The much-publicized Jussie Smollett hate crime incident has turned out, almost certainly, to be a hoax. The Empire actor was arrested last Friday after police said that they had determined Smollett had paid two men to help him stage the crime, in order to gain sympathy and gain a larger per-episode salary from the TV show.
The arrest, which followed a weeks-long media frenzy, presented some pretty obvious lessons: Namely, that you shouldn’t fake a hate crime. And if you’re going to, you shouldn’t involve the police, or do it on the coldest night of the year, or lie about it repeatedly in national media interviews, or pay your co-conspirators with a check.
And yes, it would stand to reason that most of us should have more skepticism about initial media reports, especially when they’re directly in line with our ideological priors. And that certainly goes for presidential candidates as well.
In the Media
Like most things in American life, this has become a media story. And a narrative has been pushed, especially from the right, about the Smollett case: Conservatives were right all along, and liberals were wrong. That media hung on to the narrative of the assault story being true for a long time after it was clearly not true. Furthermore, Smollett’s “real” hate crime was against the MAGA hat wearers of the world, for implying that they’re all a bunch of violent, gay-bashing hate mongers.
That narrative, like most of its kind, isn’t nearly that simple. “The media” is a lot of different outlets, but most of them followed the case where it led, often using the statements by the Chicago police, as well as things Smollett said in interviews, as their main source.
“The media” is a lot of different outlets, but most of them followed the case where it led, often using the statements by the Chicago police…
Smollett was asked if the story was true in two different national TV interviews, and the case throughout consisted of dozens and dozens of leaks from police sources, most of which were skeptical of the actor’s account.
The local media in Chicago, especially the TV stations, was all over the story all along, spurred by a virtually nonstop series of leaks from the Chicago Police. It’s also worth noting that when the story began to turn, the national media didn’t bury it – they covered it more aggressively, and at greater volume.
It’s Not Polite To Brag
Yes, the gloating from the political right is unseemly. The memes aren’t especially funny. And let’s not forget – it was pretty much conventional wisdom among Jussie skeptics, early on, that he had faked the assault to cover up a “gay hookup gone wrong.” That didn’t turn out to be the case, either. And remember the story, denied instantly, that Smollett staged the crime because he was going to be written off of the TV show?
If someone says dismissively that “this wouldn’t ever happen in Chicago,” it shows they know nothing about the history of that city.
And that’s to say nothing about the strange conspiracy theory that senator and presidential candidate Kamala Harris is Smollett’s aunt (she isn’t) and played some role in the hoax (she didn’t).
Besides, you can forgive people for believing in the story in the first place, simply because hate crimes really are on the rise in the Trump era, and minorities being bashed while the assailants shout MAGA slogans is not something that’s unheard of in America today.
While it’s certainly true that, as one police source said, not a lot of Trump fans are familiar enough with Empire to recognize one of its actors, I also have no sympathy for the argument that nothing like that could possibly happen in a “liberal city” like Chicago.
It’s not like there aren’t white MAGA supporters in various neighborhoods of that city, or Boston or New York or Philadelphia. There are enough of them, at least, to justify two different conservative talk radio stations in Chicago. If someone says dismissively that “this wouldn’t ever happen in Chicago,” it shows they know nothing about the history of that city.
Did murders in Chicago go unsolved because police resources were diverted to the Smollett case? I haven’t seen that demonstrated – did they literally pull homicide detectives off of active murder cases?
Then there was the small conservative freakout that Saturday Night Live, last week, didn’t do a Jussie Smollett sketch or any jokes. It’s a repeat of the dumb controversy from 2017, when SNL avoided Harvey Weinstein jokes on the first show after that scandal broke. News was still breaking about Smollett as the show was airing, but nevermind – this is another demonstration of that frequent argument the right makes about SNL all the time: I hate the show, it’s never funny, and why won’t they cater specifically to ME?
It’s a repeat of the dumb controversy from 2017, when SNL avoided Harvey Weinstein jokes on the first show after that scandal broke.
That said, I don’t have any sympathy for the “Trump’s lies are worse” defense, even if it’s true. That’s nothing but whataboutism, and the kind of the thing that could be said by literally anyone accused of any crime at all. I am, though, sort of intrigued by how the new GOP talking point that lying to law enforcement is merely a “process crime” might apply to Smollett’s case.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.