How did the New York Times, the national paper of record, and the recipient of 114 Pulitzer Prizes, find itself with the worst television criticism section of any mainstream, popular publication? And why can’t the Times write insightfully, articulately, and without embarrassing mistakes about America’s defining and, at least in the last 20 years, most vital medium?
The answer is complex — and illustrates larger structural and institutional struggles that have hindered the Times in its attempt to compete in the world of 21st-century journalism.
The “Angry Black Woman” piece, as it has now come to be known, was written by the Times’ chief television critic, Alessandra Stanley. It was racist, factually incorrect, and demonstrated an overarching lack of familiarity with Shonda Rhimes’ work in particular and contemporary television in general.
Others have outlined exactly how and why with incision. But for those familiar with Stanley and television criticism at the Times, it was but the most recent and flagrant in a long history of gaffes, misunderstandings, and sublimated dismissals that demonstrate an insulting lack of investment in the medium. As Vox culture editor and television critic Todd VanDerWerff told BuzzFeed News, “The Times thinks of TV as fundamentally vapid, so it produces dismissive criticism about the medium, and so far as I can tell, this is historically true of the publication.”
Stanley was appointed chief television critic in 2003. Her qualifications for the job: an illustrious career as a foreign correspondent, first as the co-bureau chief in Moscow, then as the Rome bureau chief. But Stanley, who is close friends with former Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson (then the Washington bureau chief), chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, and Maureen Dowd, didn’t need television-specific skills: She was a Times veteran and, as a foreign correspondent, the journalism version of a rock star, which meant that she could essentially go wherever was open. (That’s the guiding logic of the Times: If you can edit, you can edit anything.)
The culture that has allowed Stanley to flourish goes back to the 1950s, when Times television critic Jack Gould was known as one of the most prominent early champions of television — but of live television, which at the time meant television written by famous playwrights and performed by serious actors, the ’50s version of Masterpiece Theater. The type of television that even Upper East Side intellectuals would like — which made sense, because the vast majority of the (very) early television audience was based in New York and other urban areas.
But as television went national, programming began to shift away from the high-minded social dramas of the so-called first golden age. Less Paddy Chayefsky, more Leave It to Beaver and an endless stream of Westerns and quiz shows, often heavily influenced by the demands of their sponsors. Critics nationwide rebelled, but perhaps none as strongly as the Times’ Gould. By 1958, he was telling Television Magazine that TV critics were running out of things to say about television — that’s how bad the programming had become.
Gould’s posture was a particularly elitist one — and the television trades called him on it. A 1961 Television Age article proclaimed the Times was “close to carelessness” in its coverage, “making the primary mistake of assuming that American viewers are Times readers … It is probably that Jack Gould will despise anything that is popular … He doesn’t understand the work that he is doing.”
By the early 1970s, all that highbrow programming resurfaced on PBS, and it’s what John J. O’Connor, who succeeded Gould, championed for much of his 25-year tenure. When PBS started airing Upstairs, Downstairs (the ’70s version of Downton Abbey), he loved it, holding it up as yet another example that proved “the paucity of imagination on American television series” — this, with The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, Sanford & Son, and M*A*S*H, all on the air, the cornerstones of what would come to be known as the second golden age in television. And so it seems fair to say that the predominant attitude toward television at the Times was typified by a resistance to seeing the value in the popular.
O’Connor was the Times’ primary television critic until 1997, when Caryn James was named the chief television critic — the first to hold the title. Gould and O’Connor had certainly been the “A” critics within the Times television coverage, but the designation of a “chief critic” was reserved for the serious arts (architecture, dance, art, the stage, film, music), a designation that television did not theretofore merit.
To be fair, the Times’ treatment and overarching attitude toward television was not unique. The same elitist tone was manifest in most large newspapers and magazines, especially those (the New Yorker, The New Republic, The Atlantic) that attempted to cater to bourgeois audiences, real or imagined.
Still, that attitude started to change in the ’90s and early 2000s. James, who has a Ph.D. in English from Brown, openly championed and celebrated Survivor, enough so that it won a place on page 1. TV was also changing: As the now well-practiced narrative goes, the networks upped their game (NYPD Blue, Homicide, ER, Picket Fences); HBO took on television; extended cable got in the game, reality television went beyond The Real World. These were the days of The Sopranos and Sex and the City, but also of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Osbournes. Even on the still nascent web, television was sparking the most vibrant — and intelligent, funny, insightful — cultural conversations.
The Times was absolutely part of these early conversations — to a point. A 1995 piece titled “The Triumph of the Primetime Novel” forwarded the (now totally exhausted, then-new) argument that television was increasingly similar to literature. But it was no coincidence that the piece wasn’t written by a Times critic, but by Charles McGrath — the editor of the New York Times Book Review.
As the critical culture of the internet continued to expand, however, the Times stayed put. Critics (like Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz at the Newark Star-Ledger, James Poniewozik at Time, Mo Ryan at the Chicago Tribune, Tim Goodman at the San Francisco Chronicle) and fan-centric recaps at Television Without Pity exploited the boundlessness of the internet, breaking down the micro and macro of television in a way that cultivated massive, loyal followings. Over the last 10 years, that nascent critical culture has expanded, deepened, and migrated to Twitter, where fans, showrunners, and critics regularly interact.
