Hook, line, sinker and attribution

There are many points with which I would take issue in the Walter E. Williams column on Jussie Smollett that we published Wednesday. That, in large measure, is the function of an opinion column, to engage a reader’s emotions and intellect. But one line of argument in particular about the news media is frequently repeated in the wake of Smollett’s arrest and demands some clarification.

Williams contends that Smollett’s description of a hate crime “was gobbled up hook, line and sinker” by a biased news media. It’s important for people who follow the news to recognize that no police reporting is accepted without qualification by legitimate news operations, and although the Smollett case certainly became a cause célèbre, first for many people with a liberal agenda and later for many with the opposite interest, it has routinely been reported as objectively and credibly as circumstances allowed.

Indeed, the first online headline from the Chicago Tribune about the Smollett case — which, by the way, was published as television news because of Smollett’s role as an actor on the series “Empire” — said simply, “Chicago police investigating report of assault on ‘Empire’ actor Jussie Smollett.” One of the Sun-Times’ earliest online headlines reported matter of factly that “Persons of interest in Jussie Smollett attack captured on camera, police say.” The Daily Herald’s Back Page headline over an Associated Press story said, “‘Empire’ actor assaulted in Chicago / Attackers shouted racist, homophobic slurs, police say.”

In all these cases and others as the story attracted national interest, the information cited was consistently attributed to the Chicago police, police spokesmen or other authorities. This is important not because it absolves the news media from responsibility about Smollett’s account, which prosecutors now say was deceptive, but because it shows something about how news reporting works for any crime story — or almost any story, for that matter. Unless reporters see something with their own eyes or an event becomes a matter of unqualified public knowledge — I did not personally see President Donald Trump meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, for example, but I’m comfortable repeating it as fact — they attribute it to the source that provided it. In a large number of news stories, that source is an authority like the police or some government or public agency.

To be sure, the Smollett story attracted widespread coverage. How could it not? The well-known actor on a popular television program described in detail a vicious attack based on his race and sexuality. Such a report is surely news, though it also bears noting that some people criticized the local news media early on for not giving enough attention to the Smollett case as they focused on the bitter cold — not exactly an unusual occurrence in the midst of a Chicago winter. And, yes, Smollett repeated his story in various print and broadcast interviews, even as police were saying that doubts about his report were unfounded.

But, it’s also important to recognize that you can watch the Smollett story unravel day by day and week by week in news reports. All along the way, the press reported only what it could know — first that police were serious in their investigation of a hate crime, then that they had identified two “persons of interest” who briefly became suspects before quickly being released, then that Smollett was a suspect and ultimately that he was arrested and charged with making it all up.

Smollett, we should remember, has pleaded not guilty to the charges. So, if news outlets gobbled up the “racist, homophobic attack” narrative of his original claim, are they also now “gobbling up” prosecutors’ contentions that he lied? It’s a misstatement in either case. We report news we think you will find interesting or valuable. We tell you the source of that news and as the news changes, if it changes, we report that, and you follow along with us every step of the way.

If what prosecutors say proves to be true, there is no doubt that Smollett has done a great disservice to actual victims of all types of crimes and to the reporting that legitimate outlets do in describing them. But it is incorrect to complain that news agencies demonstrated liberal bias because they reported the story, any more than they are now demonstrating conservative bias by reporting on new details or by letting columnists like Walter E. Williams weave Smollett’s story into their own world view. Williams is an economics professor, so he may not have a good idea of how news reporting works. I wish he did. I hope you do.

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