To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Friday, March 8, 2019

Too 'Woke' To Work: Why 'Black & Gay' Journalists Choked on the Jussie Smollett Hoax

As jarring as it was to hear that the Jussie Smollett racial attack in Chicago was a hoax, it was also upsetting to learn that some in the media were not journalistically brave enough to ask the hard questions that might have challenged Smollett’s account.   

On CNN’s Reliable Sources, podcaster Kmele Foster explained that some journalists he had spoken off-camera and presumably off-record had questions about Smollett’s story. But they “were afraid to raise the questions because of the intersectional nature of this particular accusation.” Said Foster: 

When there are stories that involve very sensitive issues of race and sexuality and there are accusations and allegations that are being made, when you raise questions about those allegations, it is often the case that people will raise questions about your motivations. 

Foster wasn’t asked to name any names. But in the time since the hoax was revealed, it has become clear that some very prominent people in the media, who like Smollett were both black and gay, had the access to press Smollett for answers on hard questions but were essentially “too woke to work.” They failed to get to the truth because they were reluctant to take a hard look at narrative that had a lot of holes in it from the get-go and which, in the end, turned out to be a blatant, flagrant hoax, almost on par with the Tawana Brawley scam of the late 1980’s. A couple had even made cameo appearances on Smollett’s TV show, Empire, and networked in the same celebrity-media-activist circles.

Minority columnists and high-profile broadcast figures also took the lead in in minimizing the significance of the fraud once it was unmasked. They expressed contempt for Trump supporters who seemed to them too gleeful about the fraud’s unmasking. They also refused to acknowledge the smear that was inherent in Smollett insisting that the alleged attackers had been MAGA fanatics, which had led many in the media to view the incident as just another example of “racism in Trump’s America.” And like the media as a whole, these figures were very quick to shift focus from this one fraudulent hate crime to the larger problem of hate crime in general, which they insisted was rising when in fact a significant percentage of alleged hate-related crimes cited in reports have turned out to be fabrications or greatly exaggerated. Smollett may have misused the anti-Trump “Bigotry Narrative,” these hate-haunted media figures explained. But that narrative was still a controlling one, important to support as America continues to debate how much "white supremacy" defines who were are as a nation and how much this victimizes "intersectional" minorities.    

Posing a rhetorical question, Tucker Carlson asked his FOX News audience:

How could reporters who are literally paid to be skeptical have fallen for such an obvious lie? It's not an easy question to answer. It's far easier just to pretend the whole thing never happened and that's what some are doing.

Actually Carlson’s question is not at all that hard to answer. Reporters did not fall for an obvious lie. They just let the lie sit there, uneasy to challenge Smollett’s wobbly story because they let concerns for the black and gay communities (conjoined and overlapping) get the better of their neutral professional detachment. Some of them even admitted to that out loud.  


ABC NEWS' Robin Roberts was one of the more prominent media figures whose work came under scrutiny on this front. Roberts interviewed Smollett on Good Morning America the night before the news broke that Chicago police were now thinking that there was in fact no hate crime and that Jussie Smollett had staged it all. The GMA interview was Smollett’s first detailed public account of the attack. Roberts would later disclose that Smollett had reached out to Roberts; she’d once had a cameo on an episode of Smollett’s TV show, “Empire.”

In hindsight the interview is as cringe worthy, as some of the interviews that OJ Simpson did, hard not to see in terms other than pathological. Smollett told Robin Roberts that he was “pissed off” following the racist and homophobic attack, and it had left behind lasting damage. He would “never be the man that this did not happen to. I am forever changed.” Wiping tears from his face, he complained to Roberts that he was angry about the assault and about people not believing his story. It wasn’t just that people didn’t believe the truth of his story, it was that they “did not even want to see the truth.” 

Smollett told Roberts that he believes some have doubted his story because he said his attackers referenced Make America Great Again, which the Washington Post, in its account of the interview, explained was Trump’s “enduring campaign slogan.” When asked why he may have been targeted, Smollett explained “I come really, really hard against his administration, and I don’t hold my tongue.” 

