In March, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) announced that it had put CNN on a “special media monitoring list” over concerns about a lack of diversity and the network’s president’s refusal to even discuss the lack of black executives at the liberal news organization.
CNN doesn’t have a single black executive producer, or vice president on its news side, the NABJ charged. The black journalist organization also alleged that CNN’s president Jeff Zucker refused a scheduled meeting to discuss the problem with a four-member NABJ delegation.
As a result, the NABJ threatened that it would assign a special team of its members to “perform further research and an analysis of CNN’s diversity, inclusion and equity practices,” particularly as they pertain to CNN’s news decision-making capacities. The group also called for a “civil rights audit” which would examine the company’s hiring, promotion and compensation practices involving black employees. Such audits are usually performed by Justice Department officials on local and state government entities in anticipation of federal consent decrees. The NABJ was claiming CNN might have more in common than it would like to admit with racially troubled police departments and underperforming school districts being monitored by the federal government.
CNN declared that it would be more than happy to sit with NABJ, but the meeting could not include the organization’s vice president, Roland Martin. During the 2016 Democratic primaries, Martin was accused of slipping questions verbatim to Hillary Clinton’s campaign before a town hall debate with Bernie Sanders. He did it in coordination with then DNC chairwoman and CNN contributor Donna Brazile, who was fired from the network for the violation. According to CNN, “Mr. Martin displayed an unprecedented and egregious lack of journalistic ethics and integrity by leaking questions prior to the town hall,” which had inflicted “significant and reckless damage” to the network.”
The NABJ-CNN contretemps highlighted lingering raw feelings and bad memories from 2016. But it is no sign that the media will be any less “woke” in its coverage of the next presidential campaign, as President Donald Trump seeks reelection. Their coverage of Empire actor Jussie Smollett’s hate crime hoax, for example, says otherwise.
Even though he had a direct pipeline to Smollett beginning the very night of the alleged attack, CNN’s Don Lemon was hardly in a rush to ask tough questions. Lemon spoke to Smollett on the phone belonging to a mutual friend at Northwestern Memorial Hospital where the Empire star was being treated. Lemon said that a shaken and angry but resilient Smollett described the attack, telling the anchor that “during times of trauma, grief and pain there is still a responsibility to lead with love.” It was all he knew, Lemon said Smollett declared, “And that can’t get kicked out of me.”
Nearly two weeks after the Smollett attack, Lemon went on a black-themed internet show called Red Table Talk, hosted by actress-activist Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith and Adrienne Banfield-Norris. On that segment, Lemon divulged he established a back channel to communicate with Smollett. Lemon had texted the actor quite a few times, he revealed, taking pains to make Smollett understand that like him, Lemon was both black and gay, and that this was important. Sometimes Smollett responded. Sometimes he did not.
Describing their communication, Lemon told the women:
Every day I say, ‘I know you think I’m annoying’—I can show you a text—‘I know you think I’m annoying you, but I just want to know that you’re OK, and if you need somebody you can talk to me, cause there’s not a lot of us out there. Sometimes he responds; sometimes he doesn’t.
The purpose of Lemon’s outreach wasn’t journalistic skepticism, but moral support: “I knew everyone would be picking apart his story. But that was not my concern.”
After news broke that Smollett was being arrested, Lemon took to CNN air for a disjointed ten minute monologue seeking to excuse himself and castigate Smollett for squandering “the goodwill of a whole lot of people.” This, Lemon said, was “not cool.”
As Lemon described it, he and Smollett were not close friends, but they were acquaintances, with the newsman first meeting the actor when he was asked to do a cameo for Empire.
He introduced himself and he said, ‘You know, I’m a big fan. You know, I love your work. It’s good to have you here on the set.’ Very nice guy. We chatted for a couple times after that. I saw him maybe when he came to New York a couple times. I know him, not best friends, but I do know him.”
Unlike in the Red Table interview, Lemon now said he had had questions and doubts about Smollett’s story from the beginning, “as many “people in the community, black and gay people did.” Lemon explained that he had worked in Chicago for several years and knew the neighborhood Smollett was attacked in very well. It was such a cold night for attackers to be roaming around; Smollett did not hand over his phone; probably not a whole lot of MAGA fans watching Empire. “The details just didn’t seem to add up,” Lemon maintained.
Like I said, there were questions about Jussie’s story from the very beginning, questions he still needs to answer. Innocent until proven guilty, but a whole lot of people want to hear from him. What happened, Jussie?
News professionals are human beings and are certainly not barred by any ethical guidelines from providing comfort to a friend. But isn’t their first obligation to ask uncomfortable questions to those in the public eye? Black podcaster Kmele Foster noted some journalists he had spoken with had their suspicions about Smollett’s story, but “the intersectional nature of this particular accusation” to make them leery about asking skeptical questions because people might have challenged their racial and ideological motivations.
