Mulhall column: Media exposing its ideological skivvies
The “assault” on Jessie Smollett, who until recently I’d never heard of, garnered quite a lot media attention in recent weeks — attention that illustrates that the very act of news reporting shapes public understanding, intended or not.
Smollett, a black, gay, 36-year-old TV actor, claimed he’d been rolled by two men in ski masks proclaiming, “This is MAGA country.”
Despite the glaring incongruity that these alleged Trump loyalists attacked near his Chicago home, the police report said that after the beating assailants poured an unidentified liquid on the guy and put a noose around his neck.
Reaction was swift. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker, presidential-hopeful Kamala Harris and numerous media pundits called the incident a “modern-day lynching.”
Then the police figured out Smollett may have staged his own assault. Whether true, Smollett was arrested and charged with filing a false police report, a felony that carries a possible prison sentence.
The arrest left the media in a quandary: how do you back-walk a “modern-day lynching” story that suddenly lacks veracity?
The solution, it seems, was to report Smollett’s arrest objectively, drop any further mention of it, and wait for the next story big enough to eclipse it.
The sudden story drop wasn’t without precedent. Just last January, the media dropped another story over a similar breakdown.
At that time, high school students attending a pro-life march on the Lincoln Memorial stairs crossed paths with participants in a Native American rally.
Photos and videos from that day showing a MAGA-hat-wearing, 16-year-old student chin-to-chin with a Native American elder went viral on social and broadcast media, sparking widespread indignation over the narrative that says Trump supporters — young and old — are a boorish, disrespectful lot.
Some days later, a video surfaced showing the incident in broader context, and the well-developed notion that the kid had been a jerk turned out a bit of a stretch.
The story fell into obscurity nearly as quickly as it had come to life, even though a hefty defamation lawsuit against the Washington Post emerged in its wake.
Media coverage doesn’t always turn out so badly, however. When a story supports a narrative that aligns with a political viewpoint favored by many folks in media, those involved in the story don’t experience defamation or smear.
To the contrary, for example, after the tragic shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, one student survivor not only gained a high-profile media stage, he soon became quite the spokesman for the #NeverAgain movement, as well.
I even read recently that, despite disappointment over several unsuccessful college applications, that particular young man recently learned he’ll attend college at Harvard next fall. With any luck, his blessings won’t end there.
In fairness, you could say the media properly drops stories when they prove untrue, and that’s a good thing.
Yet, it’s no reach to notice how eagerly the media develops some of the stories they end up punting, and, at least within the last two years, that somewhere within those stories you’ll find a MAGA reference.
In some, you’ll also find young people, some of whom are minors who, prior to media coverage, were students and private citizens. Where one gets defamed, another gets elevated. The difference? — the extent to which an event they were involved in supports a preferred viewpoint, for one.
It would be remarkable if the defamation suit against the Washington Post were to highlight the media’s tendency to strain stories through their ideological underwear, but it won’t. If the suit somehow gets legs, it will be due to media’s treatment of someone who was not only a private citizen, but a minor, too.
I could be wrong, but the Washington Post defamation suit strikes me as more a fizzle than a bang. When it does burn out, media defamation of private citizen minors will have become fair game — just like staged assaults play-written to raise political and racial tensions.
On that day, as today, few will realize what’s been lost.
Mitch Mulhall is a husband, father and longtime Roaring Fork Valley resident. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent and at postindependent.com.