The Rittenhouse Verdict Shouldn’t Have Been a Surprise
Rittenhouse was no hero. But the failure of the media helps explain why so many people expected him to be convicted.
A lot of people are surprised that Kyle Rittenhouse, the young man who shot three people in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year killing two of them, was just found not guilty on all charges, including on two counts of homicide. The furious responses are already pouring in: just minutes after the verdict came down, “MURDERER,” “WhitePrivilege,” and “Amerikkka” began trending on Twitter. MSNBC quickly published a piece titled “Kyle Rittenhouse trial was designed to protect white conservatives who kill.” A number of very high-profile figures, ranging from New York mayor Bill de Blasio to Wajahat Ali of The Daily Beast expressed similar sentiments immediately after the verdict on Twitter.
To these observers, Rittenhouse’s acquittal on all charges confirms what they already knew about our justice system: It is a grotesque machine that will forever forgive white supremacist violence. From their perspective, Rittenhouse clearly killed two people illegally, and it’s baffling that he got away with it.
But for those who have watched this case closely since that terrible night in Kenosha, this isn’t a surprising result. The large amount of video footage available since almost the very start of this controversy revealed that Rittenhouse always had at least a decent self-defense claim, and potentially quite a strong one. The fact that so many people were so confused about the facts of this case—not only on the self-defense question but on basic matters like whether the people he shot were black or white, whether he took his rifle “across state lines,” and whether he had preexisting family or social ties to Kenosha—suggests that, despite all the understandable talk of the right’s “fake news” problem, partisan news coverage and punditry on the left is becoming a serious problem in its own right.
Rittenhouse says he decided to take part in helping to protect and clean up Kenosha after watching the wave of destruction that hit the city following the police shooting of a black man named Jacob Blake. Videos of him at various points during his day there showed he helped clean graffiti off of a school, interacted with protesters peacefully and asked them if they needed medical assistance (he apparently had some rudimentary first-aid training as a lifeguard but, contrary to what he told someone filming him at one point, was not an EMT), and took part in guarding various businesses—all while toting an AR-15-style rifle.
Then darkness fell and things turned catastrophic. The violence appears to have been sparked by Joseph Rosenbaum, a deeply disturbed man with a tragic history who had just been released from a hospital following a suicide attempt, who witnesses said had threatened to kill Rittenhouse earlier in the day, and who could be seen in one video seeking to provoke a group of armed protesters by yelling “Shoot me, n*gga,” repeatedly.
Rittenhouse testified that Rosenbaum ambushed him, and that appears to be borne out by the videos: Rosenbaum chases him a significant distance, and Rittenhouse, now hemmed in by parked cars and lacking an easy escape, only shoots Rosenbaum after he lunges at him.
Most of this was clear from the video that went online shortly after news of the killings went viral, but more recently released drone footage shows those final moments with greater clarity than before: Rosenbaum really was reaching for Rittenhouse or his rifle at the moment he was shot.
The other two men Rittenhouse shot chased him after they and others in the crowd realized he had shot someone. Video shows that Anthony Huber, who was killed, caught up to Rittenhouse and struck him with a skateboard. Gaige Grosskreutz, who survived and testified during the trial, acknowledged in a devastating moment for the prosecution that at the moment Rittenhouse shot him in the arm, he was pointing his own handgun at the teenager.
According to Wisconsin state law, lethal force is only legally permissible if someone “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself.” Even if a defendant provokes a confrontation, they’re still allowed to resort to deadly force if those criteria are met and they have exhausted other reasonable means of escape. Little else matters, really—not the politics of the case, not whether Huber or Grosskreutz thought they were chasing someone who had just killed someone in cold blood (which they may well have been). Many observers, myself included, thought that Rittenhouse couldn’t legally carry the AR-style rifle he used in the shootings. This only would have been a misdemeanor violation anyway, with a maximum sentence of nine months, but it turned out to be a moot point: The judge tossed the charge earlier this week because that law “applies to minors armed with rifles or shotguns only if those weapons are short-barreled,” as The Associated Press put it.
Whatever one thinks of these laws, they are the relevant laws here. And they made for an uphill battle for the prosecution all along, because the videos showed that Rittenhouse was, in fact, threatened by the people he shot. The videos alone didn’t prove that a self-defense claim would definitely prevail, of course, but they did come pretty close to proving that Rittenhouse did not instigate any of the shootings in question.
All of this was right there, on video and in the relevant statutes, for anyone with eyes to see. Why did so many people—including influential people who are paid to get the news right—look away?
I first wrote about the case in a pair of newsletter posts not long after it happened. I was astounded at the distance between what was on the video and what news outlets (not to mention the Twitter brigades) were saying. “First he allegedly killed a protester, by shooting him in the head,” was how Tess Owen described the violence in Vice on August 27th. Writing in Slate, Mark Joseph Stern wrote that Rittenhouse “placed himself at the center of the violence, then escalated it by shooting a man in the head.”
Countless other journalists and online personalities treated the case similarly. Even some elected officials got in on the act. Rittenhouse was quickly and publicly labeled a “white supremacist domestic terrorist” by Rep. Ayanna Pressley on Twitter.
After Rittenhouse was released on $2 million bail—an amount raised by supporters—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez weighed in: “Does anyone believe Rittenhouse would be released if he were Muslim & did the same thing in a diff context?” she tweeted. “For people who say ‘systemic racism doesn’t exist,’ this is what it looks like: protection of white supremacy baked deep into our carceral systems.”
