New York Times regrets using 'slave mistress' in obit

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In a lengthy and eloquent obituary of civil rights activist Julian Bond, the New York Times described his great-grandmother as the "slave mistress" of a Kentucky farmer.

It is a phrase the newspaper said on Thursday that it regrets using.

Public Editor Margaret Sullivan wrote that the newspaper received "many" complaints about the wording "on the grounds that a slave, by definition, can't be in the kind of consensual or romantic relationship that the word 'mistress' suggests."

Sullivan has been a busy critic recently, even clashing with Executive Editor Dean Baquet earlier this week over the paper's report about working conditions at Amazon.

But Baquet, the first African-American to be executive editor of the Times, agreed with Sullivan on the "slave mistress" phrase.

Related: New York Times editor on Amazon story: Not 'quite enough' evidence

"He said that The Times regretted using the expression: 'It is an archaic phrase, and even though Julian Bond himself may have used it in the past, we should not have,'" Sullivan wrote, quoting Baquet, in a column addressing the complaints the paper received.

Bond, who died this week, said in a 2013 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article that his great-grandmother bore two children with the Kentucky farmer who "owned" her. One of those children was Bond's grandfather.

"Language matters," Sullivan wrote and approved of Baquet's regret over the use of the phrase. "This is the right call."

Despite the newspaper's regret, the phrase remained in the online version of the Bond obit as of Thursday afternoon. An editor's note at the bottom of the story corrected two photo captions in the story, but there was no mention of the newspaper's second thoughts about using the phrase "slave mistress."

Related: New York Times editor calls Clinton email coverage 'a mess'

Sullivan has been an aggressive public editor at the Times, wading into controversies over other investigative pieces by the newspaper. She recently examined reporting on the treatment of nail salon workers and rejected criticism of the reporting. She also scolded the paper for its coverage of reports that Hillary Clinton was being criminally investigated for her State Department emails. The story had to be corrected several times and Sullivan called the reporting process "a mess."

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