THERE is no accounting for taste, but it’s a fair surmise that few Quadrant Online visitors are devoted followers of the TV series Empire, which focuses on the intrigues and power plays of rap ‘music’ impresarios. Lately, however, the series might have registered more widely, as one of its stars, Jussie Smollett, was widely reported, not least by our very own ABC, to have been assaulted in the frigid wee hours of a snowy Chicago night by a pair of — yes, you guessed it — red-hatted white men who were said to have waylaid the young actor on his way home from a sandwich shop and battered him more than somewhat. The mystery biff artists were reported to have concluded the incident by dousing him in bleach, which they just happened to be carrying at 2am, while announcing gay black men aren’t welcome in “Trump country”, also hanging a noose about his neck for good measure.
A curious tale to begin with, it has grown more so as the Chicago Police Department’s efforts to establish the chain of the evening’s events have uncovered a wealth of discordant information. Despite the neighbourhood of the alleged assault being monitored top-to-tail by surveillance cameras, not an inch of footage capturing an attack has come to light.
What has been uncovered rather tends to support the theory that Mr Smollett staged the entire affair, perhaps in a bid to raise his public profile and avoid his character being being written out of Empire‘s plotline. More than a week after the purported attack, for example, investigators found a re-used hot-sauce bottle with traces of bleach still inside, a discovery which raised suspicions that it might well have been planted after the fact to bolster the original and daily more dubious complaint to police.
Now comes a further erosion of the Smollett version: two men — Nigerians as it happens, not white fans of Donald Trump, have been taken in for questioning and their home raided, with bleach found and “a red hat” as well. According to some accounts they have been placed under arrest, although other reports have not be quite so definite on this point (see update below). What is known is that they are friends of Mr Smollett, have worked as extras on Empire, were in the neighbourhood at the time. Investigators also have identified them as the two shadowy figures captured in contemporaneous security-camera footage. Those figures, just by the way, were also identified by Smollett as his attackers.
Australian readers might find little unusual in this story, not least because improbable tales of Trumpian toxicity have been six-a-penny since the first days of this outsiders’ presidency. The Sydney Morning Herald‘s strangely disappeared man in North American, multiple Walkley winner Paul McGeough, provided what may well stand forevermore as the greatest example of confirmation bias since the New York Times‘ Walter Duranty informed Americans that the kulaks couldn’t be happier and reports of genocidal famine in Stalin’s USSR needed truckloads of salt. It’s worth quoting an extended slab of McGeough’s, er, reporting because almost all incidents he mentions beneath the November 19, 2016, headline ‘Make America Hate Again‘ turned out to be hoaxes. To help set the record straight, which two years later the SMH still has not done, the links inserted below lead to the real stories
In California, Turkish-American student Esra Altun was attacked in a parking lot at San Jose State University by a man who wrenched off her hijab and attempted to choke her with it. In New York, Fariha Nizam, a Bengali-American born and raised in the US, was berated on a city bus by an older white couple demanding that she remove her hijab.
In Michigan, police say a Muslim woman in Ann Arbor was reportedly made to remove her hijab by a white man who threatened to set her ablaze with a lighter. In Texas, a Zambian student on her way to classes at Baylor University was called a n—-r and pushed from the footpath by a male student who told her he was “just trying to make America great again”.
In New York state, students hung a black doll from a noose in an elevator at Canisius College in Buffalo. At the University of Pennsylvania, black freshman students were added to GroupMe chats, in which they were invited to “daily lynchings”.
At a middle school in Michigan, the white students taunted their Latino classmates with a Trump slogan – “Build a wall!” – and at a school in New Jersey, they chanted: “Ten feet higher! Ten feet higher!” In Georgia, an anonymous note was passed to a Muslim teacher saying her “headscarf isn’t allowed any more” and “hang yourself with it”.
In Maryland, a banner announcing a Spanish-language service at a church in Silver Springs was defaced with the words “Trump nation whites only”. In New York state, a swastika and the “Make America White Again” slogan were painted on the wall of a dugout at a softball field in Wellsville. In Indiana, “Heil Trump” and a swastika were daubed on a church.
