Robin Roberts Revisits Jussie Smollett TV Interview: "It Was a No-Win Situation"
The 'Good Morning America' anchor spoke about the complicated feelings she had going into her sit-down with the 'Empire' star and the red flags that emerged as the saga continued to develop.
Robin Roberts on Monday revealed that she saw "red flags" in Jussie Smollett’s story and was subsequently hesitant about interviewing the Empire star on ABC's Good Morning America. The sit-down, which aired Feb. 14, was Smollett's first televised interview since his alleged hate crime attack and was broadcast one week before Smollett would go on to be charged with federal disorderly conduct for falsifying a police report.
The GMA anchor took a moment during her solo panel at The Cut's first daylong "How I Get It Done" event to share details about the high-profile interview, including the details of how the ABC get unfolded and whether she believed Smollett during the process.
"All I wanted was to get to the truth," Roberts told the intimate crowd, including The Hollywood Reporter, that had gathered at 1 Hotel Brooklyn. "All I wanted was to give the truth."
While discussing details of the interview, which was shot two days prior to its airing, Roberts explained that the GMA booking department had initially reached out to her about sitting down with Smollett. Talks about the possible interview began shortly after the Empire star claimed he was attacked on a Chicago street in late January.
It was in those early internal conversations where Roberts first voiced her reluctance. "I'll be completely honest, I said, 'I don't know if I'm going to do the interview or not,'" she said. "Let's just wait and see, let's see if more information comes in."
There was rising speculation over Smollett's account at the time, but it wasn't until hours after the interview aired that a report hit that brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo (who are now witnesses in the Chicago Police Department's case) were allegedly paid by Smollett to stage the attack. The narrative around Smollett began to significantly shift, but the interview was already locked.
Roberts pointed to comments made by Smollett during a Los Angeles concert in the days following his alleged attack as another key moment where she questioned speaking with the actor. She was adamant that interviewing Smollett made "no sense" if he was just going to "lawyer up" or refuse to be candid.
Roberts clarified to THR that her decision to talk with Smollett was contingent upon him sharing details that hadn’t been previously reported, which would make the interview newsworthy. "If there wasn't going to be anything new, I didn't really want to do it," she said.
It was after those internal GMA conversations that Smollett reached out, "outraged by people making assumptions about whether it happened or not," Roberts told THR and the crowd. According to the GMA anchor, Smollett's team said that the actor was OK with being challenged on what Roberts saw as "red flags," but that he'd also say things he hadn’t already said elsewhere.
"I'm like — as a journalist and as a newsperson, this is his right," Roberts said. "He's going on the record for the first time. Yes, I'll do the interview."
Roberts noted that her GMA team went through the police report and conducted other research to prepare for the interview, which was originally set for 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 12, but was ultimately pushed back several hours due to the actor's filming schedule. Roberts admitted during the panel that she wasn’t sure how it was going to go or how Smollett was going to react, but that she consciously worked to be as neutral as possible. She also was aware of her own identity as a gay black woman and how reporting on Smollett, a gay black man, might be perceived.
"He's saying that it was a hate crime," Roberts said. "So if I'm too hard on him, then people in my LGBTQ community are going, 'Oh, you don't believe him.' If I'm too light on him, then it's like, 'Oh, because you are in the community, you're giving him a pass.' So it was, like, it was a no-win situation for me."
On Feb. 25, four days after Smollett's arrest, Roberts did another GMA sit-down, this time with Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson, who revealed additional details about the department's ongoing investigation. Smollett maintains his innocence and returns to court this month.
Responding to criticisms to her Smollett interview, including that she was too soft on the actor, Roberts admitted that she would have gone farther with her questioning of the actor if she’d had more of the details that eventually came to light before the segment aired. "It was hurtful, some of the things that were said. I'll be honest," said Roberts. "Because I pride myself on being fair. I know how much work went into being balanced about what to ask, to challenge him on certain things."
She added, "Had I had that information or what the brothers were alleging — heck, yeah, I would have asked that. But it aired that morning [and] we taped it two days ahead of time."