Lemon was also prominent among many journalists of all backgrounds who insisted that the unravelling of the Smollett hoax should not detract from a putative Trump-era upswing in hate crimes by whites against minorities. This was the line being plied by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League whose claims the mainstream media rarely challenge. Discussing this climate of “intolerance” with CNN colleagues Van Jones—who compared Smollett to Jackie Robinson—and Chris Cuomo, Lemon said: “This is an America where hate groups, hate crimes are on the rise.” Lemon expressed concern that the Smollett hoax would be used by conservatives to advance Trump’s agenda. “This is playing out every single moment in cable news,” Lemon said. “Sean Hannity is going to eat Jussie Smollett’s lunch every single second. Tucker Carlson is going to eat Jussie Smollett’s lunch every single second,” adding, “The president of the United States is going to eat his lunch.”
ABC NEWS’ Robin Roberts interviewed Smollett on Good Morning America the night before the news broke that Chicago police were now thinking the hate crime was fake and staged by Smollett. The GMA interview was Smollett’s first detailed public account of the attack. Roberts would later disclose that Smollett had reached out to her. Like Lemon, she’d once had a cameo on an episode of Empire.
Smollett told Roberts that he was “pissed off” following the racist and homophobic attack, and it had left behind lasting damage. He would “never be the man that this did not happen to. I am forever changed.” Wiping tears from his face, he complained to Roberts that he was angry about both the assault and people not believing his story. Such people “did not even want to see the truth.”
Smollett told Roberts that he believes some have doubted his story because he said his attackers referenced Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” When asked why he may have been targeted, Smollett explained “I come really, really hard against his administration, and I don’t hold my tongue.”
He also maintained that if the attackers had been non-white, the public would have given his story more credence. “It feels like if I had said it was a Muslim or a Mexican or someone black, I feel like the doubters would have supported me … a lot more, and that says a lot about the place that we are in our country right now.”
Smollett addressed reports that he initially hesitated to go to the police about his alleged assault. “We live in a society where, as a gay man, you are considered somehow to be weak. And I’m not weak,” he said. “We, as a people, are not weak.” He told Roberts he fought back and hoped video would emerge of him throwing a punch at the assailant who said “This is MAGA country.”
“I want them to see that I fought back,” Smollett continued, his voice breaking. “And I want a little gay boy who might watch this to see that I fought the f—k back.” He added as Roberts nodded, “I didn’t run off. They did.”
In the most skeptical question she posed, Roberts asked Smollett how he “would be able to heal,” if his attackers were never found. As his eyes filled with tears, Smollett replied:
I don’t know. Let’s just hope that they are. Let’s not go there yet. I understand how difficult it will be to find them, but we got to. I still want to believe with everything that has happened that there’s something called justice.
“Beautiful,” Roberts answered. “Thank you Jussie.”
In the aftermath of the hoax revelation, Buzzfeed News reached out to GMA staffers, who defended Roberts’ handling of the interview, and stressed that at the time she met with Smollett police were still publicly calling him a victim, not a suspect.
“There’s not really a spirit of regret about the Jussie interview,” once source insisted to the news site. “And no one feels that Robin got duped. Taken advantage of, yes, but not duped.” Another acknowledged the interviews bad “optics” but that was about it. Although Roberts did call the Smollett hoax a “setback for race relations,” she had little else publicly to say.
Three weeks later though Roberts told a New York magazine panel that although she was trying to be as “neutral” as possible in the interview, she nevertheless felt “inherent pressure” to represent the LGBT community. “I’m a black gay woman, he’s a black gay man,” she explained.
He’s saying that there’s a hate crime, so if I’m too hard, then my LGBT community is going to say, ‘You don’t believe a brother,’ if I’m too light on him, it’s like, ‘Oh, because you are in the community, you’re giving him a pass…. It was a no-win situation for me.
“There’s so many people who do not come forward because others are not believed,” Roberts concluded.
When Smollett’s story began to unravel, the New York Times’ Charles Blow had a somewhat strange, defensive reaction. At the time, he was on leave from his regular column at the Times in order to write a book about race relations in the time of Trump. But as news came in that the Chicago Police Department was going to arrest Smollett, Blow posted a short, panicky video to Twitter. Several times he said that he was “hoping hoping hoping hoping hoping hoping hoping hoping hoping hoping that this is not true” but that if it were true “it’s just devastating on so many levels.”
