Journalism is based on judgment and on deciding which stories to cover and which stories to downplay. This week, lots of national news organizations opted to focus relentlessly on the unfolding story of actor Jussie Smollett, who was arrested for filing a false crime report after he said he was attacked by pro-Trump racists on the streets of Chicago last month.
Police say Smollett was concerned that his character on the hit TV show Empire was going to be written off and thought that being the victim of a high-profile biased attack would help his career. (The actor maintains his innocence.)
The Smollet story is without question newsworthy and deserves attention. The idea of filing a false crime report and making hollow claims about a racist and homophobic beating is extremely troubling. But some news outlets this week decided to breathlessly treat the story as a cross between Iran-Contra and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping.
And which shocking news story got largely edged out this week in the process? The stunning revelation that a white-nationalist lieutenant in the U.S. Coast Guard was arrested for plotting to assassinate leading Democratic officials (such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Cory Booker) and journalists (including CNN's Don Lemon, Chris Cuomo, and Van Jones, and MSNBC's Chris Hayes, Ari Melber, and Joe Scarborough) based solely on their criticism of Donald Trump.
Compared to the actor's false crime claim, the news that an armed assassin eager to establish a "white homeland" was hoping to spark a civil war from within the U.S. military by unleashing violence on Democrats and journalists obviously represents a much more pressing, dire, and important news event.
But not according to our news media.
Overall, cable news channels have devoted roughly five times as much coverage to Smollett in recent days than they have to the chilling Coast Guard story. A search of TV.com retrieves more than 500 "Smollett" matches on CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC since Wednesday, compared to just over 100 hits for "Coast Guard."
CNN.com's archive currently lists over 100 Smollett articles and videos that have been published, nearly 30 of which ran during a two-day span, between Feb. 21 and 22.
"This Jussie Smollett case—look, it's the talk of the nation," CNN host Chris Cuomo announced Thursday night. But is it? On Friday morning, the Washington Post website listed its five most-read stories, none of which were about Smollett. But guess what news consumers were devouring? The stunning Coast Guard terror case.
Obviously, the press didn't ignore the shocking Coast Guard story entirely, as the highly trafficked Post piece proves. But where was the second- and third-day coverage from scores of news outlets? Where was the step-back examination of the larger, growing threat of white right-wing terror in America? Where were the news pieces detailing the Republican Party's increasing coziness with insurrectionist radicals, while at the same time it champions the NRA's push to eliminate gun reform?
And note that, once again, the press is allowing Trump, and specifically his tweets, to drive the coverage. Newsrooms are letting him to act as their assignment editor for the Smollett story.
Sadly, this week's reserved coverage of the terrifying Coast Guard story dovetails nicely with the GOP narrative that right-wing terror isn't a problem in America, which is why Trump has drastically scaled back law enforcement focus on the dangerous radical Right in this country. The Trump cutbacks come despite a growing domestic threat. In 2017, the FBI determined that white supremacists killed more Americans from 2000 to 2016 than “any other domestic extremist movement.”
The arrest this week of Coast Guard Lt. Christopher Paul Hasson simply confirms that growing threat. At his house in Maryland, authorities seized 15 guns and rifles, as well as more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition. "The defendant is a domestic terrorist," the government announced in court filings, “bent on committing acts dangerous to human life that are intended to affect governmental conduct."
Yet has anyone this week read lots of deep dives into Hasson's past, featuring extensive quotes from friends and family? Are journalists pursuing the burning question of who radicalized him? Was it his church? Did it happen online? Instead, too many in the press seem to have absorbed the GOP narrative that white right-wing terrorists in America don't really qualify as terrorists, and therefore don't require extensive and aggressive news coverage.
Meanwhile, is there any chance the press would've taken the same type of laissez-faire approach this week and let the Smollett story completely overrun the arrest of a domestic terrorist if the suspect had been an American Muslim who made jihadist claims, and if Trump had tweeted out attacks on the suspect?
Of course not.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.
This post was written and reported through our Daily Kos freelance program.