Did the story on Aziz Ansari’s awful date cross the journalistic line?

This column originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 30, 2018.

The story on Babe.net, an online news site styled for hip young women, was long and lurid. Its title: “I went on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned out to be the worst night of my life.”

It was, at best, an epically bad date, according to the account, with heavy-handed sexual advances made, partly rewarded and finally rebuffed, and it ended with the woman leaving Ansari’s Manhattan apartment in tears of outrage and humiliation. But the article is more than a sob story. Suddenly, the account of that evening in September has achieved an incendiary cultural renown in the wider furor over gender bullying–“a critical flashpoint in our reckoning with sexual violence,” as Slate describes it, and as atlantic.com writer James Hamblin says, “crystallizing debate over an entire movement.”

Aziz Ansari is an accomplished and popular actor, author and comedian, the star of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” creator of a well-regarded Netflix series, a winner of Emmy and Golden Globes awards. He has feminist cred for gestures in support of the #metoo movement.

In the portrayal offered by Babe.net, he is also a bit of a swine, oblivious to clear signs of sexual refusal, forcing himself on an unwilling young woman who found herself in a situation she plainly couldn’t handle.

My interest isn’t in adjudicating his behavior, nor in exploring whether his accuser failed to assert herself clearly and unambiguously. There’s plenty of commentary on that. The question I want to address is whether any of this is newsworthy and whether the account of it that ran in Babe.net constitutes responsible journalism.

Those aren’t easy questions. The problems with the story are manifold and obvious. First, the evidentiary issue: Its sourcing is wafer thin—a single informant. Her identity is concealed (she’s renamed “Grace”), so her credibility can’t be appraised. Second, the question of taste: The account is driven by a description of sexual doings that’s so detailed it’s practically pornographic.

Finally, above all looms the privacy issue: The incident it chronicles isn’t offered up as fitting a pattern either of sexual predation on Ansari’s part or of institutional coercion—no professional advantage was being proffered in exchange for sexual favors, nobody’s suggesting she was just one of Ansari’s many victims. This was a date, a one-on-one disaster. And since that’s normally a personal matter that happens in a private space, it’s reasonable to ask whether the journalist is justified in bringing this intimate behavior into the public gaze.

Yet, when I was asked by an Associated Press reporter whether I thought, on balance, that the story was fatally flawed ethically, I had to conclude that its sins were forgivable. My logic is straightforward: The realities it surfaced have vast public significance as markers in the historic movement for gender justice that’s going on all around us, and I don’t see how they can be reported without swerving from some otherwise important and honorable guidelines of good journalism. Let’s take the problems one at a time.

Start with withholding the complainant’s name. News media for decades have done this in rape cases, voluntarily—no law requiring it has ever, to my knowledge, been found constitutional. The logic is that somebody who has suffered degrading treatment shouldn’t be humiliated again by having her experience publicized. The practice isn’t fair to the person being accused, and in principle enables false charges to be made with impunity. But incidence of that actually happening is rare, while evidence that sexual assault goes unpunished because women dread the publicity is abundant. So withholding Grace’s name has strong precedent.

The lack of confirmation for Grace’s account is, of course, problematic. The reporter, commendably, did the next-best thing: She sought out people Grace spoke to at the time and reviewed emails Grace wrote that were roughly contemporaneous with the incident.

Naturally, all that can do is verify that her account is consistent, not that it’s true. But Ansari’s own response, which has been contrite and embarrassed, hasn’t quarreled with details in the Babe.net story. So I think we can be fairly confident that the account is accurate.

And what about that account? Do we really need to know how Grace hopped up onto the kitchen counter, when she disrobed, and where he put his fingers next? It’s troubling to realize that the editors, in their zeal to produce a good read, created a narrative that was salacious and voyeuristic.

But how else can you tell this story? Nearly all the outrages that have propelled the #metoo movement routinely include descriptions that would never get into what we used to call a family newspaper. How do we understand the wrongdoing of a Louis CK or a Harvey Weinstein without the details of the groping, licking, rubbing, penetration. There’s good reason why the court in Michigan this week invited 160 women to describe, in grotesque detail, the sexual assaults by their physician, Larry Nassar, that they suffered as young athletes. His wrongdoing resides in those details. Read them and weep.

Finally, though, there’s the privacy element. Atlantic writer Megan Garber put it well when she decried “a world in which a private sexual encounter can be converted, nearly instantly, into a piece of sharable media.”

Really, is this any of our business? Is it news? Writing in The Washington Post, Sonny Bunch asked why the story hadn’t been covered by the prestige press; his answer: “bad dates — including terrible ones that leave one person feeling humiliated — aren’t actually newsworthy, even when they happen to famous people.”

Except that the story is being covered lavishly by media of all kinds—prestige, mainstream, online, social–and I think that’s because it has become a signature tale in the continuing, extraordinary reappraisal of gender rights and wrongs that the society is undergoing. That reappraisal cannot fail to consider behavior that typically takes place in private, just as it examines things people say to one another, speech that wasn’t intended to be shared with others. When it’s behavior of public significance bringing it to public attention is what news media do.

The babe.net story, to its credit, contains enough detail to lead reasonable people to disagree over just how shared the responsibility was for the painful and embarrassing encounter, which left one person mortified and the other publicly shamed. It’s precisely that ambiguity that has nourished debate and is one of the story’s strengths. As Rebecca Walker said on WNYC’s “On the Media,” “The gray areas are where bad behaviors are learned, codified because they aren’t examined closely.”

It would be a pity if Babe.net opened the door to a new genre of keyhole-peeping coverage that mistook titillating readers with illuminating them, and subjected unwary people in unguarded moments to hurtful exposure in the name of reform. But the transformation we’re undergoing does put pressure on behavior long deemed private, and chronicling that fairly and sensitively is a challenge the media can’t avoid.


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2 Responses

  1. But Ansari’s own response, which has been contrite and embarrassed, hasn’t quarreled with details in the Babe.net story. So I think we can be fairly confident that the account is accurate.

    What if he did respond, do you think people would believe his version of the evening? I don’t think it would get any kind of play.

  2. Jon Rock
    A good description of the current changing malaise. I believe it suffers from the reality that profiteering media has an unconscious drive for economic success based the the now ever present discovery that strong narrow emotional extremes keep listeners tuning in and buying products present in the pictures or scripts. I knew we had problems when Trumps name started popping up on NPR long before he was elected. It is a great accomplishment of modernity to turn to the strongest story, and a sad loss of simple direct communication between living human without devices. I am tired of hearing folks full of talk like they are the TV they spend too much time with. But this week I complimented two people on how well they were able to enlarge their individual thought by an exchange of civil words and listening to each other. Oh well. Thank you again for the excellent quality of subjects within what is often turned to a two word phrase to yank emotion.

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