He also maintained that if the attackers had been non-white, the public would have had more credence. “It feels like if I had said it was a Muslim or a Mexican or someone black, I feel like the doubters would have supported me ... a lot more, and that says a lot about the place that we are in our country right now.” 

Smollett addressed reports that he initially hesitated to go to the police about his alleged assault.  “We live in a society where, as a gay man, you are considered somehow to be weak. And I’m not weak,” he said. “We, as a people, are not weak." 

In fact, Smollett told Roberts that he had fought back, throwing a punch at the assailant who’s been the one who had said “This is MAGA country.” He wanted police to find any video that would show this.

“I want them to see that I fought back,” Smollett continued, his voice breaking. “And I want a little gay boy who might watch this to see that I fought the f--- back." 

“I didn’t run off. They did,” Smollett declared, as Roberts nodded.  

In the most skeptical question she posed, Roberts asked Smollett how he “would be able to heal,” if his attackers were never found. As his eyes filled with tears, Smollett replied:

I don’t know. Let’s just hope that they are. Let’s not go there yet. I understand how difficult it will be to find them, but we got to. I still want to believe with everything that has happened that there’s something called justice. 

“Beautiful,” Roberts answered, “Thank you Jussie."

Asked to comment on the Roberts interview as part of the Reliable Sources panel, Bill Carter, former media reporter at the Times told Stelter that he thought Roberts had been too easy on Smollett and had ignored obvious red flags. Instead of getting to the facts of the attack and the police follow up, the GMA interview was more about Smollett and the effects of the attack on him. Smollett is an actor Carter maintained; Roberts had conducted a celebrity interview not a news interview.   
ABC staffers who spoke to BuzzFeed News  defended Roberts’ handling of the interview and stressed that at the time she met with Smollett police were still publicly calling him a victim and not a suspect. “There’s not really a spirit of regret about the Jussie interview,” insisted one GMA source. “And no one feels that Robin got duped. Taken advantage of, yes, but not duped.” Another acknowledged the interviews bad “optics” but that was about it. Although she did say that the Smollett hoax was a “setback for race relations,” she had little else publicly to say. 

Three weeks later though she told a New York magazine panelthat although she was trying to be as “neutral” as possible in the interview, she nevertheless felt “inherent pressure” to represent the LGBT community.

“I’m a black gay woman, he’s a black gay man,” she explained. 

He’s saying that there’s a hate crime, so if I’m too hard, then my LGBT community is going to say, ‘You don’t believe a brother,’ if I’m too light on him, it’s like, ‘Oh, because you are in the community, you’re giving him a pass….It was a no-win situation for me.

Because Smolllett was still being considered a victim at the time of their interview, she carefully selected her questions. “There’s so many people who do not come forward because others are not believed,” Roberts maintained. 

CNN’s Don Lemon was another gay and black media figure who didn’t seem to be in a rush to ask tough questions even though he had a direct pipeline to Smollett beginning the very night Smollett was “attacked.” CNN reported that Lemon spoke to Smollett on the phone belonging to a mutual friend at Northwestern Memorial Hospital where Smollett was being treated. Lemon said that Smollett told him what happened and said that Smollett said he was shaken and angry that an attack like that could happen, but was resilient. He told Lemon that “during times of trauma, grief and pain there is still a responsibility to lead with love.” It was all he knew, Lemon said Smollett declared. . “And that can’t get kicked out of me.” 

Nearly two weeks after the Smollett attack, Lemon went on a black-themed internet show called “Red Table Talk,”which is hosted by actress-activist Jada Pinkett Smith, as well as Willow Smith and Adrienne Banfield-Norris. On that segment, Lemon divulged the back channel he had established with Smollett. He had texted the actor quite a few times, Lemon revealed, making sure to emphasize that like Smollett, Lemon was both black and gay. Sometimes Smollett responded. Sometimes he did not. 

Describing their communication, Lemon told the women:  
Every day I say, 'I know you think I'm annoying' – I can show you a text – 'I know you think I'm annoying you, but I just want to know that you're OK, and if you need somebody you can talk to me, 'cause there's not a lot of us out there. Sometimes he responds; sometimes he doesn't.

