The Mail Online is by some measures the world’s most popular online newspaper. 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.
Let’s take potent media criticism where we can get it. George Clooney may not be a journalist, but he played one on the big screen. And his diatribe against the Mail, published 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 on Monday and the Daily Mail on Tuesday morning. 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. As the Washington Post points out, 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. 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 (mostly outside of its native U.K.) 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. (The New York Daily News, it’s worth noting, has seen its own traffic soar after hiring a former Mail editor to remake its website in the Mail Online’s image.) There were plenty of other accomplices. Together they ensured that the Mail’s story reached far more readers than the Mail alone ever could.