In the Pennsylvania suburbs, a woman found her car daubed with “Trump rules!” and “Black bitch”. In North Carolina, graffiti on a Durham wall read, “Black lives don’t matter and neither does your vote”.
In those cases where no arrests were made, initial claims remain blanketed with clouds of darkest doubt. For those interested, scores of similar hoaxes perpetrated by their alleged victims are listed here.
Reporters and editors being an allegedly savvy lot, you might think fanciful tales such as young Jussie Smollett’s alleged bashing might be approached with a measure of wariness. In this particular instance, extreme wariness born of recent experience, as the Smollett saga broke within days of the air leaking out of another recent and Trump-related hoax — the Covington schoolboys’ alleged monstering of an innocent, peace-loving, Vietnam veteran Native American (who, as it turns out, is none of those things). Our ABC jumped boots-and-all into that one too, only to demonstrate once more how any institutional urge to allay the lies it has broadcast peters out very quickly indeed. Rather than report in full detail how the Covington kids were blameless — indeed, models of restraint for not responding in kind to the heaped abuse of ratbags from a black religious cult and a publicity-whore Indian — the national broadcaster let the matter drop after the pathetic qualification “it’s not that simple.”
At least in the Covington case there was some slight attempt by the ABC to acknowledge its original reporting of Trump-era racial hatred might have been just a tad overcooked.
In regard to the apparent Smollett hoax, the chronology of its coverage is telling. Immediately upon news breaking of the purported incident, the ABC went with two stories, one on its website plus an audio interview with an Empire executive who left no doubt he believed every word and, predictably, saw Smollett’s ordeal as an example of the further mestastising of the Trump cancer. It’s worth hearing, especially the compere’s editorial sigh at the item’s conclusion.
Those items were broadcast on January 31. As Smollett’s story disintegrated — no witnesses, no CCTV footage, details being added, omitted and changing with the wind — the ABC reported not a word of the mounting evidence that the entire affair was a put-up job. That changed on Friday, February 15, after US media reports that police in Chicago were about charge Mr Smollett with filing a false report. The ABC’s response? Why, it broke its silence on the case by publishing a wire story quoting US authorities as saying it had not been established that the actor is a gross fabricator.
Today, less than 24 hours later, it emerges that those reports of police suspicions weren’t wrong, just premature. As of this writing, Mr Smollett’s body-building Nigerian chums are being grilled in Cook County police headquarters about their involvement. So far the ABC has not added this latest information to the sum of human knowledge.
What we have in a nutshell is Exhibit Umpteen-G for why the ABC needs its feet held to the fire. It is not simply that the national broadcaster got it wrong, which it most certainly did, or even that it declined to report facts which highlight its reports and reporters’ terminal gullibility, for that is only human nature.
No, the real travesty is that there is a story, the real story of how Trump Derangement Syndrome has led the media into a wasteland of, yes, fake news. The ABC has North American bureaus thickly staffed (no pun intended) and available at a moment’s notice to leap onto planes and report everything from mine collapses in Brazil to the symptoms of global warming in Alaska.
Yet to take a long hard look around its own offices, notice that revered colleagues have no clothes and ‘fess up to the listeners whose taxes underwrite its bias and incompetence, that will never happen until some outside authority makes it happen. We are set to see another example of the ABC’s all-consuming memory hole in the near future, when the long-awaited Mueller investigation of the so-called Russiagate ‘scandal’ is released. If it turns out to be a “nothingburger”, as seems more likely by the day, will the ABC take down and correct 4 Corners breathless three-part “investigation” of Trump’s role as an agent of Moscow? Don’t hold your breath.
Were a politician to pledge a thorough house-cleaning at the ABC, that would almost make their party worth voting for.
UPDATE: The Nigerian brothers were released after 48 hours of questioning in custody with no immediate charges laid, a Chicago police spokesman saying they had provided further lines for investigation. One of those avenues of inquiry arises from the revelation that the rope found around Mr Smollett’s neck was purchased by the bodybuilding duo. Meanwhile, Mr Smollett has hired a prominent defence lawyer to represent him.