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.

Related Posts:
Manti Te’O Deception Exposes Failings of An All-Too-Easily Duped Media
In the Wake of NBC’s Brian Williams’ Fall From Grace, Apologists Creep Out of the Woodwork
The Four Hot Spots For Tall Tales