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Z on TV Critic David Zurawik writes about the business and culture of TV

Jussie Smollett and the price we pay for chasing clicks and ditching verification

What a sorry mess our news and information ecosystem has become.

That’s the rueful thought I had Jan. 29 as I surfed the first reports in social media about the alleged attack in Chicago on Jussie Smollett, the 36-year-old cast member of the Fox TV series “Empire.”

I was dismayed to see two Democratic candidates for president, Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, on Twitter calling the alleged attack an “attempted modern day lynching” without any confirmation that Smollett’s account of events actually occurred.

But politicians jumping into inflammatory culture-war issues without verification of their facts is hardly a shock after two years of living with a president who lies on Twitter on a daily basis and shows no sign of concern or remorse when caught doing so.

But while I know many legacy journalists like myself held off until more facts were known, I was far more distressed by some of the initial online reporting at platforms belonging to legacy institutions.

The one that caught my eye was from GQ headlined: “The Racist, Homophobic Attack on Jussie Smollett Is Far-Right America's Endgame.”

It carried the sub-head: “When one of the most famous black and gay men in America is not safe, the message is clearer than it has ever been.”

The word “reportedly” is used to describe the crime in the lead, but any pretense that the attack did not take place is quickly dropped — just as it was missing in the headline — with a reference to “Smollett’s battered body” in the second paragraph of the piece.

“Early Tuesday morning, Jussie Smollett, the 36-year-old star of Fox's Empire, left a Chicago restaurant and was reportedly accosted by two men who proceeded to shout racial and homophobic slurs before beating him, pouring an unknown chemical substance on him, and wrapping a rope around his neck before fleeing the scene. According to a statement issued by Chicago police, the incident is being investigated as a ‘possible hate crime.’”

That was lead. The second graph then attacked the police for using the “possible hate crime” language.

“The cautious wording is one last wound inflicted on Smollett's battered body, a careful hedging of bets that don't need hedging — a crime scene involving a corpse is not discussed as a ‘possible death,’” the author, Joshua Rivera, wrote. “But the stodgy apparatus of law enforcement isn't particularly interested in acknowledging social ills — and neither is the news media when it goose-steps around the truth of the matter with shallow euphemisms like ‘racially charged’ used to describe open, proud bigotry.”

Having worked in blues clubs in Chicago in 1960s and ‘70s, I am never going to defend the police there. I saw how unequal the justice they dispensed was.

But I wondered what was wrong with the police saying Smollett’s allegations were being investigated as a possible hate crime if that is in fact what they were doing.

I don’t want to dwell on this piece. GQ added an “update” yesterday saying, “This story is fast-moving and we're keeping an eye on the news as it develops. When this piece was originally written, we were operating with the then-set of facts as documented by official police reports.”

Go read it yourself and tell me whether you think making the kinds of claims it does without clearly acknowledging that you are basing it only on allegations was sound journalism for a platform with the history of GQ. It might not be a go-to source for hard news, but it has long been an influential cultural voice.

And Smollett’s story is a cultural one with race, identity, power and celebrity connecting it to deep and profound strains of American and global life.

As I said, some of my colleagues did hold off. But the rush to judgment at platforms like GQ speaks to how the forces of new technology, failed business models and nano-second news cycles have shredded one of the core values of legacy journalism: independent verification. And that is a value essential to a functioning democracy.

Verified information brings clarity to citizens about the issues they encounter in their lives. Highly emotional, unverified statements bring confusion. And are we ever one confused nation today with politicians and media platforms stoking social media night and day with information that has not been confirmed and incendiary opinion based on it.

I know why we do it, or, at least, why I feel the tremendous pressure to jump stories like Smollett’s for page views.

(I am so old school when it comes to verification, I still feel reluctant to be writing about the case today without it being fully resolved. But with Chicago police now having charged Smollett with filing a false report, writing about it is demanded — with a reminder that facts are still being contested.)

We are all trying to establish a commercial beachhead on the digital landscape with our very survival at stake. If you are a journalist working at a legacy institution, you can count on one thing: Your employers have a metric or are trying to find one to measure your value in that life or death digital struggle. And if your production doesn’t measure up, don’t count on having a job.

Page clicks matter. I have been chasing them since 2008 when this blog started. I wrote about Sarah Palin and Kate Gosselin back in the early days more than I should have to get a toehold on the web.

But I never wrote anything about them or anyone else without first verifying it, which made me into a a turtle on a lot of days when the hares were gobbling up page views that could have been mine.

That pressure, which I live with every day, is how we got to the place today where a story like Smollett’s breaks, and our media ecosystem is filled with visceral, wild, confusing accounts that leave us addled and unable to have coherent conversations as a democracy about matters crucial matters as race.

How many page views is it worth for a writer to lose her or his credibility? How many clicks for a news platform to lose its readers’ trust?

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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