Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times, has been busy of late, especially with criticism of the paper’s weekend expose of Amazon’s work culture. The flap included her mild dueling with the newspaper’s executive editor over the piece (she thought it had flaws, he didn’t).
Well, they are in sync Thursday with the paper having erred on Saturday in a long, front page obituary of Julian Bond, the civil rights leader.
It included the line, “Julian Bond’s great-grandmother Jane Bond was the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer.”
Many readers protested to Sullivan “on the grounds that a slave, by definition, can’t be in the kind of consensual or romantic relationship that the word ‘mistress’ suggests.’ One of them noted it wasn’t the first time the phrase had appeared in a Times obituary.”
Executive Editor Dean Baquet, the paper’s first African-American executive editor, told her that it was a clear mistake. “It is an archaic phrase, and even though Julian Bond himself may have used it in the past, we should not have.”
Sullivan appends examples of criticisms by specific readers and concludes:
“There’s no question that Times editors heard readers’ voices loud and clear. Retiring this phrase and expressing regret about using it has nothing to do with political correctness. It’s about recognizing the history of slavery in America, at a time when race is at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. Language matters. This is the right call.”