When a little-known website called Babe published a detailed account of alleged sexual misconduct by comedian Aziz Ansari on Saturday night, many of the reactions were colored not just by the behavior it described, but the informal nature of the reporting and the obscurity of the platform. “What the fuck is babe dot net?” asked one writer, a question several outlets felt obliged to answer with explainers.
The story, which was recounted to 22-year-old reporter Katie Way by an anonymous source with the pseudonym “Grace,” is framed as a first-person narrative with the headline “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned into the worst night of my life.” Since its publication on Saturday, it’s become a flashpoint for the ongoing backlash against the #MeToo movement, largely because of the tabloid packaging and the bizarre style of the reporting. The article clocks in around 3,000 words, and details the incident exhaustively, from arguably irrelevant minutiae like Ansari’s choice of wine or Way’s personal opinion on Grace’s choice of first-date look (“It was a good outfit”) to a graphic description of an unwelcome sexual maneuver termed “the claw.”
Several other things stick out about the way the serious subject matter was handled by Babe: the choice by both the author and the site’s official social channels to repeatedly refer to the 23-year-old source as a “girl” rather than a woman, the decision to recut the story into a tonally confusing 50-second Facebook video, and managing editor Eleni Mitzali’s tweet announcing that Babe’s daily newsletter would launch with behind-the-scenes details about the story.
“What the fuck is babe dot net?” is a fair question. Many of the baffling reporting choices around the story make a lot more sense once you understand what Babe is: a women-focused spin-off of the controversial media startup The Tab. Founded in 2009, The Tab launched as a series of campus-specific blogs written primarily by unpaid writers and editors who could earn “prize money” by hitting specific page-view goals. This incentive-based structure led to a two-pronged approach to content: anodyne “relatable” blog posts that take little time to write and circulate widely on Facebook, and controversial opinion or topical news reactions that can go viral by inciting conversational rage. The Tab’s editorial history includes several minor news scoops and far more scandals, including April Fool’s hoaxes, a butt-rating contest, and a tendency to skirt around questions about unpaid labor by calling themselves not a publication, but “between a platform and a publisher.”
When Babe launched in May 2016, it incited its own minor scandal by soliciting unpaid “summer correspondents” with a job posting promising benefits like “getting your stories read by thousands of readers across the US” and “adding the position to your LinkedIn profile.” The post said that Babe writers ought to “be active on social media” and “not give a fuck,” but made no mention of writing or editing skills, knowledge of any particular subject matter, or even a general interest in journalism.
Babe’s Brooklyn office opened in 2017, and it currently has a small staff of early-20-something reporters and editors, many of whom initially entered The Tab ecosystem for college extracurricular activities. Few of them have had previous paid jobs in journalism. For the most part, that’s fine — the vast majority of Babe’s content is fun and clicky, and doesn’t require reporting.
It’s part of the culture where assault reporting is now sensationalized and clicky and I hate it
— J. Escobedo Shepherd (@jawnita) January 14, 2018
But sexual-misconduct reporting does require expertise. Jezebel deputy editor Julianne Escobedo Shepherd published a thorough dissection of Babe’s reporting on the Ansari piece Tuesday afternoon, pointing out the “almost prurient and unnecessarily macabre interest in the minute details of [the] interaction” and how the choice to include them left the subject open to “further attacks” by people who wanted to see the story as gossip.
Escobedo Shepherd also notes that Grace didn’t come to Babe to tell her story — Babe went to her — and says this “raises questions about the website’s eagerness to tell this kind of story and why.” When I spoke to Way on the phone on Monday, she told me Babe has been “soliciting” stories about sexual misconduct for months, and cites a campaign that asked readers to submit information about their “personal Harvey Weinsteins.”
Harry Shukman, a former news editor at The Tab, was promoted to head up a new special investigations team in October, just as the Weinstein allegations were rippling outward through Hollywood and other industries. Although it’s easy to see why the Babe staff felt that #MeToo was an important topic to cover for their audience, it’s not clear that they stopped to ask whether they had the background or skills to tell Grace’s story responsibly.
Way spoke to me briefly about the public interest that motivated the story, citing the mismatch between Ansari’s public persona and his alleged private behavior. But for the most part, she described her story as one that would resonate with the young women who read Babe. “We wanted our readers to know what happened to Grace is not okay, and if it happened to you, it’s okay if you’re upset about it,” she says. And she defends the details, both the graphic and the banal. She argues, “our audience primarily consists of women aged 18 to 24. That’s the shit they’re going to care about… It just makes it more vivid. It just makes it more relatable.”
Mitzali also defended the informal style of the Ansari report when I spoke to her via email: “[We] wrote it in the style [our audience] expects from us: pretty direct, uncensored, no words taken out for the sake of good taste.” She included the description of Grace’s first-date outfit, she said, because “our readers would want to know if it was a good outfit, so we tell them. We think some details that might be regarded as frivolous by some big media companies are really important for giving people the full picture.”
