Bailey’s Dilemma: What Explains the Warped Media Frame of the Kyle Rittenhouse Trial

“Uh, the, the police in our community couldnt possibly be there uh, to uh, protect our property because we own no property.”—Huey P. Newton.

Issac Bailey is a journalist and professor of public policy at Davidson College. On Wednesday, he published an op-ed for NBC’s Think entitled “A sobbing Kyle Rittenhouse already won—even before his trial is over,” in which those defending Rittenhouse are portrayed, at the very least, as sympathetic to white supremacy. I use Bailey’s essay to argue that claims of a persistent and ubiquitous white supremacy, which comprise a false narrative about race relations in America, represent a delegitimization campaign aimed at undermining the accomplishments of the civil rights movement in order to prepare the ground for the installment of critical race theory, an illiberal 1990s legal project currently being mainstreamed across the key institutions of the West. To advance that project there is a concerted effort by the state, media, and culture industry to manufacture mass perception of an America fraught with racial antagonism; part of the agenda involves antagonizing Americans by falsely accusing them of white supremacy. The Rittenhouse case is exploited to valorize the false narrative and to provoke racial animus and resentment. Bailey’s argument seeks what it condemns. While the Rittenhouse trial has nothing to do with race intrinsically (Rittenhouse is white and his attackers are white), it has everything to do with race politically. The Kyle Rittenhouse case is a political trial.

Kyle Rittenhouse attempting to contact law enforcement is attacked by a member of the mob rioting in Kenosha, Wisconsin, August 25, 2020.

Bailey’s verdict about what happened on August 25 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where the events in question occurred, is typical across the media, a conclusion formed without journalistic integrity, a value no longer prized by a profession transformed by the rise of the Silicon Valley oligarchs. The frame assumes that Kyle Rittenhouse is a white supremacist who traveled with other white supremacists to the southeastern Wisconsin city of Kenosha to harass Antifa and BLM activists protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake by Kenosha police officers. Joy Reid portrays Rittenhouse as a vigilante, a term growing in popularity among corporate propagandists and used as yet another synonym for white supremacist.

In fact, Rittenhouse, who was seventeen years old at the time, traveled with a friend to the city where Rittenhouse’s father lives to put out fires, administer first aid, and express with his presence solidarity for the small business owners victimized by arson, looting, and vandalism. Rittenhouse wasn’t armed to uphold the law and arrest rioters, or defend property with deadly force. He was armed because conditions were such that there was a risk greater than zero that he would be put in a position where he might have to use deadly force in self-defense. He was put in that position and, for the actions of others, Rittenhouse is on trial in the state of Wisconsin for intentional homicide and other felonies (and a misdemeanor gun charge). Both sides have rested and the jury awaits the judge’s instructions on Monday before deliberating the case behind closed doors. (I write about the Rittenhouse case in a recent post, the title of that entry indicating my opinion regarding the matter: A Clear Case of Self-Defense: The Trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.)

Media coverage portrays the rioters as protestors and demonstrators and represents their cause as noble. The noble cause turned Kenosha into a war zone. It should be noted for context that the reason the police were arresting Blake on August 23, 2020 was because authorities had issued a warrant for his arrest in July on several charges including criminal trespass to a dwelling and felony third-degree sexual assault, all with domestic abuse as modifiers. The police had been called to the scene of a domestic disturbance (the 911 call indicated a very serious situation) thus having a legitimate reason for detaining Blake. They were carrying out their duties as sworn law enforcement officers when, attempting to affect an arrest, which became physical and saw the deployment of a Taser, Blake wrestled free and was moving with purpose to a vehicle that may or may not have been his. There were kids in the car. And he had a knife. He was either reaching for a gun in his car or trying to leave the scene with small children in the car, in any case action creating a dangerous situation. The police officer stopped whatever Blake had planned. Blake survived his gunshot wounds. On the campaign trail, candidate Joe Biden spoke with Blake by the phone. Biden’s vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris, also gave Blake a phone call, telling him that she was proud of him. The message could not have been clearer: the Democratic Party is on the side of criminals.

For the empathetic, the moment was hard to watch, as one could see the breakdown coming when Rittenhouse was asked to relive the trauma of having to kill serial child rapist Joseph Rosenbaum. The judge had to recess the court to allow the defendant time to gather his composure (he was otherwise quite composed and a compelling witness albeit I do not think as a rule defendants should take the stand). As the moment that inspires Bailey’s headline unfolded, I fully expected Rittenhouse’s emotional display to become a focal point of the morrow’s media coverage. As jaded as I am, I was taken aback by the cold-heartedness of the reporting.

