Only in the bizarre, upside-down world that is the modern media landscape could a trial over the shooting of three white men by another white man become a referendum on racial justice.
Corporate American media managed to pull off exactly that feat in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, convincing vast swathes of America that Rittenhouse had shot black men, that he was a card-carrying white supremacist or that he fired indiscriminately into a crowd of unsuspecting peaceful protesters.
When Rittenhouse was found not guilty by a jury of his peers after weeks of tense arguments and deliberations in the courtroom, reaction was divided largely along the lines of media consumption habits. Those who read and watched non-partisan, independent or right-of-center media were largely unsurprised after seeing the facts of the case presented during the trial.
Many of those who keep up with the news via corporate media and progressive sources were, by contrast, shocked and appalled. How could such a blatant white supremacist murder go unpunished? Was it a corrupt judge who honored veterans in the courtroom at fault? Was it a majority white jury? Or was Rittenhouse just the latest beneficiary of white privilege?
The blame lies not with the consumers of that media, but with the journalists and personalities who repeatedly twisted facts and constructed false narratives about the case.
It began in the days immediately following the shootings, when Rittenhouse was used as a cudgel to attack then-President Donald Trump. When Trump refused to outright condemn Rittenhouse before all the facts were known, it was said that the president was defending right-wing vigilantism. When discussing the president’s response, a reporter for CNN called the event an “obvious double-homicide.”
The Washington Post characterized Rittenhouse’s actions as “violence perpetrated by [Trump’s] supporters.” CNN lumped him in with “right-wing agitators.” The Guardian pondered whether he should be referred to as a “domestic terrorist,” while Democratic Massachusetts Rep. Ayanna Pressley called him just that while repeating the false claim that he carried a rifle across state lines illegally.
The frequent repetition of that falsehood, and others, may be part of the reason so many onlookers were shocked by the guilty verdict. Lies by both omission and inclusion persisted from the days after the shootings through the end of the trial. In addition to the false claim that Rittenhouse transported a rifle across state lines, a common talking point was that Rittenhouse went out of his way to show up with a gun in a community he wasn’t a part of.
For instance, a Post article published during the trial called Rittenhouse an “Illinois resident.” No further context was given, like the fact that Rittenhouse was from Antioch, Illinois, which is a half-hour or less drive from Kenosha. It also didn’t mention that Rittenhouse’s father, Michael, lived in Kenosha, and that Kyle would frequently visit him and also worked in the city as a lifeguard.
Another such falsehood was that Rittenhouse illegally possessed the gun he used that night in Kenosha. In fact, it wasn’t illegal for Rittenhouse to have the weapon; the judge in the case, Bruce Schroeder, dismissed the weapons charge.
That didn’t stop PolitiFact from standing by a fact-check in which it said that the gun possession was illegal. According to the Facebook-linked factchecking service, it’s still “false” to suggest that Rittenhouse was legally allowed to carry his gun.
That Facebook link is important because social media played a significant role in the perception of the trial as well. Both Facebook and Twitter suppressed arguments in favor of Rittenhouse’s innocence, while allowing comments that he was a murderer to stay up uncensored. GoFundMe removed a fundraiser for his legal defense.
Those who did find a way to donate to Rittenhouse in order to give him a fair defense at a legal trial were, in some instances, doxxed and harassed by major media outlets like The Guardian. A Norfolk police officer was fired for donating to Rittenhouse’s legal defense, and one local reporter went as far as to show up to a Utah paramedic’s house to ask him why he made a $10 donation. CNN felt it necessary to write an article about college students who had raised money for Rittenhouse.
Once the trial arrived, the attempts to sway the public against the justice system began. Intense focus was placed on Judge Bruce Schroeder, largely because he often sparred with the prosecution in an aggressive way on procedural grounds during the trial.
Schroeder was criticized not only for yelling at the prosecution for ignoring his rulings, but for asking the courtroom to applaud veterans on Veteran’s Day. When his phone went off during the trial, revealing his ringtone to be “God Bless the USA,” progressives cried that that must mean he was a conservative in the tank for the defense. A guest on Joy Reid’s MSNBC show said it was a “Trump song.”
Schroeder was blasted for ruling that the men shot by Rittenhouse could not be referred to as victims, but analysts on CNN and MSNBC explained that this was a normal occurrence in trials so as not to sway the perception of the jury.
Two facts about Schroeder that were often left out of the screeds arguing he was a conservative sympathizer of Rittenhouse: he was first elected to office early in his career as a Democrat and was appointed to his current position by a Democratic governor.
Beyond the obsession with Schroeder, routine facts of the case continued to be falsified with no pushback from journalists. When Democratic California Rep. Karen Bass falsely claimed on CNN that Rittenhouse had used an automatic rifle in the shootings, Jake Tapper said nothing. When one of the men shot by Rittenhouse directly contradicted his sworn testimony during the trial in an interview with Good Morning America, Michael Strahan brushed past it. When a guest host on Joy Reid’s show flatly lied about that witnesses’ testimony, no correction was issued.
With that happening, it’s no wonder that falsehoods about the basic facts of the case became pervasive throughout the discourse surrounding the trial. The British outlet The Independent falsely reported that Rittenhouse had actually shot black men, not white men. The Daily Beast initially reported that Rittenhouse had shot a man who did nothing but throw a plastic bag at him. The head of House Democrats’ campaign arm tweeted a statement that Jacob Blake, the Wisconsin man shot by police that the Kenosha rioters were protesting for, was killed, when he was not.
The media’s mishandling of the Rittenhouse case from start to finish left the public misinformed and sometimes angry about the trial result. It did not happen by accident, but was instead systemic throughout corporate press in a way that isn’t happening with cases that have a different political bent.