In 2009, a census worker was found lynched to a tree in Kentucky, the word “FED” scrawled on his chest. All signs, gloated the media, pointed to right-wing (i.e., racist) perpetrators. The Czar immediately knew it was a hoax, and reported it as such, months before the media dutifully concealed the determination that the whole event was an elaborate suicide intended to fool his insurance company.
The Czar has successfully identified a huge number of these “racial hoax” stories over the years, ranging from food servers denied tips or payment or customers denied service because of their race, orientation, or both. Indeed, the Czar’s success at doing so is matched by the media’s inability to detect them every single time, even though the truth is not terribly difficult, because they follow a pattern.
You know, the Czar will go one further: he will predict that you, the reader, can already see these leg-pullers coming a mile away just as easily. What astonishes us is that the media cannot. Or, more likely, will not.
The Czar doesn’t blame the journalists for checking into the story as if any of these were true. When a Texas waiter posted a receipt on social media that claimed “we don’t tip terrorist,” the right thing to do is go check it out. Yes, a dose of skepticism is likely, but it could be true. Someone could do such a thing, and it would be a passing curiosity if someone did. The Czar does blame the editors, who suddenly assign this to any combination of conservatives, Republicans, right-wing/libertarians, males, whites, and people over 30. The media play judge, jury, and executioner all in one story.
As the Czar ate dinner with his family on January 29th, local news mentioned “a story” about an attack on the actor Jussie Smollett in the Streeterville neighborhood of Chicago in the early morning hours, apparently by two white males wearing MAGA hats, who beat and kicked him, informed him this was MAGA country, called him a homophobic and racial slur, referenced his television show, poured a bleaching chemical on him, and then draped a noose around his neck. All this happened days after he received a death threat in the mail, also containing homophobic and racial words. The news crew here in Chicago seemed to have some difficulty reading the story off the teleprompter, not because it was upsetting but because the wording was so incoherent: they seemed to have difficulty parsing all of these details out in a conversational way.
The Czar immediately knew the story was a hoax, and said so on Twitter moments later.
Let’s reveal how we did it.
The Czar wasn’t alone, based on what we saw on Twitter that night. A lot of you noticed the following elements:
- Two guys in the Streeterville neighborhood were wearing MAGA hats. Streeterville is an upscale neighborhood, with not a ton of distractions at 2:00am on a sub-freezing night. People there are home asleep at that hour, wondering how they can pay their outrageous property taxes.
- There were no witnesses. Actually, that’s quite possible in that area at that time—indeed, the Chicago Police Department knew witnesses would be scarce.
- He continued to wear the rope around his neck, even 45 minutes later when the police arrived to question him. Who does that? Why keep it?
All good points, but none of these were the clues the Czar used. Here were ours:
- Jussie Smollett is a nobody. In fact, nearly everyone who heard the story—including you—quietly said “who?” when the actor’s name was announced. Yet, here he is, bundled up in Chicago’s brutal cold snap at two in the morning, out of makeup and costume, and two white guys in Streeterville knew who he was? In fact, their words were “Aren’t you that f———t Empire n———r?” That seems to be awfully specific knowledge about a person you just met.
- The more spectacular the hoax, the better coverage it gets. If it’s attention you want, you go big. And for that, for this lie to work, you want a spectacular detail to catch the eye. But that’s often the clue! The bit of excitement added to the story is usually the tip off that the story is a hoax. How did the perpetrators know?
- Like the waiter in Texas: we don’t tip terrorist. Somehow his guests identified that that Khalil, who resembles a light-skinned back, was a terrorist. The name was on the receipt, and was circled by the guests: but didn’t he identify himself at the start of the meal? Why circle the name on the receipt, as if he didn’t know his own name? Anyway, the answer is the same: the guests somehow knew Khalil wasn’t as African-American as he looked, and thought they should point that out by circling his name on the receipt. The answer: they wouldn’t have known or cared.
- Or like the census worker, about whom the Czar immediately thought when researching the details of the Smollett story later that day. How did his attacker—who so clearly wanted to kill a fed—identify his victim as a census worker under direct employment of the United States government? And, just in case there was any doubt, the killer took the time to write “FED” on the man’s chest. The answer: he didn’t happen to chance upon the perfect victim.
- And then there’s Smollett. No two guys, freezing and shivering in Chicago’s skin-burning polar vortex, see a guy scurrying in a coat and gloves across the street and say to each other: “Hey, isn’t that that openly gay black C-list actor from that show we don’t watch?” No, the only person on that street who knew Jussie Smollett was a gay, black actor from Empire was Jussie Smollett.
- Then there’s the death threat letter he received days before that, incredibly, also referenced that he was gay and black in the same word order that his attackers did. Either the same guys wrote the letter, while not realizing he would be in Chicago later that week, or the coincidence is too perfect.
- For the fight to have gone down the way it did, it presupposes that some form of the following conversation happened that evening in Streeterville: “Hey, Gary. I’m tired of all these gay, black actors walking around the neighborhood. Let’s go out a couple hours after midnight into -30° weather and see if we can find any to beat up.” “Great idea, Chad. Let’s pre-tie a noose to drape around his neck while he’s struggling with us. And while you’re wrestling a terrified, 180-pound male in good physical shape to the ground, I will casually pour this gallon of bleach on him while avoiding getting any on you. But it’s important that we make the attack sound spontaneous: we have to work together on this, as most physical fights start and end within 20 seconds.” Smollett has neither seen nor experienced real fights, because these elements were too far-fetched to have happened in any plausible sequence.
- The MAGA stuff. That’s the ear-catching detail he wanted so badly that he added it to a follow-up police report (his original report had them wearing ski masks). But forget about whether Chicago is MAGA country, or whether the guys would wear those hats in the arctic blast, or whatever. Just pause a moment. Doesn’t this sound like a scene in a straight-to-cable movie? You want to emphasize the guy is attacked by racists who hate gay people. So rather than just have the guys run up and punch and kick him, the director insists they wear MAGA hats and make reference to MAGA country…you know, just in case there are people in the audience who just don’t get the scene. Smollett isn’t describing an attack the way they go down in the real world: he’s describing how a fight scene occurs in a television show.
It’s these colorful details that revealed to us the farcical nature of the event. Bad con men, pathological liars, and hoaxsters know that details matter in making a story believable. They experts, though, know they have to be plausible, even unquestionable. Smollett came up with a hoax that fit the template of so many others: the details reveal elements only the victim would know or care about.
By way of contrast, the Czar would like to suggest the following as a story that would have been vastly more believable. In fact, had Smollett been telling the truth, the story would have gone like this:
Reports are coming in that Empire actor Jussie Smollet was brutally assaulted in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood, and is recovering in the hospital. Arriving late Monday night from New York, Smollett was in Chicago to shoot scenes for his television series. When the actor was returning from a sandwich shop near the apartment the cast were residing, one or more individuals attacked the actor, injuring him and requiring treatment.
“I don’t know what happened,” Smollett told investigators. “Someone came up from behind and punched me really hard in the head. I went down, instantly, and then I felt someone kick me in the ribs…I don’t know how many times because I blacked out. I woke up in an ambulance. Thank God someone found me and called 911, because I could have frozen to death out there in minutes.” The actor has a concussion and bruised ribs, and should be released in a day or two. Police have ruled out robbery as a motive, and are continuing to look for witnesses or video to identify the attackers.