How Two Phone Calls to a SiriusXM Radio Show Encapsulated Nearly Everything About the Jussie Smollett Case
UPDATE: After this column was published, producers at SiriusXM have discovered that the first caller referenced has told the same story multiple times to other shows, in very different ways. They now believe the content of the call to be based in a made-up story.
Since Jussie Smollett’s obviously false hate crime allegation has fallen apart, I have been interviewed on many national talk shows. This is largely because I happened to predict sooner than just about anyone else in the media that the debunking of this liberal fantasy was inevitable (to be clear, anyone could have done it if they had their eyes open, their balls intact, and a national media platform where they are allowed to tell the truth).
Today I did, for the second time on this subject, the SiriusXM satellite radio program of Mediaite founder Dan Abrams. Something happened while on his show which was fascinating and one of the most illuminating moments I have ever experienced in about twenty years of hosting and guesting on talk shows.
As a long-time talk radio host, I usually have a very dim view of the value created to any discussion by random phone callers. Very rarely do they really add anything compelling to a talk show in the modern era, except for the creating the perception that real people are actually engaged in the program’s topic.
But what happened while I was on the phone line waiting for Dan’s next question was very different. I believe nearly every important aspect of the Smollett case was illustrated, via two consecutive callers, in an unscripted and real-world fashion, live on a national radio broadcast.
The first caller, a man from Arizona, told Dan the very emotional and infuriating story of an incident that he said happened to his wife earlier in the day. He said that his President Donald Trump-supporting wife, who has dark skin, had been the victim of a random racist taunting by clueless Trump supporters at a store who chanted at her, “Build the wall!”
The caller, who said he was not there at the time, was understandably extremely upset by the hate-fueled episode which she was apparently forced to endure. Dan, like any host with stature in the mainstream media, made the perfectly reasonable and prudent choice to immediately express great empathy for both the caller and his wife, while, quite understandably, never bringing the man’s story into even the slightest question.
Dan then instantly turned to another caller, another Arizona man who appeared to be black, who had a very different reaction to the previous caller’s story. He expressed hope that the caller was not essentially doing a “Jussie” by making up a claim because, based on his own experience, that scenario didn’t sound all that plausible.
Dan then correctly pointed out that, while the caller’s story could theoretically be false, it didn’t sound like it to him, and there certainly weren’t any of the obvious red flags from Smollett’s tall tale (for instance, it didn’t happen at 2 a.m. in the middle of a “Polar Vortex!”). They both then commiserated that, for better or for worse, in a post-Jussie Smollett world, this is where we all are now left; conflicted between believing alleged victims without giving them even basic scrutiny, and now instantly being prone to disbelieving even stories of abuse which might be totally accurate.
For my own part, I found the entire exchange captivating because I thought everyone was at least mostly right, but also a probably a little bit wrong.
For instance, the caller whose wife was the victim of taunting easily could have misinterpreted what happened. He was not there, and so he was telling the story second-hand, which is inherently unreliable. Theoretically, she could have just walked into some knuckleheads chanting about the wall and mistakenly thought they were yelling specifically at her because of her skin color, or maybe there was some slight misunderstanding of context communicated between her and an angry husband, who admitted he does not like President Trump.
Dan’s reaction, while absolutely the right way to handle such a sensitive call, was emblematic of how incredibly difficult it is for a news media member to scrutinize a claim of abuse, especially one as highly sympathetic as this. It is simply just not worth the risk if it all goes even the slightest bit wrong, but that reality often makes the major news media susceptible to allowing even highly suspect stories to survive without ever being properly debunked.
And the second caller, while I admired his skeptical instincts, was likely wrong about the first caller’s story being a complete fraud, when it may have only been a misunderstanding, or completely true. Though, to be fair, my original belief about the Smollett accusation was that it was mostly likely only a “cover up” lie, and, now that there is overwhelming evidence of orchestration, that theory turned out to be very wrong.
The bottom line here is that there is that, for just about everyone, there is a lot to learn from this Jussie Smollett scandal. A thoughtful examination of this clip from that radio show would go a long way in ensuring that we glean the proper lessons.
Listen below, via SiriusXM.
John Ziegler is a senior columnist for Mediaite. He hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
[featured photo via Getty Images]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.