By Matt Taibbi and Matt Orfalea, via Substack,
Kyle Rittenhouse was found innocent on all six felony charges today, already causing a great exploding of heads in the pundit-o-sphere. Unrest wouldn’t be surprising. How could it be otherwise? Colleagues in national media spent over a year telling the country the 18-year-old was not just guilty, but a moral monster whose acquittal would be an in-your-face affirmation of systemic white supremacy.
It used to bother me that journalists were portrayed in pop culture as sniveling, amoral weenies. Take William Atherton’s iconic portrayal in Die Hard of “Thornburg,” the TV-news creep who gasps, “Tell me you got that!” with orgasmic awe when an explosion rocks the Nakatomi building. I got that — I’d seen that face on reporters.
But risking the life of hero John McClane’s wife Holly by putting her name on TV, and getting the info by threatening the family nanny Paulina with an immigration raid? We’re bad, I thought, but not that bad. I got that it was a movie, but my father was a local TV man, and that one stung a bit.
MSNBC Thursday pulled a Thornburg in real life. Police stopped a man named James Morrison who was apparently following a jury bus, and said he was acting at the direction of a New York-based MSNBC producer named Irene Byon. Even if all you’re after is a post-verdict interview, if a jury gets the slightest whiff that the press is searching out their names and addresses, that’s clear intimidation. People will worry about the safety of their spouses and children as they’re deliberating. Not that it matters to anyone but the defense, prosecution, judge, jury, and taxpayers, but you’re also putting the trial at risk. I’ve covered plenty of celebrity trials, from Michael Jackson to the Enron defendants, and know the identifying-jurors practice isn’t unheard of. However, in a powder-keg case like this, it’s bonkers to play it any way but straight.
We’ve seen Die Hard-level indifference to social consequence from the beginning of this case. The context of the Rittenhouse shootings involved a summer of protests that began after the police killing of George Floyd, and continued in Kenosha after the shooting of Jacob Blake. We saw demonstrations of all types last summer, ranging from solemn candlelight vigils and thousands of protesters laying peacefully on their backs across bridges, to the burning of storefronts and “hundreds” of car thieves stealing “nearly 80” cars from a dealership in San Leandro, California. When the population is on edge, and people are amped and ready to lash out, that puts an even greater onus on media figures to get things right.
In a tinderbox situation like this one, it was reckless beyond belief for analysts to tell audiences Rittenhouse was a murderer when many if not most of them had a good idea he would be acquitted. But that’s exactly what most outlets did.
This is separate and apart from the question of whether or not you like Kyle Rittenhouse, or agree with his politics, or if, as a parent, you would want your own teenager carrying an AR-15 into a chaotic protest zone. The huge media error here was of the “Walls are closing in” variety, except the context was far worse. The “Walls are closing in” stupidity raised vague expectations among #Resistance audiences that at some unfixed point in time, Donald Trump would be pushed from office by scandal. In this case, the same people who poured out onto the streets last summer were told over and over that Rittenhouse was guilty, setting the stage for shock and horror if and when the “wrong” verdict came back.
Media figures got every element of this story wrong. As documented by TK contributor Matt Orfalea, the Young Turks alone spat out all sorts of misconceptions with shocking inattention: that Rittenhouse was “shooting randomly at people” after falling down, that he’d fired first, that there was no evidence that anyone had raised a gun at him, among many, many other errors. Belatedly, the show conceded some of these problems. However, they had access to the correct information in most of these cases on the night of the shootings:
TYT's star host claims he wasn't aware of the images showing Grosskreutz pointing a gun at Rittenhouse until over a year later. The video was published the same night of the shootings by reporter/videographer @BGOnTheScene. pic.twitter.com/mJR8v7Hxsq— Matt Orfalea (@0rf) November 15, 2021
The Young Turks showed restraint relative to other outlets. Joe Scarborough on MSNBC said Rittenhouse unloaded “about sixty rounds” into the crowd (it was eight), adding in another segment that he “drove across state lines and started shooting people up,” and in still another that he was “shooting wildly, running around acting like a rent a cop, trying to protect property in a town he doesn't know.” (His father and other relatives live there). John Heilemann on the same channel said Rittenhouse was “arguably a domestic terrorist” who “crossed state lines to go and shoot people.” Bakari Sellers, CNN: “The only person who fired shots that night was Kyle Rittenhouse” (he didn’t fire first, and protesters actually fired more rounds).
In the early days after the shooting, there were widespread reports that Rittenhouse either was a “militia member” or “thought of himself as a militia member,” but these turned out to not be true (he was actually only a member of a Police Explorers program). A well-known politician, squad member Ayanna Pressley, whom I wouldn’t by any means characterize as stupid or generally careless, tweeted a slew of accusations paired with a challenge to media outlets to “fix your damn headlines”:
A 17 year old white supremacist domestic terrorist drove across state lines, armed with an AR 15.— Ayanna Pressley (@AyannaPressley) August 27, 2020
He shot and killed 2 people who had assembled to affirm the value, dignity, and worth of Black lives.