Blow told his viewers that the “story has been a strange one” and because of that he “steered clear” of posting on it or commenting. “My spider sense was off and something wasn’t adding up,” he confessed. Blow said he had sent a note to Lee Daniels, the producer of Empire, an acquaintance, asking about Smollett’s story. “But I didn’t hear anything back so I just said let me just leave this alone,” the columnist said. He offered the following explanation for why the fraud revelation was so wrenching:
Because in this moment in our history, whether it comes to sexual assault of a man or a woman, or whomever, we want to believe. We don’t want to puncture, slow the momentum of people being willing to come forward and tell their legitimate stories about legitimate assault. And if this turns out to be something that tries to takes advantage of that, that hurts that in so many ways…. It’s just about victimhood, and how we will deal with that, whether we will give people the benefit of the doubt or will this, if it is true, and I keep saying I like I say I hope, hope, hope it is not, or will it just sow more doubts. Oh God!
Blow soon dropped the handwringing and went at his political foes. Those who felt manipulated by Smollett shouldn’t “beat yourself for feeling empathy for someone who said they were a victim. That’s a natural, normal human response.” He also scornfully refuted claims that Smollett had set relations back. “Race relations were already in shambles,” Blow declared. “We have racists in the White House and millions who support them.”
NPR’s Michel Martin, another NABJ member, also refused to concede the racial moral high ground. The NPR “Weekend All Things Considered” host said she had two names “for those tempted to gloat, despair, or be ashamed because of Jussie Smollett, the actor now accused of orchestrating a fake bias crime against himself.” One name was Charles Stuart, a white Boston man who in 1989 tried to trick authorities into believing that a black man had forced his way into Stuart’s car and murdered his wife. The other was Susan Smith, the white South Carolina woman who in 1994 had claimed a young black man had abducted her children, only for it later to be discovered that she herself had rolled the car into a nearby lake with her two sons in their car seats, drowning them. Smollett’s story was just a flipping of the racial script, Martin explained. “Instead of the scary black men terrorizing white suburbanites like the Stuarts, or Smith, he invokes scary MAGA hat wearers spewing hatred because he is black and openly gay.”
Martin noted that “some in the conservative media and Twitterverse can barely contain their glee at this turn of events. But they should try.” She noted that one the very same day Smollett was arrested and charged with filing a false police report, “federal prosecutors revealed that a white Coast Guard officer was stockpiling an arsenal of weapons and had created a list of journalists and Democratic politicians he presumably hoped to target.”
Martin concluded that we have to be prepared to face facts, whether they are about “how far some will go for attention or about white supremacist leanings among those sworn to protect and defend us.” The moral of the story “is what it always is and always will be: The truth can hurt but the truth WILL come out eventually and it will always set you free. But for that to happen there have to be truth tellers and truth seekers.”
Van Jones told Variety that the unravelling of the Smollett hoax represented “a moment where everybody needs to take a step back and look in the mirror,” explaining that, “You don’t get something this big and this messy unless there are a lot of things going wrong in the culture.” He noted that the snap judgments on social media might represent historical overcompensation, maintain that “We have to ask ourselves, are we overreacting to centuries of oppressed people not being believed to the point where we are creating an incentive for people to say things that aren’t true to get our support?”
Jones also held tight to the “Blame Trump” narrative. “Unfortunately, we have seen people use dishonesty, manipulation and divisive rhetoric and make it to the White House,” he insisted. “The idea of alternative facts, and people only caring about their own tribes and selective outrage—this is not just a Jussie issue. This has leached out from the White House into our whole political culture.”
Wealthy and powerful people, mainly white, “get breaks all the time,” the Times’ Blow explained on CNN. “People who are poor, very often black and brown do not get those breaks.” Blow argued that people were ticked off about Smollett not being prosecuted for his false claims because “the glove was turned inside out and the person with wealth and power was was black.” In another CNN appearance, with Lemon as the host, Blow said that “even if he did do it” Smollett was being used by Trump “as a tool” to rile up his base and as a shield against his and some of his supporters’ very real vile behavior.”
It’s tempting to hope that the Jussie Smollett story will be an inflection point that might encourage the media to be more careful about facts, less presumptuous about the deplorable racism of the MAGA set and more aware of the insidious influence that the hate industry—especially groups like the SPLC and the Van Jones-cofounded Color of Change—has on them, if for no other reason than professional embarrassment alone.
But the lack of shame or contrition on the part of those who had access to Smollett and still did not ask him to address the red flags in his story suggests otherwise. So too their continued use of the episode as a cudgel with which to beat Trump supporters.
Having written about the flaws of media reporting on race for more than 25 years, I can report that there is just no learning curve on these kinds of things. It has become an article of faith, leading to what theologians call invincible ignorance. Someone will cry wolf again, sooner rather than later. In Jussie Smollett’s America, hate never gets a holiday.
William McGowan is a magazine journalist, media critic, and author of several books, including Coloring The News and Gray Lady Down. This piece will appear in the July/August issue of The American Conservative.