The Jussie Smollett situation is the latest to render clear that the press and others will use any accusation to further their agenda before the claim has been verified. We have seen this scenario play out again and again, as we careen from event to event. The true tragedy being that such an attitude causes us to retreat to our respective ideological corners and undermines the credibility of the media at a time it can ill-afford to do so. Further, it makes discovering the truth of something a secondary concern.
Late last month, Jussie Smollett catapulted to the fore when it emerged that he had been the victim of a racially-motivated attack perpetrated by two men wearing MAGA hats who brutally beat him. The assailants, he told police, had put a rope around his neck and poured bleach on him as they hurled racial epithets toward him. The details, shocking in nature, were reported by the national media and in turn, quickly condemned by leading figures.
Except there was one problem: The attack never happened.
From day one, Smollett’s story did not add up. There were inconsistencies and aspects of it that strained credulity. As details came to light, it was quickly apparent that caution was required when discussing the accusation, as that is exactly what it was: An accusation. Corroboration and supporting evidence were required.
Nonetheless, the press seized upon the story and cast aside necessary skepticism. It was sensational, as it not only fit the old adage, “if it bleeds, it leads,” but could be readily molded into another story where Donald Trump was the villain and subject him to moral condemnation. Like putting a steak in front of a dog and leaving the room, the temptation proved too irresistible and they gourged themselves with wanton abandon. The details were reported in full, — an appropriate move even in this situation — but without the necessary notation that Smollett’s claims were unverified. Instead, they were presented as fact despite them having yet to be established as such. Now that Chicago police reportedly believe that Smollett staged the attack, the media and many others have egg on their face.
We have seen this story before. An accusation is quickly promoted by a group because it fits their preconceived narrative and gives them license to let fly their righteous indignation. Yet, they do so before asking themselves if the incident in question is true.
Remember Yasmin Seweid? In December 2016, she alleged that three men screaming Trump’s name assaulted her on the New York City subway and tried to remove her hijab. Outrage and breathless denunciations quickly followed, as Trump had somehow given these men license to attack a young Muslim-American woman. Media and others quickly decried this while bemoaning the state in which the nation now seemingly found itself. Of course, two weeks later, Seweid was found to have fabricated the whole story and was charged with obstructing an investigation, as well as filing a false police report.
With Brett Kavanaugh, due to the political stakes of a Supreme Court seat, he was judged an attempted rapist before we even heard from Christine Blasey Ford. Although many, found her accusations against Kavanaugh to be credible and her testimony to be heart wrenching, too many did so not because of the veracity of her charges, but rather because of what they gave leave for them to do: Torpedo a Supreme Court nomination.
This is not to say that we should discount or disregard the claims of all victims — such a mentality is not healthy, nor is it productive. Instead, it is imperative that we corroborate and verify their accusations. Yes, it is still possible to be sympathetic toward a victim while seeking to ascertain the exact facts of what happened and holding rhetorical fire until such information is known. In doing so, one strengthens their own argument when they do use the situation in their own political quest. Why? Because by then the truth of what happened has been discovered and is far more difficult to be called into question.
However, in the case of Jussie Smollett, such caution and waiting to know the facts never occurred. The end result was one where the media and others who wrongfully assigned guilt ended up undercutting their own credibility. Even when there was cause to apply a modicum of pause to Smollett’s allegation, the press and chattering class characteristically persisted with their agenda. And when the entire story came crumbling down when it became evident that it was a fabrication, what was their reaction? Of course, they did not apologize for their reckless actions, but alternatively chose to offer half hearted condemnation of Smollett himself while insisting that just because he lied, their own contentions were still true. Immediately self-absolved from blame, the press deflected and demurred when it came to accepting any responsibility for their own role in this sad saga.
Yes, the media is correct to note the sad reality that racism still exists in the United States and that such hatred should be confronted. Yet, they have done so in a manner that damages their own credibility and perverted their own goals. They reported on and assigned blame for an act that turned out to be an elaborate premeditated hoax perpetrated by the so-called victim himself. Smollett, knowing how the press would react, saw them as easy marks and rubes who would unquestioningly make his story their clarion call that promoted their agenda and, in turn, himself.
This should be a moment where the press and others who took up Jussie Smollett’s banner engage in introspection. After all, they had been made unwitting accessories to the perpetuation of a lie. However, they have already demonstrated their inability to accept responsibility for their own roles in this sad affair. Had they done so, they would certainly would have earned some needed credibility and also come away with the lesson that it is far better practice to confirm the facts before using them to further one’s agenda. And the true victim of such sensationalization? The truth.
This column originally appeared on evansiegfried.com.