USA Today exploited the moment in a fashion that could only have intended to antagonize the public, publishing an essay by Carli Pierson carrying the title, “Kyle Rittenhouse deserves an award for his melodramatic performance on the witness stand.” (Since when are melodramatic performances given awards?) Her words were such that Snopes was asked to verify whether the op-ed was even real. “Kyle Rittenhouse’s crocodile tears broke the internet Wednesday” caused many to find the publication of such an article in a major newspaper so incredible as to doubt its authenticity. Snopes confirmed that it was indeed real.

More calculating were stories such as the one CNN published, “What Kyle Rittenhouse’s tears reveal about America,” which finds Peniel Joseph writing, “His protracted sobs—and people’s telling reactions to them—spoke volumes about the moment America now finds itself in. Whether or not Rittenhouse is convicted, the perspective he represents—galvanized by the anger, fear and prejudice of White Americans—has already achieved its ends: normalizing a kind of racial privilege exposed, but far from extinguished, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year.” It is unclear how Floyd’s death exposed racial privilege. Did the arson, looting, vandalism, intimidation, physical assault, and even killing that occurred in the context of political protests based on a known lie expose racial privilege? Did the systematic failure of police to protect communities under siege expose it? And how, exactly, how does Rittenhouse’s emotional display normalize any of that?

Issac Bailey / Soros Justice Fellows Photo Shoot 2016 shot at Open Society foundation office in Manhattan NY on May 10th.

Bailey’s essay is perhaps more in the spirit of CNN than USA Today albeit both are engaged in manufacturing racial antagonisms. As is Bailey’s. In his op-ed, Bailey makes two predictions, both of which express his pessimism about race relations in America: “If convicted, he’ll become a right-wing martyr,” he writes of Rittenhouse. “If he is freed, it’s a message to others like him that prison won’t be in their future.” Bailey’s dilemma suggests dispensing with concern over whether the evidence supports the state’s case and exclusively focusing instead on the implications of either verdict, which, in Bailey’s frame, are both bad outcomes for black people—this despite the fact that those Rittenhouse shot were white (a fact that surprises a lot of progressives). That’s how stacked the deck is against black people in America: a white man shooting other white men is a manifestation of white supremacy. Black men shooting other black men is also about white supremacy. Everything is about white supremacy.

Bailey uses false assumptions and bad reporting to implicate white Americans in racism (remember, this is a professor of journalism) writing, “The truth is that too many white Americans probably see themselves in Rittenhouse.” Bailey not only means to implicate those white Americans in racism; he means also to short-circuit empathy for Rittenhouse. Seeing oneself in Rittenhouse, a teenager forced by circumstance to use deadly force to save his own life, is the natural response of the observer whose sympathetic circuits are functioning properly. This is why self-defense is recognized universally as a fundamental human right. However, if one can be convinced of the fiction that Rittenhouse is a white supremacist, that he came to Kenosha to be a mass shooter, and that white supremacists have not rights, and this is not hard to accomplish given the degree of racial thinking engendered by the prevailing politics of American society (alongside the myth that white males are overrepresented in mass shootings), then empathy can be transferred from Rittenhouse to his attackers, transmuting attackers into victims.

In his CNN op-ed, Joseph shows us how this works: “Anyone watching the proceedings who was unfamiliar with the events that led to this trial would be forgiven for assuming that Rittenhouse was the victim of an unspeakable crime rather than being its accused perpetrator.” What Joseph should have written if he were honest is that anybody who watched the trial who also lives in a progressive bubble would have been shocked to discover that Rittenhouse was the victim or repeated attacks by dangerous felons—just as so many progressives were surprised to learn that Rittenhouse’s “victims” were white men. The smear thus depends on misrepresentation of fact and disruption of the normal course of the empathic response. To make sure the reader makes this transition, included in the “nonsense” from those who defend Rittenhouse is Bailey’s mocking characterization of the supposed white version of what happened: “Those protesters made him shoot them. It was their fault, and only theirs, not Rittenhouse’s. He was trying to do good, to protect this dying nation.” That’s not the white version of what happened. That is what happened. (And, yes, this nation is dying, and it’s partly because corporations deploy propagandists like Isaac Bailey to center race in mass mediated discourse. The death of the nation is not inevitable.)

