After a surprising twist, Smollett’s case blends the issue of race, homophobia, politics, and media all into one – and we’re just getting started
There’s a lot at stake after Jussie Smollett’s arrest on Thursday.
As you know by now, the 36-year old Empire actor who is African-American and gay, surrendered to Chicago Police after he allegedly staged an attack on himself the night of January 29 in the city’s Streeterville neighborhood, claiming he was assaulted by two men wearing Make America Great Again, or MAGA hats, yelling racial and homophobic slurs and tried to “hang him” by using a rope. Surveillance video showed two men near his apartment at the time of his attack.
Airing on Fox and now in its fourth season, Empire is shot in Chicago at Cinespace Studios on the West Side.
An aura of suspicion surrounded this story from the beginning, forcing Smollett to appear on Good Morning America to defend himself. It turned out the two men who were on video were two Nigerian brothers who were extras on Empire and the attack was carefully masterminded – by Smollett. Despite evidence to the contrary, Smollett is standing by his story and proclaimed his innocence.
The case has drawn international attention – something Chicago has grown accustomed to in recent years, especially with its never-ending cycle of gun violence. When Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson held a press conference Thursday morning to announce Smollett’s charges, he lashed out at the actor – angry he damaged the city’s reputation.
As predicted, media coverage has been relentless – especially from local newsrooms, already overworked from covering a mass shooting in suburban Aurora, a wild Chicago mayoral race, and R. Kelly’s recent arrest and legal problems. Not surprisingly, coverage has been criticized by many.
Just a few days ago, Empire producer 20th Century Fox Television released a statement defending the actor. Now the studio said they are “evaluating their options”. On Friday, the studio and Fox execs said Smolett would not appear in the final two episodes of Empire for the season, because he would be a distraction.
So where do we stand?
For one, Smollett’s arrest comes at an interesting time as Fox has yet to renew Empire for the 2019-20 season. Once a red-hot show, ratings for the show have plunged dramatically – a subject I wrote nearly two years ago, though numbers in the key 18-49 demo have stabilized. Also, the show’s studio is weeks away from being taken over by Disney, who purchased much of parent 21st Century Fox in a $71 billion deal announced in December 2017 (the Fox network itself is not part of the deal.) With Disney taking over production this fall – if it’s renewed, that is – and his upcoming legal proceedings, Smollett could be out of a job.
And While it does appear Fox will go though with Empire’s spring season premiere on March 13, it may not see any ratings bump.
Reaction on social media has been, as expected, vicious and way too over-the-top. For one, many were trying to tie Smollett’s alleged crime to President Trump’s alleged crimes in office. Meanwhile, conservative supporters felt vindicated and were taunting liberals – kind of what you expect in today’s racially and politically polarizing atmosphere. Also laughable were out-of-towners attempting to weigh in on Chicago’s social ills (on both sides of the political coin) as if we asked them for their opinion.
Then there was the media coverage itself, which in some cases was also too over-the-top – especially from Chicago news outlets, with news helicopters chasing Smollett’s vehicle as he was released on bond Thursday. Even more galling were a few Chicago outlets – particularly the Chicago Tribune – were patting themselves on the back for coverage of the Smollett saga when it was them and the rest of the media who ran with this alleged hoax to begin with.
The context within this is in the bigger issue of media consolidation (including the aforementioned Disney-Fox merger) as the big companies who own local stations are being gobbled up by even bigger companies for the sake of “scale” to compete with streaming services – when it’s really about increasing those retransmission consent (“retrans”) revenues from cable and satellite providers and political ad dollars – in which you haven’t noticed, there’s an ad for a Chicago mayoral candidate every five minutes on local TV – unheard of even eight years ago.
Also patting themselves on the back are the Chicago Police. While they should get credit, they devoted at least 12 detectives to this case – notable given there aren’t enough of them to solve the city’s homicide epidemic with a whopping 17 percent clearance rate – an issue hammered home by many in the media, especially from WFLD political editor Mike Flannery. The notion of them being portrayed as “heroes” sickened some, especially after Jason Van Dyke murdered LaQuan McDonald and his fellow officers covered up the crime.
And while Superintendent Johnson claimed the case hurt the city’s reputation, his comments are total bullshit. Over the last decade, conservative commentators – and since 2015 President Trump – have used Chicago to describe the nation’s urban ills, notably using our city as a code word for “black people” and “black-on-black” crime – even though the Chicago area isn’t even the largest African-American populace. If anything, African-Americans are leaving the Chicago metro area in large numbers, with the number of black TV homes (as of 2017) showing the biggest percentage drop of any DMA in the country, falling from second to fourth. It’s an issue I’ve written in this blog numerous times over the years.
And of course, political leaders weighed in when Smolett was first attacked, including presidential candidates Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA) and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Octaso-Cortez. But when the Smollett case began to unravel, they were quiet – although Rep. Bobby Rush (who represents Chicago’s South Side) did issue a follow-up statement Thursday. Personally speaking, I don’t need – or want to hear from any elected office holder – especially from the President or Chicago’s Mayor.
But the real question is, why did Smollett do this – especially when there are many people who are real victims of racist and homophobic attacks. Reports claim Smollett was dissatisfied with his salary. Well, here’s a news flash – a lot of people who work for a living are, especially those who work as assistants, PR people, etc. – not to mention television and radio in general whether if it’s in Hollywood or not. Smollett’s current salary – reported at $125,000 per episode – is far more than what most non-actors (and even some actors) make. Smollett is the wrong person to advocate for the “fight for 15” crowd – and he did so in the most asinine way possible.
So as we hunker down for what promises to be a long legal process, the issues of race, homophobia, and the hoax are going to be played out in a Cook County Courtroom. If you thought the nuttiness associated with O.J. Simpson was something, you haven’t seen nothing yet.
Welcome to the new “Trial Of The Century”.