The New York Times is trying to move from crisis mode to image repair mode and it seems they have their work cut out for them. Five days after firing the ‘Shonda Rhimes Angry Black Woman’ shot heard around the world, the Times’s is still dealing with what Public Editor Margaret Sullivan admits is one of the most hotly debated pieces in her more than two years as public editor. Now, the Times’s executive editor, notably also the paper’s first Black executive editor and the only person of color on the news-side masthead, has weighed in.
Public Editor Margaret Sullivan relayed his comments in an article she wrote for The Times:
I talked late Monday with Dean Baquet, the executive editor, to get his view. His opinion is of particular interest because he made history a few months ago when he became the first black editor to lead The Times; he replaced the paper’s first female executive editor, Jill Abramson.
Mr. Baquet told me that he sees a problem with diversity in some areas of the newsroom, including among the 20 cultural critics, where there are only two persons of color — the chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, and a TV critic, Mike Hale — and no black critics.
“I would criticize us for that,” Mr. Baquet said. “I would love to diversify that area,” as well as others. He noted that The Times has had black critics in the past, specifically mentioning Margo Jefferson, but now, he said, “it’s an issue and we need to work on it.”
While the Times faces significant financial constraints, Baquet said, “I’m not going to use that as an excuse. I have an obligation to diversify the staff and I will figure out a way.”
Sullivan added, “Meanwhile, the union that represents many Times journalists, the Newspaper Guild, is conducting a top-to-bottom survey of newsroom diversity. Those numbers will be revealing. And separately, Times management includes a senior editor whose duties include diversity and training efforts.”
While this seems to be a valiant effort, the how’s and when’s of The Times’s newsroom diversifying are unclear. Sullivan noted, “The Times, of course, can’t just graft on some diversity (just add a few black people and stir, as one commenter mockingly put it) and then call it a day; change has to be deeper, broader and more integral than that. Numbers do not automatically translate to a more balanced perspective.”
Baquet declined to comment on the review of Rhimes’ How to Get Away with Murder, which is what started the conversation about diversity and how people of color are covered.
On the specifics, Mr. Baquet said he fully understood that many readers were deeply upset about the article on Ms. Rhimes. He said that its author, Alessandra Stanley, “was trying to make a profound point” about breaking down stereotypes of black women, but “clearly, it wasn’t read that way.” He declined to comment on whether the article was insensitive or offer any other praise or criticism.
It’s also unfortunate that it took this particular article and then the following public rage and outcry for The Times to realize they might have a diversity problem. Better late than never? Only time will tell.