OPINION: Actor Jussie Smollett weakens trust in media and genuine victims

In a regrettable invocation of the post-truth political landscape, Jussie Smollett, the openly gay actor of Fox’s “Empire,” allegedly staged an assault on himself Jan. 29.

The orchestrated attack was committed with the aid of two Nigerian brothers who posed as assailants disguised in ski masks, who issued racial and homophobic slurs to Smollett as they proceeded to pour bleach on his body and tie a noose around his neck. The barrage, as told by the now infamous performer, garnered widespread media coverage.

Journalists, however, failed to defend their legitimacy when the hoax was pedestalized while a confirmed anti-Semitic assault was captured on film and left unacknowledged.

Here, the rise of victim culture and the notion that journalists are activists has culminated in a con that undermines journalism’s authority and the pleas of genuine victims.

The gaffe is especially egregious considering that, on the same evening of Smollett’s fabrication, a Jewish man was assaulted by three unidentified assailants. Why this atrocity was unfit for national headlines — when anti-Semitism is on the rise globally — is unclear.

Though, the fact that Smollett is a celebrity, and celebrities are often victimized, may have more power than hope would admit.

Regardless, hate crimes have risen for three consecutive years since 2015, according to FBI reports. And it’s possible that President Donald Trump’s rhetoric is a non-trivial factor in its ascension.

Yet, whether Trump is to blame is immaterial here. The salience of the present news media’s bias toward profitable reporting (read: headlines of the seemingly demonstrative and rationalizing sort) is relevant.

In other words, news of abused victims who belong to a group that deserves exceptional care and deference make for more provocative headlines and are more attractive to journalists who consider themselves activists.

“Here, the rise of victim culture and the notion that journalists are activists has culminated in a con that undermines journalism’s authority and the pleas of genuine victims” — Christopher Salazar PZ ’20

To be sure, a journalist may choose to be an activist. But, in this critic’s appraisal, the idea that journalists are de facto activists poses issues. That is, there is a certain interia, a motivation to justify the ends-driven enterprise of activism, despite journalism being a means-driven pursuit.

More concretely, activists are interested in realizing a specific political, ideological agenda. Journalists, on the other hand, must take care to write or report in a way that abides by a code of ethics which lacks, as far as is possible, the activist inclination.

This dynamic, coupled with the 24-hour news cycle, creates a climate too easily remiss of the requisite doubt journalists ought to wield judiciously.

In this case, given the tension between race relations and activists’ (journalists or otherwise) noble motivations, the atmosphere is ripe for an unconscious partnership between those who report current affairs and opportunists like Smollett who leverage victimhood for their benefit.

Surely, the Smollett fiasco undermines the plight of genuine victims by shaping the collective dialogue along the contours of the boy who cried wolf parable. However, the episode also invites journalists to keep tabs on how the story unfolds, given the discord between its origins and subsequent development.

The incident, in other words, encourages prudence.

But, regrettably, too many deadline artists fail to critically inquire. The effect delegitimizes an honorable profession and, to the dismay of progressive elites, ensures Trump’s re-election.

That Trump has made a concerted effort to delegitimize journalism as a bastion of left-leaning, unquestioning zealots is obvious.

Nevertheless, journalists, whether the majority actually lean left or be perceived to lean left, are not helping themselves or society when alleged crimes of the Smollett brand, absent the necessary evidence, too quickly rise to non-alleged status.

In this spirit, perhaps it’s best to say that the alleged-crime-turned-hoax is more aptly referred to as an alleged hoax, until the remaining evidence yet to be revealed corroborates Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson’s suspicions about Smollett’s account.

Still, this runs the risk of creating a false equivalency given that Smollett was charged with a felony, as there is mounting evidence that does not support Smollett’s telling of the incident.

Even so, Smollett is a jester. And like all jesters, they couch bad news in comedic displays (one can’t help but chuckle at the dismal state of affairs, deeply troubling though they are). He and his opportunistic ilk will continue to play society’s emphasis on vulnerability as the metric of moral worth to their benefit.

To disregard the journalistic ethos in favor of the provocateur’s is foolish and unbecoming of an enterprise erected to nobly defend veracity, the voiceless and reign in the excesses of power.

Just as soldiers are entrusted to protect their nation against foreign and domestic enemies, so too are journalists committed to guard truth against the indulgences of its adversaries, whether they’re of the embodied or abstract variety.

In this regard, Smollett was an embodied antagonist given a platform because of a popular allegiance to a concept — victimhood — and the moral weight it confers. Except he wasn’t the victim, though he auditioned to become a martyr.  

Duped as the media was, one must wonder whether journalists are still de facto activists if their activism promulgates falsity and whether the lesson learned doesn’t sour. Still, the fortunate glimmer in this mess is how quickly the story circulated despite its seeming duplicity: there’s a growing desire for justice and progress. Nonetheless, caution is a virtue.

Christopher Salazar PZ ’20 is a philosophy major from La Verne, California. He’s not one to proselytize, but he considers whiskey on the rocks sacrilege.

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