A big part of the deception is not only skirting the race of the alleged victims, but also who they were (and are) as people, which helps us understand why they attacked Rittenhouse. According to sex offender documents obtained from the Pima County (Arizona) Clerk of Courts, Joseph Rosenbaum, the man who first assaulted Rittenhouse, was a serial child molester. His victims were five boys ranging in age from nine to eleven years old. Those offenses landed Rosenbaum, 36, on the Wisconsin sex offender registry. That’s not the full extent of Rosenbaum’s criminal history. He had an open Wisconsin case for misdemeanor bail jumping that was filed on July 30, 2020 (less than a month before he threatened to kill Rittenhouse and attacked him), had open misdemeanor cases for battery (domestic abuse) and disorderly conduct (domestic abuse). Why is a man like this even allowed on our streets? The other dead guy, Anthony Huber, had a criminal record involving strangulation and suffocation, false imprisonment, reckless endangerment, and battery. He was a serial domestic abuser. Chubby, with a boyish face and do-gooder demeanor, Rittenhouse became the target of bullying by known criminals. The media has sanitized the records, so maybe Bailey doesn’t know this. Frankly, judging by his work, I doubt he would care to find out—or care if he did.

Bailey’s dilemma is so central to the propaganda piece that it is repeated and elaborated later in the essay. “If Rittenhouse is convicted, he will likely stop being a right-wing mascot and become a right-wing martyr,” writes Bailey. “If he isn’t convicted, he will set a precedent for others like him to pick up guns they shouldn’t have and thrust themselves into the middle of unrest they should avoid—confident in knowing that prison won’t be in their future.” Testifying to how quickly Bailey’s dilemma spread among progressives, a version of the dilemma, leveraging the specter of vigilantism, showed up the very next day on my Facebook page in a thread I started on the topic. “It is not in any body’s [sic] best interests for it to be possible to go out of your way to show up armed at protests hoping to act as civilian police, kill people, and not need to face potential consequences. He wasn’t just a random bystander, he chose to go to a place where riots had been occurring with a firearm to play police man [sic].” Following this logic, if Rittenhouse had been murdered by one of these men, it was Rittenhouse’s fault for having been there to be murdered. Offensive analogies should come easily to the reader’s mind at this point.

How does it happen that smart people make such stupid and offensive arguments? Why are they blaming the victim? And why are the defending violent criminals like Rosenbaum and Huber? Why does it matter if a man who attacks another man is unarmed? You can kill a man with your fists, your feet, your head. You can kill a man by knocking him to the ground. You can strangle him with your hands (Huber appears to have favored that method). You can gouge out his eyes. You can bite off his nose. How does an attacker’s history of mental illness negate another person’s right to defend himself from harm? A psychotic man attacks me because he thinks I’m a demon and I am supposed to let him kill or injure me? These are the arguments I have been receiving from progressives. I had to ask one fellow if he was being sincere when he raised these “objections” or whether it was sarcasm in the face of a textbook self-defense case progressives can’t grasp because they’re inflicted by ideology. This was a sociology professor. He announced his politics with his questions.

The race prism bends light in such a way that the truth sits in darkness. It is inconceivable to progressives that Kyle Rittenhouse could have acted in self-defense because progressives view this trial, like everything else these days, through the prism of race politics (which forces me to). According to critical race theory, which has become central to progressive politics, the righteousness of any action must be understood in terms of the dynamic of racial power, since race is the master organizing principle of human social relations—indeed of American history since 1619. Rittenhouse is a young white male at a Black Lives Matter “protest.” That is not the problem per se. If he were an ally and shot a Kyle Rittenhouse, that’d be different. The men who attacked the teenager were presumably allies. The problem is that Rittenhouse is the wrong kind of white person, the kind who believes in public safety. He was a cop wannabe. Public safety is code for defending the property of the white man, power used to oppress blacks. The police mentality Rittenhouse embodied is slave patrolling under a different name. Rittenhouse and those who were with him are white supremacists, indistinguishable from the police, the military arm of the white establishment. It follows that any action Rittenhouse took was a priori invalid because, as the wrong type of white male, he is a priori invalid. At the same time, acts of arson, looting, vandalism, even assault, perpetrated by those claiming to stand with BLM (who need not be black, just “allies”), are not criminal actions as such because they are perpetrated in the name of “social justice” and against the white establishment. They would never be described as vigilantes. They had a reason for being there doing what they were doing. Rittenhouse had no reason to be in Kenosha other than to oppress blacks by allegedly defending property. Anything that happens to him is fair game because he is a “perpetrator.”