Lemon added that his focus wasn't to be skeptical about Smollett's account. His outreach was more in the vein of offering moral support. 

I knew everyone would be picking apart his story. But that was not my concern.

After news broke that Smollett was being arrested, Lemon took to CNN air for a rambling, disjointed ten minute monologuethat was both a disingenuous attempt to excuse himself and at the same time castigate Smollett for squandering “the goodwill of a whole lot of people.” This, Lemon said, was “not cool.” 

As Lemon described it, he and Smollett were not close friends, but they were acquaintances, first meeting the actor when he was asked to do a cameo for Empire just as Robin Roberts had done. 

He introduced himself and he said, ‘You know, I'm a big fan. You know, I love your work. It's good to have you here on the set.’  Very nice guy. We chatted for a couple times after that. I saw him maybe when he came to New York a couple times. I know him, not best friends, but I do know him.” 

Unlike the Red Table interview where Lemon said absolutely nothing about the reservations he may have had about Smollett’s account of the attack, Lemon now said he had had questions and doubts about Jussie’s story from the beginning, “as many “people in the community, black and gay people did.” Lemon explained that he had worked in Chicago for several years and knew the neighborhood Smollett was attacked in very well. It was such a cold night for attackers to be roaming around; Smollett did not hand over his phone; probably not a whole lot of MAGA fans watching Empire. “The details just didn’t seem to add up,” Lemon maintained.

Like I said, there were questions about Jussie's story from the very beginning, questions he still needs to answer. Innocent until proven guilty, but a whole lot of people want to hear from him. What happened, Jussie?  

Beneath the professional veneer, Lemon was actually confessing to a significant lapse in professionalism, putting the personal over the journalistic. Of course news professionals are human beings and are certainly not barred from providing comfort to a friend. But isn’t their first obligation to ask uncomfortable questions to those who are in the public eye, especially when there’s more than enough reason to suspect BS? It also seemed narcissistic on Lemon’s part to slam Jussie Smollett for squandering the good will of so many of his supporters, as well as Lemon’s own, when in fact he had done nothing to check that, allowing his “intersectional” affinities to blur his professional focus. Lemon was essentially expressing resentment at Smollett’s duplicity even as he admitted to being, in essence, a willing victim of it by failing to do his job at America’s most important cable news network. 

Lemon was also prominent among many journalists, white and non-white, straight and gay, who insisted that the unravelling of the Smollett hoax should not detract from the urgency of recognizing that hate crimes in America were on the upswing and that whites were in the vast majority of those committing them against minorities. This was the line being plied by the SPLC and the ADL, whose claims the mainstream media rarely challenge. Discussing a significant increase in hate crimes and “intolerance” with CNN colleagues Van Jones and Chris Cuomo, Lemon said: “This is an America where hate groups, hate crimes are on the rise.” In fact, Lemon was less concerned about the damage done by the Smollett hoax than he was about how it would be used by conservatives to advance Trump’s ideological agenda. “This is playing out every single moment in cable news,” Lemon said. “Sean Hannity is going to eat Jussie Smollett’s lunch every single second. Tucker Carlson is going to eat Jussie Smollett’s lunch every single second,” the host warned, adding, “The president of the United States is going to eat his lunch.”  

The New York Times’ Charles Blow was another high-profile black journalist, incidentally bi-sexual, who had access to Smollett but chose to tread too lightly. Like Lemon, Blow had a somewhat strange, racially defensive reaction after the news came out. Blow is on book leave from his regular column at the Times in order to write a book about race relations in the time of Trump. But as news came in that the Chicago Police Department was going to arrest Smollett, Blow posted a short, panicky video to twitter.   
The post was both emotionally raw, histrionic and twee. Several times, Blow said that he was “hoping hoping hoping hoping hoping hoping hoping hoping hoping hoping that this is not true” but that if it were true “it’s just devastating on so many levels.”

