You've likely heard the story by now. African-American actor Smollett says he was attacked at 2 a.m. in sub-zero weather on a street in Chicago. The alleged attackers yelled "This is MAGA country!" while pouring bleach on Smollett and attempting to tie a rope around his neck.
This fantastic story deserved scrutiny from the start. Despite the obvious question of why anyone would attempt such a thing during a polar vortex, the story begs a few basic journalistic questions as well: Why didn't any of the ubiquitous cameras around Chicago capture any of this attack on video? Why couldn't anyone corroborate this story?
No matter. National media outlets ran with the desired narrative: Smollett was absolutely attacked by supporters of President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump goes after Cassidy after saying he wouldn't support him for president in 2024 Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon Hillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Agencies sound alarm over ransomware targeting agriculture groups MORE. Full stop.
But one very important word was missing from the screaming headlines and from the content itself: "Alleged."
Because, without that very keyword, the attack and its context is presented to the reader or viewer as undisputed reality. Given the questions around the story and complete lack of evidence, the story deserved to be characterized as alleged until a foundation of facts could be gathered.
From there, things got even more questionable when Smollett initially refused to hand his phone over to police. This was key, because Smollett said he immediately called his manager, Brandon Moore, right after the attack. For his part, Moore also would not allow his phone to be turned over.
Smollett eventually did supply the Chicago Police Department his phone records, but they for whatever reason were heavily redacted.
But the stories portraying Smollett as the victim and portraying Trump supporters as the racist villains went mostly unabated on the national level. That wasn't the case among most local news outlets in Chicago, which covered the story with the caution and scrutiny it deserved.
National politicians, including those running for president, also blew through the due process stop sign.
Here's the 'Jussie Smollett is a victim' tweets from all your favorite Democratic members of Congress...— Tim Young (@TimRunsHisMouth) February 18, 2019
Just gonna... put these here. pic.twitter.com/qubpzSguiF
Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerSenate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Defense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Senators preview bill to stop tech giants from prioritizing their own products MORE (D-N.J.) and 2020 presidential candidate, on Jan. 29: “The vicious attack on actor Jussie Smollett was an attempted modern-day lynching. I’m glad he’s safe."
Booker on Feb. 17: “Well, the information is still coming out, and I’m going to withhold until all the information comes out."
Another presidential hopeful, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHarris to campaign with McAuliffe in Virginia Harris to highlight drought, climate change in Nevada trip Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair MORE (D-Calif.), also pitched the story as a "modern-day lynching."
"Jussie Smollett is one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know. I’m praying for his quick recovery," Harris tweeted. "No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate," she added.
.@JussieSmollett is one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know. I’m praying for his quick recovery.— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) January 29, 2019
This was an attempted modern day lynching. No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate.
Harris has not commented on jumping to this conclusion since. And why would she when the questions aren't being asked?
The characters change but the story remains the same: If Trump or a Trump supporter is involved in an incident, guilt is assumed. Due process be damned.