'The New Yorker' fact-checked Hasan Minhaj — now he's issued a rebuttal
It looks a little like a low-key version of one of his Daily Show segments or a piece from his former Netflix series Patriot Act.
But instead, the 21-minute video released by comic Hasan Minhaj, first published Thursday in the Hollywood Reporter, is a personal, detailed rebuttal tackling elements of a critical article about him published by The New Yorker more than a month ago, titled "Hasan Minhaj's 'Emotional Truths'."
"I'm aware that even talk about this now feels so trivial," Minhaj says, noting how the Israel-Hamas War has dominated recent news. "But being accused of fake racism is not trivial. It is very serious, and it demands an explanation."
Sitting at a desk with graphic images occasionally displayed over his shoulder, Minhaj speaks directly to the camera, asserting that he provided evidence and context to explain why he exaggerated elements in his standup comedy specials, but The New Yorker ignored it. Instead, he says, the story left the impression he had made up or exaggerated racism in his life, which Minhaj strongly denies.
He says he created the video to answer the question everyone is thinking: "Is Hasan Minhaj just a con artist who uses fake racism and Islamaphobia to advance his career? Because after reading that article, I would also think that."
A spokesperson for The New Yorker declined to speak on the record about Minhaj's claims, providing a statement which supports their story:
"Hasan Minhaj confirms in this video that he selectively presents information and embellishes to make a point: exactly what we reported. Our piece, which includes Minhaj's perspective at length, was carefully reported and fact-checked. It is based on interviews with more than 20 people, including former Patriot Act and Daily Show staffers; members of Minhaj's security team; and people who have been the subject of his standup work, including the former F.B.I. informant 'Brother Eric' and the woman at the center of his prom-rejection story. We stand by our story."
The stakes are high for Minhaj – press accounts say he was considered a front runner for the permanent host of The Daily Show before The New Yorker story was published (Puck News has since reported he was officially informed he will not be getting the job).
But as even he makes clear, his reputation is at stake. Comic Bill Maher, who has been accused of Islamaphobia in his commentary, aired a biting critique during his show Real Time with Bill Maher, saying, "The stories Mr. Minhaj tells in his act to elicit sympathy for himself as a Muslim and a person of color are completely made up."
Here are a few important assertions from the video Minhaj has provided.
He says the article implies that race wasn't a factor in why he was dumped by a white classmate just before they were to attend their high school prom — producing emails and text messages between them to insist he was not "needlessly cruel" to her in telling the story.
A pivotal moment in Minhaj's standup special Homecoming King involves the comic talking about how he was dumped the night of his senior prom, with his date's mother telling him the rest of their family wouldn't understand prom pictures with a brown-skinned boy.
In the video, Minhaj admits that the incident happened days before the dance, but says he was rejected because of his race. The New Yorker story said the woman "turned down Minhaj, who was then a close friend, in person, days before the dance. Minhaj acknowledged that this was correct, but he said that the two of them had long carried different understandings of her rejection."
The story also asserts that he "shrugged off her concerns" about people discovering her identity and that that they had a strained friendship. In response, Minhaj presents friendly texts and emails from the woman, and notes that he calls her "Bethany" on stage to protect her anonymity.
Minhaj says in his new video he did have altercations with undercover law enforcement while growing up, though he does not fully detail the circumstances.
The New Yorker story notes that the comic's 2022 special The King's Jester features a segment alleging Craig Monteilh, a real-life FBI informant who spied on Muslim communities in Southern California, had infiltrated the mosque frequented by Minhaj's family under the name "Brother Eric." Monteilh said that he never visited that mosque or met Minhaj, which the comic acknowledged in The New Yorker story.
In his new video, Minhaj says he did have altercations with law enforcement growing up as a young Muslim man, and he was trying to communicate that experience, apologizing for adding to a dynamic where false stories about police excess can undermine real stories.
Minhaj says someone did send him an envelope containing white powder that he opened near his daughter. But contrary to the story he tells in The King's Jester, he knew right away it was not anthrax, the contents did not spill onto her and she was not rushed to the hospital.
Minhaj says he and his wife decided to keep the white powder incident secret when it happened – at a time when he was getting pushback on a controversial Patriot Act episode about Saudi Arabia — because they were worried Netflix might cancel the series.
"I am sorry for embellishing the story, if anyone was worrying about me and my family," he says in the video.
There are some incidents described in The New Yorker story that Minhaj doesn't address in his new video.
The New Yorker story says, "Minhaj has elided or concocted other details in his stories, often to place himself more squarely at the center of the action."
For example, in The King's Jester special, Minhaj says he met with officials at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., as news broke that journalist Jamal Khashoggi had been murdered at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. But The New Yorker quotes an unnamed producer who said the meeting took place at least a month earlier.
Similarly, The New Yorker says Minhaj's story about Jared Kushner sitting in a seat that was ceremonially kept vacant for imprisoned Saudi activists at a gala was not true.
Minhaj is quoted in The New Yorker admitting that he exaggerated both incidents, but he doesn't address them in his new video.
Minhaj's new video and The New Yorker story both turn on the thorny idea of how much accuracy is required from comics who say they are telling true stories about racism, social issues and real people.
Minhaj tries straddling a difficult line. He admits that his exaggerations often involve tough subjects like police excess, racism and Islamaphobia — issues more serious than the overstatements made by many typical standup comics. But Minhaj also insists he did not cross the line into inventing his personal experiences with racism.
In his new video, while apologizing for some exaggerations, Minhaj also says there is a difference between how he handles factual material in political comedy shows like Patriot Act and standup specials.
"In political comedy, facts come first," he says in the video. "In comedic storytelling, emotions come first."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.