The way cinephiles look back with nostalgia at critics like the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael and the Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris sparring week to week in the incendiary pages of their columns — that’s what it feels like to read and comment and engage with television criticism today. Whether or not it’s another golden age of television, it’s absolutely a golden age of television criticism.
Just not the Times’ television criticism.
As Ryan, now head television critic for the Huffington Post, told me about Stanley: “I have never gotten the sense that she has any enthusiasm for television as an art form.” Clearly she watches the shows she reviews, but does she actually watch, and understand, the whole equation of contemporary television? Does she write about it as her antecedents did — as an entertaining diversion — or does she approach television as the confluence of industry, artistry, and audience?
But Stanley doesn’t exist in a vacuum. According to several Times staffers, the paper’s secondary critic, former copy editor Neil Genzlinger, was appointed to his job after then-Culture Editor Jonathan Landman promised him that the next critic position that came open — whether books, TV, or any other field in which Genzlinger had dabbled — was his. (Landman declined to comment on this story.)
The section’s other critic (described to me by various television critics outside the Times as “the only one who gets it close to right”) is Mike Hale, who previously served as the deputy editor of the Weekend Arts section. So the core of the section is three writers who might be good at editing, copyediting, and reporting — with none of the deep, medium-specific knowledge that distinguishes the criticism of the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, Slate’s Willa Paskin, NPR’s Linda Holmes, and the critics mentioned above.
Again, it’s crucial to think about the TV critics in the context of how the rest of the paper operates, which persists in silo-ing the business side of its television coverage in a different “pod” from its criticism. Industry pieces might show up in the television section, but the beats are separate. Such is the privilege of a large news organization, but it’s had the inadvertent result of further estranging a critic like Stanley from the guiding critical conversations of the medium. At most publications, the lead (and often only) television critic also covers developments in the industry, in large part via membership in the Television Critics Association (TCA), a conference that gathers critics together twice a year to screen pilots, interact with showrunners, and, in recent years, translate the events, via Twitter, to an eager public.
Stanley isn’t a member of TCA. Her inactive Twitter account is one of hundreds in the Times’ Twitter graveyard. Many of her colleagues have never met her; one reports only once hearing her voice on the phone. Her pieces never acknowledge the sophisticated matrix of extant criticism on the shows, tropes, showrunners, and genres she discusses. In her initial reply to the criticism levied at last week’s piece, her disdain for Twitter — the site where so much of this conversation takes place — was palpable.
Part of this is just Times style, which positions itself not as part of a conversation, but the conversation. Culture Editor Danielle Mattoon defended the paper’s TV coverage, telling BuzzFeed News:
“The Times devotes enormous resources to television with two full-time reporters and three critics, and we are continuing to expand our coverage. We certainly don’t consider TV vapid. (Our chief critic, Alessandra Stanley, is a former Moscow correspondent and Rome bureau chief.) Our critics take on a wide range of programs. They champion shows they love and of course find fault with shows they don’t. That’s their job and they do it well.”
But the greatest hubris — on the part of Stanley and her editors — is the inability to see, or know, what they don’t know.
That much has been astonishingly visible in the tenor of the response to the uproar over Stanley’s piece on Rhimes. “I so often write arch, provocative ledes that are then undercut or mitigated by the paragraphs that follow,” Stanley told Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan. Meanwhile, Mattoon sounded very “we’re sorry you felt offended” (vs. “we’re sorry we were offensive”) in her “apology” in Sullivan’s column: “There was never any intent to offend anyone and I deeply regret that it did,” Mattoon said. “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.”
Still, the more than half dozen staffers at the Times I spoke to for this article agreed: There’s no way that Stanley will be fired or replaced. She’s not only protected by the Newspaper Guild, but she’s also immunized by the current financial climate of the Times, in which employees operate in fear of their own potential dismissal. No one would dare challenge Stanley’s tenure, in other words, lest it pave the way for others challenging the logic of their own. In this way, job insecurity has perpetuated, rather than eliminated, a culture of mediocrity.
Ironically, job insecurity was part of what fueled so much of the critical innovation of the 2000s: As print publications began their initial, internet-prompted cuts, blogging was a way for those whose jobs were under threat to underline their value, by attracting large, engaged audiences. These critics were excited, passionate, explosive, and fannish, crafting sprawling, addictive prose — and are in no small part responsible for an attitude toward television that has propelled the expansion of television culture as we know it.
Criticism and art are symbiotic that way: Compelling art engenders compelling criticism. The contemporary television landscape is so beautifully various, complicated, and divisive, capable of sparking engaged conversations about race, class, sexuality, gender, and identity at large. But to parse these pieces of art, whether in the form of The Real Housewives or Pretty Little Liars or Game of Thrones, you need someone willing to see the once denigrated as the now important and, by extension, worthy not only of proper copyediting, but sophisticated writers at the very top of their game, befitting a publication of its stature.
The best way to understand America today is by trying to understand television, which is really another way of saying that no medium better encapsulates our ideological moment, day in and day out. That statement has been true for decades — far before the rise of so-called “quality television.” But until the Times arrives at that conclusion, making the radical yet necessary decision to take the totality of television seriously, that’s a problem no number of columns from the public editor can fix.
The author would like to thank television scholars Jason Mittell (Middlebury College) and Karen Petruska (University of California - Santa Barbara) for their assistance with this piece.
Additional reporting by Ellie Hall.
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