Way is candid about her reporting in a way that a more traditional journalist might not be, rebutting critics by calling their arguments “fucking stupid” or “fucking bullshit,” and admitting “this is definitely the biggest thing I’ve ever done anywhere — I mean, I’m 22.” But she also has some thoughtful comments to offer about the state of the #MeToo conversation, which she knows has been muddied by bad arguments that things have gone “too far.” She picks apart Caitlin Flanagan’s response for The Atlantic, including Flanagan’s assumption that the report is just bombastic gossip from a woman scorned, her claims the Babe story is “3,000 words of revenge porn,” and the bizarre assertion that her generation of women is “strong in a way that so many modern girls are weak.”
While Flanagan insists that Grace was not “frozen, terrified, or stuck” in Ansari’s home, Way says only Grace herself can know how she felt that evening.“I think it really says a lot when women [like Flanagan] talk about how strong women are supposed to be,” Way says, “and then don’t believe that young women can know how they feel.” Way says Grace told her that she trusted Babe specifically because the staff is mostly young women, and argues, “I don’t think another publication could have told this story. Or at least not a publication like The Atlantic, that gives a platform to someone who would say, ‘Oh, I think she just wanted to be his girlfriend.’”
Way was also furious that other journalists bandied about the idea that their Ansari report wasn’t given legal scrutiny before publication. “Oh, they don’t have any lawyers,” she mocked in a nasally imitation of a snooty, middle-aged journalist. “I think that’s fucking stupid. Obviously we didn’t print it without talking to a legal team.”
Way says she alerted The Tab’s in-house legal counsel, David Burgess, before they met with the source, updated him on the evidence as it came in, and took line-by-line notes from him on the story. Other editors at the site confirmed this via a phone call, saying Burgess’ notes were not substantial, and the piece went through no major rewrites. Editor Amanda Ross detailed the story’s fact-checking process in a Twitter thread, and Mitzali wrote in an email, “We have high standards when a serious story comes along. Nothing is worse for the credibility of women than badly reported stories.”
Babe’s reporters and editors may have done their due diligence legally, but in packaging Grace’s story the way they did — thinking about it in terms of what makes for appealing storytelling, not airtight journalism — they wandered away from many of their obligations to their source, their readers, and the public. Here’s where web savvy and Facebook-baiting know-how can prime a story for tonal missteps. (I see no journalistic reason for this three-text exchange to be a Twitter video.) And here is definitely where an investment in a demographic’s “interests” becomes a failure to look out for its best interests.
To be fair, the #MeToo moment has involved plenty of atypical revelations of information, including the controversial Shitty Media Men spreadsheet — a whisper network turned digital, then viral — as well as open dialogues between victim and abuser playing out on Twitter for the world to see. Recent allegations against James Franco came out as part of a Golden Globes live-tweet; Cara Delevingne posted her story about Harvey Weinstein on Instagram. The freedom to skirt entrenched gatekeepers and more traditional methods of raising accusations gives women more autonomy and options when deciding how to make their stories public. Babe is a little-known blog with some bad instincts, but Way says Grace is happy with the way the story came out, and that’s not worthless.
Much of the disdain in responses in The New York Times and The Atlantic seems to stem from the assumption that the victim’s account is untrue, simply because a lot of the story’s framing is unnecessary, the strategy of promotion is tacky, and the writer and site are largely unknown. Even if it is all true exactly as written (and Ansari’s apologetic response doesn’t deny the facts Grace lays out), there’s a perception that the story doesn’t meet the bar for newsworthiness. Flanagan or Times editor Bari Weiss might not have formed that opinion, had the story come from an outlet that met their definition of seriousness. Their refusal to judge the information provided by the Babe story on its own merits, and the vitriol they have greeted it with, is disturbing, especially on the part of experienced journalists. It’s far more egregious than anything its odd framing and missteps warranted.
When the Weinstein allegations started coming out in an avalanche, director Kathryn Bigelow hailed “the democratization of the spread of information.” It’s true that the internet has been a fantastic force for change, and for surfacing stories that might otherwise have gone untold. But as the Babe story has demonstrated, there’s also been an uncomfortable collision between that democratizing force and the traditional media gatekeepers who seem to resent it, or resent their inability to control it. They do a disservice to the truth when they are willing to call a woman a liar because her choice of platform seems unsavory or unserious, despite its careful vetting of the facts. And it’s problematic that they would choose not to believe she was harmed because she was able to speak of a complicated and painful experience with some candor and humor.
As the #MeToo movement grows, I hope these journalistic veterans will believe women not because of the platforms they choose for their stories, or because they’ve done a perfect job of crafting their helpless-victim images, or because they have the savvy and contact information to get their story in The New York Times. They’re worth hearing because they have the courage to speak out. They’re worth considering because these are topics that need to be considered. And they’re worth believing because it’s taken far too long for people to start listening to women’s experiences, and taking them seriously.