New York Times Apologizes for “Angry Black Woman” Review of Shonda Rhimes’ New TV Show: “Commentators Are Correct to Protest”

Shonda Rhimes
The New York Times addressed and implicitly apologized for its offensive review of Shonda Rhimes' new TV series, How to Get Away with Murder, on Monday, Sept. 22. Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Time to face this scandal. The New York Times apologized for its controversial review of Shonda Rhimes' new show, How to Get Away with Murder, on Monday, Sept. 22, through its public editor Margaret Sullivan

"The article on the television producer Shonda Rhimes hadn’t yet appeared in Sunday’s paper, but the virtual world was ablaze in protest over it on Friday after it was published online," Sullivan wrote. "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," continued Sullivan. "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."

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Writer and longtime Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley released a statement to Us Weekly addressing the review on Monday. "In the review, I referenced a painful and insidious stereotype solely in order to praise Ms. Rhimes and her shows for traveling so far from it. If making that connection between the two offended people, I feel bad about that. But I think that a full reading allows for a different takeaway than the loudest critics took," Stanley told Us.

"The same applies to your question about 'less than classically beautiful.' Viola Davis said it about herself in the NYT magazine, more bluntly. I commended Ms. Rhimes for casting an actress who doesn’t conform to television’s narrow standards of beauty; I have said the same thing about Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect. I didn’t think Times readers would take the opening sentence literally… Regrettably, this stereotype is still too incendiary to raise even in arguing that Ms. Rhimes has killed it once and for all."

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The offending article was a review of executive producer Rhimes' new ABC show, How to Get Away with Murder, starring Oscar-nominated actress Davis. In it, longtime TV critic Stanley controversially wrote: "When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman." Stanley also referred to Davis as "less classically beautiful" than lighter-skinned black TV female actresses like Kerry Washington and Halle Berry.

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The piece elicited outrage — from readers and stars alike, including Scandal star Washington, who took to Twitter to slam the storied paper for its words. Sullivan, in her piece Monday, featured one reader's letter to the paper's executive editor, Dean Baquet, on Monday. "Ms. Stanley’s story was a backhand to me and it hurts," the letter read. "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."

Sullivan also wrote that she addressed the controversy with her colleagues, including Stanley, culture editor Danielle Mattoon, and Baquet. About her story, Stanley claimed that "her intentions were misunderstood, and seemed to blame the Twitter culture for that, with a reference to 140 characters."

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Mattoon also spoke to Sullivan on Monday and "offered words of regret" to readers about the insensitive piece. "There was never any intent to offend anyone and I deeply regret that it did," Mattoon told Sullivan. "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." Mattoon revealed that three editors vetted the story, but none raised "objections or questioned the elements of the article."

Mattoon concluded, "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."

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