Babe editor stands by Aziz Ansari story

Amid all the debate over an anonymous woman's account of a sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, the editors at Babe.net...

Posted: Jan 16, 2018 12:21 PM
Updated: Jan 16, 2018 12:21 PM

Amid all the debate over an anonymous woman's account of a sexual encounter with Aziz Ansari, the editors at Babe.net who published the story have remained quiet.

The site was not well known before the Ansari story -- but it is getting a lot of attention now, much of it critical and even dismissive.

Joshi Herrmann, editor-in-chief of Babe's parent company Tab Media, says the editors have zero regrets. "We would publish this again tomorrow," he told CNNMoney on Monday.

"It's newsworthy because of who he is and what he has said in his standup, what he has written in his book, what he has proclaimed on late night TV," Herrmann said. "Her account is pointing out a striking tension between those things and the way she says he treated her in private."

The 23-year-old woman, named "Grace" in the story, was granted anonymity by Babe. CNN does not know her identity.

In the story, she recounted an uncomfortable date with the 34-year-old Ansari, star of Netflix's "Master of None." She said she was repeatedly pressured to have sex and ultimately "felt violated" by his behavior. She said she had oral sex with Ansari, but not intercourse.

Afterward, "I was debating if this was an awkward sexual experience or sexual assault," and she concluded that it was assault, she told Babe.

Ansari, for his part, said in a statement that the sexual activity was "completely consensual." He confirmed that he texted with "Grace" after the date.

"It was true that everything did seem okay to me, so when I heard that it was not the case for her, I was surprised and concerned," he said. In the texts reviewed by Babe, he wrote to her, "Clearly, I misread things in the moment and I'm truly sorry."

When the story came out on Saturday, both the anonymous woman and the web site came under criticism.

HLN TV host Ashleigh Banfield read an open letter she wrote to the woman on her show Monday night.

"By your own clear description, this wasn't a rape, nor was it a sexual assault. Your sexual encounter was 'unpleasant' at best," Banfield said. "It did not send you to the police. It did not affect your workplace, or your ability to get a job. So what exactly is your beef? That you had a bad date with Aziz Ansari?"

Addressing "Grace," Banfield added, "What you have done is appalling. You went to the press with your story of a bad date, and you have potentially destroyed this man's career over it."

Related: Aziz Ansari responds to sexual assault allegation: 'I was surprised and concerned'

The circumstances surrounding the story remain unclear. Herrmann said Babe.net "heard about this story through personal networks, and then had to speak to a lot of different people before we got to the source. Our reporter Katie Way approached her, not the other way round."

He said the woman agreed to speak because she trusted Way -- it may have helped that the reporter and source are both the same age -- and "because of Ansari's appearance at the Golden Globes wearing a Times Up pin."

Way spoke about the case on "CBS This Morning" on Monday and implicitly responded to some of the critiques.

"Just because something is normal, doesn't mean it's OK," Way said. "Just because something happens a lot, doesn't mean it should ever happen."

Feminist writer Jessica Valenti made a similar point on Monday. "Our standard for sexual behavior has to be more than what's legal or illegal -- it needs to be about what's right," Valenti tweeted. "I'm sure we're going to hear lots of stories in the coming months about actions that aren't against the law, or that don't warrant repercussions. That doesn't mean that women weren't hurt, or that these stories aren't worth discussing."

Along those same lines, Herrmann recalled one of his colleagues saying that Babe's reporters "want to represent these young women in the way they should be, not in the way they have been in the past."

Babe and a sister site, The Tab, have office space in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. The parent company dates back to 2009, when three Cambridge University students launched a site for their peers. Babe is a two-year-old spinoff of The Tab.

The goal is to create content for college students and twentysomethings. Herrmann said the average age of a Babe writer is 24.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp was the lead investor when The Tab received $6 million in funding last year.

Herrmann pointed out that Babe has been producing original journalism about sexual misconduct for months, pre-dating the #MeToo movement that has spread around the world.

Related: 2017 was the year of (certain) women's voices

Some columnists have asserted that the Ansari story is a setback for the #MeToo movement, because it takes away from deeply reported accounts of rape and assault.

Sonny Bunch, a conservative contributor to the Washington Post, wrote Monday that "I would suggest there's a reason this story appeared in babe, rather than the New York Times or BuzzFeed or the Los Angeles Times or, yes, The Washington Post."

"One of the reasons is that, however Grace now thinks of the encounter, what happened isn't sexual assault or anything close to it by most legal or common-sense standards. And bad dates - including terrible ones that leave one person feeling humiliated - aren't actually newsworthy, even when they happen to famous people," Bunch wrote.

Herrmann responded: "To borrow his formulation, I would suggest the reason this story appeared in babe was because the source trusted our reporter and thought we would take her seriously and make the end product credible."

"If commentators want to patronize-babe-because it's a new site or they haven't heard of it or because it's run by a bunch of young women, that's their trip," Herrmann said. "The idea that reporters shouldn't investigate stories that don't involve law enforcement is patently ridiculous."

Herrmann said Babe decided to publish the Ansari account as a reported story -- as opposed to a first-person essay by the woman -- because "we wanted to make it clear that we reported this whole thing out -- that we had read the texts on her phone and friends' phones, spoken to the first people she told the night of the incident and the next day and verified his number."

Herrmann said the web site initially received no reply when it emailed Ansari's representatives for comment before publishing. "Then we texted him direct at the number he used to apologize to Grace, and his reps got in touch," he said. "They didn't send us a statement by our deadline, so we went without one."

To date, he said, 2.5 million people have the read the story so far -- a record for Babe's web site.

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