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The New York Times admits 'blind spots' when writing about black women in television

Shonda Rhimes
Shonda Rhimes
Photo by Todd Wawrychuk/ABC via Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

On Monday, the writer responsible for a New York Times column that called TV show creator and producer Shonda Rhimes an "angry black woman" defended the piece, which sparked anger from readers as well as Rhimes.

In the column, chief television critic Alessandra Stanley made fundamental mistakes, like implying Rhimes, a producer, was the creator of the new show How to Get Away with Murder and misreading characters like Scandal's Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) to prove her central thesis: that Rhimes had made the negative "angry black woman" stereotype something people aspire to.

Stanley, a critic who comes with a long-running footnote of mistakes and corrections, seems to be standing by her piece, blaming readers for not getting the proper "takeaway."

"I think that a full reading allows for a different takeaway than the loudest critics took," she told New York Times public editor Margaret 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."

That's an interesting defense, in that telling someone not to believe what you write doesn't seem like a good strategy. And even after the offensive first sentence, the column reduced Rhimes's complex characters and Rhimes's successful body of work (Stanley compares the show Scandal to Mad Men's success, even though Scandal averages about 8 million more viewers than Mad Men) into a warped view of race. The line "Ms. Rhimes has embraced the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, recast it in her own image and made it enviable" appears four paragraphs in, for instance.

Stanley's work, culture editor Danielle Mattoon told Sullivan, was read by at least three editors before someone hit publish. "This is a signal to me that we have to constantly remind ourselves as editors of our blind spots, what we don't know, and of how readers may react," Mattoon said.

If you're wondering what "blind spots" means, consider the last sentence of Sullivan's critique of Stanley's Rhimes column: "The Times has a number of high-ranked editors and prominent writers who are people of color, but it's troubling that among 20 critics, not one is black and only one is a person of color."

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