NYT Public Editor: Article About Shonda Rhimes Was "Astonishingly Tone-Deaf," "Out of Touch"

Shonda Rhimes Headshot - P 2014
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Shonda Rhimes Headshot - P 2014

TV critic Alessandra Stanley drew ire with her essay opining that Rhimes could call her autobiography 'How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman'

The New York Times' longtime TV critic Alessandra Stanley drew ire when she published a story last week about how Grey's Anatomy and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes "reset the image of African-American women on television."

"When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman," wrote Stanley.

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Stanley referenced such characters as Grey's Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) and Scandal's Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington), but she primarily focused on How to Get Away With Murder's Annalise Keating, played by Viola Davis in the new ABC series, which is executive produced by Rhimes and created by ShondaLand writer Peter Nowalk.

Rhimes responded on Twitter, pointing out that she was not the creator of the new series. "Confused why @nytimes critic doesn't know identity of CREATOR of show she's reviewing. @petenowa did u know u were 'an angry black woman'?"

Rhimes added that she hadn't realized she was "an angry black woman" and questioned why Stanley didn't refer to her white female leads. When she was asked by a Twitter follower whether she had seen a certain article about the debate, Rhimes tweeted back: "I've been too busy being angry and black. Also a woman. Takes up a lot of time."

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On Monday morning, the Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in on Stanley's story with a response titled "An Article on Shonda Rhimes Rightly Causes a Furor." She noted that many readers found it "completely off-base," "offensive" or "racist."

"The readers and commentators are correct to protest this story," Sullivan wrote. "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 also shared a letter written by Patricia Washington, a longtime Times subscriber who identified herself as "a black woman and a lawyer."

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"Ms. Stanley's story was a backhand to me and it hurts," Washington wrote. "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."

For her part, Stanley has defended the piece: "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."

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Sullivan wrote that she has contacted Stanley for additional comment and "asked her to describe her interactions with Times editors before the article was published." Sullivan also has reached out to culture editor Danielle Mattoon as well as executive editor Dean Baquet for comment.

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

Lorena O'Neil contributed to this report.