The Mail Online is by some measures the world's most popular online newspaper site. It is also shameless — a grotesque compendium of sensational tabloid stories, unverified viral memes, anonymously sourced gossip, thinly veiled sexism, prurient clickbait, and hypocritical moralizing.
Its shenanigans are well-known to Brits, some 4 million of whom regularly read the Mail Online's print-newspaper progenitor, the Daily Mail. But it took a Hollywood actor to bring the paper's habitual irresponsibility into the American klieg lights.
George Clooney may not be a journalist, but he played one on the big screen. And his diatribe against the Mail, published last Wednesday in USA Today, is the sort of righteous broadside that would have made Edward R. Murrow proud.
The actor's outburst was prompted by a piece (now deleted) that ran in the Mail Online last Monday and the Daily Mail on Tuesday. Citing unnamed family members and "Lebanese friends," the paper reported that Baria Alamuddin, the mother of Clooney's fiancée, Amal Alamuddin, vehemently opposed the couple's marriage on religious grounds. Baria Alamuddin had been "telling half of Beirut" that her daughter ought to marry someone from her own Druze faith instead, according to the Mail's story.
One problem, Clooney said: "Amal's mother is not Druze." Another problem: "She has not been to Beirut since Amal and I have been dating, and she is in no way against the marriage."
But that wasn't the worst of it. The part of the Mail story that pushed Clooney past the brink was this:
"There can be harsh penalties for those Druze who marry outsiders,'' the story said. "Several women have been murdered for disobeying the rules. Last year a Sunni Muslim man had his penis severed by the male relatives of a Druze woman who defied her family by marrying him. The friend added: 'There have a been a few jokes in the family about the same thing happening to George!' "
The joke, in case it wasn't clear, is that the Druze sometimes assassinate people like Alamuddin and Clooney. Ha-ha?
In USA Today, Clooney responded with a smackdown so tautly worded and so richly deserved that it has resonated around the Internet. The op-ed is worth reading in full, but here's an excerpt:
"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.''
Clooney goes on to point out what I think is really the most insidious thing about the Mail Online: For some reason, other news outlets around the Web routinely cite the site's reporting as though it were a credible news source rather than a shameless, traffic-whoring gossip factory. In this case, Clooney calls out Boston.com, the New York Daily News, Gulf News, and Emirates 24/7 among those that picked up the Mail's story suggesting that Clooney or his fiancée might be fair game for religious violence. There were plenty of other accomplices. Together they ensured that the story reached far more readers than the Mail alone ever could.
To be clear, all journalists get things wrong sometimes. But that shouldn't prohibit us from pointing out that the Mail Online in particular is developing quite a pattern of getting things wrong and then failing to transparently correct them.
In one revealing instance, the Mail Online couldn't even explain how a made-up story — concisely headlined "Dentist pulled out ALL boyfriend's teeth after he dumped her (and new girlfriend leaves him because of his empty mouth)" — made it onto the site.
"I've drawn a bit of a blank," a Mail Online journalist told MSNBC.com when asked where the story came from.
When the Mail Online is publicly confronted with evidence that it botched a story, this is usually all it leaves behind: "Sorry, the page you have requested does not exist or is no longer available.''
The list of ridiculous Mail stories is so long that it has inspired a hit YouTube song and filled listicles on BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post. In 2012 the paper won a prize for "worst science article" for a story headlined "Just ONE cannabis joint 'can cause psychiatric episodes similar to schizophrenia' as well as damaging memory."
The Mail's public response to Clooney's op-ed is telling. It swiftly apologized to Clooney and removed the story from its website.
The show of contrition seems laudable. But more careful news organizations would be shocked by allegations like Clooney's, and their first priority would be to go to their reporters and editors and find out what happened. The Mail story's immediate removal implies that its leaders have no trouble believing that what it printed was essentially a pack of falsehoods.
It isn't that the Mail sets out to get things wrong. It's just that, when your mission is to attract page-views at any cost, you do so with the understanding that the truth may be collateral damage.
Good for Clooney for calling it out — and for naming some of the sites that picked up the story without checking it out. Publicly shaming bad journalism may not deter an inveterate offender like the Mail, but at least maybe it will make the rest of us think twice before trusting it.