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Pennsylvania nightclub owner on the impact “fake news” can have on its target

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Media outlets remain under fire amid ongoing debates combatting trustworthiness in the news. The election of President Trump has raised the specter of “fake news” and questioned the legitimacy of most reports unhinged on the public.

For many, the war on “fake news” is a political conflict. A recent Gallup poll found Democrats to hold more trust in the media’s ability to “fully, accurately and fairly” report the news than Republicans do — that’s 72 percent of Democrats with a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust contrasting 14 percent of Republicans to be exact. Take a look at the news and all the chaos under the current White House administration, it’s no surprise that liberals choose to believe the news more than conservatives. For 25-year-old entrepreneur Ali Abulalburak, co-owner of Ali Baba Lounge in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, the doubt in media goes beyond political party. Ali’s shortage of trust has to do with what he believes appears to be racial intolerance from reporters covering his establishment, he says, further questioning the media’s ability to be unbiased when reporting.

Better than the Weekend spoke to Ali about being the subject of what he considers to be biased reporting and the impact “fake news” can have on its target.

Pic from Facebook from a meet-and-greet with rapper A Boogie wit da Hoodie at Ali Baba Lounge in Wilkes-Barre, PA in January 2018.

Ali says a code violation caused city officials to shut down his nightclub last month. Once his local paper, Citizen’s Voice, got word of the situation, he says they sensationalized the story and slandered his business and name. Reporter James Halpin reported the news, and it appears the only direct quote from an owner of the establishment that the reporter found pertinent to the story was when Ali’s father said: “Somebody snitched.”

That’s a seemingly good quote on a slow news day when you’re trying to make a story sound less boring, and Ali recognizes that. But the lack of context is what’s alarming him.

“Here’s what happened. We took down a wall in July of 2016 to make more room. In that wall, there was an exit,” Ali explained to Better than the Weekend. “When the exit came down, the new exit then became five feet further away than what the code allowed. For our occupancy level, we have to have a 75-foot travel distance from any point to an exit. The exit was 5 feet away from code requirements. Once this was brought to our attention, we immediately tackled the situation to ensure the safety of our patrons.”

Ali feels the Citizen’s Voice missed an opportunity to inform the community on the truth, instead acting like a tabloid and using racism to paint a negative picture of his nightclub for attention and website clicks.

While he believes a complete, detailed explanation of the code violation wasn’t reported in the story of Ali Baba Lounge’s closing, Ali said he felt targeted when the reporter derailed by mentioning a gunfight at another establishment:

“The show at Bentley’s took place Feb. 9 and appears to have gone off without a hitch, although a gunfight between suspected gang members broke out there following a performance by Detroit rapper Dej Loaf the next night.”

“I don’t know what a gunfight between gang members at another establishment has to do with my code violation,” Ali says. “It’s past the level of trying to spice things up. We don’t cater to gang members. We don’t cater to just the hip-hop community. We book a lot of hip-hop acts right now, because that’s what happens to be hot. Look at the Billboard and Apple Music charts. It’s mostly hip-hop that dominates the charts. If you go to the top clubs in Vegas or Miami, they’re booking hip-hop acts. If the charts were dominated by EDM acts, we’d be booking them. [Citizen’s Voice] doesn’t understand what’s relevant now. They don’t understand modern entertainment.”

Rapper A Boogie wit da Hoodie appearing on mainstream entertainment show ‘TRL’ on MTV. He performed at Ali Baba Lounge in January 2018.

Rapper Cardi B performing on mainstream TV show ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live.’ Cardi B performed at Ali Baba Lounge in 2016.

Ali added: “We have a diverse crowd because we cater to what most people like, and we provide an environment where everyone feels welcome — local college students, white people, black people, Hispanic, Arab. We don’t discriminate. And attacking us this hard is also discriminating against the people who come to Ali Baba Lounge.”

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Ali says his local paper is no stranger to biased reporting on his establishment — and it impacts how the community views him and his business.

“We have a lot of college students who come to Ali Baba Lounge,” he said. “When the paper reports a stabbing that happened near our establishment, which had nothing to do with us or the patrons who were at our club, their parents are afraid to allow them to come here or give them money to come to our shows. People who have never been here before are then afraid to come.”

Pic from Facebook. Fans lining up outside Ali Baba Lounge, in Wilkes-Barre, PA, for tix to see A Boogie wit da Hoodie.

Pic from Facebook. Fans lining up outside Ali Baba Lounge, in Wilkes-Barre, PA, for tix to see A Boogie wit da Hoodie.

Ali feels the Citizen’s Voice directly attacks the entertainment he brings because of their skin color and out of boredom. In 2017, reporter Bob Kalinowski managed to write a 1,281 word article about Ali Baba Lounge headliner Uncle Murda, whose rap lyrics promoted violence against police officers. That article featured additional reporting by the same reporter who reported on Ali Baba’s closing.

Obviously, any intent on behalf of the reporters is mere speculation.

“They don’t attack white headliners who come to the area the way they attack our headliners,” Ali said.

That appears to be true. When white rapper Eminem performed at an area venue on Montage Mountain, Citizen’s Voice didn’t seem to write a similar feature going into deep detail and reactions about his controversial lyrics, which included bragging about being a rapist. When white comedian Jerry Seinfeld performed at area venue The F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts, Citizen’s Voice didn’t seem to write a similar article about how the comedian reportedly dated a 17-year-old girl who was still in high school when he was almost 40 years old.

Ali says he wishes the media would be more balanced when covering his establishment.

“We had Cardi B perform here and a year later she’s on the stage performing at the Grammys,” he said. “There’s no write-up about how Ali Baba Lounge houses up-and-coming talent that go on to break records for women in the music industry. Or, how local talent get to open for national acts here. There’s no story about how we raised money for the victims and their families of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. There’s no spotlight on the economic growth we bring to the downtown. Our headliners attract people from Jersey, New York, Philly, and all over NEPA. When they come here they’re staying in local hotels, eating at local restaurants, shopping at local stores. There’s just no balance of what we bring to the community in the media and I’m tired of keeping my mouth shut about it.”

Ali Albualbarak, left, with breakout star Cardi B, at Ali Baba Lounge in 2016.

Cardi B performing to a packed house at Ali Baba Lounge in 2016.

That being said, is it possible to be an unbiased reporter? Dr. Lara Ray, psychologist and Professor of Psychology at UCLA told Better than the Weekend it’s “difficult” for anyone to be completely unbiased.

“You might be biased about something and not recognize it,” Dr. Ray said. “Essentially, our experiences shape the way we think or how we feel. We all see the world through the lens of our history. This idea that we are a blank slate in how we are processing information is not true, because we use our history to see how we view the world. So when reporters speculate beyond the facts, and the speculations go way too far, it could be a result of how that reporter sees the world and they could be embellishing out of bias.”

Ali is happy to reveal his club is up to code again and ready to open Saturday, March 3 at 9 p.m., with Tee Grizzley headlining the comeback. A soft opening will allow patrons back in the establishment Friday, March 2 at 9 p.m.

Ali said the Citizen’s Voice has approached him to advertise in their publication in the past, but turned them down because print advertisement in 2018 is “worthless.” He believes his establishment would be covered in a more positive light had he helped fund their operation through advertising. But, perhaps that’s just the lens through which he sees the world.

As for biased reporting in a climate of “fake news,” we’ll all likely believe what we want to believe.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Fulton Street

    March 13, 2018 at 1:26 pm

    I’m 63, live in this area, and this poor guy has gotten such a sh** deal from the local press and the old-white-guy mentality here. Hope he makes it.

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