On the Smollett situation and post-truth sensationalism

According to major U.S. news sources, on Jan. 22, 2019, beloved Empire-star Jussie Smollett was hospitalized following a vicious racist and homophobic attack in Chicago. The alleged perpetrators saturated Smollett with an unknown liquid and placed a noose around his neck. The optics of these despicable attacks echo waves of anger across television, radio, social media and sociopolitical forums alike.

Factions of the population who were especially upset about this story began assigning blame. Many of these culture leaders laid the blame at the feet of the president of the United States, including sitting Democratic legislators on Capitol Hill, with the alleged attackers having invoked “MAGA” and other taglines popular among President Trump and his supporters.

There’s only one problem: Overwhelming evidence suggests that the attack was fabricated by Smollett himself.

It was a false flag scheme, or so Chicago Police vehemently believe. This came as a surprise to many due to the mass media wave of proliferated outrage. But false controversies are a dime a dozen in this country. Less-publicized but equally-manufactured controversies include the Nathan Phillips Native American incident, the 2015 Centers for Medical Progress and Planned Parenthood fetal tissue controversy, as well as countless others. This list doesn’t even scratch the surface of the issue, which transcends partisan lines.

Key social and political actors understand the sensationalist media and keyboard warriors thrive on these outrageous encounters. In an effort for media to chase advertising revenue and maintain their relevance by disbursing salient news, the fact-checking process and confirmation of a story’s validity takes a back seat to revenue collection and viewership. The era of generating stories based upon anonymous sources and “leaked” preliminary reports is upon us.

This is not necessarily the fault of media, as private media organizations are businesses. Media businesses have exorbitant overhead costs that must be offset to keep the lights on and the employees paid. The blame ought to be laid at our feet for consuming half-truths and sensationalist content without regard for the accuracy. If media outlet “A” reported on a shiny, sensationalist story on a purely speculative basis and media outlet “B” waited for all the facts before reporting, one can reasonably conclude that media outlet “B” would not be in business for too long.

Americans are notoriously “now” focused. Our consumerist culture transcends the immediacy of needing an iced coffee or iPad Pro. It is evident in nearly every area of society. Americans don’t know how to wait for a road to be properly constructed, a flight that has been delayed or an engaging story to be carefully researched and confirmed before it is proliferated. Before a full investigation is concluded and material facts are on display in their unaltered form, the public demands that media provide us the most updated information with the latest pundit analyses and bold rhetoric about how “outrageous” a situation has become. In an effort to fill airtime, speculation is tossed around in regards to what or who is to blame.

Until we, the members of the American consumer society, can learn patience and reinforce this acceptability in media, we cannot complain about the result. We request half-baked stories that make our blood boil. We share them on social media and spread half-truths that align with our partisan views.

We do it. The media analyzes our preferences and attempts to profit off them. Next time somebody complains about “fake news,” ask them what they are doing to reinforce the notion that waiting for the details, material facts and the conclusion of an investigation is not just acceptable– it’s the only way forward.

Ryan Yde is a senior majoring in political science and international studies on the pre-law track.