Meet the women who uncovered the sexual misconduct allegation against Aziz Ansari

January 17, 2018

Image: babe.net screenshot

Bringing a laptop to Saturday brunch isn’t the best look. But for Eleni Mitzali, it was a necessary faux pas. 

“I can’t bring myself to be away from it while all these responses are coming in,” the managing editor at Babe.net had texted a friend, explaining why she’d be glued to her computer during the social outing. She was fielding fact checks and edits for a story about sexual misconduct that would shake the entertainment world later that weekend. 

At 7 p.m. that night, the little-known site published an account of sexual misconduct relating to actor Aziz Ansari, who won a Globe Globe for his Netflix series Master of None last week. At the time he wore a Time’s Up pin, supporting a movement battling sexual harassment in Hollywood and beyond. Now, he was being accused of pressuring a 23-year-old New Yorker into sex acts that made her uncomfortable. The woman, who Babe refers to by the pseudonym Grace and was 22 at the time, went on a dinner date with Ansari in September. She went to his apartment afterward and left crying in an Uber.

Ansari responded to the claims the following evening. In a statement to Mashable, he for the most part agreed with the woman’s story, adding that at the time he didn’t realize she was uncomfortable. He ended his note by stating that he “continue[s] to support the movement that is happening in our culture. It is necessary and long overdue.”

Grace’s story has been picked up by several news outlets and gossiped about over the weekend, especially since Ansari is a self-proclaimed feminist and the creator of a series about the highs and lows of millennial dating

It also inspired a lot of conversations about what is Babe.net.

Mitzali, 24, told Mashable over email that the site started as an “experiment” about a year and a half ago. 

At that time, she was an editor at The Tab, an online publication founded by University of Cambridge students in 2009. The Tab has since received a $4 million investment from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. and has spread to 80 universities in the UK and U.S. The site runs mainly off of student contributors posting stories on campus-based editions of The Tab, like those at Arizona State University, Harvard, and University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  

Mitzali and two fellow editors had been hired to help grow the site in the U.S., and after some success had been encouraged to launch a secondary site. 

“The idea has always been the same — writing stories and publishing media girls can relate to because it’s what they’re actually talking about with their friends,” Mitzali wrote. 

Why the name Babe? “It’s what our friends call each other, and we’re reclaiming it from creepy dudes,” she wrote. 

Within the first week of going live, hundreds of girls changed their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter to the Babe’s logo, featuring black calligraphy logo and a light pink background. Brooklyn-based Babe now has more than 1 million “likes” on Facebook and 29,000 followers on Instagram. Over the past six months, Babe’s team has grown from three to 11 across editorial, social, video, and sales. 

“Most of our hires are recent grads, and I think having a team this young — our average age is 23 — and this talented and hardworking is what’s been the most important part of our growth,” Mitzali said.

Indeed, the oldest editorial staffer at Babe is 25. 

“I’ve gotten comments trying to diminish what we do because of our age, but being young is a big factor for some of the sources who speak to us for stories,” Mitzali added. 

For thousands of people over the weekend, Grace’s story might have been the first one they read from Babe.net, but it’s far from the only tale of a sexual encounter the staff has published. 

Last November, Babe published the story of Lauren Atkins, a 17-year-old girl in Oklahoma who claimed she was raped at a high school party. The accused rapist wasn’t fully identified in Babe’s story. He was referred to as Adam and declined to comment for the story. 

Image: babe.net screenshot

The post differed from Babe’s other content, which tends toward quick news hits, quizzes, and opinion pieces. Mitzali spent two months investigating Atkins’ story from New York City before traveling to Oklahoma for a few days to meet Atkins in person as well as speak with her friends and family. 

After Babe published Atkins’ account, the story began picking up traction and within a week landed on the front page of Atkins’ local newspaper. It also was re-shared by HelloGiggles. Hundreds of thousands of people have since read it on Babe. 

“A big part of our mission is giving our audience a voice,” Mitzali wrote. “I still have people coming to me praising Lauren for being so brave … What I find so powerful is that it’s not just girls who have been through something similar — it’s people who have a friend who’s been raped, activists who want to support Lauren, lawyers who want to offer their services for next steps.”

Stories like Atkins’ and others have helped Babe develop its own network of women inspired to share their personal encounters or those of others. That’s how they found Grace, the anonymous woman who went on a date with Ansari, said Babe editor Amanda Ross.

“We heard some things about what happened to her and then did a lot of asking around until we got to the source,” Ross wrote in an email. “For a few days we made ourselves crazy over every detail of this story. Katie Way, the writer, did about a half-dozen interviews all over NYC. We all spent our Saturday on laptops fact-checking, redrafting, discussing the story with our lawyer verifying texts, trying to get a statement from his people and then finally publishing at about 7pm.”

The topic of the story has caused some controversy. Some have criticized the piece as overblown sex gossip.

According to Babe’s editors, Grace’s story deserves attention in part because the personal encounter contradicts Ansari’s image. 

“We felt there was a strong public interest in publishing the account of someone who says his private treatment of Grace didn’t align with his public statements and public work.”

“Ansari is a guy who has built a very powerful and profitable brand on the back of respecting women and calling out retrograde douchebag culture, and on parsing the nuances of modern dating. We felt there was a strong public interest in publishing the account of someone who says his private treatment of Grace didn’t align with his public statements and public work,” Mitzali wrote. 

Ross added that the text Grace sent to Ansari the next day encapsulates why they published the story. “I want to make sure you’re aware so maybe the next girl doesn’t have to cry on the ride home,” it read. 

More than 2 million people have read Grace’s account on Babe as of Monday afternoon, Mitzali said. 

Ross said she was a bit surprised by the second wave of reactions that dismissed the events as just a “bad date.”

“There’s no room for nuance, no consideration of immoral versus illegal. But honestly, I’m just glad people are talking about it at all,” she continued.

For Babe, Grace’s story was a big break — good for traffic and for the brand. 

Mitzali and Ross said they want people to keep reading more from the Babe team. They’re not taking down the horoscopes and quizzes on “what percent hoe are you,” Ross noted, but in addition to featuring fun content, the editorial team has plans to do more serious reporting. 

“We’re going to keep reflecting our reality: writing about frivolous shit like makeup trends and Instagram,” Ross said, “but also being a platform where girls can share their truth and experiences, made credible and impactful via really rigorous reporting.”

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Read more: http://mashable.com/2018/01/15/what-is-babe-aziz-ansari-sexual-misconduct-allegation/