The Kyle Rittenhouse trial, the media, and the bigger picture

On Friday, after deliberating for several days, the jury in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse—an Illinois teenager who faced homicide and other charges for shooting three people, two fatally, amid the unrest that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last summer—returned its verdict: not guilty on all counts. After a clerk finished reading the decision, Rittenhouse, who had pleaded self-defense, sobbed and became physically unsteady; the Associated Press wrote that his reaction instantly became “the defining image” of the trial just as it reached its conclusion. Rittenhouse left court without speaking to the assembled press, though he did speak to a crew from Fox News that accompanied him as he was driven away in a vehicle. (“How you feel, man?” Rittenhouse was asked. “The jury reached the correct verdict,” he replied. “Self-defense is not illegal.”) A Fox crew had followed Rittenhouse throughout the trial; part of his interview with Tucker Carlson will air tonight, ahead of a special on the Fox Nation streaming service that’s slated for next month. Mark Richards, Rittenhouse’s attorney, said that he didn’t approve of Fox filming “but I’m not always the boss.” (He added that he’d told Rittenhouse to “learn how to take responsibility and tell people ‘no.’”)

Ever since the shootings, Carlson and others in right-wing media have taken Rittenhouse for a cause célèbre, often lionizing him for heroically defending a community against liberal rioters as institutional law and order broke down; many liberal commentators took the opposite view, while a number of journalists for major publications combed through the competing narratives and found a more complicated truth. These media dynamics didn’t just form the backdrop to the trial but inserted themselves into the courtroom—though it may be more accurate to say that Bruce Schroeder, the judge in the case, inserted them. As jury selection began, Schroeder warned potential jurors that most coverage of Rittenhouse’s case, from “all across the political spectrum,” had been “written by people who know nothing” and hadn’t seen the “real evidence”; as the trial went on, he hit back at media criticism of some of his decisions, most notably his banning of the word “victim” to describe the men Rittenhouse shot while permitting “rioters,” “looters,” and “arsonists.” At one point, Schroeder singled out CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin, though it’s not clear Toobin said quite what Schroeder believed he said. Last week, Schroeder suggested that coverage of the trial had been “really quite frightening,” and that he might reconsider allowing TV cameras in his courtroom as a result. He then banned anyone from “MSNBC News” from the courthouse after a freelancer for the network was caught running a red light in the vicinity of the jurors’ bus. (NBC News said that the freelancer had not tried to contact or photograph any of the jurors.)

ICYMI: Views, impressions, and what we see on Facebook

Early on in the trial, Reuters reported that press access to the courtroom had been limited, though pool reporters were allowed in, and, thanks to the aforementioned cameras, a feed of the proceedings was visible to anyone who wanted to tune in. That turned out to be a lot of people. Court TV and the Law & Crime Network, which both offered extensive coverage, reported much higher than normal viewership figures; major networks carried the trial more sporadically, but used video from the courtroom in packages and broadcast the verdict live. If the trial divided America, the country at least seems to have been united in its interest.

As I wrote in the spring, the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd, sparked a debate about the presence of cameras in court that was partly specific to Chauvin’s case (some observers feared the trial footage might retraumatize the local community) but also a continuation of the much older controversy surrounding the practice, with critics arguing, among other gripes, that it leads lawyers (and judges) to mug for the camera in ways deleterious to the sober administration of justice. The same sorts of arguments resurfaced, albeit perhaps less prominently, during the Rittenhouse trial. As I wrote of the Chauvin trial, it’s important not to conflate the presence of cameras in court, in and of themselves, with the worst incentives of US TV culture. The latter are a choice, and needn’t impede the basic transparency a livestream can offer. And, as observers including the editorial board of the LA Times have pointed out, if Schroeder is really concerned about the media spinning courtroom proceedings, it hardly seems like a logical solution to deprive the public of their only way (short of going to the court) to see what’s happening for themselves.