Blow told his viewers that “The story has been a strange one” and because of that he “steered clear” of posting on it or commenting. “My spider senses was off and something wasn’t adding up,” he confessed. Blow said he had sent a note to Lee Daniels, the producer of Empire; evidently they are friends/acquaintances. Blow said he needed to know if the story was off or not. “But I didn’t hear anything back so I just said let me just leave this alone.”  

Blow explained that the revelation of fraud was wrenching, less because it was represented an assault on the truth than because it threatened the cult of victimization. 

Because in this moment in our history, whether it comes to sexual assault of a man or a woman, or whomever,  we want to believe. We don’t want to puncture, slow the momentum of people being willing to come forward and tell their legitimate stories about legitimate assault. And if this turns out to be something that tries to takes advantage of that, that hurts that in so many ways…. It’s just about victimhood, and how we will deal with that, whether we will give people the benefit of the doubt or will this, if it is true, and I keep saying I like I say I hope, hope, hope it is not, or will it just sow more doubts. Oh God! 

In the following days Blow dropped the handwringing and went back to the racial defensiveness that marks his Times columns. Those who felt manipulated by Smollett shouldn’t “beat yourself for feeling empathy for someone who said they were a victim. That’s a natural, normal human response.” He also scornfully refuted claims, such as Robin Roberts’, that Smollett had set relations back. “Race relations were already in shambles,” Blow declared. “We have racists in the White House and millions who support them.”

NPR's Michel Martin refused to concede the racial moral high ground. The NPR Weekend All Things Considered host said she had two names “for those tempted to gloat, despair, or be ashamed because of Jussie Smollett, the actor now accused of orchestrating a fake bias crime against himself.” One name was Charles Stuart, a Boston man who in 1989 tried to trick authorities into believing that a black man had forced his way into Stuart’s car and murdered his wife. The other was Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who in 1994 had claimed a young black man had abducted her children, only for it later to be discovered that she herself had rolled the car into a nearby lake with her two sons, still strapped into their car seats, drowning them. Smollett’s story was just a flipping of the racial script, Martin explained. was just the inverse of these two cases, “Instead of the scary black men terrorizing white suburbanites like the Stuarts, or Smith, he invokes scary MAGA hat wearers spewing hatred because he is black and openly gay.” 

The fact that one of the cases Martin cited was from 30 years ago and the other was from 25 didn’t seem to phase her. Racial injustice doesn’t seem to have an expiration date, especially if you’re set on asserting progressive moral equivalence.  

Martin noted that “some in the conservative media and Twitterverse can barely contain their glee at this turn of events. But they should try.” She noted that one the very same day Smollett was arrested and charged with filing a false police report, “federal prosecutors revealed that a white Coast Guard officer was stockpiling an arsenal of weapons and had created a list of journalists and Democratic politicians he presumably hoped to target.” 

Martin concluded that we have to be prepared to face facts, whether they are about “how far some will go for attention or about white supremacist leanings among those sworn to protect and defend us.” The moral of the story

is what it always is and always will be: The truth can hurt but the truth WILL come out eventually and it will always set you free. But for that to happen there have to be truth tellers and truth seekers.


It’s tempting to think that the Jussie Smollett hoax is one of those inflection points where racial solicitude, racial dishonesty and racial opportunism “jump the shark,” encouraging many in the media to be more careful about facts and less presumptuous about the deplorable racism of the MAGA set. I mean, the dereliction of basic journalistic duty here was so egregious and the excuses and rationalizations were so squalid, you’d think that professional embarrassment alone would do that. But the defensive reaction, the lack of shame or contrition on the part of those who had access to Smollett and still did not ask him to address the red flags in the narrative leads me to think otherwise. No matter how dire the need for rectification, this will not be the moment for that.

Having written about the media’s diversity crusade for more than 25 years now, I can say quite unequivocally that there is just no learning curve on these kinds of things. In the media, diversity, and the victimization narratives that go along with it, has become theology, a matter of religious conviction, the burning bush of revelation, the light of truth, no matter how cold and dark the wintry Chicago streets where Jussie Smollett set his fiction. There is only “Invincible Ignorance,” as the theologians would put it---a vast and righteous obduracy.  

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