How "the media got it wrong" usually gets it wrong: Rittenhouse edition

It's better to criticize specific examples than to argue a grand narrative

In the wake of the not guilty verdict in Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial, a number of pundits rushed to put out their subject-relevant takes, with many of them settling on an old classic: “The media got it wrong.”

I’m certainly not someone who reflexively defends news outlets. In fact, that’s pretty much the opposite of what I tend to do, often to the chagrin of people working within the mainstream press. That said, there are some failings with a lot of the “media got it wrong” takes you’ll find online. And while it’s pretty commonplace to see arguments about how “the media got it wrong on Russia” (I’ve addressed that a bit in the past) or in the infamous Covington Catholic coverage, the sentiment is making a big return in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse.

Take, for instance, this back and forth between Glenn Greenwald and Adam Johnson (and before I start on this, I want to say that I really do have a lot of respect for both Greenwald and Johnson, and certainly hope that neither of them will take this personally, as this is simply an example of the type of discourse that seems to be arising from this situation):

Okay, so… Let’s go quickly go through this interaction:

  1. Greenwald says that news outlets in Brazil falsely reported that Rittenhouse had shot and killed two black men. “They got this from U.S. media, which deliberately cultivated this false narrative.”

  2. Johnson asks Greenwald which U.S. outlets falsely reported that the people killed by Rittenhouse were black.

  3. Greenwald responds that he’ll answer Johnson “in a second,” and then asks a question that is semi-related to the point: “What do you think explains that so many large media outlets from all over the world all made the same major mistake and said the people he shot were black? Coincidence?”

  4. And while I will take Greenwald’s word for it when he says that happened in Brazil (he links to a couple of examples of this), jumping to “so many large media outlets from all over the world all made the same major mistake and said the people he shot were black” is a statement that hadn’t been backed up with evidence. Still, if there were “so many” examples, one would hope that he could produce a few of them.

  5. Johnson responds by offering up a pretty logical hypothesis for why non-English news outlets might make such a mistake: “My guess is because the involvement of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests. Which is factually correct but perhaps doesn’t translate well? Or translates confusingly? This would seem more likely than a sinister plot by liberals to misinform the public about the race of the victims.”

  6. Greenwald responds by linking to an article that does not state that the victims were black. Johnson’s question (“What US media reported the victims were black?”) remains unanswered.

  7. Johnson suggests that Greenwald may be taking a small group of people (none of which Greenwald had shown had actually reported that the victims were black — which, to be entirely fair to Greenwald, isn’t necessarily the point he was making as he said that the media had “cultivated this false narrative” and not necessarily explicitly stated, falsely, that the victims were black; though, to be fair to Johnson, he did ask which outlets had been explicit in misidentifying the people who were shot and killed) and was simply lumping them all together to represent “the media.”

  8. Greenwald links to a tweet posted in August 2020, just one day after the shooting, from Rep. Ayanna Pressley that called Rittenhouse “a 17-year-old white supremacist domestic terrorist” (which, to be clear, is an extreme thing to say) who “drove across state lines, armed with an AR-15” (we’d later learn that Rittenhouse picked up the gun after already being in Wisconsin, which may seem like a minor issue, is important when it comes to certain legal aspects of the case). Pressley wrote that Rittenhouse “shot and killed 2 people who had assembled to affirm the value, dignity, and worth of Black lives.”

    Setting aside the fact that Pressley is not a member of the press (as once again, the context of the Johnson/Greenwald conversation was Johnson asking for examples of U.S. media outlets that misreported the case) and is therefore not particularly relevant in this discussion, her tweet was specifically a complaint that media outlets were not covering the story the way she would have liked (“Fix your damn headlines.”) Additionally, her tweet did not say that the men shot by Rittenhouse were black, but rather that they were “assembled to affirm the value, dignity, and worth of Black lives,” i.e. were at a protest connected to the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the August 23, 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake.

  9. At this point, the exchange fizzles out as Johnson points out that Pressley is not part of “the media,” Greenwald responds by mocking Johnson for being on Twitter after saying he was taking a break until 2022, making an unsupported claim that Johnson thought the U.S. media did a “great” job covering Rittenhouse (Johnson doesn’t actually say this), and then again, without lending a single example of a U.S. media outlet misidentifying the men shot by Rittenhouse as black, claims that the press “radically misled multiple outlets around the world.”

