With Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal, one of the most embarrassing chapters in the history of American criminal justice has come to a close.
The case should have never been brought by the prosecutor in the first place, yet there’s an American institution that performed even more shamefully than the criminal justice system — the corporate media. From the president of the United States to our leading media figures, Kyle Rittenhouse has been lied about, attacked and slandered for more than a year. And the spectacle reveals a “free press” in the United States that believes itself free to lie about, cheat and harass a child. We should take lessons from this, and learn from them.
What’s so unusual about Rittenhouse’s case is that the video evidence was clear immediately. We saw looters burning the streets of Kenosha. We saw Rittenhouse walking the streets of Kenosha. We heard the verbal threats against him and saw him run away. We saw grown men threaten to pummel him as he lay on the ground. We saw one of them raise a pistol in his direction. And we saw him fire in self defense.
Despite these images, our media lied from the start and did so willfully. President Biden and countless journalists called him a white supremacist, despite the fact that no one involved was black. According to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, he unloaded “60 or so” rounds; the actual number was far lower. He later claimed he misspoke.
Rittenhouse’s prosecutors conceded at trial that he carried his gun legally, but this didn’t stop dozens of media figures — before, during, and after the trial — from claiming the opposite. He was an outsider to Kenosha who had no business there, except for the fact that his father lived there, and a local business owner had invited him to Kenosha on that fateful night. Social media companies censored efforts to correct the truth or aid Rittenhouse in his legal defense. On virtually every issue of fact, multiple national media personalities told easily verifiable lies about a teenager.
These lies imperiled the public peace and justice itself. Multiple activist groups, inspired by the press’s dishonest telling of the Rittenhouse story, threatened violence if the boy walked free. Jurors were harassed by a MSNBC journalist; and even if they hadn’t been, the press made those jurors aware that the cost of acquittal could be rioting and violence.
Multiple media outlets and personalities may well be sued for defamation. Only three years ago, several outlets settled lawsuits with Nicholas Sandmann, a Kentucky boy who was similarly slandered and lied about by national media personalities.
The depth of the media’s deceit should force us to reckon with — and alter — their power of harassment. For example: when Rittenhouse sues, the media will claim that he was in some way a “public figure.” While the law here is complicated, in practice this gives the media license to lie about Rittenhouse. It’s time to modify these defamation laws to ensure that nobody under 21 is declared a public figure. No one should have to grow up under threat of a well-coordinated harassment campaign by the national press.
We should go further. Famously, under our libel laws, opinion journalists are treated differently from “traditional” journalists. The reason is simple: traditional journalists hold themselves out as objective reporters, and so the standards we apply are different. In our modern press, “fact checkers” hold themselves out as engaged in something different still: the neutral determination of whether a given fact is true. In light of this, they should be held to a higher standard: if you want to call yourself a fact checker, you ought to be careful about your dishonesty.
Some of these proposals may run into challenges under New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark Supreme Court case under which most of modern defamation law operates. Justice Clarence Thomas recently suggested it’s time to revisit that case. Indeed, our First Amendment thrived for two centuries without it.
No nation on earth grants its media such wide latitude to lie about and destroy the character of innocent people. And recent history shows that the media uses this power repeatedly, with no remorse or shame. From Rittenhouse to the Steele Dossier, from Russian “collusion” to Jussie Smollett, our press has discarded any concern for accuracy. A wise statesman once observed that this “fake news” is the “enemy of the American people.” The reason is simple: it’s impossible to have a deliberative democracy when the press focuses little on uncovering the truth and instead on coordinated campaigns of bullying and harassment.
The First Amendment guarantees our most important constitutional liberties, among them the freedom of religion and freedom of the press. It was drafted nearly 250 years ago, and for most of its history, our free press held leaders to account and uncovered inconvenient truth. But it did so knowing that there were consequences for willful deceit. These potential consequences made our press more effective.
Something has changed in recent years, and it’s driven public confidence in our media to historic lows. Yet no matter how many times the press has egg on its face, our country’s most powerful journalists cannot help themselves. We’ve learned the hard way that no amount of shame will refocus our press on the truth. They will respond to one thing: consequences.
Kyle Rittenhouse may well recover a large amount from the corporate press anyways. But the fact that this is even an open question shows how rigged the game is. And so long as our press is rewarded for harassing and bullying children, we should expect them to continue to do exactly that. “Truth,” the old adage goes, “is the best defense against libel.” Today’s press doesn’t even need the truth, and it’s made the world’s greatest constitutional republic a cesspool of willful deceit and outrageous slander.
It’s time to reclaim sanity in our public square, and the only way to do so is to reform our libel laws — not just for Kyle Rittenhouse, but for all of us.
J.D. Vance is the author of the bestseller “Hillbilly Elegy” and a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Ohio.