This week, the story of the Jussie Smollett hoax gripped the national media. The story, for those who missed it, went something like this: The Empire actor, who is both black and gay, stated that on a freezing January night in Chicago, in the middle of the polar vortex, he went to a local Subway store to buy a sandwich. On his way back, he was accosted by two men wearing red hats who called him the f-word and the n-word. They then tossed a clothesline around his neck, poured bleach on him, and shouted, “This is MAGA country!”
There were some obvious problems with the story. First, Chicago is not exactly MAGA country — Trump won 12.5 percent of the vote in the city precincts. Second, it seems unlikely that people would stake out Smollett in the middle of the night in below-freezing temperatures. Third, Smollett somehow retained hold of his sandwich after the alleged assault. Fourth, he strolled through his apartment complex without notifying the doorman of the incident. Fifth, he waited 40 minutes to call the police. Sixth, when the police arrived, he was still wearing the clothesline around his neck. Seventh, Smollett claimed that his manager had been on the phone with him at the time of the alleged hate crime; when asked to turn over his phone to the Chicago Police Department to verify this, he refused to do so.
Initially, the media ran with the story without taking such questions seriously. The Washington Post’s Eugene Scott stated, “To many, the Smollett incident — and the political nature of the assault — is yet another reminder for many black gay Americans that this president’s vision of a ‘great America’ does not appear to include them.” Jamil Smith of Rolling Stone tweeted, “The brutal attack on him in Chicago appears to be yet another example not just of further moral decay, but of the brand of terrorism that still doesn’t seem to spark enough response by Americans.” CNN’s Brooke Baldwin simply lamented, “This is America in 2019.”
Celebrities weighed in, too. Actress Ellen Page went on Stephen Colbert’s late-night show where she blamed Vice President Mike Pence for the attack. Cher tweeted, “VILLAINY, RACISM, HOMOPHOBIA, PROMOTED BY MOST INFAMOUS [clown emoji] IN [world emoji], IS THE POISON THAT KILLS [American flag emoji].” Singer Katy Perry tweeted, “Standing with and sending love to @JussieSmollett today . . . this is a racist hate crime and is disgusting and shameful to our country.” Director Rob Reiner added, “The horrific attack on Jussie Smollett has no place in a decent human loving society. . . . No intolerance! No DT!”
Then there were the Democratic politicians. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tweeted, “The racist, homophobic attack on [Smollett] is an affront to our humanity.” Senator Cory Booker (D., N.J.), who is running for president, called the Smollett incident a “modern-day lynching.” Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez slammed anyone willing to question Smollett’s account, stating, “The attack was not ‘possibly’ homophobic. It was a racist and homophobic attack.”
Why did so many on the political Left buy into the obviously incredible story from the moment that it broke? Because it perfectly fit narratives that the Left loves: the narrative of America as racist, homophobic hellhole; the narrative of Trump supporters as violent bigots; the narrative of Trump himself as an inspirational figure for such violent bigots. The story was too good to be true. So no one cared whether it was or not.
That phenomenon doesn’t exist only on the Left. Confirmation bias is a universal human concern. But in the past six months, we’ve seen the media run with uncorroborated, unverifiable accounts of sexual assault by Judge Brett Kavanaugh decades ago; false accounts of Trump-supporting high-schoolers harassing an elderly Native American man; and now the Smollett case. This isn’t a coincidence. The real message of the past few months is that the media are dominated by those who align with the political Left. That doesn’t mean that everything the media report is fake news. But it does mean that they themselves are too often fake newspeople. They’re actually motivated actors willing to put aside the strictures of journalistic objectivity in order to run with stories that back a preferred narrative. Then, when called on their bias, they run stories about conservatives “pouncing” — as though the story isn’t media bias itself but conservatives’ anger at media bias.
That’s absurd. But so was Smollett’s story from the outset. Either our media will learn to fact-check themselves, or they’ll continue to lose credibility. And either political partisans will learn to stick to the facts, or they’ll continue to tear the country apart on behalf of the narratives they prefer to truth.