The Smollett Case: Managing the Narrative 101
By J. Scott Wilson
For pretty much the entire month of February, you couldn’t turn on a news or entertainment program without seeing the unfolding saga of the Jussie Smollett case.
Just in case you spent February under a rock or blissfully unaware of the news media in some other way, a quick recap: On Jan. 29, Smollett, who is openly gay and starred on the Fox series “Empire,” told Chicago police he was attacked by two men who beat him, poured an “unknown substance” on him and wrapped a rope around his neck. He claimed the attackers told him he was “in MAGA country,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s infamous slogan.
Almost immediately, the case began to unravel. There was no surveillance footage of the attack, and in short order it was learned that the two “attackers” appear to have been hired by Smollett, who was dissatisfied with his salary on “Empire” and thought a bit of notoriety might boost his earning potential.
So, here we have a reported bias crime which the police took at face value and investigated aggressively, going through hundreds of hours of surveillance footage and spending many hours canvassing and trying to find corroborating evidence. Their initial reaction was to believe Smollett’s claim and investigate the case to the fullest extent possible. Of course, that investigation led them back to Smollett, but the officers didn’t start out assuming the tale was bogus.
And now, friends, the rhetoric begins to spin in earnest. In the wake of Smollett’s arrest for filing the false report and his subsequent removal from “Empire” and abandonment by liberal talking heads across the board, the Black Lives Matter brigade began cautioning against police “assuming” future reports of bias crimes were false. They pull off the masterful sleight of hand of simultaneously condemning Smollett’s false report and casting doubt on future police investigations of similar reported crimes. It’s the sort of thing that requires an ability to disregard reality on a truly mind-boggling scale.
So, let’s break this down: A crime was reported. The proper authorities did their sworn duty and investigated that crime, discovering that the report was false and that the initial complainant had, in fact, possibly committed a crime. This is far from a remarkable event. There are hundreds of criminals sitting in cells today who got their ticket to the Graybar Hotel punched under identical circumstances.
However, because this case involved an actor who is black and openly gay, the narrative must be managed and political hay must be made as much as possible. Smollett has been thrown to the wolves, but his bones are being shaken to try and keep police from “assuming” that future bias crime reports are false from the start.
This is ridiculous on its face, insulting to every police officer, detective and investigator everywhere, and an absolute contradiction to the essence of police work. The very idea that any officer would, before looking at the first fact of a case, assume that the complainant was lying is ridiculous. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect in a banana republic or some fascist regime, not in one of the oldest democracies on earth.
And these people are getting airtime! Every story during the aftermath of the Smollett case had at least one clip of an activist warning against police not believing the next victim of a bias crime because of Smollett’s falsity. They’re trying to create in the public consciousness the assumption that law enforcement WILL disbelieve the next person to report a bias crime, and that the reporter won’t get the justice he or she deserves.
This is patently false, but it adds to the prevailing media-fueled perception of police officers as biased, hateful of minorities and the LGBTQ community and in general thugs operating under the color of authority.
I’m a copy editor by trade, friends, and I spend my days editing news copy from all over the country. I can tell you without reservation that this narrative is NOT gaining traction among the great majority of the American people. Every day, stories of heroic cops putting themselves at risk to protect and serve come across my desk. These stories get repeated. The officers get recognized. The false narratives get quieter and quieter.
Stay the course. Keep doing the good work, and you will prevail in the end.