Much of this stems from the ideology created in the 1960s by Stokely Carmichael and Huey P. Newton and other advocates of Black Power, dressed up in the 1990s by law professors and sociologists as critical race theory, the ideological mess embraced by today’s corporate state, which is using the theory to inform practice that changes our cultural, educational, legal, and social institutions and systems. Even a man as decrepit and perverse as Joe Biden, then candidate for the Presidency of the United States, understood this, tweeting a video that contained images of Rittenhouse (see above) to portray the young man as the face of white supremacy in the context of the election (the tweet told a much bigger lie, that the man who had disavowed white supremacy more than all other president put together refused to disavow white supremacy). The establishment media, having incorporated the CRT frame, spins headline and narrative in a manner reinforcing the antiracist worldview, a worldview based not on reason and evidence, but on the theory of racial power that portrays blacks as inherent victims of systemic racism and whites who do not agree with the project as advocates of that racist system.

The majority of America, as it learns what all this is about, increasingly rejects all this nonsense, rightly seeing it as racism itself just with the hierarchy flipped (when it’s the hierarchy itself that needs abolishing). So a jury of our peers may very well see through the injustice of the state’s pursuits and, in returning a verdict of not guilty, effectively nullify the actual reason Rittenhouse was charged with murder: anti-white racism. Yes, from the standpoint of the state, this is a political trial and it about race. But I worry that the jury may yield to this framing and to political pressure and convict the young man. On my social media and news feeds, the argument that a guilty verdict will send the right political message, namely that whites should stay in their lane, is a popular one. In principle, a court cannot impose a penalty for political reasons. The criminal justice system decides the merits of cases at the individual level without political prejudice or consideration. The question before the court is whether Rittenhouse acted in self-defense. In practice, a politicized process risks unjust outcomes.

If the jury pushes politics away and applies reason to evidence, they will determine that these killings were not murder. They were carried out in self-defense. Self-defense is what is known in the law as a justification that negates mens rea, which Latin for “guilty mind.” It is an affirmative defense. Rittenhouse’s actions constitute justifiable homicide. Had those men not attacked Rittenhouse he would not have shot them. He did not target them. He did not provoke them. There were others there that night who did not attack Rittenhouse. He did not shoot them. The fact that he shot no one else except those who attacked him indicates the conclusion that Rittenhouse was not the aggressor. Rittenhouse was there to put out fires and administer first aid. However, it doesn’t matter what he was doing as long as he was not acting unlawfully. He was not smashing windows, burning cars, looting stores. He carried a rifle that day because he believed he needed protection given the circumstances. It turns out that he was right. This case should never have gone to trial. Progressives see Rittenhouse as guilty for a different reason other than that which can be found in rational jurisprudence. This is for them and for state prosecutors a political trial. And so it is.

Consider the following scenario. A group of armed white men travel to a black-majority neighborhood where white supremacists (Ku Klux Klan and other actual white supremacists) have been burning cars and looting stores to stand in solidarity with black business owners. One of the men is physically threatened by a Klan member and uses his weapon to neutralize the threat. He is then attacked by other Klan members and has to use his weapon again, narrowly missing one man who finally retreated, killing another man, and wounding yet another. Would progressives react to this scenario in the same way that they are reacting to the Rittenhouse case? It’s hard to imagine they would. “Punch a Nazi in the nose,” right? The KKK had it coming. The white men defending black businesses were allies. They were right to be there to help the community defend against those who should not have been there. Of course, it’s unlikely in this scenario that the police would not have stood down and allowed the KKK to burn cars and loot stores in a black-majority neighborhood.

This is an essay about framing. The phenomenon of defending the interests of a group with which one identifies or allies is being selectively paired by progressives with the term vigilantism in order to create a frame favorable to the advancement of the corporate state agenda. I posed a problem on Facebook this morning comparing the paucity of scientific literacy among the professional-managerial strata to the paucity of juridical literacy in those same ranks and concluded that, given the level of intelligent and training (to be sure, training is part of the process of installing doctrine) the problem is really more about ideology than illiteracy. “The scientism that has gripped the professional class has its counterpart in antiracism,” I write. I reminded Facebook that I had shared a video in the early morning of CNN hosts bewildered by an attorney explaining why Rittenhouse is not guilty (that is the video I shared earlier). The CNN hosts in that video exemplify the general reaction of progressive academics and other cultural managers. For them, this is a political trial, and it is, but they believe it should be, and that is very scary. This is the mentality of totalitarianism.

I got pushback characterizing Rittenhouse as a vigilante and that vigilantism is the mentality of totalitarianism. I responded with sarcasm, “because as we all well know vigilantism is/was a regular feature of totalitarian states like the PRC and the USSR, whereas political trials aren’t/weren’t. We would never see in those states people held in indefinite detention for misdemeanors or suspension of public safety to facilitate cultural revolution.” That the academic who raised the issue replied that he did not understand my argument proved the point of the thread. I amended my complaint to include the importance of promoting literacy about totalitarianism (reading my blog will help with this).

