During one of his “Between the Scenes” segments on The Daily Show this week, Trevor Noah took up the Jussie Smollett situation, and I think handled it well, basically taking a wait-and-see approach but recognizing that the facts aren’t good any way you look at it. We know that two Nigerian men beat up Jussie Smollett and yelled, “This is MAGA country.” So, either two Nigerian men who inexplicably yelled “This is MAGA country” are going to be convicted of hate crimes, or Jussie Smollett is going be prosecuted for staging his own attack.
But here’s where Trevor Noah hits sites like Pajiba in the gut: “We live in a world where people are too enthusiastic at jumping at stories that confirm their biases instead of just pausing and saying, ‘What do I make of the story?’”
Noah is not wrong. Granted, we waited nearly 24 hours before we first wrote about the Smollett story, but based on what we knew at the time — namely, what we read in the police report — we didn’t yet see anything off about the story. But maybe that’s because it did confirm our biases.
The same thing happened with a story we posted about Dwayne Johnson a few weeks ago, regarding a supposed interview he gave in which he attacked Millennials as snowflakes or something. The source of that “interview” was an English publication, and my first thought was, “No one would completely make up an interview, would they? That’s crazy! He’s the most popular celebrity on the planet! And this is a British publication, where libel laws are much stricter.” I still had some reservations about it, but when I saw that Fox News, The Mary Sue, and especially, The AV Club cover it, I thought, “Damn. I guess it is real,” so then I wrote some silly satirical post making fun of Dwayne Johnson. There were, like, 100 comments on it along the lines of, “F*ck The Rock,” or, “I knew it. I always suspected Dwayne Johnson was so-and-so. You could just tell!”
That story, of course, turned out to be untrue, and our readers were pissed off at us for publishing that post as they should be. I actually updated my post with a correction as soon as I found out the interview was fabricated, but Kate had written an entire post devoted to the fabrication, so I ended up pulling my original post with the update to avoid confusion, but then people were pissed that I removed the post as they should be because it looked like I was trying to hide my mistake. Honestly, Kate had written a great post covering it and I didn’t want to take the attention away from it. I completely botched that, left, right, and center, because maybe it confirmed my own secret bias about The Rock, although everything I’ve ever heard about him from a friend who actually knows him well is that he’s the best guy ever. I definitely should have been more suspicious of that story. That was just straight-up dumb.
(For the record, right after that, Hannah wrote me a Guide to British publications, so I would know which to trust and which not to trust so that I would not repeat the same mistake, at least where it concerns British tabloids.)
But Noah is absolutely right that we often jump on stories that confirm our biases, although those biases exist for a goddamn reason. If there weren’t an explosion of hate crimes after Trump became President, if he wasn’t so openly racist, if his supporters weren’t so openly antagonistic against the media and Hollywood, and if his Administration didn’t expend so much effort pushing anti-LBGBTQ legislation, those biases might not exist.
But it’s not just that Jussie Smollet’s account confirmed our biases; it’s also because we give the benefit of the doubt to victims because, again, the evidence supports doing so. We believe because the overwhelming majority of evidence suggests we should. We also jump on stories that confirm our biases because, at least in this case, the context all around us suggests we should.
So, what’s the solution? Don’t enthusiastically jump on stories that confirm our biases? Sure. Yes! Absolutely! But don’t believe stories about victims? That one is harder, isn’t it? And how long should we wait? I mean, except in limited situations, we’re not a news-gathering organization. We don’t make news. We provide commentary about the news, just as The Daily Show or Late Night does. We work with what we’re given, whether it’s an interview with a celebrity that’s been covered by other news organizations, or a credible police report. Do we wait until the case has been tried and a verdict given before we report on it? And what if we’d spotted a red flag in the Smollett story and mentioned it? Do you know how many people in our comments were attacking people on social media for suggesting that the Smollett story sounded fishy? This is the last comment on our original post: “I’ve seen many comments claiming this is a hoax, WTF!? It’s maddening. These stupid men are questioning why Jussie could have possibly been out in the freezing cold walking at 2am. Ugh, I just can’t.”
So, what are we going to do? I’m not sure, try harder. Be Best! We’re going to ensure that we work from better sources. And we’ll ask ourselves why we’re covering a story before we cover it. But we’re not going to stop believing victims, and that means once out of every 99 times, we might get it wrong.