s a crap answer. Express an opinion. Take a stand. Sullivan herself said this about Stanley’s piece: “Readers and commenters 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.”

Sullivan then continued about Baquet, saying that he “suggested that readers take a broad view of The Times, pointing to other articles in the same day’s (Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014) newspaper  that had a racial component, theme or prominent voice — including Charles Blow’s essay on the Sunday Review cover, a front-page article on an historic black film, and a review on the cover of the Book Review. ‘I would ask people to please consider the whole,’ he said.”

Whaaat? To her credit Sullivan says that this suggestion of Baquet’s is “unlikely to satisfy those justifiably offended by the TV article.”

Damn right.

Sullivan says she also spoke to Danielle Mattoon, The Times’ culture editor. “There was never any intent to offend anyone and I deeply regret that it did,” Ms. Mattoon said. “Alessandra used a rhetorical device to begin her essay, and because the piece was so largely positive, we as editors weren’t sensitive enough to the language being used.”

Sullivan writes: “Ms. Mattoon called the article ‘a serious piece of criticism,’ adding, ‘I do think there were interesting and important ideas raised that are being swamped’ by the protests. She told me that multiple editors — at least three — read the article in advance but that none of them raised any objections or questioned the elements of the article that have been criticized.”

That’s scary. As the Vulture’s Lyons and Monkey See’s Holmes astutely point out in their criticisms of the Stanley piece, much of the wrong-headedness of the essay comes from the faulty logic and false assumptions that underlie Stanley’s arguments.

Stanley’s piece angered and offended many readers with her opening sentence, known in journalism as the lede: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’ ”

In her defense Stanley told Sullivan, “I didn’t think Times readers would take the opening sentence literally because I so often write arch, provocative ledes that are then undercut or mitigated by the paragraphs that follow.”

This is both arrogant and nonsensical. As I am not the first to point out, most Times readers likely read Stanley occasionally at best, and no, they are not aware that she often writes “arch, provocative ledes that are then undercut or mitigated by the paragraphs that follow.” And why would one do that anyway? To deliberately try to confuse most of one’s readers? Why would one’s editors allow that?

By the way, this is not the first time The Times’ public editor has written about Stanley. Back in August 2009, Clark Hoyt, then The Times’ public editor, began one of his columns: “The Times published an especially embarrassing correction on July 22, fixing seven errors in a single article — an appraisal of Walter Cronkite.” That appraisal was written by Stanley. How could a story with so many mistakes have been published? Writes Hoyt, “The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not.”

I don’t think Stanley wrote her recent piece about Rhimes in haste, but there seems to be no question that the editors who read it before it was published — Sullivan was told that there were “at least” three of them — also were not as vigilant as they should have been.

One red flag raised by Sullivan was this: “The Times has significant diversity among its high-ranking editors and prominent writers, but it’s troubling that with 20 critics, not one is black and only two are persons of color.” She vowed to bring up the issue with Baquet.

Then, after speaking to Baquet, Sullivan wrote that he “told me that he sees a problem with diversity in some areas of the newsroom, including among the 20 cultural critics, where there are only two persons of color — the chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, and a TV critic, Mike Hale — and no black critics.

“ ‘I would criticize us for that,’ Mr. Baquet said. ‘I would love to diversify that area,’ as well as others … .”

Sullivan added that Baquet “said that in an era when, for economic reasons, The Times is trying to reduce rather than increase staff (it’s common knowledge that newsroom buyouts are expected soon), diversity efforts become more difficult.

“ ‘It’s a lot harder to work on it’ under those circumstances, he said. ‘But I’m not going to use that as an excuse. I have an obligation to diversify the staff and I will figure out a way.’ ”

This led me to even more exasperation with The Times. Ten days ago, Dylan Byers, who writes the “On Media” column for Politico, wrote this: “The New York Times leadership is currently considering a new round of buyout offers that is likely to slash at least 50 positions from the company, and possibly several more, sources at the paper told Politico this week.”

In that same piece he wrote: “Reached for comment, Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy dismissed the inquiry: ‘You’re hearing rumors and speculation and we don’t comment on either,’ she wrote in an email.”

I was surprised to read last week in Sullivan’s column about Stanley, as noted above, that Byers’ information was confirmed by Sullivan — “it’s common knowledge that newsroom buyouts are expected soon.”

Unfortunately, too often news organizations are no better at transparency than other companies, and lie to reporters who cover them.

I’m a longtime fan of The Times. I know many talented people who work there — though I don’t personally know Stanley, Sullivan, Mattoon or Baquet. Most of us in journalism live in glass houses. I hope Sullivan keeps pounding away at the issues raised by the writing, editing and publishing of Stanley’s essay. Clearly it struck a nerve. As Sullivan wrote, “In more than two years as public editor at The Times, I’ve encountered very few subjects that have aroused as much passion and reaction as [Stanley’s article] and the stereotype of the ‘Angry Black Woman’ the story leaned on.”

I hope both the Times editors and Stanley herself eventually come to understand the real fundamental flaws in the piece, as articulated so well by Lyons, Holmes and others. They consist primarily of assumptions and conclusions Stanley makes that are not based on facts, and actually belie the argument that Stanley and the Times editors make that her essay is, for the most part, a positive one.

One more thing. Some advice for Times spokesperson Eileen Murphy: Instead of telling a reporter that something is either rumor or speculation when it’s not, if you don’t want to say anything about something you are asked about, a simple “no comment” without any embellishment will suffice.

One Comment

  1. This piece did absolutely nothing to advance any dialogue about anything.
    Just rewarmed rehash.

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