Fix your damn headlines.
This was followed by other politicians making similar comments. Congressman Ted Lieu in September of last year said Rittenhouse “drove across state lines and he murdered two protesters,” adding, “Americans of all colors and creeds are seeing that racism and white supremacy are problems we can't ignore.” Stacy Abrams said Rittenhouse was “willing to drive across state lines in order to commit murder.” Of course, the crowning impropriety, already mentioned in this space, was then-candidate Joe Biden putting Rittenhouse in a campaign ad in which he talked about how Trump “refused to disavow white supremacists” in a debate:
There’s no other way to put it: the President of the United States refused to disavow white supremacists on the debate stage last night. pic.twitter.com/Q3VZTW1vUV— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 30, 2020
Even just a few days ago, Biden spokesperson Jen Psaki seemingly couldn’t be bothered to address this characterization, sighing with impatience and saying, “What I’m not going to speak to right now is an ongoing trial nor the president’s past comments.”
A scant few outlets bothered to do what The New Yorker did in July of this year, in examining each of these claims one by one. This involved simple things like citing the Anti-Defamation League report covering Rittenhouse:
There is to date no evidence that Rittenhouse was involved with the Kenosha Guard or showed up as a result of their call to action. Nor is there evidence of ties to other extremist groups, either militia groups or white supremacist groups. Rittenhouse’s social media accounts provided no evidence of ties to extremism prior to the killings.
The New Yorker also took a sober look at the oft-howled objection that Rittenhouse “crossed state lines,” as if this were somehow an offense in itself (see the Matt Orfalea video above) and quickly determined that news outlets simply didn’t bother to ask a few basic questions about the case:
Because he lived in Illinois, people assumed that he had travelled some distance, for nefarious purposes, and had “crossed state lines” with his rifle. (The Rittenhouse apartment was a mile south of the Wisconsin border, and Rittenhouse had been storing his gun in Kenosha, at the house of a friend’s stepfather.)
Because of all of these simple factual misconceptions — that Rittenhouse was a militia member and a white supremacist who’d traveled a great distance to a town to which he had no connection, then fired first and indiscriminately — analysts not only pre-judged Rittenhouse’s guilt, but offered advance explanations for any possible acquittal.
Since it was not possible that it was real self-defense, the trial could only be an affirmation of white supremacy’s hold on the judicial system. “I know what white people are willing to do to defend white supremacy,” is how Nation justice correspondent Elie Mystal put it, in a Democracy Now! appearance that casually explained some of Judge Schroeder’s decisions by saying things like, “That’s what racists do.” There’s simply no requirement anymore for substantiating words like “white supremacist” or “racist” in media. We were once terrified to use these words without a lot of backup, but now, we don’t distinguish between a person who attends Richard Spencer rallies and, say, a judge with a “God Bless The U.S.A.” ringtone, or a member of a Police Explorers program.
Now Rittenhouse has been found innocent, and surprise, surprise, the immediate reaction is that it can only be explained by white supremacy. To a degree, I don’t even blame people who’ve come to this conclusion, because it’s all they’ve heard for a year: Rittenhouse is a racist murderer who went way out of his way to shoot innocent people, and was given a pass by an evil system. On cue, the reactions are pouring in, as if pre-written:
“This is how the systems conspire to entrench #WhiteSupremacy,” tweeted Black Lives Matter. “The verdict in the #KyleRittenhouseTrial is a reminder of the treacherous role that white supremacy and privilege play within our justice system,” added NAACP president Derrick Johnson. “The Rittenhouse verdicts are green lights for armed terrorism by the lawless vigilantes of the white supremacy movement,” said former Green Party Presidential candidate Howie Hawkins. Even the ACLU responded with the same canned outrage, as reporter Lee Fang noted:
The ACLU now favors criminal prosecutions based on the extremely arbitrary penalties that go along with "crossing state lines"? The civil liberty community has long opposed these laws that add criminal penalties for state border crossing. https://t.co/Nb3ZkbxfST— Lee Fang (@lhfang) November 19, 2021
Sometimes bad things happen, and social tensions should run hot, or people maybe should go out on the streets. However, you’ve got to at least give people the correct picture before you hit “send” on a story likely to encourage this. When I started researching the Eric Garner case, for instance, I was open to the idea that that there was more to the story than what we saw on the video, which appeared at first glance to show a cold-blooded police execution. In the end, I did find there was more to the story: it was actually worse than what the public thought. Among other things, Garner hadn’t even been committing the “crime” of selling untaxed cigarettes on the day police ended his life.
Rittenhouse was an opposite case. The more they dug, the more reporters should have been able to see this verdict coming, and why. Instead, they picked a sloppy caricature on day one, and dug in. Now, mass audiences will be far more shocked than they should have been, and who knows what problems might arise from that.