On Jan. 29 just after midnight during a winter vortex on the streets of Chicago, two masked men wearing MAGA hats allegedly attacked actor Jussie Smollett, identifying him with a racist term and by the television show he appeared on (Empire). According to Smollett, the assailants punched him, smashed his ribs, poured bleach on him and put a noose around his neck.
“These types of cowardly attacks are happening to my sisters, brothers and non-gender conforming siblings daily,” Smollett said to the magazine Essence days after the alleged attack. “I am not and should not be looked upon as an isolated incident.”
Information was vague, and it didn’t really make much sense. Why would Trump supporters be on the streets of Chicago during one of the coldest nights of the year looking for a C-list celebrity?
Instead of questioning his story and seeing the obvious flaws, the media ran with it. Smollett was heralded a victim of a "modern-day lynching” by U.S. Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. He appeared on Good Morning America, and countless news stations covered the story without casting any doubt on whether what he was saying was true.
Doubts over the assault remained with Chicago police, who reported Smollett was being uncooperative and that no video footage, out of the 50,000 city and private surveillance cameras throughout Chicago, showed the assault.
Police tracked down two “persons of interest” from the footage captured on 35 public and 20 private cameras.
Those “persons of interest” were identified as brothers Abimbola “Abel” and Olabinjo “Ola” Osundairo. The brothers were taken into custody for questioning but were released.
Days after investigating the two brothers, charges were filed. However, they were not against the two alleged assailants, but toward the Empire actor himself.
Announcing the charges in late February, Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said Smollett paid the brothers to attack him, hoping to “take advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career."
Smollett, who is a gay African American, was no longer a media darling but a laughingstock. He became the brunt of jokes for late-night talk shows and political pundits. He lost his job on Empire, and his face was plastered all over TV and social media. The story took a complete 180.
Now, I’m glad that this attack didn’t take place, and I’m glad I live in a world where an incident like this didn’t happen. But, as a journalist, my integrity hangs on being factually correct. I can’t help but look at my fellow journalists and ask, “What were you thinking?” During a time when journalists are looked at as being untrustworthy and as spewing “fake news,” these types of stories hurt not only future hate crime victims but the media as a whole.
Many news organizations, in my opinion, did act with restraint after the story broke in labeling the allegations made by Smollett as true. When questions and evidence emerged regarding whether Smollett was telling the truth, the media reported on that as well. Publications such as The New York Times and USA Today did remain intent on reporting the facts.
But some journalists and pundits didn’t report in an ethical matter. Journalists at The Washington Post and Buzz Feed, for example, used the alleged attack to further political hatred toward President Donald Trump.
"Regarding the heinous attack on Jussie Smollett, yet another reminder that Trump’s ascendance and the resulting climate of hate has meant that lives have been increasingly at stake since 2015," Washington Post Global Opinion Editor Karen Attiah tweeted.
Such tweets before facts have been presented only hurt the credibility of the media, even if it only a handful did them. Such incidents add fuel to the fire for why people distrust the media. It is important to refrain from drawing conclusions on issues that haven’t been proven even if we want them to be.
Some in the media (Washington Post and CNN) faced a similar dilemma when they labeled the Covington Catholic High School students as participating in a racist act against a Native American protester. By the time the full video was released showing what really happened, the damage had already been done.
Smollett’s story doesn’t end with his being charged with 16 felony disorderly conduct charges. Instead, it ends with them being dropped.
"After reviewing all of the facts and circumstances of the case, including Mr. Smollett's volunteer service in the community and agreement to forfeit his bond to the City of Chicago, we believe this outcome is a just disposition and appropriate resolution to this case," the state's attorney's office said in a statement.
Outside the courthouse after charges were dropped, Smollett stated, “I’ve been truthful and consistent on every single level since day one."
Smollett can walk free of these charges because he’s rich enough to forfeit the $10,000 bail he paid and because he completed 16 hours of community service for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. The state's attorney had to come out and say that even though the charges were dropped, Smollett had not been exonerated. Because the case has been sealed, we will never really know how much evidence the police had on Smollett.
Although the case has been dropped, it will not be forgotten. The City of Chicago will sue Smollett to reclaim more than $130,000 to cover the overtime costs of investigating the alleged attack.
So, after the media circus he caused, and all the political, racial and sexual orientation divides that were brought about because of his false accusation, Smollett walks a free man.
One thing is for sure: We journalists need to sharpen up or we will never be trusted.