Clooney's dust-up speaks to British tabloid tactics

New York Times News ServiceJuly 12, 2014 

US NEWS CLOONEY 5 ABA

Actor George Clooney offered a quick rebuke of the British tabloid's article.

OLIVIER DOULIERY — MCT

The tabloid headline might read something like this: Sexiest Man Alive Becomes Angriest Man Alive.

This week, George Clooney condemned The Daily Mail, the British newspaper, after it reported that the Lebanese mother of his fiancée objected to their wedding on religious grounds. Relatives had joked about the death of the bride if she defied her mother's wishes, the article said.

"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 wrote in a response published in USA Today, adding, "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."

The Daily Mail removed the article from its website, but not before other outlets published similar reports. Clooney refused to accept the paper's apology and again responded in USA Today. "The Mail knew the story in question was false and printed it anyway," he wrote.

For The Daily Mail, its dust-up with Clooney was, in some respects, all in a day's work. With a gossipy, salacious and celebrity-obsessed approach to news, The Daily Mail's web publication - Mail Online - has become the most visited English language newspaper site in the world. And its tabloid tactics are part of the cut and thrust of doing business in a British newspaper culture that is generally faster and looser than its American counterpart.

But Clooney's blistering attack on The Daily Mail and its reporting practices comes as the paper's website continues its aggressive expansion in the United States. The Mail Online now has more than 36.4 million readers in the United States, according to ComScore - up 30 percent in the last year.

"They realized that these kind of stories that seemed like uniquely British tabloid stories were traveling, and they realized they could build something here," said Ken Doctor, a media analyst.

The Mail Online has also pushed into the U.S. market as traditional celebrity journalism has come under severe pressure. A glut of entrants has flooded the market and the celebrities themselves are turning to social media to communicate directly with fans. Steven Cohn, editor of the Media Industry Newsletter, notes that consumers of celebrity journalism no longer depend on celebrity weeklies in the same way.

"It's really a sign of the times. In the pre-digital era, you would read the latest hot scoop in the weekly People or Us Weekly or Star or InTouch," Cohn said. "Now you get the news right on your phone. You're still competing against technology. They're certainly not what they used to be."

Celebrities have also learned how to control the narrative about their careers and personal lives. Kanye West and Kim Kardashian subverted paparazzi by posting a wedding photograph on Instagram. Clooney took ownership of the reports about his marriage by twice using USA Today to criticize The Daily Mail. And this week, LeBron James held basketball fans in suspense about where he would be playing next year before revealing his return to Cleveland in a first-person essay in Sports Illustrated on Friday.

As celebrities have begun to exercise more power over their publicity, the outlets that cover them have had their business fortunes suffer, according to the most recent figures tracked by the Alliance for Audited Media. From 2012 to 2013, newsstand sales for People magazine dropped 14 percent and those for Us Weekly fell about 13 percent. Over the past decade, newsstand sales for People have declined 43 percent and those for Us Weekly have dropped 34 percent

The Mail Online signaled its arrival on American shores when it started covering celebrities in Los Angeles in early 2011. In 2012, it opened a New York office to expand its coverage. It now has 160 employees in the United States. In June, Jon Steinberg, former president of BuzzFeed, was named chief executive of Mail Online's North American operations. His focus, in part, will be on increasing its advertising revenue and expanding its video unit.

Clooney is hardly the first to challenge the reporting of Mail Online, which declined to comment for this article. It has received numerous cease-and-desist orders accusing it of plagiarism from publications like The Daily News and The New York Times. The Mail Online settled a lawsuit with a celebrity photo agency for publishing photographs of celebrities like Pamela Anderson and Robbie Williams without the agency's approval. In September, a nude model sued for defamation after the Mail Online used her photograph in an article about an HIV-positive actress, claiming she was not the performer featured in the story.

But the star power of Clooney, 53, has put a sharper focus on the Mail Online and its journalism. The son of a television news anchor, Clooney has won two Academy Awards, and was nominated for eight, including best director for "Good Night, and Good Luck," a movie about the TV journalist Edward R. Murrow. He has become increasingly active in politics and human rights issues, including the conflict in Sudan.

His romantic life has been a favorite subject of the tabloids, which have for years pursued him near his homes in Los Angeles and Lake Como, Italy, and reported on his girlfriends. But this year, Clooney proposed to Amal Alamuddin, 36, a Lebanese-born human rights lawyer who lives in London. Since their engagement, the British news media has subjected the couple to the type of attention normally reserved for the royal family.

The Mail Online's article said Alamuddin's mother, Baria Alamuddin, had been "telling half of Beirut" that she was unimpressed with Clooney and that she wanted her daughter to marry within her own Druse religion, an offshoot of Islam. In his response, Clooney said his future mother-in-law was not Druse and was in no way against the marriage.

In a somewhat muddled apology after taking the article down, the Mail Online said the article was not, as Clooney claimed, "completely fabricated," but also acknowledged that it was inaccurate. A trusted journalist supplied the information, it said, which was based on conversations with "senior members of the Lebanese community in the U.K. and the Druse in Beirut." It would begin an investigation, the paper said, and discuss giving Clooney the opportunity to set the record straight.

Clooney did not use the Mail Online to respond to the coverage. Instead, his articles for USA Today received more than 1 million page views, and drew the support of fellow celebrities.

"I totally disagree with George Clooney" about The Daily Mail, the British comedian John Cleese wrote on Twitter. "They are much, much worse than that."

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