The chances are that by now you have already formed your opinion on the article that appeared on babe.net, detailing an anonymous sexual encounter between a woman known only as Grace and the comedian Aziz Ansari that crossed several major lines regarding consent and decency. Maybe your opinion has shifted over the past few days as the furor from that piece reached new heights. You might have questioned yourself over your stance, or been forced to ask yourself some pertinent questions regarding the issues at hand. Over the past few months, we’ve all been part of that cycle. A lot of us were waiting with dread in our hearts for the inevitable backlash to this movement that started in the aftermath of the New York Times’s revelations over Harvey Weinstein. We knew it would come, because it always does, but few of us thought it would happen over someone like Aziz Ansari, or a website as seemingly benign as babe.net. But happen it has, and it’s exposed a lot of raw wounds we’ve discovered we’re not entirely equipped to deal with.
Recently, HLN anchor Ashleigh Banfield referred to Grace as having done something ‘appalling’ and accused her of wanting to ruin Ansari’s career. When the babe.net editor who worked on the piece was asked to appear on Banfield’s show, they fired back with a scathing e-mail that made comments about Banfield’s age and appearance and generally came across as incredibly immature. This was a point only strengthened by the e-mail’s revelation that the editor behind the piece was 22 years old. A CNN piece also revealed that the website reached out to Grace to get the exclusive. She did not approach them wanting to tell her story. Couple that with the site posting a story bragging about all the big publications that covered their piece, and we have something of a journalistic clusterfuck. Whatever their intentions, babe.net threw Grace under the bus for clicks, and in the process, they have tainted a hugely necessary conversation about consent.
I would hazard a guess that most of you hadn’t heard of babe.net until this story came out. The site was founded in May 2016 as a spin-off of the popular student news publication The Tab. Last year, the sites received $6m of investor funding from News Corp, and their youth-focused mixture of what Slate called ‘vulgar tomfoolery’ has found its readers. Babe’s work is pretty much what you’d expect from a site that says they’re for ‘girls who don’t give a fuck’ in their manifesto. The jobs section of Tab Media is focused on finding staff writers aged between 18 and 25. When the British division of Babe posted an advert looking for a ‘Summer correspondent’, they stated that it wasn’t a paid position. Think baby’s first Jezebel, but with a less sturdy filter of quality and editorial savvy. A lot of their coverage of issues like campus rape are earnest and concisely written, but much of their content seems rushed out to meet clicks. This is clearly a site still in the gestation period, not ready for primetime, but at least offering young writers a mostly decent step up into the professional world. They weren’t ready or suitable for the Ansari story.
The way the Ansari piece was written immediately opened up the floodgates against Grace. It’s a weird piece, part creative writing exercise in its style of prose and part journalistic profile. For too many, it wasn’t clear enough, and it didn’t focus the conversation on the issues of consent that it needed to. Furthermore, it made Grace more vulnerable to attacks and claims of lying. Babe did not fully contextualize why her story was important, and so left that responsibility to the sphere of think-pieces and the sordid false dialogue that only exacerbates rape culture.
Reporting on sexual assault and harassment is an extremely tricky area of journalism, even more so when celebrities are involved. You are constantly in the middle of a misogynistic barrage, fuelled by a society that has taught us to assume all women are liars and all men have earned the right to our bodies. When it comes to LGBTQ+ issues of harassment and assault, as was the case with Kevin Spacey, the narrative becomes even harder to navigate. There’s been a recent increase in such stories following the Weinstein case, but it’s important to remember that, when Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey at the New York Times, and Ronan Farrow at The New Yorker broke these stories, most publications wouldn’t dare to touch the investigations. Now, we’re in a better situation where bureaus and publications are putting money and the legwork into such stories, but it’s glaring how much more attention the stories involving big names get over those of fruit pickers, hotel cleaners, and factory workers. We’re in an industry of clicks, and even the most well-meaning story is somewhat fuelled by that necessity. The most detailed and thoroughly investigated stories take time and money. It forces you into that vicious cycle of chasing the big numbers. That can often be as harmless as a listicle of cat pics, but then you look at what Babe did, and you wonder how well-intentioned their posts bragging about where their work was linked from are.
Babe have made themselves the main headline, and that’s impeded Grace’s own story. They turned her story into a weirdly written showboat for their own ‘talents’, and they did little to protect her or contextualize her story. When big names attacked, they fired back like they were at a roast. When the conversation called for some much-needed cultural awareness and a deepening of issues of consent and how that perpetuates rape culture, they bragged about how well their piece did. Grace needed protection from the click-bait machine of endless think-pieces and concern trolling, but they simply created more.
To say they lacked the skills to cover such a story would be an understatement, but let’s also remember that this is a site that’s seemingly populated by undertrained 22-year-olds, fresh out of university, who have jumped at the chance to work. This site has Murdoch money behind it, but seems to lack the oversight or editorial seriousness required to make it work. Babe seems like every terrible millennial stereotype you can think of, but that’s something its funders seem to want. If they didn’t, they’d change that. You have to wonder what exactly it is that Tab Media, its editor in chief Joshi Herrmann, and its investors hoped to get from this piece. Given how keen everyone has been to stress the 2.5m+ views the article brought to the site, it’s tough not to be cynical about the endeavour.
We still desperately need to have conversations about sexual relationships, consent, and power dynamics. It’s become apparent over the past few months that far too many people don’t understand what consent actually is. Grace’s story could have been the perfect jumping off point for us to dissect this problem, and dive deep into the terrifying reality that so many of us have admitted to experiences like this in our lives. Grace deserved better than the failures and self-aggrandizing of Babe. They have left their source open to the world, with little to no protection, and no real understanding of what they did wrong. That will fuel some truly disastrous fires. That site was built on a foundation of quicksand that no amount of clicks can save.