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Michael James: CNN’s Van Jones Makes Same Mistake As Jussie Smollet

Michael James has spent more than 20 years in sports journalism as a general assignment reporter with the Detroit News, an NBA beat writer for the New York Daily News and as head writer for ESPN’s Quite Frankly With Stephen A. Smith. He has a blog called The Tribe Sports.

Jussie Smollett

By Michael James

If only you had set aside your emotion and rage at all the things truly worthy of your ire in America today, and engaged your critical and analytical mind, you would have known something was off about the alleged attack on Jussie Smollett the moment you heard it.

And many of you did – as did I – but we were in the minority.

While it is true that all kinds of strange and incomprehensible crimes are possible, it never seemed realistic that a B-list, secondary character on Fox Television’s Empire would be attacked on one of the coldest nights in Chicago history in a crime that ticked all the right boxes – racism, homophobia and white nationalism.

Yet and still, Americans from all walks of life – blacks in particular – accepted this wild tale, hook, line and sinker. As did celebrities, athletes and politicians like Nancy Pelosi and 2020 presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and Cory Booker.

While the rest of the Windy City was barricaded behind warm closed doors, we were fed a tale of an assault at 2 a.m. by a pair of white Trump supporters who just happened to be carting around a noose, bleach and a MAGA hat, looking for a victim who fit the bill as tightly for their ill intent as Jussie Smollett.

Somehow, despite all the outlandish coincidences that needed to occur for this “crime” to actually happen, many suspended all disbelief, reasoning that in Trump’s America, this could plausibly happen.

Then, they took to Twitter and Facebook to vent their anger.

Even today, when apologies should be flowing like water in the aftermath of Smollett’s arrest for orchestrating the lie, some, like CNN’s Van Jones, are still engaging in ridiculous hyperbole.

In a roundtable discussion, Jones likened Smollet’s demise to the fall of an icon, the baseball player Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

Historical Ignorance

In a stunning display of historical ignorance, Jones claimed that Smollet’s role on Empire as a beloved gay black character somehow made him an iconic figure to the black community – on par with the great Robinson.

It was a disgusting comparison which was equal only to the outrageous transgression of Smollett in believing that his hair-brained ruse would withstand the test of time.

In other words, Jones made the same mistake as Smollett: he overestimated Smollet’s importance.

When you think about it, the only truly apt comparison to be made in Smollett’s case is the racially divisive saga of Tawana Brawley, a 15-year-old African-American teen whose staged attack in 1987 roped in the likes of Al Sharpton and destroyed many lives. If you don’t remember, Brawley claimed she was raped by four white men who scrawled racial epithets across her body.

Like Smollett, she was found to have made up the whole thing.

Many who believed Smollet’s tale simply wanted to believe that America is worse than it is. That Chicago, which really needs no help when it comes to being characterized as a crime-ridden city, is a place where anything can happen – even the unbelievable.

In retrospect, the only legitimate question they asked was “Why would someone claim something like this happened if it did not?”

Well, the answer, for those willing to do a modicum of research, is clear if you only ventured to look at Jussie Smollet’s social media posts.

He wanted to be important. He wanted to be known. He wanted to be a social activist with the credentials to speak out on issues affecting blacks and the gay community. And he wanted to be able to challenge Donald Trump on somewhat equal footing.

So, he tried to make himself a martyr.

Now we hear that his motivation was rooted in dissatisfaction with his salary of more than $60,000 per episode on Empire.

If you believe that, I’ve got another show you should be watching.

While we’re on the subject of the unbelievable, remember the anonymous alleged female witness at Smollett’s building, the one who claimed to have seen a pair of “rednecks who looked out place” lurking nearby at approximately the time Smollett was attacked?

Yeah, many of you believed that one, too.

I’ll tell you who never believed this tale from the start, though: the good men and women of the Chicago Police Department, who spent countless hours investigating Smollett’s mess, anyway.

In order to pacify a blood-thirsty public ready to cry racism at any hint that Smollett was being doubted, they continued to publicly consider him a victim while they did what good law enforcement does, which is getting to the truth of the matter.

Today, they are outraged and rightfully disgusted that it has come to this and they will take great pains to see that Smollett – also charged with mail fraud for sending a letter threatening his own life to Fox studios – faces the full force of justice.

Another who also likely didn’t believe Smollett was ABC News’ Robin Roberts, who interviewed the Dumb-pire actor for over an hour. Like a good journalist, she allowed him to tearfully tell his ridiculous story, giving him both a national platform and enough theoretical rope to make his own noose.

That’s what a great journalist does. She asked the right questions and got Smollett to paint himself into a corner he couldn’t escape once his Nigerian accomplices told a story of how the whole plot originated.

It’s all over now for Smollett, but for those who believed, it’s just beginning. This sordid tale should mark a turning point in how we deal with news delivered at the speed of light, whether true or not.

Hopefully, it signals a renewed interest in the power of critical thinking and caution when it comes to knee-jerk reacting to potential fake news.

I also hope that this learning experience includes apologies from those who wish to someday replace Trump, like Booker, Harris and Biden, because that is what true leaders would do in a case like this.

Oh, one other thing: while we’re at it, why not challenge those who make other outrageous claims, such as Van Jones, whose foray into hyperbole in likening Smollett to Jackie Robinson should have been shut down by the other CNN panelists the moment the words came out of his mouth.

Jackie Robinson was a man who faced down hate and racial prejudice at a time when it was overt and accepted in America, changing the game of baseball and attitudes all across this country.

Jussie Smollett? He was just an arrogant B-list actor who wanted to be somebody.


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