The first thing you need to understand about the Smollett story is that this hoax was concocted as a public morality play in keeping with modern notions about what makes someone a hero and what makes them a villain. It seems all but certain now that Smollett concocted the details to make himself the hero. Apparently, he felt the $1.1 million a year he was earning on Empire was not enough. Becoming a victim of a racial, homophobic attack in the street was going to elevate his status in the real world and with that maybe he thought he’d get a raise.
But in order to pull this off, he needed a villain (or a pair of them). The villain he chose for this little drama was instantly recognizable, a pair of white, homophobic racists shouting about “MAGA country.” As we saw yesterday, the Nigerian brothers who carried out the hoax even bought a red hat which seemed aimed at visually conveying the message these faux-goons were Trump supporters. Early reports said the attackers were wearing MAGA hats and then that got clarified. They’d only shouted about MAGA country (in Chicago!).
Since it became clear that Smollett’s story was falling apart, I’ve seen probably a dozen commentators talking about the damage this will do to real victims. For people in the media, that’s the main focus of outrage about this hoax. The Daily Beast has a story up today titled “After Jussie Smollett, Will Real Victims of Anti-LGBT Hate Crimes Be Heard?” WJLA in Washington, DC has an opinion piece titled, “Apparent Jussie Smollett hoax harms real victims and emboldens outrage industry.” There’s a piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer titled, “Jussie Smollett case a reminder that one false accuser can hurt all future victims.” I could go on and on like this but you get the point.
The commentators are right of course. This could at some future point do damage to real victims. But here’s the thing most of them are skipping over as if it doesn’t matter: “Real victims” weren’t the target. Real victims weren’t cast as the villains in this drama. Real victims may at some future time be harmed but if so it will be incidental to what Jussie Smollett attempted to do.
I was struck by something Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said at today’s press conference. He was visibly upset at what Smollett had attempted to do to his city. “How could an individual who has been embraced by the city of Chicago turn around and slap everyone in this city in the face by making these false claims?” Johnson asked. He went on to say, “We do not nor will we ever tolerate hate in our city whether that hate is based on an individual’s sexual orientation, race or anything else. So I’m offended by what’s happened and I’m also angry.
“I love the city of Chicago and the Chicago police department, warts and all but this publicity stunt was a scar that Chicago didn’t earn and certainly didn’t deserve. To make things worse, the accusations in this phony attack received national attention for weeks. Celebrities, news commentators and even presidential candidates weighed in on something that was choreographed by an actor.”
Johnson went on to say that Smollett paid $3500 “to stage this attack and drag Chicago’s reputation through the mud in the process.”
I’m sympathetic to Superintendent Johnson who seems like a real professional. He’s not seizing on the facts to score points. He’s genuinely pissed off at what this could have and would have done to his city if the hoax hadn’t been detected. And according to him, that was a close thing. The Nigerian brothers finally decided to change their story in the 47th hour of detention. One more hour and they might have walked out leaving police at a loss. The bottom line was that Sup. Johnson and his people put in a lot of hard work to prevent a calumny they shouldn’t ever have been forced to spend a minute of their time on. And for that, all of us should be grateful.
But once again, Chicago was not the target here. Like the “real victims” who might be harmed by this down the line, Chicago was an innocent bystander. It would have taken a hit but only because that’s where Smollett happened to live. If he’d been in LA then LA would have taken the hit instead.
What was not incidental was making white, conservative men the villains in this hoax. His plan to use this incident as a springboard to more fame and money was intended to come at the expense of a group of people who’ve already taken an endless number of shots from the left and the media. To paraphrase Sup. Johnson, this particular incident was a scar that the right didn’t earn and certainly didn’t deserve.
And like Sup. Johnson went on to say, that scar was made worse by the fact that the false accusations “received national attention for weeks.” “Celebrities, news commentators and even presidential candidates weighed in” and all of them took for granted the underlying assumption about who the villain was here. The right’s reputation got dragged through the mud for weeks by a selfish anti-Trump actor looking for a raise.
If you don’t understand why the right is upset about that, then you probably don’t see people on the right as real people. And if that’s the case, you’re not worth talking to anyway.
But for those who maybe can see, even a little bit, why this is not okay, I’ll just add that this isn’t a one-time thing. Recently I posted a story with more than two dozen fake hate crimes in the past few years. The walk back of those stories never gets even a fraction of the attention that the initial accusations get, partly because the people (activists and journalists) who blew the story up in the first place are embarrassed. They don’t want to give their mistake a lot of attention so they quietly drop it and the media follows suit. I get that. I’ve made mistakes too and it’s never fun to own up to them publicly. But the result of this dynamic is that the right ends up carrying quite a few of those unearned scars even as the media is intoning seriously about the potential harm to “real victims” which might potentially happen in the future. It’s hard to miss the distinct lack of sympathy for the people who were intended to take the public beatdown.
There are of course real hate crimes and in those cases, the chips need to fall on the guilty, whoever they are. That’s absolutely fair game. But Smollett and the other cases like this are something else. I think the media might pause for half-a-second to think about the damage and who it was being done to if they had a few people who were actually coming from that side of the aisle in their midst. The fact that they don’t seem to grasp the problem or even be aware of it is just another sign that there’s a serious lack of ideological diversity in many newsrooms.
Here’s Sup. Johnson’s statement about dragging Chicago through the mud. At the very end of this press conference, he’s asked what justice would look like. He says it would start with an apology from Smollett followed by some kind of restitution for all the time police spent chasing down this hoax. I think something similar applies here. Smollett owes an apology to the people he casually tried to smear. And the people who leaped on his story because they liked the narrative owe one too. We saw a few such apologies last month after the Covington Catholic story. We ought to see a few more now.
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