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 ...

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The Associated Press even fact-checked then-President TrumpDonald TrumpMan sentenced to nearly four years for running scam Trump, Biden PACs Meadows says Trump's blood oxygen level was dangerously low when he had COVID-19 Trump endorses David Perdue in Georgia's governor race MORE 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. 

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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. 

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 BidenJoe BidenMan sentenced to nearly four years for running scam Trump, Biden PACs Dole in final column: 'Too many of us have sacrificed too much' Meadows says Trump's blood oxygen level was dangerously low when he had COVID-19 MORE, who during the 2020 presidential campaign tweeted a photo of Rittenhouse that lumped him in with torch-carrying white supremacists. 

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“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: 

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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: 

 

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.