CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter on Monday blamed the “celebrity press” and avid Twitter users for uncritically reporting Jussie Smollett’s claim that he was attacked by Trump-supporting bigots before facts emerged that cast doubt on the allegation.
“I think it was mostly in the celebrity press and among activists and among Twitter people. I think it was a really careful reporting by news organizations. But it all gets lumped in together at the end of the day,” Stelter said on CNN’s New Day.
Stelter offered a similar criticism in his “Reliable Sources” newsletter, arguing that the public should take a more nuanced view of which organizations and individuals comprise “the media” when seeking to hold those who spread false reports accountable.
“Are there mistakes and built-in biases? Definitely. But most journalists are trying their best to report what’s true. This competitive, chaotic world of media contradicts Don Jr.’s imagined world,” Stelter wrote, referring to Donald Trump Jr.’s sweeping criticism of the media for accepting Smollett’s account.
Smollett, who is black and gay, told police that he was attacked after picking up a sandwich in Chicago around 2 a.m. on January 29. In his initial description of the attack, Smollett said two men beat him, poured an unknown chemical on him, and wrapped a noose around his neck. He later told police the attackers yelled “this is MAGA country” while fleeing — only after that detail was reported by TMZ the next day.
Chicago police on Friday questioned two Nigerian brothers, one of whom worked on the show Empire with Smollett, in connection with the attack, and announced that the brothers’ cooperation had “shifted the trajectory of the investigation.” They are now investigating whether Smollett himself hired the men to carry out a staged attack, as the two brothers claim. Smollett has maintained that he was attacked and did not perpetrate a hoax in statements released by his attorneys.
While TMZ and other “celebrity” outlets led the way in reporting Smollett’s claims uncritically, mainstream outlets, including CNN, Vanity Fair, the Washington Post, and others accepted Smollett’s version of events and cited it as yet another example of rising homophobia and racism in the Trump era. A number of reporters and editors at outlets including the Post, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Reuters similarly endorsed Smollett’s version of events on their personal Twitter accounts.
After Smollett’s account was widely disseminated by mainstream journalists, earning him the public sympathy of many Democratic 2020 presidential hopefuls, Smollett was interviewed on ABC’s Good Morning America by host Robin Roberts last Thursday. During the interview, Roberts omitted the word “alleged” from any mention of the attack, and did not report that Smollett had, at the time of the interview, refused to turn over his complete phone records to Chicago police.