Thursday, March 21, 2019

Were we too quick to side with Jussie Smollett?

by Joe Siegel

When “Empire” star Jussie Smollett claimed to have been the victim of a racist and homophobic hate crime last month in Chicago, LGBTQ media expressed sympathy for the openly gay actor.

But now, Smollett has been indicted on 16 counts of disorderly conduct by a Cook County, Illinois, grand jury. According to CNN: “The indictment says Smollett told police he was attacked by two men who used racial and homophobic slurs during an attack at 2 a.m. After police detained two brothers who were ‘persons of interest’ in mid-February, police sources revealed that authorities suspected Smollett knew the men and allegedly had paid them $3,500 to stage the attack.” Smollett has denied any involvement in orchestrating an attack.

Actor Jussie Smollett
In a February 2 story in Atlanta-based Georgia Voice, writer Katie Burkholder noted that Smollett gave a statement to Essence magazine about the attack: “Let me start by saying I’m okay,” he said in a statement addressed to the “beautiful people.”

“My body is strong, but my soul is stronger,” Smollett continued. “More importantly, I want to say thank you. The outpouring love and support from my village has meant more to me than I will ever be able to truly put into words.”

Burkholder noted, “Smollett received tons of support and love from ‘Empire’ cast and crew on social media, as well as from other celebrities.”

So was LGBTQ media too quick to rush to Smollett’s defence?

Tammye Nash, managing editor of the Dallas Voice, believes LGBTQ news outlets need to support the community as well as hold its members accountable. Nash defends the Smollett coverage.

“I think that the horror, anger and outrage were certainly natural reactions, and people were obviously going to offer sympathy to Smollett,” Nash said. “And while LGBT journalists could, from a purely personal standpoint, express that outrage and sympathy, from a professional standpoint, we needed to react like journalists and stick to the facts. Some people, I think, jumped on the Jussie bandwagon a little too quickly, and maybe others have been too skeptical. Neither reaction really comes from an ‘unbiased’ standpoint.”

“Objectivity is of paramount importance,” added Andrew Davis, publisher of Chicago’s Windy City Times. “We constantly use words such as ‘allegedly’ and ‘reportedly’ in order to avoid sounding like we're convicting anyone, even in the court of public opinion.”

“As for the LGBTQ media, I believe that standards should be objective as well, regarding news,” Davis added. “We have an op-ed page if people — including editors — want to express opinions.”

The Washington Blade and Los Angeles Blade used a slightly different strategy with its coverage.  “[We] covered the Smollett case as an entry point to a larger discussion of the dramatic rise in hate crimes since President Trump took office,” said Kevin Naff, editor for the Washington Blade.

The covers of both publications featured a full-page cover photo of Smollett with his quote as the headline: “Black Queer People Are Victimized Every Day.”

Naff believes the Smollett story may have long-lasting negative repercussions for minority communities.

“Clearly, anti-LGBT and racist elements in our society now feel emboldened and validated,” Naff added. “They have the president's bully pulpit on their side. The Smollett case is an isolated, unfortunate and wrong-headed stunt that backfired. It trivializes the devastating impact that actual hate crimes have on our community. But it shouldn't overshadow the fact that under Donald Trump, hate crimes targeting LGBTQ people and people of color have spiked.”

Jeremy Williams, central Florida bureau chief of Orlando-based Watermark, took on the political ramifications of the story in his editorial in the February 21 issue.

“The joy and excitement coming from the right is disturbing, but what is also disturbing to me is the attacks from the left saying if you don’t believe Smollett then you don’t believe any victims,” wrote Williams. “Yes, it is important to believe victims. But it is equally important not to ignore facts. Ignoring the mountains of proof in front of your face just to keep from admitting you were wrong is exactly what the left has accused the right of doing under the Trump administration when it comes to climate change, immigration and more.”

Mark Segal, publisher and founder of Philadelphia Gay News, weighed in with an editorial entitled, “The question of Jussie Smollett.”

“Being black and gay and open about it is brave, and comes with it much hate,” he wrote in the February 22 issue of PGN. “So, no matter the outcome of this incident, Smollett has already suffered, and possibly been broken by that hate. But, either way, it is heinous — the hate crime or the invention of a hate crime. And, while we don’t know yet which is true, we need to realize that one person is not an entire group of people, whether black or LGBT.”

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