To clear up any confusion here and reinforce the point I made earlier, as a matter of accepted definition, Rittenhouse is not a vigilante. A vigilante is a person who is not a member of official law enforcement who takes over the role of law enforcement when law enforcement fails to defend the community. I am not saying there is anything wrong with citizens upholding the law and defending (actual) communities, but the fact of the matter, as I have already said, is that Rittenhouse traveled with a friend to the city where Rittenhouse’s father lives to put out fires, administer first aid, and express with presence solidarity for the small business owners victimized by arson, looting, and vandalism. Rittenhouse wasn’t armed to uphold the law and arrest rioters or defend property with deadly force (which is problematic). He was armed because conditions were such that there was a risk greater than zero that he would be put in a position where he might have to use deadly force in self-defense. And he was right. To suggest that Rittenhouse’s presence there in that capacity contributed to him having to defend himself with deadly force is the equivalent to arguing that a woman had her rape coming because of how she was dressed and her presence in that alley that night. Idiots like Joy Reid make arguments like this.

* * *

Update 1:58 PM.

Just after publishing this post, an op-ed crossed my screen by Niall Stanage, of The Hill, in “The Memo: Rittenhouse trial exposes deep US divide,” which offers the following observation: “The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse is once again exposing the deep fissures in American life—divides so deep that the people on each side seem to see two entirely different realities.” Stanage continues, “To progressives, and particularly to Black activists, Rittenhouse’s case is the embodiment of a fundamentally biased policing and justice system. They look at every step of the path Rittenhouse has traveled and ask what would have happened had a Black teen done exactly the same things.” Stanage quotes Earl Ofari Hutchinson who decries the “double standard, double standard, double standard.” Maybe it would have been different seventy years ago in America. But today, if a black teen had done exactly the same things, for exactly the same reasons, and authorities and the media had access all the images and recordings of that day, there would be no trial. Of course, his victims being black, it is likely that no one would known about it.

There are for sure two sides in this controversy. There is for sure a divide in America (many divides, in fact). But the truth is singular. The truth is never two-sided (except perhaps in physics). The confusion exists principally on the side of those who self-identify as politically left. That confusion is sown by the culture industry and the establishment media. The delusions of today’s left are the result of an ontology determined by an epistemological stance that substitutes political-ideology based on the postmodernist doctrines of racialism and intersectionality for the rational standards of objectivity.

Update 5:04 PM.

Ana Kasparian was wrong about these key facts because (a) her political-ideological frame and (b) she accepted the mass mediated frame. I was right about the facts from the git-go because (a) I don’t work from a political-ideological frame and (b) my default is set to doubting what the corporate state media tell me. The media have gotten so many big things wrong over the last several years that it’s surprising anybody believes the media. But, then, people believe lots of crazy shit, so the Ministry of Truth will never run short of gullible consumers. (TYT is so awful that I find it unbearable to watch. It’s shocking that Ana Kasparian confessed to being wrong, but I’m pleased to see that she did, so good on her. I would not have known about any of this if it weren’t for Greenwald because I can’t bring myself to tune in TYT. It’s tragic that TYT is as popular as it is.)

Part of the reason so many progressives assumed (and still assume) Kyle Rittenhouse was the aggressor in Kenosha on August 25, 2020, is that they believe that young white males are overrepresented in mass shooting. Seeing the booking photo of Rittenhouse appears to them as just one more young white male in a line of young white male mugshots. The conclusion follows. The Rittenhouse case illustrates once more the way the media warps public perception. In fact, young white males are underrepresented in mass shootings. Non-Hispanic young whites males even more so.

Michael Parenti once said something along the lines of the media may not tell you what to think but they do tell you what to think about. Indeed. They do this by selective presentation of facts and let confirmation bias do its work. The media reports on mass shooters and dwells on photos of young white males to create a false impression: the problem of violence in American society is the white male, especially if he is working class and poor. The white working class is the dangerous class. The false impression manufactured about white working class men is used to support a range of false claims about class, race, and violence in American society.

I dare say everything the public believes about class, race and violence in American society is wrong, and it’s because of the corporate media and the culture industry exploiting the power of ideological conditioning and reinforcing its assumptions. Tragically, and I apologize for sounding so cynical, but people don’t care about the facts. They only care about which side they are. But truth doesn’t have a side. They don’t care about truth, either. At least if it’s not their truth.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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