Shameful Smollett Plea Deal, Destructive Fall-Out From His Sham Claims

In my latest installment of “As the Jussie Smollett Debacle Turns,” I closed with this thought:

If there is sufficient evidence to convict Smollett of these charges, then his sentence should be stiff enough to deter others from trying anything similar.

That was one humongous “IF,” as it turns out.

Hot on the heels of today’s startling, troubling, smack-my-head-inducing news that charges against Smollett have been dropped, in exchange for community service and $10,000, I suppose one might wonder if this saga will actually embolden Jussie-like behavior in the future. (No need to elaborate on what that means—let’s get real here.)

My hunch is that it won’t stir copy cats among those borderline celebrities seeking to take a perilous, false police report-style short-cut to move up a rung on the Rich & Famous Food Chain. That’s because my hunch is that Jussie Smollett’s star has dimmed considerably through this entire shameful spectacle he set in motion.

Meantime, it’s infuriating to ponder the scope of damage wrought by Smollett. A partial list:

*Damage to actual victims of hate crimes, past or future, when people are that much less likely to believe them because of this grand fabrication;
*Damage to the City of Chicago’s reputation, which got dragged through the gutter as a place where such a vile attack could occur;
*Damage to the Police Department, which six weeks ago appeared foolish to have taken so long to get to the bottom of this outrageous scheme and which now appears to have been left hanging out to dry by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office;
*Damage to public safety, because the Police Department’s resources were diverted to chase these mythical bad guys; and
*Damage to the trust of everyone who stood behind Smollett. He used his small measure of celebrity to leverage a lie of epic proportions, and became a bigger celebrity through it.

Smollett is such a dedicated actor that he is maintaining his line that he has been truthful throughout this chain of events. Nobody who understands the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy are fictional is buying this fairy tale, either.

Maybe, beyond his own selfishness, on some level Smollett wanted to shine a light on oppressive truths–the racism, homophobia, and other horrible things that certainly, and tragically, exist in our society.

But the fights against those ills have been undermined by his alleged fabrication. Instead, his name deserves to become a verb. Get ready for “jussied” and “jussying” to enter our lexicon.

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Setting the (Stilted) Stage: Jussie Smollett Tale Was a Cynical Checklist for Public Outrage

A little over three weeks ago, I had never heard of Jussie Smollett.

Same goes for most people, since he was a secondary character in Empire, the Fox series that is filmed in Chicago.

That relative obscurity changed in late January, after he alleged that he was the victim of a heinous hate crime in Chicago, complete with homophobic, racist and all-around nasty overtones.

From the start, I had serious doubts about his account. I was far from alone in that skepticism, although expressing those misgivings was a perilous exercise until the recent turn of events. Yesterday, he was charged by Chicago Police with felony disorderly conduct for making a false police report.

That report, among other startling details, included a noose thrust around his neck…the “This is MAGA Country!” remarks attributed to the two purported assailants…the homophobic and racist slurs hurled at him…and, oh yes, the curious time of 2:30 a.m. for all of this going down as he returned home from a late-night jaunt to get a sub sandwich.

It simply didn’t add up. It felt like a too cut-and-dried checklist designed for public outrage–a sort of stilted staging that, quite literally, defied belief. As a journalist, I covered a variety of con artists and liars, from politicians to people who lay it on thick with their academic, athletic and business credentials.The list is long enough to give me pause whenever something in a story doesn’t quite jibe.

A few highlights of my time chronicling those dealing in heavy-duty deception:

*Over 20 years ago, I broke what my newspaper, The Courier News of Elgin, Ill. playfully dubbed “Penguingate,” a Cook County Commissioner candidate’s untruths about a professional hockey career that included a stint with the Pittsburgh Penguins. That interview began going south for Michael Olszewski around the time he couldn’t correctly recall the name of Pittsburgh’s coach during his supposed time in the NHL.

*In the early 1990s, there was “Motorcycle Mike,” an 85-year-old Streamwood, Ill. man named Mike Figliulo with a penchant for fascinating stories about his interactions with Al Capone, Charlie Chaplin–and, oh, who also exaggerated his age by precisely two decades. (He fooled reporters before me, as well as after me–and he duped me, too, until I wrote a column a few weeks after my feature on this “105-year-old” that set the record straight.)

