Back in the glory days of “Saturday Night Live,” before the show became an interchangeable trudge of Alec Baldwin’s mean-spirited Donald Trump impersonations, those productions used to be awfully funny – filled with sharp wit and good-natured swipes at offenders of all political persuasions and pomposities. (Memo to SNL and the genuinely talented Mr. Baldwin: Predictable makes lousy comedy.) Back in those heady days, the brilliant comic Jon Lovitz created a character named Tommy Flanagan (“Flan-AY-gan”), who was a pathological liar.
Tommy Flanagan was never satisfied with whatever initial outrageous lie he invented. Had he been to the White House yesterday? No, he meant to say that he was having dinner with the Royal Family. He wrote a book about rock-n-roll. Yeah, yeah, “that’s the ticket!” (Tommy’s catchphrase.) In fact, he himself had invented rock-n-roll. And Swing… You get the idea.
If you have been awake during the past week’s news cycle, you probably also have an idea of where I’m going with the topic of lies: initial lies followed by ever-greater and more desperate lies. Jon Lovitz and his preposterous whoppers were, as we might say back in Indiana, a real hoot. Jussie Smollett and his slick, sly disgorgement of slanderous deceit – well, not so much.
Now that I have meandered my way here (yeah, apologies – maybe the meandering is a Hoosier thing; I did mention I’m from Indiana, right?), please consider along with me a rather singular and telling broadcast that I watched last Wednesday evening on CNN (2/20/19). Like “Saturday Night Live,” much of CNN’s programming seems, regrettably, to have lost the wit and good nature of its own glory days. CNN, like SNL, has become too predictable: a dreary collection of chattering heads who deplore Trump (both for completed actions and pre-emptively), and who sneer at conservatives, and also at moderates (whom they mistake for conservatives), and who react violently and uncritically to any whiff of the politically incorrect.
These heads at CNN nod sagely and sadly in a circle of amiable dismay, validating for one another the moral inferiority (endemic racism always a choice exemplar!) of Other People. Left unspoken by these sad and nodding observers is the delicate and delicious sensation of their own contrasting moral superiority, as they parse through the wickedness that surrounds them.
So much truth was inadvertently on display during the Wednesday night broadcast that I could write two or three columns on it, easily. I will limit myself to this one main point: Don Lemon and his guests were in serious need of self-reflection and challenge. They made many jaw-dropping comments. Crowning all was this: Lemon uncritically described the hope for, and one of his guests openly advocated for, a real, non-faked nighttime attack on an un-armed man, carried out by vicious, racist, anti-gay, pro-Trump thugs.
You surely ask: How could they possibly root for, or how could they fail to indignantly condemn anyone’s clear desire for, the execution of such a horrible crime?
Here’s the problem: They do not often enough step outside their mushy circle of mutual approval and received wisdom. They do not appear to think critically, regardless of how Don Lemon congratulates himself on being (as he underscored during this very program) a “real journalist.”
Start with the fact that Lemon’s more voluble guest, Midwin Charles (contributor to Essence magazine), did not understand one of the likeliest roots of this likely hoax, even when her own question about the “why” answered itself! And although she didn’t appear to grasp the answer that was implicit in her own question, Don Lemon helpfully, if also unwittingly, supplied it. But both Midwin Charles and Don Lemon seemed oblivious to the motive that they themselves had just highlighted. Here’s the interchange:
CHARLES (who had just asked “why” Smollett would do this): “I find it baffling only because he’s well-known. Um, he may not be, uh, sort of the biggest star—”
LEMON (interrupting): “People know him now!”
(Hello…? Hello? Possible motive, anyone?)
CHARLES: “[This] did sort of, uh, trigger a lot of outpouring of, of emotional support, uh, from a lot of different people, from a lot of different, uh, producers, and, and television people who worked in the, sort of, entertainment industry.”
