Here’s a twist on the old “Don’t pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon.” That was when print ruled.
Now, it’s don’t pick an online fight with an immensely popular actor and a respected lawyer who come from journalism families: George Clooney and fiance Amal Alamuddin.
They’re not afraid of London tabloid scandals and smears and know how to strike back.
Now that Rupert Murdoch has closed News of the World as penance for its criminal voicemail hacking, the Daily Mail and its avatar, MailOnline, sits atop the garbage heap.
As blogger Lauren Collins wrote for The New Yorker, “for all its charms, the Mail is a machine for wasting reputations. … The paper demonstrates particular efficiency and relish in shredding the character of celebrities.”
So, on the chance you haven’t heard, MailOnline said Alamuddin’s mother was unhappy with her daughter marrying Clooney and telling “half of Beirut” that Amal should marry another Druze.
Clooney responded in USA Today, saying it’s false and fabricated. MailOnline retracted the story, took it down and apologized.
Not good enough. Clooney rejected the apology. We have yet to hear from other news media that picked up the story without questioning its unverified second- and third-hand assertions.
Celebrities and politicians court British tabloids out of fear of the papers’ ability to damage or destroy reputations. In turn, London tabloids are accustomed to apologizing and retracting defamatory stories. Paying damages is a cost of business for these editors and publishers.
None of this hurts circulation.
Here’s the background:
Clooney and Alamuddin are engaged to marry. He’s an actor. She’s a lawyer. He’s a Kentuckian. She’s from a Druze family in the Middle East.
Amal’s mother, Baria Alamuddin, is foreign editor of Pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat. Clooney is the son of Channel 12 newsman Nick Clooney and Nina Clooney.
Paparazzi and tabloids love the younger Clooney. He’s talented, handsome and he dates attractive women. This time, however, MailOnline went too far for the groom-to-be. This is his angry, bitter response in USA Today:
“I want to speak to the irresponsibility of Monday’s Daily Mail report,” he began shortly after the original story. “I seldom respond to tabloids, unless it involves someone else and their safety or well being.
“The Daily Mail has printed a completely fabricated story about my fiancée’s mother opposing our marriage for religious reasons. It says Amal’s mother has been telling ‘half of Beirut’ that she’s against the wedding. It says they joke about traditions in the Druze religion that end up with the death of the bride.
“Let me repeat that: the death of the bride.
“First of all, none of the story is factually true. Amal’s mother is not Druze. She has not been to Beirut since Amal and I have been dating, and she is in no way against the marriage — but none of that is the issue.
“I’m, of course, used to The Daily Mail making up stories — they do it several times a week — and I don’t care. If they fabricate stories of Amal being pregnant or that the marriage will take place on the set of Downton Abbey or that I’m running for office or any number of idiotic stories that they sit at their computers and invent, I don’t care.
“But this lie involves larger issues. The irresponsibility, in this day and age, to exploit religious differences where none exist, is at the very least negligent and more appropriately dangerous. We have family members all over the world, and the idea that someone would inflame any part of that world for the sole reason of selling papers should be criminal.
“I’m the son of a newsman; I accept the idea that freedom of speech can be an inconvenience to my private life from time to time, but this story, like so many others, is picked up by hundreds of other outlets citing The Daily Mail as their source, including Boston.com, The New York Daily News, Gulf News, Emirates 24/7 and so on.
“The Daily Mail, more than any other organization that calls itself news, has proved time and time again that facts make no difference in the articles they make up. And when they put my family and my friends in harm’s way, they cross far beyond just a laughable tabloid and into the arena of inciting violence.
“They must be so very proud,” Clooney wrote.
In the world of tabloids, any attention is good, and no blame-worthy stories or images are too odious. Beyond that, The Daily Mail’s response is fascinating. It deleted the Clooney story from its MailOnline website and posted this defense and justification:
“The MailOnline story was not a fabrication but supplied in good faith by a reputable and trusted freelance journalist. She based her story on conversations with a long-standing contact who has strong connections with senior members of the Lebanese community in the UK and the Druze in Beirut.
“We only became aware of Mr Clooney’s concerns this morning and have launched a full investigation. However, we accept Mr. Clooney’s assurance that the story is inaccurate and we apologise to him, Miss Amal Alamuddin and her mother, Baria, for any distress caused.
“We have removed the article from our website and will be contacting Mr Clooney’s representatives to discuss giving him the opportunity to set the record straight.”
Yeah, sure. That’s the formulaic response when lawyers are involved, as they often are in cases where celebrities claim that they’re the subjects of false and troubling stories in British tabloids.
Since he rejected MailOnline’s apology, Clooney told Variety, the trade paper, “It’s just fun to slap those bad guys every once in a while, knock ‘em around. I would sit with my friends and we’d just go, ‘So they just sat at a computer and just went, “OK, this is what I’m gonna say today.” ’ I mean, literally, because you just go, ‘There isn’t literally an element of truth in this’.”
London’s liberal Independent quoted Clooney in Variety, saying, “You just laugh, and let it go. I’m used to it after all these years. But the thing that bothers me is how much The Daily Mail is now bleeding into American press and becoming a source for some pretty legitimate newspapers. So that’s the thing that worries me. Those are really bad guys and they do tend to tee off on everybody.”
“That’s why you pick your fights at a tabloid,” he continued. “Every day they write things that aren’t true, but every once in a while they write something that is actually dangerous to your family, and it’s probably not true. And that’s the one you pick.”
Because without an actual anonymous source, the reporter and publication are forced to backtrack when they get called out.
“It’s fun when you can go, ‘Well, this one, I know I have all the facts right.’ Usually the argument is, ‘Hey, we’re not gonna tell you our source,’ and, ‘Prove it.’ And when they actually do it themselves it’s so great. You go, ‘OK, well you obviously just screwed this [up], so I think I can get you now.’ ”
CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: firstname.lastname@example.org