Last week's acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager charged with the murder of two men in Kenosha, Wis., likely came as a shock to millions of Americans who had relied on the media to inform their understanding of the case.
From the time Rittenhouse killed two men on the streets of Kenosha last August, media characterizations of the event suggested his conviction was a foregone conclusion. He was a troubled kid, "a high school dropout who viewed law enforcement as his personal heroes" and had "an affinity for guns." Many took pains to point out that he had attended a rally for then-president Donald Trump. A New York Times report found that he "showed strong support for officers." The Daily Beast referred to him as a "fanatic."
The men Rittenhouse shot in self-defense quickly became sympathetic figures. Anthony Huber, who attacked Rittenhouse with a skateboard, died doing something "heroic," according to CNN—which was quoting Huber's girlfriend. In a piece that has since been edited, the network described Joseph Rosenbaum, a convicted child rapist, as somebody who would "make you laugh out of nowhere."
The allegations against Rittenhouse perfectly fit a dominant narrative within the corporate press: that there is nothing more dangerous than white men. This belief overshadowed the facts on the ground, coloring the resulting coverage and forcing it into rhetorical boxes that never quite fit, particularly around Trump and race.
After Trump refused to condemn him, NPR told us that the president had claimed "without evidence" that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense. MSNBC's Joy Reid suggested that Trump's comments amounted to "fomenting deadly violence" and "ethnic cleansing."
"Fact checkers" weighed in along similar lines. The Associated Press told us that Trump's assertion that Rittenhouse fled his attackers—something captured on video—was wrong and slammed him for advocating "in defense of someone who opposed racial justice protesters."
The Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact claimed that Trump had lied when he said Rittenhouse had been pursued by a mob and was attacked. Both claims were supported at the time by video evidence. The inaccurate fact check is still online.
Then there were the allegations tied to race. MSNBC speculated that the only possible explanation for the events in Kenosha was white supremacy run amok. Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden went so far as to develop ads accusing Rittenhouse—absent any evidence—of being a white supremacist.
At trial, these assertions didn’t materialize. No, the Washington Post admitted, there wasn't any evidence tying Rittenhouse to white supremacists. No, the gun didn’t actually cross state lines, as so much of the reporting around the trial suggested. No, he hadn't been the one to fire the first shot. No, even Gaige Grosskreutz, the third man whom Rittenhouse shot in self-defense, admitted that Rittenhouse hadn't shot him until Grosskreutz pointed his own gun (for which he no longer had a valid concealed-carry permit) at Rittenhouse. And, finally, yes, Kyle Rittenhouse had been acting in self-defense.
Most of this information was publicly available long before the trial, overlooked or ignored in favor of red herrings about race and the misdeeds of the former president. If Rittenhouse sues for defamation, it won't come as a shock.