UPDATE: Jussie Smollette Charged With Hoax “Publicity Stunt”

Chicago Police superintendent Eddie Johnson angrily announces charges against Empire actor Jussie Smollette, alleging the actor sent a false letter and later staged a hate crime because he was dissatisfied with his salary and sought publicity.

Jussie Smollett, a star on Empire and LGBTQ+ activist, has been charged with disorderly conduct, a felony that can bring as much as one to three years in prison with a large fine.

Police Chief Eddie Johnson, an African-American, stated:

“Why would anyone, especially an African American man, use the symbolism of a noose to make false accusations? How could someone look at the hatred and suffering associated with that symbol and see an opportunity to manipulate that symbol to further his own public profile? … I only hope the truth about what happened receives the same amount of attention the hoax did.”

In an analysis of the news conference, The Washington Post noted that media coverage of the hoax has surpassed Smollett’s claim of a hate crime, focusing now on the ramifications of the act.

Smollett turned himself in to authorities on Feb. 20.

The saga began when Smollett said that two men attacked him in Chicago on Jan. 29, dousing him with bleach and putting a noose around his neck. Because of a series of purported discoveries by police, many in media doubted the crime actually happened.

On Feb. 1, he gave this statement to Essence magazine:

“As my family stated, these types of cowardly attacks are happening to my sisters, brothers and non-gender conforming siblings daily. I am not and should not be looked upon as an isolated incident. We will talk soon and I will address all details of this horrific incident, but I need a moment to process. Most importantly, during times of trauma, grief and pain, there is still a responsibility to lead with love. It’s all I know. And that can’t be kicked out of me.”

Smollett reported to CNN that two men called him racist and homophobic slurs. Chicago police noted that Smollett in his initial report did not say that one of the men shouted, “This is MAGA country,” a reference to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again. According to People Magazine, he stated that to police in a subsequent meeting and the record was updated.

He had told police on the night of the attack he had been on the phone with his manager. Doubt began to surface when Smollett did not hand over his phones but instead provided a redacted copy of his phone record.

Then police found surveillance footage of two men.

Smollett told his story and maintained his innocence in a widely disseminated interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts.

In that interview he was shown the surveillance footage of the two men and said he believed them to be his attackers.

The two men, arrested by police, Abel and Ola Osundairo, are brothers, one of whom appeared briefly on Empire and both of whom purportedly know Smollett. The men cooperated with police. Both cooperated with police and were seen in this video, purchasing materials to be used in the purported attack.

The case brings to light a significant 17% increase in hate crimes, according to the FBI. Smollett and his brother Jake also are respected advocates for worthy causes. In 2018, they  helped raise more than $1 million for a historically black college for women, Bennett College, to keep its doors open.

Days before the reported attack, the Chicago set of Empire received an envelope containing white powder, later shown to be aspirin, according to police. Authorities believe that Smollett sent the letter and then decided on a subsequent attack when the letter alone did not generate sufficient publicity.

At the time of the police news conference, Smollett still maintained his innocence. His lawyers issued this statement:

“Today we witnessed an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system. The presumption of innocence, a bedrock in the search for justice, was trampled upon at the expense of Mr. Smollett and notably, on the eve of a Mayoral election. Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing.”

Living Media Ethics covers the ramifications of a hoax in a chapter on manipulation. It notes several types of hoaxes, including publicity stunts.

Here’s an excerpt:

10 Common Time Elements for Hoaxes *These time elements can be combined, of course.

  • When information about a sensational story, client or product seems to have reached a standstill.
  • When information about an event, incident, client or product threatens or supports a person’s or a group’s interests.
  • When a political candidate is running for office or an issue is being debated or considered for legislative action.
  • When society is consumed by a widespread fear or desire.
  • When society searches for a missing link, cure or other piece of evidence to advance learning, science or technology.
  • When a hoaxster needs the exposure or publicity.
  • When a media outlet has recently run a promotional campaign soliciting reader or viewer participation or feedback.
  • When a deadline or production schedule doesn’t allow for research.
  • When the media outlet has a need for a certain type of story, client or product line.
  • When a story, client, or product line is linked to a specific season, holiday or occasion

Reporters and practitioners are instructed to be patient and seek facts from reliable sources before disseminating a hoax story and also to:

  • Question the motive of the source. Try to ascertain why the person is resorting to falsehoods and manipulation. A person risks reputation and even criminal liability by resorting to a hoax.
  • Question your own motive and media needs. Ask yourself if your own motives, ambitions and deadlines are playing a role in your perspective.
  • Question the impact on audience. Determine how the source’s story, problem, discovery or product will affect your readers, viewers or customers. The bigger the story, the bigger the impact on you if you are wrong in your assessment.
  • Assess your own fears, desires, convictions or values. Ultimately hoaxsters rely on journalists and practitioners and their inherent biases to perpetuate a hoax. Be sure to take that into account.

Journalists and practitioners who refrain from prematurely dubbing a report a hoax gain credibility because they do not need to issue a retraction. Likewise, journalists and practitioners who outwit, defuse and expose a hoaxster enhance their credibility, along with that of the employer.

Living Media Ethics is available from Routledge and addresses ethical issues in advertising, journalism and public relations.

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