There are plenty of way stations on the Internet where you can read takedowns of the highly discussed piece that New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley wrote last week on TV producer Shonda Rhimes. The piece launched a thousand tweets with a single-sentence lede: “When Shonda Rhimes writes her autobiography, it should be called ‘How to Get Away With Being an Angry Black Woman.’ ”
On Salon, Daniel D’Addario wrote, “Reducing Rhimes — and those of her characters that are black women — to one-dimensional ‘anger’ isn’t just counterfactual, it plays into legitimately offensive stereotypes of which Stanley is aware.”
On Quartz, Sonali Kohli wrote, “The problem with Stanley’s suggestion is that it embraces the trite but persistent caricature of the Angry Black Woman, gives it legitimacy, and assigns very personal motives to someone whose own viewpoint is not included in the article.”
Those critiques, and many others on all manner of platforms, prompted New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan to look at the issue today. She added to the hurt for the paper’s culture desk, writing that the piece was “astonishingly tone-deaf and out of touch.”
No critique, however, was so damning as the one delivered by … Alessandra Stanley. She pointed out that she had “referenced a painful and insidious stereotype solely in order to praise Ms. Rhimes and her shows for traveling so far from it” and urged a “full reading” of the text, a common defense for journalists drowning in Twitter hashtags.
What really sunk Stanley was this thought, which she passed along to 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.
Only a gifted critic can pack so much sin into a single sentence.
Sin No. 1: Over-healthy self-regard. What Stanley appears to be saying here is that Times readers read her stuff with such care and joy that they know her as the woman who writes self-mitigated ledes. Ahhh, yes, that’s her trademark!
Sin No. 2: Deliberate obfuscation. Just what is the purpose of mitigating your own lede? That must be an art form that Stanley and her culture-critic pals delight in executing. From this point onward, the Erik Wemple Blog will start reading Stanley’s work from the third or fourth paragraph.
Sin No. 3: Why write a lede at all if your goal in the body of the piece is to undercut it?
Sullivan reports that of 20 critics at the New York Times, “not one is black and only one is a person of color.” That’s a contention that Stanley would have one hell of a time mitigating or undercutting.