‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” This sound advice, handed down by generations of crusty newspaper editors with unkempt hair and mustard stains on their ties, used to serve reporters well. At the City News Bureau of Chicago, which for decades steered coverage for area reporters, the legend appeared on a huge sign posted on the wall.
The place closed in 1999. Too bad. A whole generation of reporters has grown up since then, and many of them seem not to understand the difference between journalism and activism. I say this on a kind of anti-holiday for the news media. It’s January 29: one year ago Jussie Smollett went to the police with a dumb story about MAGA ruffians patrolling the pre-dawn streets of Chicago wielding nooses in case there were any gay black television actors on the streets after midnight on a frigid night. The New York Times, CNN, ABC News, the Washington Post, CBS News and NBC News all ran false assertions. These statements are in most cases still uncorrected on the respective websites.
CNN: “‘Empire’ star Jussie Smollett attacked in possible hate crime.” False. The underlying story asserts flatly, “‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett was attacked in the early morning hours on Tuesday.” Not true. In type so tiny it could easily be missed, CNN appended, “Editor’s note: Read an update here,” which links to a story three months later describing how Smollett’s version of events fell apart.
Good Morning America: “’Empire’ star Jussie Smollett brutally attacked, hospitalized in possible hate crime.” Hospitalized? Getting treated at a hospital you took yourself to is not the same thing as being admitted to one. False and false. The story remains uncorrected.
The New York Times: “Jussie Smollett, Star of ‘Empire,’ Attacked in What Police Call a Possible Hate Crime.” Wrong. The story remains uncorrected. The underlying article by Sopan Deb says, “Jussie Smollett, one of the stars of the Fox television show ‘Empire,’ was attacked in Chicago early Tuesday morning by two people who yelled racial and homophobic slurs and wrapped a rope around his neck, according to the police . . .” But the police could not have known this. They were not present. They were simply relating what Smollett said. Reporters should understand such distinctions.
Police also noted on that first day that Smollett had not initially told them his attackers shouted, “This is MAGA country,” a detail that his camp instead gave to TMZ. When police heard about that, they contacted Smollett again, at which point he passed along that detail. Why would he have left out the seemingly crucial possible motive for this otherwise unexplained assault? “Sources directly connected to Jussie” also told TMZ his assailants “poured bleach on him,” but Smollett told police the liquid poured on him was an unknown chemical substance. The same sources told TMZ his attackers were white men, but Smollett told police he could not identify the race of his supposed attackers. Aren’t reporters supposed to be skeptical when the subject of a story tells a more sensational story to the press than he does to police? This story had more red flags than Bernie Sanders’s honeymoon.
Amusingly, the paper’s own readers had better bushwa detectors than their staff: The first comments beneath the Times’ initial story are full of skepticism. Did the attackers pause in mid-assault to make a noose in frigid weather? Or were they carrying a noose around with them? Why would they do either of those things? Why would they describe Chicago as “MAGA country”? Why didn’t Smollett call 911 right away? Why did he still have the rope around his neck later when he talked to police? All valid questions that occurred to Times readers but not Times editors.
Even more amusingly, the police tried, without being insensitive, to alert reporters to be skeptical right away. Deb and his editors completely missed it: “The police said in a statement that the area where Smollett said the attack occurred had ‘very high density of city and private surveillance cameras.’ Detectives had viewed hundreds of hours of video but ‘unfortunately, thus far we have not found any helpful information on a suspect or a suspect’s vehicle to be able to share.’” Experienced, cynical reporters (the Venn diagram here is a circle, or rather it used to be) read this and say, “Oh, come on.” What the police were delicately indicating is that Smollett had taken them to the spot where the assault supposedly took place and the cops noted that a security camera was right there — pointed the other way. How convenient! The cops must have told each other. Cops, like reporters, learn to be very aware of the human capacity for lying.
Here’s a headline that isn’t false, from the Chicago Tribune: “Chicago Police Investigating Report of Assault on ‘Empire’ Actor Jussie Smollett.” Not so hard, is it? Smollett made a claim. That claim was newsworthy. Relevant facts had yet to emerge. There was no need to state as fact things that had yet to be established. Yet the pile-on of false reports generated national hysteria and anguish. Nobody felt the need to await the whole story because virtually all major news outlets had baldly stated that Smollett had been attacked. Cory Booker tweeted, “The vicious attack on actor Jussie Smollett was an attempted modern-day lynching.” Wrong. Kamala Harris also called it a “modern-day lynching.” President Trump said, “That I can tell you is horrible. It doesn’t get worse.”
The Smollett story showed that a certain kind of reporter thinks he’s in the profession of advancing the progressive cause, which in turn is heavily dependent on stories of American villainy by suspect groups such as fraternity brothers (the U.VA. rape hoax), lacrosse players (the Duke rape hoax), and military youth (the Army-Navy circle-game panic). Instead of having a nose for bushwa, such reporters exhibit blindness for red flags. They urgently want to believe there’s a terrible story where there is only a ridiculous lie. Journalism comes to resemble a deranged performance of Peter Pan in which the professionals in the spotlight urge the audience to clap along with the make-believe. But instead of fairies, they beg the crowd to think that America is an irredeemable land of bigotry, a sexist, homophobic haven of rapists and racists who rampage with impunity through our most enduring institutions and our toniest neighborhoods. A never-ending credulousness with regard to hate crimes leads journalists to join in an assault upon the truth fueled by a loathing of their own culture; even the most prestigious journalistic institutions work to perpetuate hate slime.