The endless invocation of “white supremacy” as an explanatory factor in this controversy was strange, given that all three people Rittenhouse shot were white and given that, contra Pressley’s claim, no evidence ever emerged that he had any connection to white supremacists. Pressley was recently asked (by Fox News, in an admittedly leading email) if she stood by the comments and did not respond. (After the case went viral, Rittenhouse was embraced as a right-wing cause celebre and was photographed with some members of the far-right Proud Boys at a bar, but there’s no evidence he had a prior connection to that or any other radical group.)
Vice and Slate were far from the only outlets that contorted the facts of the case or published truly dishonest analysis. Intercept columnist Natasha Lennard wrote that Rittenhouse “chose to travel to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and hunt down anti-racist protesters with an assault rifle,” an astonishingly misleading description of the actual chain of events.
Other progressive writers expressed outrage that when he took the stand, Rittenhouse began sobbing. Jamil Smith wrote in Vox that “It isn’t simply that a killer cried about his own fear, rather than the lives he took. It represented the exercise of entitlement, the enduring perception of the youth of white men and boys who commit illegal acts.” Of course, the fact that Rittenhouse also cried—and vomited—when he turned himself in to the police suggests that there’s at least a chance he was actually traumatized by what happened. But telling readers about that prior incident would complicate the narrative that he is an embodiment of entitled white evil.
Every step of the way, a subset of journalists and commentators have done everything they could to paint Rittenhouse in as negative a light as possible, even when doing so has involved distortion or selective forgetting. Take the endlessly regurgitated claim that he “crossed state lines” to get to Kenosha. First of all, this is geographically trivial: Rittenhouse lived with his mother in Antioch, Illinois at the time. Antioch borders Wisconsin, meaning that Antioch residents can “cross state lines” to grab a cup of coffee.
Second, the whole point of that language is to make the gun charge sound more serious, to portray Rittenhouse as an outsider seeking carnage, or both—but all of this was debunked many months ago. Rittenhouse didn’t bring his rifle across state lines, full-stop. A friend bought it for him and kept it at his (the friend’s) stepfather’s house in Kenosha. And those few journalists who did deep reporting into the case—Charles Homans of the New York Times Magazine (a former colleague of mine at Washington Monthly) and Paige Williams of The New Yorker both deserve plaudits for their work—quickly established that Rittenhouse had many ties to Kenosha, where he worked as a lifeguard and where his father, grandmother, aunt, uncle and a cousin all lived.
The overall effect of all this bad journalism and irresponsible, inflammatory punditry was the creation of an entirely separate version of events that bore almost no resemblance to what really happened that awful night in Kenosha. It was “fake news” in the same sense progressives often use that term: the creation of alternate realities as a result of partisan outlets and journalists more interested in narrative-promotion and ideological point-scoring than in fact-checking.
Of course, these false and distorted ideas about the Rittenhouse case didn’t emerge fully formed from a vacuum. For a very long time, American authorities at every level really did look the other way in the face of vigilante right-wing violence. Reconstruction failed in large part because federal authorities would not protect black Americans from a terrifying onslaught of white violence in the South. And the much more recent racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder led many Americans to become more attuned to the possibility of racism lurking within everyday interactions, especially those involving law enforcement.
So it’s understandable how, to the casual onlooker, all these viral claims about Rittenhouse being a white supremacist who went out looking for trouble might feel true, might feel like the sort of thing that could happen in America. Whether we should fit the Rittenhouse case into that preexisting historical mold is a separate question—and all the available evidence suggests it would be foolhardy to do so.
And think about the consequences of all this misunderstanding, of millions of people having false ideas about Kyle Rittenhouse, what he did, and the justice system’s treatment of him: It will surely increase the probability of post-trial violence, for one thing, because people will be surprised that such an “obvious” case of murder was acquitted. And even if that outcome is averted, this result will be taken as yet more “proof” that the justice system is beyond redemption. This sense of nihilistic hopelessness, that justice for Jacob Blake would be impossible through judicial channels, is part of the reason Kenosha burned in the first place, and it’s terrible to think of the consequences of this belief spreading further.
The misinformation also has a pernicious effect on conservatives. It’s been clear to many of them, from early on, that the media wasn’t treating this case fairly and that to get a more accurate version of the story, they would have to turn to alternative news sources. Many of those sources are right-wing and not particularly concerned with truthfulness either: they tended to portray Rittenhouse as some sort of bona fide American hero, when we obviously shouldn’t be encouraging 17-year-olds to embrace the roles of paramilitary foot soldiers. Continuing to drive conservative Americans away from mainstream outlets will only exacerbate our national divide and all the problems that come from it—from conservative belief in conspiracy theories like QAnon and #StopTheSteal to the increasing distrust, fear, and hatred that Americans have of the other political party.
Even if we can understand where the false narrative about Kyle Rittenhouse came from, we should not excuse this sort of fake news. The mainstream media has a responsibility to report facts honestly, whether or not they line up with preexisting narratives or ideological priors. If they fail to do so, their actions will only drive America further down its present, dangerous path.
Jesse Singal is a contributing writer at New York Magazine, the cohost of Blocked and Reported, and the author of The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can't Cure Our Social Ills. You can read more of his writing, including his initial coverage of the Rittenhouse case, on his newsletter, Singal-Minded.
Update: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly cited US News as the source for a quote about the dismissed charge of illegal possession of a dangerous weapon. The quote is from an article by The Associated Press.