(Hello? Hello? Anybody there who’s not just nodding wisely? Anybody? Because it seemed that, to Midwin Charles, this [reasonable, predictable] “outpouring of emotional support” was one reason that Jussie Smollett’s desire to fake an attack on himself did not make sense; that the warm fuzzies generated by such an attack would be a disincentive to fake one. Yeah, because no actor truly enjoys an outpouring of support from television people, right?)
A few seconds later, Ms. Charles described the real victims in all this. “If this is true, right… The saddest part about this is that he has chosen, if true, to scapegoat black queer folk who often are in the crosshairs of violence.” She then went on to list these wronged groups: transgendered people, especially black women; two black gay men found dead in the home of Democratic donor Ed Buck; and LGBTQ teens who commit suicide at high rates. She said: “Those crimes are not hoaxes.” (Leaving aside the fact that Midwin Charles apparently doesn’t understand what a “scapegoat” is, she is conflating suicide – indeed an evil to be avoided – with “crime”/criminal acts.)
Don Lemon pointed out that “early skeptics were black queer folk, saying… ‘This just doesn’t seem to add up. I hope it’s, y’know, he’s not lying. But this just doesn’t add up.”
Okay. Mr. Lemon will later come back and reinforce this. But before we arrive at that, let’s pause. Pause and breathe and make sure that we read, slowly and carefully, the truth that Don Lemon has just revealed, not strictly on his own behalf, but in the voice of others:
“I hope he’s not lying.”
Did we get that?
Of course, Tommy Flan-AY-gan is an unsympathetic and fictional character, but when he claimed that he had blacked out in the middle of the ocean and faced a “miniature tidal wave,” would anyone have truly hoped that he was not lying? Hoped that the blackout and the abandonment to drown in the middle of the ocean were real?
Midwin Charles confirmed Don Lemon’s point, but in her own case, she was speaking for herself, not for others. She said: “I watched his [Smollett’s] interview on ‘Good Morning America’… And I came away… with watching him, thinking, ‘I hope he’s telling the truth. Because I’m not convinced.’ ” [emphasis hers]
Midwin Charles watched Jussie Smollett’s interview on “Good Morning America,” in which he described two unknown men attacking him, vile language, a noose, bleach, and physical assault (and, of course, his own plucky response, and his desire to be a role model for young gays). She watched that interview, and her reaction was: “I hope he’s telling the truth.” She hoped the attack had been real! She wanted to be “convinced.”
Okay, when she said that, why did no one in the studio gasp aloud?
The truth is that this story of Jussie Smollett’s is so precious to certain groups that they actually hope that he isn’t lying. They would rather that the attack have happened than that it be a hoax.
As Mr. Lemon’s other guest, Joey Jackson, explained: “It [the purported hoax] demeans and undervalues people who are true victims of crime.”
(Absolutely true. I agree with Mr. Jackson. And… How about someone who is not tucked up within the agreement circle poking the three commentators and adding: “A phony claim also demeans and devalues anyone falsely accused” ?)
During the last few seconds of the program, Don Lemon finished with a somber reflection on the pain caused by accused self-serving liar Jussie Smollett. Mr. Lemon spoke with great seriousness, and surely I was only imagining that he relished the drama of the reprise as Don reminded us in clearly enunciated, heavy words that “certain groups” had said of its being reported as a hoax: “I hope this is not true.” The groups hope this is not a hoax.
Not me. I hope for better. I believe better. I believe better of our nation. I believe better of my fellow citizens.
I even believe better of Jussie Smollett. I suspect that he started out with an ill-considered faked threat letter, intended to create publicity and sympathy, and then the situation simply complicated itself and widened beyond his ability to control it all. Anyway, that’s what I think. His alleged actions were, ultimately, reprehensible, but they likely started out as more narcissistic and clumsy than as deeply evil.
The un-critical response of many in the media is exemplified by the Don Lemon program, in which the idea of rooting for this street attack to be real, rather than a fake is treated as a perfectly reasonable position.
Could we please root for the hoax, rather than the thuggery? Yeah, that’s the ticket!