How The Media Covered Jussie Smollett

Mar 27, 2019
Originally published on March 27, 2019 6:32 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In Chicago yesterday, prosecutors dropped all of the charges against "Empire" actor Jussie Smollett. But Joe Magats with the Cook County State's Attorney's Office says this doesn't mean he's innocent.

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JOE MAGATS: And to read in a belief that we have cleared him, that we have vindicated him or that he is innocent is not accurate.

GREENE: Smollett said he was the victim of a racist homophobic attack. Then investigators accused him of making up the whole thing to raise his profile and also raise his salary on the TV show "Empire." Well, now prosecutors in Chicago have dropped those charges against the actor. This has been quite a story. It's one NPR's Sam Sanders has been following. He hosts the news and culture podcast "It's Been A Minute" from here at NPR West.

Hi there, Sam.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: OK. First, prosecutors come out yesterday, say they're dropping the charges. What's their explanation?

SANDERS: So the Cook County State Attorney's Office says part of the reason they're dropping the charges is because Smollett has done some community service, and he's forfeited a $10,000 bond payment to Chicago. But officials are saying this does not mean that they're exonerating Smollett. The Chicago Police superintendent still stands by their accusations that they made against Smollett, that he made the whole thing up. Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, he said prosecutors dropping those charges is, quote, "a whitewash of justice" - interesting word choice. But Smollett has said yet again that he is innocent and that he was a victim of a hate crime and that he has been truthful the entire time.

GREENE: Wow. Quite a development, and we still don't necessarily know exactly...

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly.

GREENE: ...What went on here.

SANDERS: Yeah.

GREENE: But people have followed this case so closely. And I mean, I suppose there are some compelling themes that they saw. Some people jumped on Donald Trump supporters when it was rumored that the attack was made by guys who were wearing those red "Make America Great Again" hats. It turns out that was false.

SANDERS: Yeah.

GREENE: And people were making assumptions about other parts of this case. Based on the facts, was all of this coverage justified?

SANDERS: I can't answer that question, but I can speak to why I think journalists glommed onto this story so quickly and thoroughly. FBI data from the last few years shows that hate crimes are up across the board, including hate crimes against queer people. And researchers at California State University, San Bernardino, they estimate less than 1 percent of those crimes are made up. So because of all this, I think a lot of well-intentioned journalists glommed onto this story to advocate for those victims and to draw attention to this overall uptick in hate crimes. But I would argue that no one case is ever the perfect case to represent an entire community that is so diverse. And as reporters, we have to be very careful about using the stories we cover as activism.

GREENE: So you're saying this is a moment for soul-searching for some journalists?

SANDERS: A lot of us (laughter), yeah, a lot of us. I think that in the coverage of this story, some of the basic tenets of journalism, David, were just abandoned. A lot of newsrooms failed to use words like alleged when talking about this story. And, you know, journo (ph) 101 says until you know for a fact the crime has happened or there's a conviction, you have to say alleged perpetrator and alleged victim. Also, a lot of newsrooms took what Jussie's lawyers were saying or what Chicago PD was saying at total face value, and they just weren't skeptical enough all around, in part because there was this rush to take a side, stay there, because it feels like news consumers want that.

GREENE: What is a larger lesson here for this profession, do you think?

SANDERS: Yeah, journalists have to be more comfortable saying, hey, some stories, we won't have all the answers. We have to say, we're not psychics, and we're never a judge and jury. We just don't know sometimes.

GREENE: And it's worth just saying that and being honest about it.

SANDERS: Yeah.

GREENE: Sam Sanders is host of NPR's "It's Been A Minute" podcast. Thanks for joining me, Sam.

SANDERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.