The arrest of actor Jussie Smollett on charges that he filed a false police report surprised few people at this point in the bizarre saga that began three weeks ago as a story of a racist-and-homophobic hate crime in which he was the victim.
The likelihood that Smollett staged the incident has been obvious for at least a few days. Now, that law enforcement authorities consider it a hoax, the heated debate about the lessons of this saga continues.
Are the liberal media too credulous toward stories that confirm their assumptions about rampant bigotry in Donald Trump’s America — or are conservatives too eager to dismiss hate crimes as fiction? Does our laudable passion against racism create a culture in which victimhood becomes a mark of status — or is the danger of turning a blind eye to hate-driven violence far greater than the danger of believing a fake victim?
In Smollett’s case, doubts about his story of being accosted by two men who beat him, doused him with bleach, and threw a rope around his neck while shouting racist and anti-gay slurs and pro-Trump slogans emerged almost immediately — especially when security cameras yielded no corroborating evidence. There were other red flags, from Smollett’s reported failure to cooperate with police to the fact that he managed not to lose the sandwich he was carrying during the alleged assault. And there were the inherent oddities in his claim: How likely is it that two bigots were prowling Chicago streets at 2 a.m. on a freezing night with bleach and rope handy?
Nonetheless, the skepticism mostly remained limited to social media — and mostly to conservative voices. Some excellent analysis was provided by John Ziegler, a radio talk show host and columnist for the Mediaite website and an anti-Trump conservative. Mainstream news organizations reported the attack as a fact; many Democratic politicians and celebrities deplored it as a modern-day lynching and evidence of surging Trump-era bigotry. Chicago journalists who reported law enforcement doubts about the story were accused of callous mistreatment of hate-crime victims.
The story’s collapse raises valid questions about how to cover alleged crimes for which there is no corroboration. While mainstream media organizations were not as remiss in this case as they were with the boys from Covington Catholic High School who were wrongly accused of harassing a Native American protester in Washington, D.C., they were slow to report issues with Smollett’s story.
Smollett’s is far from the first hate-crime hoax intended to implicate Trump fans; others have included alleged hijab-snatchings and hateful graffiti. This certainly doesn’t mean that there is no bigotry in hardcore pro-Trump ranks (the all-too-real racist rhetoric directed at Barack and Michelle Obama, some of it from local Republican officials and campaign activists, says otherwise). But the wave of hate-driven violence by Trump-loving thugs sporting red hats instead of white sheets seems to be entirely mythical.
Hate crimes, of course, do happen; but their reality is far more complicated than the progressive narrative. In many cases, the perpetrators are racial minorities — sometimes attacking other minorities, sometimes white people. In many cases, the motives don’t fit the narrative at all. On Jan. 29, the same day that Smollett allegedly staged his fake assault, two Hispanic Marines in Philadelphia were attacked by three far-left activists who mistook them for attendees of a nearby far-right rally and called them “Nazis” and “white supremacists.” When one of the Marines shouted that he was Mexican, his attackers responded with racial insults.
Unlike the alleged attack on Smollett, this story has received little national news coverage. No wonder there are complaints of media bias.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.