Almost three weeks after Robin Roberts sat down with “Empire” star Jussie Smollett regarding his alleged hate crime, she’s opening up about how she approached the highly publicized sit-down.
“I’ll be completely honest, I was like I don’t know if I want to do the interview or not,” she said during The Cut’s “How I Get It Done” event at 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge on Monday.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to sit down with him if he’s going to lawyer up,’” the “Good Morning America” host, 58, recalled. “And then I was told, ‘He wants to speak with you,’ [because] he was outraged by people making assumptions about whether it had happened or not.”
Roberts said she was promised she could challenge him on the “red flags” over the alleged racist and homophobic attack and that she’d get new information out of him.
“They said, ‘He wants to say things that he has not said’ and I’m like, ‘As a journalist, as a newsperson, this is newsworthy, he’s going to go on record for the first time, yes I’ll do the interview,’” she explained.
Following the interview, ABC staffers have said they were skeptical of Smollett’s story.
Scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 12, the interview started two-and-a-half hours later than expected.
“I sit down with him, and I don’t know what he’s going to say,” she said. “Following up [about how] he couldn’t believe people didn’t believe him, well I go, ‘You’re out 2 o’clock in the morning, you’re getting a sandwich, [and] you won’t give up your phone.’”
But trying to be as “neutral” as possible, Roberts acknowledged the inherent pressure she felt to represent the LGBT community.
“I’m a black gay woman, he’s a black gay man,” she said. “He’s saying that there’s a hate crime, so if I’m too hard, then my LGBT community is going to say, ‘You don’t believe a brother,’ if I’m too light on him, it’s like, ‘Oh, because you are in the community, you’re giving him a pass.’”
“It was a no-win situation for me,” she explained.
Two days later, when the interview aired, the discussion was overshadowed by news that two Nigerian brothers alleged they were paid by the actor to stage the attack.
“People are looking at the interview through the eyes of ‘How did you not know?’” she recalled. “I did the interview 48 hours before then. Had I had that information or [knew] what the brothers were alleging, heck yeah, I would have asked him about that.”
“I pride myself in being fair, I know how much work went into being balanced about what had happened and to challenge him on certain things,” she said.
She concluded by saying that since Smollett was considered a victim at the time of their interview, she carefully selected her questions.
“There’s so many people who do not come forward because others are not believed. I don’t know how this is all going to end,” she said. “We still talk to the [Chicago] police superintendent [Eddie T. Johnson].”
“It was one of the most challenging interviews I’ve ever had to do,” she said.
Smollett turned himself in to police just a week after the brothers came forward saying that the attack was orchestrated. He is facing disorderly conduct charges for filing a false police report. He is now out on bond, and his next court date is March 14.