Will media portrayals of Rittenhouse lead to another day in court?
The next chapter in the Kyle Rittenhouse story, at least from a public perspective, almost certainly will be about his legal team filing multiple lawsuits against media outlets and political figures who declared him to be everything from a racist to guilty before his trial even began.
Many of the defamatory statements against the 18-year-old former defendant, who was acquitted on all charges on Nov. 19, have the same theme: Rittenhouse’s actions were those of a crazed white supremacist. The charges came (and continue to come) despite that Rittenhouse, who is white, shot three other white guys, killing two. And yet …
Legal experts rip Trump for ‘fomenting deadly violence’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ with Kyle Rittenhouse defense – https://t.co/fZVyCQfi0R
— Joy-Ann (Pro-Democracy) Reid (@JoyAnnReid) September 1, 2020
MSNBC’s Cross, Mystal Blast ‘White Supremacists’ in Congress Celebrating ‘Little Murderous White Supremacist’ Rittenhouse. ‘It’s Gross!’ https://t.co/UnIM3SSStY
— Mediaite (@Mediaite) November 20, 2021
The Associated Press even fact-checked then-President Trump for defending Rittenhouse in saying that it appeared Rittenhouse had acted in self-defense, adding that the teen “opposed racial-justice protestors” without mentioning that some of those protestors had attacked him.
“THE FACTS: His implication that Rittenhouse only shot the men after he tripped and they attacked him is wrong. The first fatal shooting happened before Rittenhouse ran away and fell.” https://t.co/hZ5Ss6GTI4
— Michelangelo Signorile (@MSignorile) September 2, 2020
CBS News went so far as to convict Rittenhouse in the court of public opinion before the trial was over, saying he had “murdered” two men. (“Murder” is a legal term; “killed” was the appropriate, objective term.) The network later deleted the tweet after considerable backlash.
The problem is these actions illustrate extreme bias – your job is to find the truth – follow the facts.
CBS deletes tweet stating Rittenhouse testified he ‘murdered two men’ after backlash | Fox News https://t.co/cateOLKZlG
— Lara Logan (@laralogan) November 12, 2021
So, does Rittenhouse have a defamation case? Is there recent precedent?
Enter Sandmann — former Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann that is, who wrote in a Daily Mail op-ed that Rittenhouse should file a defamation lawsuit. Sandmann is the teenager who sued CNN and the Washington Post for $275 million and $250 million, respectively, for their portrayal of him in their reporting as a racist, following his interaction with a Native American man at the 2019 March for Life rally in Washington, D.C.
“They [the media] came quickly, without hesitation, because Kyle was an easy target that they could paint in the way they wanted to,” Sandmann wrote earlier this month. “This is the problem with liberal media outlets in the United States. They want to get the story first, get the most views, make the most money, and advance the agenda from liberal patrons.”
“So every single label on Kyle as a ‘terrorist,’ ‘white supremacist,’ and ‘school shooter’ in the streets of Kenosha, will only ever be withdrawn after the damage has been done,” Sandmann added.
CNN and the Post settled with the Kentucky teen for undisclosed amounts.
If Sandmann was successful in forcing a settlement from two of the most prominent media organizations in the country, why couldn’t Rittenhouse achieve the same result? A settlement is the more likely outcome when suits are filed, because media organizations loathe being the focus of bad press, bad PR.
Examples of the media portraying Rittenhouse as a white supremacist and declaring him guilty of murder are plentiful. The last thing any news organizations should want is to have those clips playing over and over on social media and elsewhere, which is what would happen if a high-profile suit moved forward.
Some politicians may also be subject to defamation suits, including President Biden, who during the 2020 presidential campaign tweeted a photo of Rittenhouse that lumped him in with torch-carrying white supremacists.
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
“President Biden said some things, I think are so incorrect and untrue — he is not a white supremacist,” Rittenhouse lawyer Mark Richards said after his client was acquitted.
Prominent Democrats also piled on before and after the trial:
Lock up Kyle Rittenhouse and throw away the key.
— Hakeem Jeffries (@hakeemjeffries) November 10, 2021
Today’s verdict is a stain on the soul of America, & sends a dangerous message about who & what values our justice system was designed to protect
We must stand unified in rejecting supremacist vigilantism & with one voice say: this is not who we are https://t.co/VOs66OZ2RJ
— Andrew Cuomo (@andrewcuomo) November 19, 2021
A 17 year old white supremacist domestic terrorist drove across state lines, armed with an AR 15.
He shot and killed 2 people who had assembled to affirm the value, dignity, and worth of Black lives.
Fix your damn headlines.
— Ayanna Pressley (@AyannaPressley) August 27, 2020
America today: you can break the law, carry around weapons built for a military, shoot and kill people, and get away with it.
That’s the message we’ve just sent to armed vigilantes across the nation. https://t.co/yiVLN2v718
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) November 19, 2021
Kyle Rittenhouse is no hero, despite some GOP congressmen trying to make him into one. His own lawyer says that Rittenhouse should not have gone to the protest-turned-riot in Kenosha, Wis., something that Rittenhouse now says he deeply regrets having done:
Rittenhouse Lawyer Says His Client Regrets Going to Kenosha That Night ‘A Hundred Times Over’ https://t.co/k0evPSuhag
— Mediaite (@Mediaite) November 20, 2021
But none of that excuses the way the media handled this case — myopically making race and racism the central themes while ignoring the presumption of innocence afforded to all the accused. And despite Rittenhouse’s acquittal, the portrayal of the teen as a violent racist will be hard for him to shed.
Will Rittenhouse and his lawyers hold those in the media responsible for acting so irresponsibly? We’re likely to know sooner rather than later.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist for The Hill.
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