ABC’s Robin Roberts scored an interview with the man who sparked a worldwide media blockbuster after claiming he was the victim of a vicious, racist, homophobic hate crime.
Actor Jussie Smollett, who says he was randomly attacked by two Trump-supporting fanatics in the middle of a Chicago night two weeks ago, discussed the incident for the first time Thursday morning.
Roberts used the sit down to address widespread doubts about the veracity of Smollett’s story, repeatedly assuring viewers his story is credible. Whereas Roberts could have used the interview to ask Smollett tough questions and point out the inconsistencies in his story, she instead help shepherd him through his narrative, ignoring when he appeared to slip up. Every question Roberts asked presupposed everything Smollett initially reported about that night is true.
“If the attackers are never found,” she asked at one point, “How will you be able to heal?”
After an initial portion of the interview aired, Roberts told viewers that Smollett is “consistent,” “credible,” and “very cooperative” — none of which is actually true.
Days after the attack, Smollett read a statement acknowledging parts of his original story were untrue. Smollett admitted his ribs were not actually broken and that he never went to the hospital. As for being “cooperative,” Smollett still refuses to turn his phone over to police, which they say could help pinpoint his alleged attackers. Smollett’s manager, whom the actor says was on the phone during the beat-down, has likewise refused to give police his phone.
When first describing the incident he says occurred, Smollett seemed to contradict his original story, referring to just a single “attacker,” but later adds that a second attacker was also kicking him:
Despite being the apparent victim of one of the worst hate crimes in recent national memory, Smollett did not initially report the incident police, but rather to the celebrity gossip site, TMZ. Asked why, Smollett blamed American society for believing gay men are “weak.”
“We live in a society where as a gay man, you are considered somehow to be weak,” he said. “And I’m not weak. I am not weak. And we are as a people are not weak. So during that time before they came — took them about maybe half hour to come, and during that time I was looking at myself just like checking myself.”
Moving on, Roberts then falsely suggests Smollett has turned his phone over to police, saying: “Many of those doubts [about his story] around the issue of his phone, with some wondering why he didn't initially hand it over to authorities." [Emphasis added]
Smollett has never turned his phone over to police. Two weeks after the attack, he gave the Chicago Police Department a PDF file listing calls made around the time of the attack, a document the police said is useless.
Roberts tells Smollett that “the vast majority of people have been supportive and loving and understanding” of his apparent hate crime and then asks what he thinks about his doubters. With this setup, Smollett says those questioning his story would believe him had he said his attackers were “Muslim” or “Mexican” or “black.”
“It feels like if I had said it was a Muslim or a Mexican or someone black, I feel like the doubters would have supported me a lot much more, a lot more, and that says a lot about the place that we are in our country right,” Smollett said.
After the second portion of the interview aired, Roberts again told viewers that Smollett should be believed.
“He's not just angry at what happened then, he's angry at what happened now and he realizes,” people don’t believe him, Roberts said. “He is — is adamant and as I said earlier the police have said he's been consistent, that he's been credible, that he is cooperative and that the investigation is ongoing."
Roberts frequently setup Smollett to re-frame his anti-Trump narrative and establish himself as a victim.
Had Roberts actually been interested in digging out the truth from this story, why didn’t she ask:
— How were you able to fight off two attackers simultaneously, while holding onto your sandwich? (Surveillance footage from Smollett’s apartment shows him returning with the sandwich still in his hands.)
— Where are the clothes that would have been stained after being doused in bleach?
— Why didn’t you go to the hospital if the attack were half as bad as you’ve reported?
— The New York Post found a bottle of hot sauce near the scene of the incident that they said contains a bleach-like substance. Was that the bottle used in the attack? If so, why didn’t you point it out to police when you showed them the scene of the attack? Shouldn’t you have recognized it?
— Why won’t your manager turn his phone over to police?
— If you’re telling the truth, why have you hired a crisis PR firm?
— If, as you say, the death threat you received in the mail is from the same people who attacked you, how do you think they knew you’d be at that Subway at 2 AM?
Instead of anything like that, viewers instead got Roberts repeatedly setting up Smollett to attack conservatives, asking, “Why do you think you were targeted?”; “There is no doubt in your mind what motivated this attack?”; and, “What do you feel people need to hear the most about this story?"
For getting to the truth of what happened that night, Robert’s interview was a lost opportunity. But for helping build the narrative that America is a racist, intolerant society, Roberts’ interview was a major win.