Why the Jussie Smollett case warranted skepticism from the very start

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With police sources saying that Jussie Smollett may have orchestrated his own attack, Brian Stelter talks with Kmele Foster and Liz Plank about whether news outlets were skeptical enough about the case from day one.

Posted: Feb 18, 2019 10:50 AM


A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

The Jussie Smollett case reminds me of a scene in the Broadway production of "Network."

"Here is the truth," Bryan Cranston's character Howard Beale says in a monologue. "The real truth, the thing we must be most afraid of is the destructive power of absolute beliefs -- that we can know anything conclusively, absolutely -- whether we are compelled to it by anger, fear, righteousness, injustice, indignation."

"As soon as you have ossified that belief," he adds, "as soon as you start believing in the absolute, you stop believing in human beings, as mad and tragic as they are... in all their complexity, their otherness, their intractable reality... The only commitment any of us can have is to other people."

Some people absolutely believed Smollett when he said he was assaulted by two men in Chicago last month.

Now -- with police sources telling CNN and other outlets that new evidence suggests Smollett orchestrated the attack -- they are revisiting and revising assumptions about the case.

But the allegations merited skepticism from the very start.

Commentator Kmele Foster put it this way on "Reliable Sources" on Sunday: "Two in the morning, almost the coldest night of the year, you were attacked and someone conveniently had a rope? My heart goes out to anyone who gets attacked, but it's totally appropriate to exercise a bit of skepticism and to exercise a bit of patience in waiting for the facts to develop around this story."

Here are the latest developments in the case...

Smollett's camp still says he is a victim

On Saturday night Smollett's attorneys responded to the new reporting by reiterating that he was a "victim of a hate crime." They said he did not play a role in the attack.

Smollett himself has not commented publicly since his interview with ABC last week.

The Chicago PD wants to speak with him again

Chicago police detectives have been wanting to follow up with Smollett since Friday night. "We need to speak to him now," a police spokesman told me on Saturday, to corroborate info from the two men who were persons of interest — both of whom are now cooperating in the case.

Per spokesman Anthony Guglielmi's most recent tweet on Sunday evening, they're still waiting to speak with Smollett. The ball is in Smollett's legal team's court.

What Fox is saying

Nothing.

In the immediate aftermath of the alleged attack, Fox — which makes and airs "Empire" — took Smollett's word for it and said the company "stands united" against any act of violence and hate.

A few days ago, amid rumors that Smollett might have concocted the attack because he was concerned about being written off "Empire," Fox said that was ridiculous: "He remains a core player on this very successful series and we continue to stand behind him." Over the weekend, Fox representatives said the company had no new comment.

Why this story is so complicated

When Smollett reported the alleged crime to the police, many people figured Smollett was telling the truth. The allegation immediately had political significance because TMZ reported that Smollett said the attackers called Chicago "MAGA country."

Was there a rush to judgment in some quarters? Yes. Did some liberal celebrities and Democratic politicians issue statements that weren't supported by the facts? Yes. Did some Trump supporters feel insulted by the news coverage of the case? Yes.

But at the same time: Was it newsworthy when the police opened an investigation into Smollett's accusation? Yes. Did high-quality news organizations approach the case with caution? Yes. Did local and national news organizations poke holes in his "hate crime" account? Yes.

Kmele Foster and Liz Plank discussed the rush to judgment issue on Sunday's "Reliable Sources." Foster urged skepticism on the part of the press -- he said some people had doubts about Smollett's story early on, but "were afraid to raise the questions because of the intersectional nature of this particular accusation," afraid their motives would be challenged.

Plank was more concerned about the downstream effects of a potential hate-crime hoax. "The fact that one robbery was faked does not mean robbery is not a problem," she said. "The fact that there is one false rape accusation does not mean that there's no rape. We have to cover these issues as trends and as patterns." Bill Carter also joined in... Watch part one and part two of the segment here...

How the narrative is changing

The national outrage about Smollett's apparent suffering "was fueled in part by celebrities who spoke out loud and strong on social media," the AP's Lindsey Bahr pointed out in this story.

But the outrage "has now been replaced by surprise, doubt and bafflement," she wrote. And the authorities still aren't commenting, so this case is still a mystery.

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