After new evidence surfaced on Saturday that actor Jussie Smollett arranged his own alleged assault in Chicago, CNN’s “Reliable Sources” discussed whether the media was responsible for helping push his story. Liz Plank, correspondent at Vox Media, disputed that it was not journalists, but celebrities, who ran with the attackers’ “This is MAGA country” quote.
“The people who were repeating that quote were not news outlets, were not media outlets. It was repeated by, sure, people who maybe had good intentions of wanting to spread the story, and people who had empathy for what they thought was a real story,” she said. “But we can’t confuse celebrity tweets with the media and the press.”
In fact, many news outlets, including CNN, TMZ, USA Today, NBC News, The New York Times, and others, reported that Smollett’s alleged attackers shouted “This is MAGA country.” Media outlets repeated the phrase in their headlines and reports, as a fact and not as an alleged claim by Smollett.
Many journalists, including Plank herself, also rushed to “spread the story” on Twitter.
Here are the three #JussieSmollett tweets that I can find that @feministabulous RT'd in the early days of the reporting on the incident: pic.twitter.com/PnwVFBh5xj
— Jeryl Bier (@JerylBier) February 17, 2019
Here’s one she has since deleted. pic.twitter.com/2i6Nir55fH
— Currently between fraudulent suspensions (@jtLOL) February 17, 2019
Plank also argued with panelist Kmele Foster, a partner at Freethink Media, about whether racism, homophobia, and hate crimes are rising in the United States.
“What we do know is that racism is alive and well in this country. Homophobia is alive and well in this country. 2017 set a record for the number of hate crimes,” Plank said, citing an FBI report that hate crimes rose 17 percent from 2016 to 2017.
“When we talk about hate crimes, we talk about there being 15 percent increases in these things–a hate crime is not the sort of thing that we can simply look at and say ‘It is absolutely a hate crime.’ There’s some supposition about that,” Foster said. “There is a great ambiguity about what makes something a hate crime. There are subjective determinations there.”
And here is @kmele's exchange with @feministabulous on CNN's Reliable Sources about hate crime trends and statistics (@mattwelch @anthonylfisher @mcmoynihan) pic.twitter.com/sLP2zHSY6i
— Andrew Wimsatt 🖐 (@ajwimsatt) February 17, 2019
Foster called out the numbers and the supposed increase Plank claimed because hate crimes are not accurately measured, just as Robby Soave at Reason has pointed out about the FBI’s report:
The numbers just aren’t that useful, given that not all police agencies participate or give accurate totals. As I noted in a previous post, Baltimore County—which represents 830,000 people—reported just one hate crime in 2016. This year, Baltimore County reported 10 hate crimes. Did incidents of hate increase tenfold in a single year? Probably not; it’s likelier that the police simply submitted more reliable data this year.
Last week in an interview on “Good Morning America,” Robin Roberts let Smollett share his narrative, now contradicted by police reporting, without any questions about the suspicious or doubtful pieces of his story. When the topic was broached on CNN, Plank did not criticize Roberts, but instead argued that, “We must cover these issues as trends and as patterns and not fall into the trap that because one story is not real, that the problem is not real.”
It’s alarming to hear Plank not just excuse media failures, but to advocate for a media that reports on so-called trends based on suppositions and perception, not evidence-established facts.