*About a decade ago, while reporting for Realtor magazine, I came across a 23-year-old man who was a finalist for the magazine’s “30 Under 30” issue. My red flags about him centered on business and athletic claims. Those assertions didn’t hold up when I did a little digging, and prompted editors to agree with my recommendation to drop him from consideration for the recognition. Within a year or two, this supposed rising star of real estate was out of the industry altogether, having bolted to some other field.

Fast forward to February 1st, or three days after the since-debunked incident with Smollett and those two Nigerian brothers he is alleged to have hired as part of his scheme. This was still an early juncture in its aftermath as police were (at least publicly) expressing continued belief in Smollett’s tale. At that time, I revealed my doubts with language that did little to disguise my skepticism:

At the time, I wrote:

Like so many others, I fervently want justice to be done in this case.

Must confess I am puzzled, however, over a seeming contradiction: police say that Jussie Smollett has been fully cooperative…and also state that he has declined (is “refused” too loaded a term?) to turn over his phone for their review. This would be the same phone on which he and his manager have stated they were having a conversation when the attack occurred.

Looking at the phone would, for starters, pinpoint the time of attack. Saying “no” to sharing it with authorities: Isn’t that, at minimum, a tad less than cooperative?

Hundreds of hours of law enforcement resources (read: many 1,000s of public dollars) are being dedicated to solving this alleged crime. Wouldn’t it be basic investigative procedure to have a look at his phone?

Now events have played out as I suspected they would. That includes the new criminal allegation that Smollett not only orchestrated the faux wee-hours attack, but the threatening letter that was mailed to the Empire office a week earlier.

If those criminal allegations stand up, then it’s infuriating to consider the damage that Smollett has wrought with this far-fetched plot. More thoughts on that later, if and when he is convicted.

To echo my February 1st observation, let’s hope that, now, justice truly will be done in this case. If there is sufficient evidence to convict Smollett of these charges, then his sentence should be stiff enough to deter others from trying anything similar.

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Deep (Throat) Lessons From Bob Woodward: Strike Up Conversations, Then Listen Up

Do you have the gift of gab?

It’s actually a trick question–because it’s not a gift at all, but a series of choices. The biggest one is to choose to put your focus on others rather than yourself.

Professional, ethical, effective journalists cannot write with long gazes into their navels. They must seek input from other sources.

Public relations professionals seeking to build solid rapport with media members do not merely “smile ‘n’ dial” and hope that some coverage-worthy mud sticks to the wall. PR pros try to figure out how journalists tick, what they are looking for, and in what form they prefer to receive information.

The top-performing salesman poses a few questions, allows the prospect to talk about his or her objections and needs, and then zeroes in on the closing approach that stands the best chance for success.

In all of those cases, the individual seeking to learn more from key contacts is taking a page out of the playbook described in Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Carnegie shares the story of how he met a botanist at a party and sincerely began asking questions about his world. The botanist talked for hours. At the end of the evening, he gushed to the host about Carnegie, whom he described as a “most interesting conversationalist.”

Noting that he “had said hardly anything at all,” Carnegie recalled that the key was that he had “listened intently.”

“I had listened because I was genuinely interested. And he felt it,” Carnegie stated. “Naturally that pleased him. That kind of listening is one of the highest compliments we can pay anyone.”

If it’s such a precious commodity, then why is it so rare? Much of the answer boils down to fear. Fear of the unknown and fear of rejection are two biggies.

Those are self-absorbed ills. All of the focus is on our little selves, and worst-case scenarios of what could happen to us if this, that or the other thing ensues. But those are statistically remote illusions, a fervent faith in negative results that hardly ever materialize.

Consider what you can gain by practicing the discipline of focusing on others, of speaking very little and listening very much.

In his account of how he first met W. Mark Felt, the man who would later become his pivotal Deep Throat source, Bob Woodward experienced the powerful impact of looking beyond himself and stepping out of his comfort zone.

In 1970, while he was in the U.S. Navy, Woodward was in the White House waiting to deliver documents to the chief of naval operations. Felt sat down near him. After several minutes of silence, Woodward introduced himself.

For many of us, saying anything to a stranger can push us out of our comfort zone—especially when we are in the company of someone whose stature may intimidate us. (Woodward recalled Felt as “very distinguished looking” with “a studied air of confidence.”)

