Below is my column in USA Today on the aftermath of the Jussie Smollett verdict and what the case says about our state of both politics and journalism. As discussed yesterday, some figures and groups are still insisting that people need to believe Smollett regardless of the evidence or the verdict. Despite media figures calling his account “beautiful” and “brave,” seventy-five percent of the public believe that he staged the racist attack. The insistence by some that he is innocent shows how our national dialogue has become decoupled from facts. It simply does not matter that Smollett was clearly and inescapably guilty. He has to be innocent to fit a narrative so he is innocent in the view of some. As the editor said in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” it is very simple: “[w]hen the legend becomes fact…print the legend.”
Here is the column:
The guilty verdict in the trial of Jussie Smollett was hardly a surprise to anyone who followed the evidence rather than the coverage of the case. Co-conspirators, videotapes and text messages all showed that his claim of a racist attack by President Donald Trump supporters was a hoax. However, the judgment of the jury was also a judgment of many in our media and our politics who immediately embraced his facially ridiculous claims as true. Once again, jurors showed that they are not taking the race bait that was snapped up by many politicians and reporters.
Let’s be clear. The guilty verdict does not simply mean that Smollett is a liar or someone who engaged in disorderly conduct. He is a race baiter. His lies were to create a false claim of a vicious racist attack where, even in the ultra-liberal city of Chicago, a Black man can be targeted by roaming MAGA-yelling, bleach-pouring white supremacists. It was meant to use our deep and painful racial divisions for personal aggrandizement or advantage.
Another rush to judgment
He was not alone. When Smollett first said that he was left beaten with a noose around his neck, many of us expressed skepticism. However, many did not wait for an investigation or supporting facts before declaring that Smollett was the latest attempted lynching of a Black man in America. Joe Biden denounced “what happened” to Smollett and declared “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.”
Then-Sen. Kamala Harris immediately denounced what happened as an “attempted modern-day lynching.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) declared a “racist, homophobic attack” and “an affront to our humanity” as a fact. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted that “the racist and homophobic attack on Jussie Smollett” was “a horrific instance of the surging hostility toward minorities around the country. We must come together to eradicate all forms of bigotry and violence.”
On Jan. 29, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) tweeted “the vicious attack on actor Jussie Smollett was an attempted modern-day lynching. I’m glad he’s safe.” He then used the alleged attack to criticize those “who don’t feel the urgency to pass our Anti-Lynching bill designating lynching as a federal hate crime – I urge you to pay attention.”
Celebrities also rushed to use the alleged attack to attack others. Director Rob Reiner decried the attack while using it to attack Trump, saying in a now-deleted tweet: “The horrific attack on Jussie Smollett has no place in a decent human loving society. Homophobia existed before Trump, but there is no question that since he has injected his hatred into the American bloodstream, we are less decent, less human, & less loving. No intolerance! No DT!”
Inadequate, naïve advocacy journalism
While politicians and celebrities can be dismissed as transparently opportunistic or shallow figures, one would hope that the media would “pay attention” to the actual facts. In today’s “advocacy journalism,” that was equally naïve.
ABC’s Robin Roberts gave Smollett an interview that was breathtaking in its lack of substantive questions or even curiosity about glaring red flags in his account. Roberts described Smollett as “bruised but not broken” and nodded as he described his narrow escape from being lynched in America. She concluded the interview with “Beautiful, thank you, Jussie.”
The account was immediately embraced as true by many while any questions raised about the account were denounced as racist in itself. ABC’s “The Talk” host Sara Gilbert was irate: “I find so personally offensive that a gay Black man is targeted and then suddenly he becomes the victim of people’s disbelief.”
If Smollett is a race baiter, what are those who did not wait for the evidence and promulgated his sensational lies?
Our jurors have shown more responsibility from their leaders. In the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, a jury of 11 white jurors and one racial minority rejected wildly inaccurate accounts and voted for acquittal – a result viewed by many legal experts as correct under Wisconsin law. In the trial over the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a jury of 11 white jurors and one Black juror convicted all three defendants. Now a jury of six men and six women (including an African American) voted to convict Smollett on all but one count.
They showed the integrity missing in state’s attorney Kim Foxx whose office suddenly decided to drop all charges against him in exchange for Smollett performing community service. It was a move that not only protected Smollett but many Democratic leaders from the embarrassment of any conviction. Foxx would later recuse herself due to conflicts of interest but was later accused of pressuring subordinates to go easy on Smollett.
The jury followed the law without any political or personal inducement. Unlike Foxx (who was later reelected), they did it because it was their job. The question is why 12 people selected at random can show such integrity when our leaders, including our president and vice president, cannot muster the same sense of responsibility.
As for Smollett, by repeating his bizarre tale on the stand, he will lose any advantage on sentencing due to remorse or acceptance of responsibility. Given the gravity of his conduct and his failure to accept such responsibility, he should be given jail time. He faces up to three years if the counts (as expected) run concurrently.
The Smollett case shows how the jury is still a revolutionary institution capable of standing up to both privilege and power. As George Orwell is often quoted, “in a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.