It’s not that Greenwald is necessarily wrong, but in an effort to argue a grand narrative about mass media malpractice, he may have overstretched.

Greenwald’s full thread (starts here) does include examples of Brazilian media outlets making this error. He is also right to note that The Independent, a U.K.-based newspaper, did incorrectly report that Rittenhouse “shot three black men with [a] rifle.” (archive of that, which has since been updated)

That said, Greenwald’s first claim was that they “got this from U.S. media, which deliberately cultivated this false narrative.” And while The Independent certainly has U.S. readers, it is not a U.S. publication. To convincingly make this argument, one has to outline examples of this happening and make a solid case that those examples were intentionally false. Still, Greenwald goes on to quote tweet someone who was responding to him, saying “I’m amazed at how many people believe” that “Rittenhouse was an active shooter who killed unarmed black protesters after carrying an assault weapon over state lines.” (The guy who posted that tweet got a lot of angry responses from people who actually agreed with him but misread the tweet). Greenwald adds that “Anyone who gets their news from CNN, MSNBC, NYT, or online digital media outlets” believed that Rittenhouse killed unarmed black protesters.

As much as I think CNN, MSNBC, NYT, WaPo, Fox News, CBS, ABC, NBC, PBS, NPR, etc. all have their major flaws, especially when it comes to differentiating between “news” and “opinion” sides of their outlets, and with issues in political reporting, generally, I couldn’t find any examples of those outlets claiming that Rittenhouse shot black men.

In fact, one of the early reports from The New York Times features a fairly comprehensive compilation of the available information at the time, including what videos were available. (The piece said it was updated November 16, 2021, so I pulled up an archived version of the piece from the day it was published to see how accurate it was at the time, and it was nearly identical, with just a few words switched here and there — a mention of “assault rifle” was swapped with “weapon” and “military-style semi-automatic rifle” at some point). Importantly, the Times video highlights that Gaige Grosskreutz was holding a handgun at the time he was shot in the bicep by Rittenhouse.

The Times reported that prior to the first shooting, Rittenhouse was “being chased by an unknown group of people” when “an unknown gunman fires into the air.”

“Mr. Rittenhouse turns toward the sound of gunfire as another pursuer lunges toward him from the same direction. Mr. Rittenhouse then fires four times, and appears to shoot the man in the head.”

As Mr. Rittenhouse is running, he trips and falls to the ground. He fires four shots as three people rush toward him. One person appears to be hit in the chest and falls to the ground. Another, who is carrying a handgun, is hit in the arm and runs away.

Mr. Rittenhouse’s gunfire is mixed in with the sound of at least 16 other gunshots that ring out during this time.

What the Times reported isn’t much different than what Rittenhouse’s own defense team argued. It’s certainly possible that there were other articles that provided a less comprehensive view of what happened (a search of the NYT website shows 33 matches for the word “Rittenhouse” in the first week following the shooting and 178 matches to date). As for any claims that Rittenhouse was maligned as a “white supremacist,” the only time I was able to find where the term was used in connection with him in the Times was to note that “There are no overt links on Mr. Rittenhouse’s social media accounts to militias or white supremacist groups who have dispatched armed men to protest events across the country.”

What we can all (hopefully) agree on.

Better, more accurate headlines are needed. If you’re going to publish a story that notes that Rittenhouse is white and that he shot and killed people who assembled as part of a Black Lives Matter protest, it’s important to note the race of the people who were shot, as well. That said, I think it is fair to categorize this as a story about race (another aspect that seems to have been criticized by many on the right) because you simply cannot separate violence that occurred at a Black Lives Matter gathering from race, though I will concede that it’s certainly complicated.

There needs to be a stronger wall between “news” and “opinion.” Maybe some opinion pieces did misstate facts. I honestly do not know, and unfortunately, do not have the resources to comb through the thousands of blogs and hot takes about the Rittenhouse trial that were published or aired during opinion shows (see: The Rachel Maddow Show, All In with Chris Hayes, Don Lemon Tonight, Cuomo Prime Time, etc.). Some outlets blur this line by filing opinions under “analysis,” which is, at best, confusing to readers. That’s a practice that should end, in my view.