Jussie Smollett is a free man, the charges against him mysteriously dropped, the record against him sealed. Smollett says he wants to “just get back to work” as an actor on a TV series.
In essence, Smollett seems eager to take the time-honored route of anyone who is spectacularly, flagrantly in the news: He wants to ride out the tempestuous currents of media notoriety, hoping that time will scrub the infamy, if any, that barnacled itself to him. He’s hoping to make public apathy work for him.
Given a news wheel that turns ever faster, it’s a good bet he just might. “Riding it out” has become a reasonable strategy for those seeking redemption, or at least mass forgetfulness about the thing that got someone in hot water in the first place.
As of this writing, Tucker Carlson is still employed by Fox News, despite the outrage generated by the ugly things he said about women and girls, minorities and gay people on a shock jock’s radio program a few years ago. The news about those ugly things broke on March 10; since then, Carlson and Fox have stood firm. They seem to have ridden it out. You may even have forgotten about it by now.
As is, Carlson is something of an expert at riding things out. His shock-jock tapes emerged less than three months after he stoked outrage by opining on his program that immigrants make America “poorer, dirtier and more divided.” Critics called that statement hateful and racist, and the cycle of outrage — calls for ad boycotts, calls for Carlson’s job, general sputtering on social media — was on. Carlson said it was all an attack on his free speech, which is the same thing he said about his shock-jock tapes.
Riding it out is now a tried-and-true, crash-dummy-tested strategy. The calculation is that one’s critics — and whatever fraction of the public has become engaged by those critics — will soon tire and move on, presumably to the next outrageous thing. In the meantime, the smoke surrounding the outrage will dissipate, leaving behind merely a hazy, indistinct cloud. A scandalized public figure becomes “that person who was involved in some kind of thing” a while ago.
Just ask Ralph Northam, Virginia’s Democratic governor, who is still Virginia’s Democratic governor despite the national in-sucking of breath that followed the revelation of his medical-school yearbook photos and his shifting explanations about them. Northam gave a bizarre news conference on Feb. 2 to dispel the idea that he had anything to do with that blackface-and-Klan photo that appeared next to his name, the exact opposite of what he had said the day before when he apologized for “the decision I made to appear as I did in this photo.”
However damaged he may have been by the episode in the weeks since, Northam seems determined to ride out his term in office. And so far, he has.
Same with the rest of the similarly scandalized upper echelon of elected officialdom in Virginia: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D), Attorney General Mark Herring (D), and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City). None of them is entirely free and clear (especially Fairfax, accused of sexual assault by two women; less so Herring and Norment, who had early associations with blackface themselves), but each has weathered his moment of deepest crisis. They’ve survived essentially by waiting for the public shock and anger to subside, if not disappear entirely.
In Carlson’s and Northam’s cases, the ability to ride out the tough stuff is inextricably linked to partisanship, says crisis-communications specialist Jason Maloni. “Time heals a lot of wounds, but it certainly helps if the attacks are clearly partisan or tribal and one’s base of support is preserved,” he said. “The digital era allows anyone to comment and extend the life of a story. But we, all of us, also have short attention spans. We move on to other priorities quickly.”
Crimes that are “truly heinous,” said Maloni, who recently represented former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, “are not going to disappear from the public consciousness in days.” But many scandals don’t stick because they are rooted in political mudslinging, “particularly the dredging up of old pictures [and] posts and activity that enable all sides to shape it into whatever suits their narrative.”
Luckily for Carlson, uttering offensive words appears to be the most surmountable of accusations, as Mel Gibson’s career attests (though maybe not so much for repeat offenders like Roseanne Barr). Accusations of offensive behavior are less easy to ride out; men used to ride out sexual harassment allegations until the #MeToo movement made that strategy nearly impossible. To date, no major figure credibly accused during the height of #MeToo has fully recovered his career or reputation.
Celebrities and politicians share one characteristic when it comes to their ability to ride things out: the intensity of their fan bases.
“If their core supporters never waiver, the person will survive the scandal,” says W. Timothy Coombs, a professor at Texas A&M who specializes in crisis communications. “Core fans will see the situation as nothing is wrong. That means the person in the scandal just has to survive the initial outburst.”
It may be easier than ever to outlast the winds of outrage because the winds blow from so many directions and shift constantly. In a feature titled “The Year of Outrage,” Slate magazine documented 365 incidents, one for every day of the year, that incited widespread revulsion or protest on social media. Some of the controversies were trivial (“August 19: A New York Post writer says catcalls are flattering and she loves them”), although many were of widespread public interest. The point was, there was always something.
Slate’s list was published in 2014, when people in only half the known world and the close-in planets were expressing their grievances on Twitter and other social-media platforms. Since then, outrage has increased to tornado velocity, touching down multiple times a day. When outrage is this common and constant, the chance that any particular outrage will take hold is low. Who can remember what was outrageous in 2014? Or even last week?
Outrage is simply hard to sustain. Unless your life is directly affected by some outrageous thing, staying good and mad for very long is difficult. It requires energy; organizing this disgust into collective action requires still more energy. People move on.
Presidents are masters of riding it out — their political survival depends on it — and none may be more practiced at it than the current occupant of the Oval Office. President Trump seems to relish being “the chaos president.” Stirring things up and engendering his opponents’ outrage are part of the president’s strategic arsenal. He’s also adept at changing the subject and moving on before yesterday’s shock wave reverberates for a second news cycle. Try this exercise: Google any date since his inauguration (Jan. 20, 2017), and see what the major news stories of the day were. Chances are high that one of the president’s tweets or statements will have generated both news coverage and a comet’s tail of rueful commentary.
And then? His Twitter finger, having written, moves on.
His base stays loyal and the ride continues. Until the next time.