February 19, 2019

How has the media handled the Jussie Smollett story?

The Jussie Smollett story gets stranger and murkier by the day.

Was the “Empire” actor really attacked by two Donald Trump supporters for being gay and black? Or did he orchestrate the whole thing? Chicago police are still digging into it. While we wait, another subplot has emerged: that the media was irresponsible in its reporting of this story and, as a result, fed an anti-Trump narrative.

There’s only one problem with that thinking: The media, in this case, appeared to do its job responsibly.

[expander_maker id=”1″ more=”Read more” less=”Read less”]

Certainly there was outrage when the story first broke that Smollett was attacked, including details that the alleged suspects hung a noose around his neck and yelled, “This is MAGA country.” Some celebrities and a few politicians rushed to condemn the attack.

However, some criticized the media’s role, especially when doubts arose about Smollett’s story. Speaking on CNN on Monday, CNN media critic Brian Stelter said, “I think it was mostly the celebrity press and among activists and among Twitter people. I think it was really careful reporting by news organizations. But it all gets lumped in together at the end of the day.”

To Stelter’s point, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted:

“Strange that no one in Hollywood or the Main Stream Media seems to want #JusticeForJussie anymore. Wonder what changed?”

But was there ever a point when the mainstream media wanted justice or didn’t do its job the right way? Speaking on Fox News on Monday, media critic Howard Kurtz said, “I would argue that most news organizations acted with restraint.”

Kurtz said that Smollett’s accusation was news.

“A guy who is a star on the Fox show ‘Empire’ makes these terrible-sounding accusations — you have to report that,” Kurtz said. “The Chicago police were taking it seriously and investigating, and you have to report that. Now you and I and many other people in the business knew something about this didn’t smell right from the beginning. There were things that didn’t add up. But that’s not enough to go on the air or write.”

One could argue the media should have been more skeptical of Smollett’s story. Appearing on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, commentator Kmele Foster said, “Two in the morning, almost the coldest night of the year, you were attacked and someone conveniently had a rope? My heart goes out to anyone who gets attacked, but it’s totally appropriate to exercise a bit of skepticism and to exercise a bit of patience in waiting for the facts to develop around this story.”

But that feels like hindsight —just as it does to criticize ABC’s “Good Morning America” host Robin Roberts for not pushing Smollett harder during her exclusive interview last week. On Monday’s “GMA,” Roberts addressed the interview, saying, “We have to remember, at that time, on Tuesday (when she interviewed Smollett), police officers were saying that his account was consistent, it was credible, and that he was being cooperative.”

When there were hints that perhaps this was all a hoax, the media reported that, too. In fact, TV stations in Chicago broke that story and the mainstream media has been chasing it ever since.

There’s a chance we will find out that Smollett was lying all along. If that ends up being the case, a lot of damage will have been done — to Trump supporters and to those who are legitimately the victims of homophobia and racism. If that’s the case, blame Smollett — not the media.

Post-Dispatch to outsource editing and design jobs

This is bad news. Lee Enterprises, which owns the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is moving the Post-Dispatch’s design and copy editing work to its design/editing hub in Munster, Indiana.

“Such outsourcing inevitably weakens the newspaper, since editors with little knowledge of the St. Louis region will be editing copy, writing headlines and designing pages of the Post-Dispatch,” said Jeff Gordon, president of the United Media Guild, in a statement. “But our remaining members will do their best to maintain the P-D’s high journalistic standards and keep serving the community.”

The Post-Dispatch continues to put out a solid product despite slashes to its staff. The paper recently offered buyouts to those who were at least 50 years old and had 10 years of experience. In addition, Lee Enterprises sold the Post-Dispatch’s building and moved the paper to a smaller location.

Knight Foundation putting $300 million toward local news

Poynter’s Kristen Hare reports that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced today a $300 million commitment toward rebuilding local news ecosystems during the next five years, with details on where the first $100 million would go.

Check it out

Ryan Blaney (12), Aric Almirola (10), Paul Menard (21), David Ragan (38) and Matt DiBenedetto (95) start a multi-car wreck between Turns 3 and 4 during the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 17, 2019, in Daytona Beach, Florida. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

This is spectacular camera work by Fox Sports in covering a massive crash in Sunday’s Daytona 500. Thankfully (and incredibly) no one was injured.

Fox News certainly likes using the word “coup’’ these days as CNN’s “Reliable Sources” points out.

Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer are historians at Princeton University. Together, they wrote an interesting piece for Rolling Stone on how to impeach a president.

A kindergarten girl gets teased for having short hair. So what does her teacher do? Might wanna grab some tissue before seeing this “Today” show piece.

Two of my favorite films of the 1990s are about fictional U.S. presidents: “The American President” and “Primary Colors.” So I really love this well-done essay by The Ringer’s Kate Knibbs about how these two movies have aged.

Today is the last day to enter our survey for a chance to win a $50 Amazon gift card. It should take 5-10 minutes and will help us make this morning newsletter even better — and thanks to everyone who’s already responded.

Upcoming Poynter training:

Want to get this briefing in your inbox? Sign up here.

Follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.


Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
More by Tom Jones

More News

Back to News


Comments are closed.

  • ““A guy who is a star on the Fox show ‘Empire’ makes these terrible-sounding accusations — you have to report that,” Kurtz said.” My comment – Why? What makes a “star’s” accusations more important or newsworthy than a non-star? If anyone other than a star made the same claim, would the media report it?