Staffers at ABC’s Good Morning America are defending host Robin Roberts for the “bad optics” of her interview last week with Jussie Smollett in which the Empire star, who was arrested and charged Wednesday with filing a false police report, vehemently maintained he was telling the truth about last month’s purported assault in Chicago.
ABC beat out competitors to arrange the interview with Smollett and Roberts, two of the most prominent black LGBT people in media, which aired on the Feb. 14 episode of the morning show.
“It was an interview everyone wanted,” said a GMA source.
In clips teased by the network to media around the country, Smollett said he was “pissed off” that people were doubting he was the victim of a racist and homophobic attack. “At first it was a thing of like, listen, if I tell the truth then that’s it ’cause it’s the truth,” Smollett told Roberts. “Then it became a thing of like, oh, how can you doubt that? Like, how do you not believe that? It’s the truth.”
“And then it became a thing of like, oh, it’s not necessarily that you don’t believe that this is the truth,” he said. “You don’t even want to see the truth.”
But at the same time the interview was airing on ABC, the entire direction of the case was shifting.
The day before, police arrested two persons of interest in the case, brothers Ola and Abel Osundairo, at O'Hare International Airport as they returned from Nigeria. "It was at that time that this investigation started to spin in a completely new direction," Chicago detective commander Edward Wodnicki said Thursday.
The pair’s interviews with detectives helped police zero in on Smollett as a suspect. Less than 12 hours after GMA aired Smollett’s vehement defense, two Chicago TV stations began reporting, citing unnamed sources, that the actor had staged the attack.
ABC staffers who spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity defended Roberts’ handling of the interview and stressed that at the time she met with Smollett police were still publicly calling him a victim and not a suspect.
“There’s not really a spirit of regret about the Jussie interview,” insisted one GMA source. “And no one feels that Robin got duped. Taken advantage of, yes, but not duped.”
“She conducted an incredible interview and the shoes fell really just right after the interview aired,” the source added. “Timing made it bad optics but who could have seen any of this coming as we see it today?”
But another ABC source painted Roberts and GMA viewers as victims of Smollett's lies.
“He never flinched,” the source said. “He looked right into the camera and lied to everyone.”
A network executive also defended Roberts' handling of the interview. "There's a reason every news organization is running those clips. It's news. That interview is central to the story as a whole," the executive said. "You have to assume the same version he told us he told the police."
Representatives for ABC declined to comment for this story.
Roberts' interview was also a topic of discussion on another ABC program on Thursday. "The way people can just lie like that," said an incredulous Joy Behar on The View.
"Well, he's not just people. He's an actor, right?" added cohost Ana Navarro. "And obviously he's a great dramatic actor. Give the man the Oscar."
On Thursday morning’s GMA, as the hosts and their panel discussed Smollett’s arrest and pending court appearance, a stern-looking Roberts reminded viewers that police had described the actor as a victim.
She denounced the incident as “a setback for race-relations, homophobia, MAGA supporters, who the fingers were pointed at them.”
“I cannot think of another case where there's anger on so many sides,” she said, “And you can understand why there would be.”
ABC’s chief legal analyst Dan Abrams said that at the very least the GMA interview had put Smollett on the record publicly about his version of events, a view that network sources echoed to BuzzFeed News.
“Your interview is going evidence in this case,” Abrams told Roberts as she nodded silently. “That sort of locks him in there to a particular account.”
“And when you watch — God, it is so hard to watch that again,” Abrams said of the interview.
“It is,” Roberts added, shaking her head. “I know.”