Partisan Rooting Interests in What Happened With Jussie Smollett are Bizarre and Telling
One of the strangest phenomenon of our hyper-partisan and extremely fractured political discourse is how, when certain types of news stories start to emerge, liberals and conservatives instantly and reflexively pick alternative interpretations, and thus rooting interests, regarding what really happened. Recently, we saw this with the Brett Kavanaugh allegations, the “Covington Catholic” fiasco, and every winter and summer a debate over whether man-made global warming/climate change is real (as a conservative, it has always seemed strange to me that liberals often seem to desperately want to believe that really horrible things have happened).
In some ways, budding news stories have become like unidentifiable plants just emerging from the soil, with one side invested in the ultimate result being a potato, and the other a tomato. Instead of trying to figure out what the truth is, partisans on both sides actively root, prematurely, for their side of the story to be the “winner,” with all the facts seen through the prism of their own biases and easily cherry-picked to conform to their own sense of moral superiority.
We are seeing this happen yet again when it comes to the reaction to the allegations made by Empire actor Jussie Smollett that, after receiving a threat in the mail, he was the victim of a heinous hate-crime assault earlier this week in Chicago. Smollett’s story has particular political resonance because he is a black, gay, liberal, celebrity, and his story makes it clear that he was attacked by two supporters of President Donald Trump who were motivated by racism and homophobia.
Immediately, a huge portion of the liberal media and political establishment rushed to Smollett’s side, expressing extreme outrage over the horrendous events which he described. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Super-Celebrity Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted unequivocal support and umbrage over what they were instantly certain had happened, even expressing confidence that they knew exactly why it had occurred.
To their way of thinking, there was really no other way of looking at this story. The allegations were outrageous and the person making the allegation checked far too many political correctness boxes for anyone among the liberal media/political elite to resist being blinded to any other possible narrative.
At the same time, conservatives like me, immune to Smollett’s super-high “PC Protection Score,” were at least somewhat skeptical of this story with so little corroboration and whose details seemed bizarre. So, this happened at 2 a.m. on a frigid Chicago night? The perpetrators were carrying bleach and a rope with them, just happened to recognize Smollett in the dark, got intensely trigged by his race and sexuality, and declared that Obama’s hometown is “MAGA country” during the attack?!
Strange things happen all the time, but this story, at least as originally conveyed by TMZ, is really hard to wrap your head around. Of course, so is the idea that a celebrity on a hit TV show would ever make up, or perhaps even just exaggerate, the details of such a horrific experience.
But because the dangers of expressing public cynicism about a situation where the establishment has already invested themselves in what happened, conservative reaction to this story was, at first, largely muted (even Trump eventually expressed vague outrage over the story). That started to change when the Chicago police began to release information inconsistent with the original narrative.
When the police proactively leaked that surveillance video of the incident, which given its prominent location would have been expected, had not yet emerged, this changed the equation for many of the conservative cynics. Why would the Chicago PD go out of their way to publicize this fact, and risk the wrath of the virtue-signaling Twitter mob, unless they were having strong suspicions of their own?
This perspective was momentarily stunted when late Wednesday news broke that police finally had found video of some persons of interest (the New York Daily News erroneously tweeted, and then deleted, that video of the actual attack had surfaced). Online, I saw liberals instantly latch onto this as proof that their faith in Smollett had been justified, as they prepared to declare victory over their conservative foes who had dared to question his story.
But when the actual photos were posted on Twitter, the tide quickly turned again. All that was revealed were two unidentifiable dark blobs — with no signs of a rope or bleach — walking away from the scene of the apparent crime, up to thirty minutes before it happened. To conservatives, this was consistent with the police frantically trying to show that they were bending over backwards to substantiate a story they had reason not to believe, while, conversely, many liberals seem to see it is a sign that the police were going to cover up what really happened here.
Perhaps the fact about the case which falls most into the category of a “Rorschach test” is that Smollett and his manager apparently say that they were on the phone together (at 2 a.m. Chicago time?!) when the attack occurred, but the actor has so far refused to allow access to his phone or calling records so that this can be confirmed. To conservatives, this is a strong sign that the call didn’t take place and that Smollett’s story may be falling apart. Meanwhile, liberals are far more likely to see this simply as a celebrity victim seeking privacy, and that the inherently suspect cops are wrong to not take him at his word.
What is particularly weird about all of this is that it comes right on the heels of the Covington Catholic story, where the biography of those involved, rather than the facts, largely dictated how each political group perceived, or misperceived, what had actually occurred. And yet, here we are with everyone making the exact same potential mistakes yet again.
I honestly don’t know what, if anything, really happened to Smollett and it wouldn’t shock me if some sort of attack did indeed take place. However, I am confident that, if a white, male, Trump-supporter who was a non-celebrity made this exact same allegation against someone of Smollett’s profile, the reaction of liberals and the news media would be to laugh out loud and ignore the whole thing. Similarly, if Smollett wasn’t a black, gay, anti-Trump celebrity, conservatives wouldn’t be so eager, like fans cheering against a hated sports team, to see his story be debunked.
Unless a huge break happens very soon, my guess is that, much like the “unsolved” mystery surrounding a 2017 hate crime reported by NBA star Lebron James, we are never going to know for sure what really did or did not happen here. There will be enough “evidence” for each side to believe what it was that they always wanted to in the first place, but not enough for anyone to ever be brought to justice. Similarly, very few people in any sort of authority will have a vested interest in definitively disproving the story if it is significantly false.
If so, this story will be the perfect metaphor for our badly-broken modern media culture. A tale where everyone is sure they know what happened, but no one really does.
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
[Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.