Culture Friday: Waiting for the facts


MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday, the 29th of March, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up on The World and Everything in It. Culture Friday.

Well, this is a story you read about, that is widely talked about and shared, that you look at as a journalist and say, you know, let’s back slowly away and just wait.

Such is the Jussie Smollett case.

The television actor is allegedly the victim of a hate crime, which he reports to police. Then allegedly he’s the perpetrator of a hoax, for making a false report.

Now that prosecutors in Chicago have dropped the charges in exchange for some small quantity of community service and, by comparison to his earnings, a very small quantity of bond money, the whole thing is over.

But for journalists, it’s really not over.

Here’s a little discussion from NPR this week. It’s Morning Edition’s David Greene talking with NPR podcaster Sam Sanders about the case. Sanders is explaining here that he thinks journalists “glommed onto this story to advocate” for hate-crime victims “and to draw attention to this overall uptick in hate crimes.”

SANDERS: And as reporters, we have to be very careful about using the stories we cover as activism.

GREENE: So you’re saying this is a moment for soul-searching for some journalists?

SANDERS: A lot of us (laughter), yeah, a lot of us. I think that in the coverage of this story, some of the basic tenets of journalism, David, were just abandoned. A lot of newsrooms failed to use words like alleged when talking about this story. And, you know, Journo 101 says until you know for a fact the crime has happened or there’s a conviction, you have to say alleged perpetrator and alleged victim. Also, a lot of newsrooms took what Jussie’s lawyers were saying or what Chicago PD was saying at total face value, and they just weren’t skeptical enough all around, in part because there was this rush to take a side, stay there, because it feels like news consumers want that.

GREENE: What is a larger lesson here for this profession, do you think?

SANDERS: Yeah, journalists have to be more comfortable saying, hey, some stories, we won’t have all the answers. We have to say, we’re not psychics, and we’re never a judge and jury. We just don’t know sometimes.

GREENE: And it’s worth just saying that and being honest about it.

Just being honest about it, agreed!

It’s time to welcome John Stonestreet now. He’s president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

John, good morning.

JOHN STONESTREET, GUEST: Good morning!

EICHER: So, there’s reason number 256,768 this year of jumping to the conclusion of a preferred narrative — one of mine, I’ll be honest, is shoddy work by the dominant media culture. There’s so much of it. It’s easy to spring into action.

We all do it, and now that everybody’s a reporter with social media, John, give us some words of advice about how we’d do well just to pause, wait for the facts, or, frankly, conclude we’re not going to get them. But the main thing, let’s not rush to judgment.

STONESTREET: That’s right, I mean, the Jussie Smollett story follows at the end of, I mean, a whole series of narratives this year.

What I struggle with in the Jussie Smollett story is not just that this is another example of it, but this was an egregious example of it. I mean, in the middle of a polar vortex where it was below zero in Chicago you had people prepared to beat up African Americans or gay folks in a Make America Great Again hat yelling, “It’s MAG–” There was everything unbelievable about this story from the very beginning. But it was taken as fact from the very beginning and that is one of the things that’s driving the uptick of social media kind of citizen journalism, everybody’s got a Twitter account sharing every story immediately, usually ones that, you know, go along with their confirmation bias has to do with, really, the real vacuum of trust.

But I think another thing that’s driving it is just that right now the media’s just not doing very well at telling the whole story. The media itself, we saw just in the Mueller investigation. It’s just like the same broken record every single day.

But that doesn’t exonerate us. We are the ones also with Facebook and with social media. We are the ones who find a Fox News story that tells a story of something that goes along with our preconceived political narrative and we’re quick to share it without ever checking the facts. And not to mention even more kind of disreputable sources.

It’s hard to say this, but you gave the advice, Nick, which is pause, wait for the facts, and that’s it. It’s just a discipline. You just have to do it. Or share it with full caveat of there’s a whole bunch of things about this story that don’t seem to make sense or there seems to be a bunch of holes and that sort of stuff.

One of the interesting things about the Covington Catholic story was that that story was shared widely right off the bat and it was shared by conservatives and liberals alike, at least on my newsfeed, with great chagrin. I mean, people were really mad at those kids, even Donald Trump supporters online because of the disrespect.

And so just this narrative that just dominates us, that divides almost everything we do and think. It’s not good for us. And we’re grounding our feet in that narrative rather than in truth. And that’s just what’s got to change.

EICHER: Here’s an odd story from the U.K., John, that has nothing to do with Brexit.

The Home Office in that country, which handles asylum claims, denied an asylum claim of an Iranian Christian after concluding its own theological analysis of the Bible differed from that of the asylum seeker.

Stay with me here. This asylum seeker is not identified, for reasons of his personal safety. He’s Iranian and he converted to Christianity from Islam, because, he said, Islam is violent and Christianity is peaceful. Because of his conversion, he’s afraid for his life and seeks asylum to Britain.

But the Home Office turned him down. It cited Leviticus, chapter 26, in the NIV, “You will pursue your enemies and they will fall by the sword before you.” Matthew, chapter 10, in the KJV, Jesus states, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” The government cited verses in Exodus and Revelation, which, it says, is “filled with imagery of revenge, destruction, death, and violence.”

Bottom line, here, John, you have a government theological analysis to argue with an asylum seeker and deny his claim, at least in part, on that basis. At best, this seems like government overreach, at worst, this seems like someone in the Home Office is mocking an asylum seeker.

STONESTREET: Yeah, and this is one of those where I’m waiting for the rest of the facts to come out myself. It’s just a bizarre story. I don’t think anyone’s arguing that it actually happened. The question is now what is the Home Office going to do with this agent. Clearly, I mean, inappropriate government overreach. That’s kind of the low bar. But, you know, if the Home Office really wanted to do a little bit of theological analysis, get somebody who knows what they’re talking about. We could quickly talk about Matthew 10. We could quickly talk about Leviticus and kind of debunk this sort of village atheist thing that he put. But it’s also, as you said, an example of just flat-out mockery. And to mock that just seems — especially at a time where we have heard yet again that the persecution of Christians is on the rise, that it’s happening across the world, that it’s often at the hands of consciously secular or consciously Islamic governments. And this is a bunch of watchdog groups and a bunch of government agencies in the United States. And I can’t imagine Britain doesn’t have its own agencies looking at the same sort of data.

So, in light of all that, this is beyond the pale. So the question is what’s happening? And those are the details of the story that I haven’t heard and I’m waiting for.

EICHER: John Stonestreet is president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. It’s Culture Friday. John, thanks so much.

STONESTREET: Thank you, Nick.


(AP Photo/Paul Beaty) Actor Jussie Smollett leaves Cook County Court after his charges were dropped Tuesday, March 26, 2019, in Chicago.

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