Woodward went on to share more about himself with Felt. Though the older gentleman initially did not reciprocate, he became more engaged when Woodward hit on common ground. Woodward was taking graduate courses at George Washington University, and Felt replied that he had gone to night law school there before he joined the FBI.

Bingo, a key fact emerges. From there, the two found more common ground and spoke at length as Woodward continued to push through any comfort zone constraints he may have had.

“I peppered him with questions about his job and his world, and as I think back on this accidental but crucial encounter–one of the most important in my life–I see that my patter probably verged on the adolescent. Since he wasn’t saying much about himself, I turned it into a career counseling session. I asked Felt for his phone number and he gave me the direct line to his office. He was going to be one of the people I consulted in depth about my future.”

While the meeting may have been “accidental,” Woodward’s boldness and persistence transformed what could have been a routine, superficial mutual head-nodding moment into an historical turning point.

Think about your moments, minutes, hours and days ahead.

It’s not a gift, it’s your choice.

What’s the worst that can happen if you say “hello” to someone on the elevator? How uncomfortable is it, really, to introduce yourself to someone in the crowd at the city council meeting? Why don’t you make that contact you’ve been putting off for days?

Better yet, ask this question: What’s the best that can happen?

Matt Baron originally wrote this column in July 2005, and posted it on his PAVE The Way to Powerful Communication blog.

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Chicago Mayoral Race Lesson: Details Matter

The list of Chicago mayoral candidates is only slightly longer than the list of those same hopefuls who are so quick to distract and deflect when faced with evidence of their dubious decisions or dealings. (Looking at you, especially, Bill Daley and Toni Preckwinkle.)

The latest twist is another candidate, Amara Enyia, who overstated her ultra-distance athletic prowess. Rather than acknowledge the inaccuracy, and move on, Enyia chose to lash out with a defensive, dismissive reply. She called it “nitpicking” in comparison to the alleged issues of others in the race.

If only it were the first nit to have been picked.

However, in much more serious matters, she has been revealed to have less-than-sterling integrity. As the Chicago Tribune headline declared last week, “Amara Enyia’s financial problems: Underreporting income, tax lien, lawsuits.”

In my 20 years as a journalist, military service and/or decoration, athletic achievement, and academic achievement — those are the three big spheres where folks fib. Often, and very often many years later, those lies get exposed. Lying about business accomplishment is another area, though it’s often murkier to get to the bottom of those claims, since there is not a centralized “Business Database” the way there are clear-cut lists for the other areas.

The bottom line, whether you are a candidate for higher office or anyone else trying to make your way in the world: details matter. If you are sloppy, misleading, or outright deceptive in the small ones, how can you be trusted with the much bigger ones?

Just the same, when the spotlight does turn to you, it’s an opportunity–so don’t dig your credibility hole even deeper. Take responsibility and own it, and demonstrate that you have learned from the mistake. Glossing over it, and pointing fingers elsewhere, does not inspire faith in your ability to lead.

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Behind the Scenes: Story-Telling Artist Shines Light on Realtor Building Transformation

This summer, I had the pleasure of collaborating with friend and next-door neighbor Joe Crosetto to write a story about the work that his firm, Interactive Building Solutions (IBS), is involved in: the make-over of the Realtor Building in downtown Chicago.

It is located at 430 N. Michigan Avenue, where the National Association of Realtors (NAR) is making major changes to the 56-year-old building that has been their headquarters since 1978. The complex effort benefits from other experts, including Grumman/Butkus Associates, GNP Realty Partners, and ONE Development.

Joe has the title of “sales engineer” at IBS, but an overarching description of him really must begin with “artist.”

Those artistic talents extend to a variety of creative art forms, including sculpture and pottery-making. Among other pieces, he makes beautiful travel mugs and pots that you can see at Art-O-Rama.

The four-page story spread.

In much the same way, from conception to completion, Joe brought this story to life. Through words and images, he translated his initial vision for communicating the behind-the-scenes transformation of this Magnificent Mile building.

The result: this striking November 2018 cover story for Chief Engineer magazine, which you can read here as a PDF posted on the IBS website. Thank you, Joe, for allowing me to come along for the ride!

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