Over the past week, a heated debate erupted on Twitter, Facebook and cable news stemming from a salacious article posted on the tabloid blog Babe.net accusing actor Aziz Ansari of sexual assault. The post, citing an anonymous photographer who went on one date with Ansari in September, depicted the actor as selfish, aggressive and persistent in his sexual advances when the date returned to his Manhattan apartment after a night out.
Like most, I had never heard of Babe.net, and I only became aware of the story when it was featured as a Moment on Twitter and hastily covered by a handful of credible news outlets including Billboard and Vanity Fair. Upon reading the original article, a number of red flags popped up: 1) The reporter, Katie Way, injected her own judgements and opinions in the piece, trouncing any semblance of objectivity. 2) The anonymous source accused Ansari of a specific crime, sexual assault, but the article made no acknowledgement of the legal significance or validity of that claim. 3) Ansari and his representatives were only given hours to respond, in which time they neither declined or accepted the request, before the article went live, resulting in the article being a one-sided, dramatized account.
Given the irresponsible journalism that went into the article and lack of seriousness or credibility of the publication itself, this non-story likely would have fizzled out if it hadn’t been promoted by Twitter and the early news sites that latched on. But it was, which prompted Ansari to put out a statement, and his statement, while refuting the claim that their encounter was anything less than consensual, led to swarms of outlets jumping on the bandwagon and turning it into a legitimate story.
The whole ordeal, while unlikely to derail Ansari’s career, tarnished his “woke bae” brand. After damage had already been done to Ansari, Way’s 15 minutes of fame and credibility went up in flames when an angry letter she wrote to HLN went public. In that unhinged letter by the 22-year old writer, she attacked veteran journalist Ashleigh Banfield, calling Banfield a “second-wave feminist” and mocking her age, hair and makeup.
With the proliferation of alternative, nontraditional media sites and rogue muckrakers, situations like the one above will continue to become more common. Here are a couple of tips and takeaways for celebrities, business leaders, politicians and influencers who could one day find themselves the target of yellow journalism or outright fake news:
Responding Can Legitimize an Illegitimate Article
Before Ansari made his statement, it was irresponsible for credible outlets to cite the flimsy Babe.net article without doing their own investigating and corroboration. Those early articles were the product of rushed editorial decisions, and they legitimized a story that had no business getting mixed in with serious news. At that point, Ansari’s hands were tied, and he did the right thing by putting out a statement. Had the article not received that coverage, it would have been a mistake for Ansari to respond or acknowledge it at all.
A few months ago, I wrote about a similar situation where a blogger accused Taylor Swift of appealing to white supremacists and the alt right. The proper move would have been for her to ignore it, or “shake it off”, but instead she authorized her attorneys to threaten legal action. The blogger sent that letter to the ACLU, and as often happens when the ACLU gets involved, it became legitimate story and a huge distraction ahead of her latest album release.
Let Your Friends, Fans and Associates Do the Dirty Work
When the Ansari story began to go viral, it didn’t take long for sensible voices to come to his defense. Caitlyn Flanagan of The Atlantic was one of the first notable writers to strike back with her piece The Humiliation of Aziz Ansari, which was later tweeted by actress Kristen Bell. Bari Weiss wrote an op-ed for the New York Times titled Aziz Ansari is Guilty. Of Not Being a Mind Reader. And Banfield’s strong words on HLN were perhaps the most passionate defense of Ansari.
In addition to those prominent defenses, social media was flooded by journalists, fellow comedians, fans and many others to combat calls for Ansari to be blacklisted and over-the-top criminal accusations. Their presence neutralized much of the false assumptions and misleading information being spread, and more importantly, it allowed Ansari to stay out of the mud, shortening the shelf life of a tabloid blog post that spiraled out of control.
Brian Hart is an award-winning communications consultant and founder of Flackable, a national public relations and digital marketing agency headquartered in Philadelphia. Follow Brian on Twitter at @BrianHartPR.