Had the alleged attack on Jussie Smollett actually taken place, it would not have told us much about the racial situation in America. That it apparently was a hoax also doesn’t tell us very much about the racial situation in America. This is a point that is being missed, but that lies at the center of how the news media managed to bungle this story so embarrassingly.
Before exploring why the incident was not a very important story, regardless of its veracity, it must be made clear that the news media did in fact botch this badly. The excuse being peddled by much of the press is that the actual reporting was accurate, and they are being lumped in with a bunch of celebrities and tweeters who went too far. This is a farcical claim, as the below video montage of anchors stating the attack as a matter of fact shows.
There can be no doubt that the racial and anti-gay implications of the alleged incident caused much of the media to react with an enormous amount of caution. Had, say, a white, right-wing YouTube star claimed he was attacked by two black men wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts who shouted “Trump sucks” and put a white hood on his head, I daresay the media would have given a bit more credence to inconsistencies in his story.
Part of this is confirmation bias. For most members of the news media, who are left-leaning, my hypothetical would not fit in with what they expect from the world. But Smollett’s claim did, and checked off so many boxes so perfectly, that almost every conservative I know was almost immediately convinced it was a hoax.
Had the scenario I imagine happened and GOP politicians weighed in on it with the certainty that Nancy Pelosi and most of the Democratic presidential field did, we can be sure their statements would have been followed by news anchors saying, “To be clear, police are still investigating the incident.” That didn’t happen this time. That so many in the press are unwilling to address this double standard is troubling. But more than confirmation bias is happening here.
Another major factor that affected news coverage of the Smollett affair was the deference given to issues like race and sexual orientation. It is a kind of news coverage privilege theory. The more oppressed a group appears, the more gentle the coverage must be or you risk endangering vulnerable, marginalized people. This is related to the idea of “Believe all women,” and why there is no saying, “Believe Ralph Northam.”
But ultimately, the original sin (other than the hoax itself, of course) was the pervasive idea that the incident said something important about the state of race in the United States. On January 29, GQ published a think piece called “The Racist, Homophobic Attack on Jussie Smollett Is Far-Right America’s Endgame.” Essentially it argues that Trump and his supporters are agitating for this kind of violence, and, well, here it is.
Most of the news media was not as explicit as GQ, but there are ways of saying things without saying them, especially when millions on social media will follow your careful breadcrumbs. The clear premise is, as Brooke Baldwin says at the end of the video montage, “This is America in 2019.” Well, no, actually it isn’t. It’s three guys in Chicago. Three guys in Chicago does not “America in 2019” make.
In the end, of course, it winds up being Trump’s fault.
While hate crimes across the board are up in recent years, the vast majority of that increase is accounted for by anti-Semitic attacks, including an epidemic in Brooklyn. The underlying concept of much of the media’s narrative — that Trump’s rhetoric and leadership is making people of color and gays less safe — just isn’t born out by the facts.
It’s very central to human reasoning to look for microcosms; often in the particular we find the universal. But it can also be very misleading. Many in the media exist in the same progressive bubble as Smollett, in which his story made sense and was attractive to extrapolate. But conservatives also must be on guard. This being a hoax doesn’t prove some broad point about racism being so rare that people have to make it up. Smollett’s actions were not part of some progressive conspiracy. More likely they were driven by greed, and a need for attention.
In today’s society, all too often people look at an incident or an utterance and say “That’s all you need you know…” It never is. Reality is always more complicated than the scale models crafted on screens across the country.
The racial situation in the United States is fraught right now. Although Trump sometimes pours needless gas on the fire, it’s not his fault, and it predates his descent on the golden escalator. To the extent that some white Americans feel vindicated by the Smollett affair, it is because they don’t believe they are the thing the media tells them they are. It doesn’t reflect their reality.
The good news is that the media marketplace, and more importantly the Chicago Police Department, produced the result they were supposed to. Some conservatives ran respectful posts pointing out inconsistencies. Other outlets took a “here’s what we know now” approach. It wasn’t enough to temper overly credulous coverage in real time, but it did offer the public a healthy alternative.
Now we can turn the page until the next hoax, and we can hope that some lessons were learned from this one.