‘Justice for Jussie’: a Media Chronicle of a Hate Crime Hoax

Over the past half-century or so, American law enforcement and popular culture have conferred an extra level of seriousness and gravity to “hate crimes” as opposed to regular crimes. The definition of a hate crime, according to the FBI, is a regular crime with an added element of bias. “A ‘criminal’ offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity,” the FBI.gov website states.

Hate crimes are sure to grab headlines across international news because the victimhood is doubled. The victim was a casualty of whatever crime had been committed, and they’re a victim of racism/sexism/ homophobia/bigotry, etc.

This explains why the media instantly was whipped up into a frenzy when a gay, black actor was allegedly attacked in Chicago in late January 2019. Jussie Smollett, an actor on the popular Fox show Empire, had supposedly been attacked by two men while walking home from a Subway sandwich shop at around 2 a.m. on January 29. According to Smollett’s original report, two white men beat him badly, fractured one of his ribs, and wrapped a noose around his neck (a symbol for lynching). The assailants also allegedly hurled racial and homophobic slurs, asking him if he was “that f***ot ‘Empire’ n***er?” They even poured bleach on his dark skin, according to Smollett, in what would have been an unspeakable act of abject racism.

If the attack wasn’t dramatic enough, the two supposedly white attackers were also wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats, the iconic sartorial symbol of Donald Trump supporters. As they left a broken Smollett at the scene, they had supposedly shouted “This is MAGA country,” despite the fact that they supposedly were in Chicago.

This all happened on one of the coldest nights of the year with an overnight wind chill well below zero degrees.

Smollett later posted to his Instagram a photo of himself in a hospital bed, scratched and bruised, providing ample evidence for would-be supporters to draw bold conclusions about the veracity of his account.

Smollett’s story was immediately embraced by the media and Holly- wood establishments.

A gay black man had been a victim of a racist and homophobic attack by Trump supporters! This was way too good to check!

Or was it? Since, of course, this hate crime turned out to be a giant hoax.

Still, the media was inundated with virtue signaling on behalf of Smollett, accepting his claims wholesale. Some examples out of an infinite list:

  • Then-senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) tweeted praise for Jussie and called the (hoax) attack “an attempted modern day lynching.”
  • New Jersey senator Cory Booker called the fake attack “vicious” and “an attempted modern-day lynching.” He tweeted an endorsement of an “anti-lynching” bill in Congress.
  • The NAACP blamed Donald Trump for the (hoax) attack and a general atmosphere of terror in the United States.
  • Maxine Waters (D-CA) said she knows and loves Jussie and his family and called him a “fantastic human being.” She suggested President Trump deserved some of the blame.
  • The New York Times took Smollett’s story as gospel, reporting Smollett “was attacked in Chicago by 2 assailants who yelled racial and homophobic slurs.” Joe Biden quoted the tweet— uncritically—and predictably added some generic sanctimonious lecturing to Americans about bias: “We must stand up and demand that we no longer give this hate safe harbor; that homophobia and racism have no place on our streets or in our hearts. We are with you, Jussie.”
  • CNN’s Don Lemon said in an interview that he texted Smollett every day following the phony attack, asking if he was okay.
  • Yamiche Alcindor, PBS’s White House correspondent and NBC News fixture, tweeted, “We have to do better as a country. This is disgusting.”
  • Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith declared the attack “terrorism.”

If the journalism class was irresponsible, the celebrity establishment was downright reckless. Transgender nonbinary actor Elliot Page (who at the time was a lesbian actress named Ellen Page), Cher, pop star Katy Perry, actress Olivia Munn, actor Billy Eichner, Rosie O’Donnell, Rob Reiner, Moonlight writer/director Barry Jenkins, Frozen actor Josh Gad, Star Trek actor George Takei, and many others rushed to defend Smollett and/or attack MAGA and Trump before the evidence was in.

Nearly all of these reactions were instantaneous, tweeted or grammed soon after initial details emerged, despite the fact that the story’s main sources were Jussie himself and celebrity gossip blog TMZ.

Meanwhile, local news reporters were left with little concrete evidence to back up Smollett’s wild story. On January 30, about thirty-six hours after the purported attack, reporter Rob Elgas of ABC 7 Chicago reported that “no obvious people that could be assailants” had been dis- covered by local law enforcement, and that “detectives have poured [sic] over hundreds of hours of surveillance video.”

But this still didn’t dissuade the media that Jussie had been victimized.

The Chicago Tribune blared a headline that in retrospect looks downright comedic: “Week before reported attack, Jussie Smollett got a threatening letter with ‘MAGA’ written for return address.” The article details that Smollett was sent a letter filled with white powder that spelled in “cut-out letters”—so corny! “You will die black f*g,” it allegedly said. The Tribune pointed out that the letter was also stamped with American flags.

If this hate crime had been real, it would certainly have been the lamest, most ham-fisted, most uncreative hate crime in American history. As the days wore on and there was still only circumstantial evidence and no credible witnesses to affirm Smollett’s story, he needed to do damage control, so, with (crocodile) tears in his eyes, he sat down with Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America. The interview is largely incoherent and borderline embarrassing, but he says he is “pissed off” at his doubters for refusing to see the truth.

Hours later a report emerged that there were two “persons of interest” in the alleged attack. Charlie De Mar of local Chicago CBS sent a tweet that must have given the Jussie fanboys and girls a cold sweat: “Police raided the home of two persons of interest in Jussie Smollett case last night. Both men are of Nigerian descent and have appeared as extras on the show. Police took bleach, shoes, electronics and more.”

This was the beginning of the end of the latest woke hate hoax.

The two men, brothers who had been background actors on Smollett’s Fox television show, were detained by Chicago police. Police suspected Smollett paid them to stage the attack.

Around this time, social media ramped up its censorship game. Instagram deleted a post by Donald Trump Jr. that was skeptical of Smollett. The Facebook-owned platform later said it was removed “in error.”

On February 20, 2019, just three weeks after the alleged incident most definitely did not take place, Jussie Smollett was charged with disorderly conduct and became the suspect in an investigation for filing a false police report.

Still, as of February 20, 20th Century Fox TV and Fox Entertainment still backed Smollett, describing him as a “consummate professional.”

That sentiment didn’t last long, though. Smollett was arrested on February 21. Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson said Jussie falsified the hate crime (and the MAGA letter) because “he was dissatisfied with his salary” he was earning from Empire.

Fox announced he would no longer appear on the show a day later.

Smollett was eventually indicted for sixteen counts of disorderly conduct by Cook County, all of which were eventually dropped. Joe Magats, an assistant state attorney, did state shortly thereafter that it was not “an exoneration.” “We believe he did what he was charged with doing,” Magats told the local ABC affiliate.

That didn’t stop CNN’s Brian Stelter, host of the ironically named Reliable Sources, from suggesting that Jussie was now in fact the “victim,” concluding that he was “triumphant” and could return to work on Fox television. Apparently it was wishful thinking on Stelter’s part, as Smollett never did film any new Empire episodes.

He was charged for a second time related to the hate crime hoax in February 2020. This time six new charges were brought against him by a special prosecutor. He pleaded not guilty.