Last week, Christine Emba, a columnist at the Washington Post, wrote that, thanks in no small part to the presence of cameras in court, public visibility of the criminal-justice system—and its intersection with race, in particular—is “trickling up” from cellphone videos of police officers killing Black Americans and into the courtroom. “As cases flowing from our racial reckoning enter the court system,” Emba wrote, “our perspectives on it—and our assumptions about how it works—are being revised, too.” (Cameras are also currently capturing the trial of three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger, in Georgia last year.) Emba noted upsides and downsides of this increased visibility. “On the one hand,” she wrote, it “is making many Americans less confident in our legal system, not more—undermining faith in yet another beleaguered institution. On the other hand, exposing rot gives us a chance to clean it up.”

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To my mind, the lack-of-confidence argument need not be viewed as a downside, at least not of visibility itself; confidence in institutions must be warranted, and public visibility is a prerequisite of such calculations. Indeed, the question of confidence in the justice system has emerged as a key theme in much of the media coverage around the Rittenhouse verdict. Mainstream outlets have often framed it as a Rorschach test, of sorts—yet another signal that America is irreparably polarized, divided, broken. The more useful commentary has perhaps been that which has interrogated the power imbalances implicit both in this social polarization and in other aspects of the Rittenhouse case—asking, for example, how a Black defendant might have been treated in his shoes, or exploring the differences between legal justice and its moral counterpart rather than treating the former as a failsafe guide to the latter. Versions of this inquiry have emerged from different parts of the political spectrum. David French, a conservative writer, argued in The Atlantic that the narrowness of self-defense laws “is one reason people can escape responsibility for killings that are deeply wrongful in every moral sense.” In the same magazine, Adam Serwer wrote that “it is one thing to argue that the jury reached a reasonable verdict based on this law, and another entirely to celebrate Rittenhouse’s actions.”

This is exactly what many right-wing pundits and politicians have done, of course, all while using the verdict to assail the mainstream media’s coverage of Rittenhouse and urge him to “sue the ever-loving hell out of” major outlets. The stakes here speak to a much bigger, and ever-growing, story about right-wing vigilantism in a country saturated with guns; the narratives that Rittenhouse’s defenders are projecting onto him are at least as important as the specifics of his case and we shouldn’t lose sight of that, particularly when the latter are drawn as an acceptable cloak for violent impulses. Horrible specifics matter to the media, of course. But so does a broader atmosphere that threatens ever more of them.

Below, more on the Rittenhouse trial and Wisconsin:

  • Media criticism: Before the verdict was handed down, Holly Rosewood and Curtis Yee wrote for The Objective that while coverage of the trial has been “abundant, the quality of the reporting has been inconsistent.” Rosewood and Yee pointed to framing errors in push notifications and headlines—the Times, for instance, said that the trial would “peg” whether Rittenhouse is a “hero” or a “reckless gunman”—as well as “bad takes” from pundits. “Much of the industry’s disposition towards simplistic, zero-sum coverage has framed the Rittenhouse trial as sport,” they wrote, “reporting on the spectacle of the event without actually increasing public understanding.”
  • Local views: The editorial board of the Madison-based Wisconsin State Journal slammed Rittenhouse’s acquittal, arguing that state law is skewed in favor of shooters who claim self-defense and needs to be changed. The verdict is “sure to embolden militant people who seek to take the law into their own hands,” the editorial board wrote, adding, “our state should be discouraging standoffs with guns, rather than encouraging more people to arm themselves out of fear or revenge.”
  • Another tragedy in Wisconsin: Yesterday, a car plowed into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, a city in the Milwaukee area that is only forty or so miles from Kenosha; at least five people were killed and more than forty others were injured. Police arrested a suspect but so far their motive remains unclear. “The incident occurred during one of the city’s biggest and most cherished annual events,” Bill Glauber, Mary Spicuzza, and Molly Beck report for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “A joyous crowd lined both sides of the road, people bundled against the cold.” The story is developing.


Other notable stories:

ICYMI: The persistence of the Saturday Evening Post

Update: This post has been updated to incorporate Jami Floyd’s denial that she was reassigned at WNYC. 

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Kyle Rittenhouse (right) and Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder. AP Photo