It was only three years ago that Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist Dean Baquet made history by becoming the first Black male or female to attain the status of managing editor at the New York Times. That made him the person directly responsible for the paper’s daily operation. Then in May, Baquet was promoted to executive editor, the organization’s top position. For the first time ever, the New York Times was being run by a Black man.
Since then, two ugly things have happened on Baquet’s watch. The first was a story about Michael Brown, the young Black man who was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, allegedly while his hands were raised in surrender. The case is now before a Grand Jury, but the Times infuriated Blacks all over the nation with a story headlined “He’s No Angel.”
The article’s substance intimated that the whole business about Brown about to start college was fabricated to clean up his image, and that in reality he was perennial troublemaker and another of those proverbial “troubled” young Black men. What any of that had to do with Brown being shot trying to surrender didn’t register with anyone other than the writer, and the notion that it’s OK to shoot an unarmed suspect because of reputation or image was even more disturbing. Baquet was never quoted or reported having said anything about the story.
While that silence bothered some people, it didn't really erupt into a major problem. But that wasn’t the case a couple of weeks ago with a Times story about producer Shonda Rhimes, the only Black woman in television history to get an entire night of programming on a broadcast network.
Rhimes has three shows on ABC this season. Returning programs “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” and newcomer “How To Get Away With Murder.” Times’ television critic Allessandria Stanley opted for one of her trademark satirical/snark columns, with a host of exaggerated references and dubious claims, including one where she offered, to her way of thinking, praise for Rhimes by saying she had succeeded by exploiting the notion of the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype.
The resulting furor was stunning. All types of Black websites responded with angry criticism of Stanley, the paper and the article. Whether it was Change of Color, Inc., The Root, Black America Web, Black Voices/Huffington Post, even the normally apolitical gossip sites, all were irate that Stanley had taken this approach in profiling the most successful Black female producer (and one of the most prolific and successful, male or female, Black, White or any color) in history. There were calls for an apology, a retraction, even some calls for Stanley’s job.
Stanley issued a defense of her column, saying that she was really being positive in her approach, using deliberate exaggeration and overstatement to make the point that Rhimes was really putting on an act and actually smashing rather than adhering to stereotypes. But for many readers that was lost in their anger at not only her comments on Rhimes, but those about series star and Oscar nominee Viola Davis.
Davis had commented prior to Stanley’s article that she wasn’t a classical beauty in the European (white) sense, but Stanley’s paraphrasing of her statements came across to a majority of readers as a putdown or admission that Davis was somehow not beautiful enough to be the central star on a primetime show. Davis herself even responded, as did Rhimes, and their comments got even more negative publicity for the Times, as shows like “Access Hollywood” and “Entertainment Tonight” continued carrying the story and keeping it in the news.
Finally on Sept. 22 Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan issued an apology on behalf of the paper, calling the story among other things “tone deaf” and acknowledging that readers “had a right to be upset.” She also said she would begin a conversation shortly with Baquet regarding the fact the Times didn’t have a single Black face among all its cultural critics.
Elvis Mitchell, Nelson George, Lola Ogunnaike and Kelkefa Sannea are prominent Black writers who’ve had pieces published in the Times over the years, as well as academics like Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West. But only Mitchell, Ogunnaike and Sannea have been Times staffers, and none of them are currently on the paper. The fact that the Times has never had a Black jazz writer is particularly infuriating to a host of top Black musicians, even though there are plenty of topflight Black jazz critics around the nation.
But what is personally troubling is that Sullivan initiated the conversation with Baquet rather than the other way around. He’s been at the paper for three years, now been in charge since May and he didn’t think a problem like this might happen? Sullivan talked about the paper’s blind spots (three other editors saw and approved the Rhimes story) but the person in charge has not said a word about it to date?
If that were a white executive editor, I suspect there would have already been plenty of calls for his dismissal. No one wants to be in the position of going after the first Black executive editor in New York Times history, but it also does seem strange that at press time there’s not been one word from him about either situation
Certainly, Dean Baquet needs more time to straighten out things that were wrong prior to his arrival and his track record is such that one would anticipate he understands the necessity for having Black input and participation in the paper’s cultural coverage, and will do something soon to address that issue.