- Kyle Rittenhouse and Nicholas Sandmann have become increasingly mentioned together in conservative media.
- Though the reasons behind their fame diverge, "trial by media" has made both heroes on the right.
- Grievances against mainstream media outlets have flattened the differences in their predicaments.
In their journeys from unknown young men to near-household names, Nicholas Sandmann and Kyle Rittenhouse have become not only full blown celebrities to the political right, but also vehicles for revenge against mainstream media outlets.
The teenagers became famous for drastically different reasons.
What unites them, beyond being young white men, has less to do with their actions than an appetite among GOP lawmakers and right-wing media personalities to register grievances against a mainstream press they describe as more hostile than ever toward conservative opinions and ever ready to deem someone guilty in "trial by media."
Sandmann, 19, became known as "the Covington Catholic kid" after going viral in a video where he smirked during a tense encounter on the National Mall with his high school classmates, a Native American activist, and a group of Black Hebrew Israelites. The video initially drew scorn online from liberals and progressives, along with takes from journalists on Twitter, before more footage emerged showing a more complicated confrontation than that which initially appeared.
The Washington Post later settled a $250 million lawsuit for an undisclosed amount with Sandmann, and he got another settlement for an undisclosed amount with CNN where he sought $275 million in damages. He and his legal team have filed several others, all alleging that media outlets defamed his character in their initial coverage of the video for depicting his behavior as racially motivated.
Rittenhouse, 18, was acquitted of all charges last week from an incident in Kenosha, Wisc. where he shot and killed two people with an AR-15 during protests over the police shooting that paralyzed Jacob Blake.
Shortly after the Rittenhouse verdict was reached by the jury, Sandmann encouraged him to follow his lead and take legal action against media outlets for portraying him as a white nationalist; Rittenhouse previously posed for photos with members of the Proud Boys hate group at a Wisconsin bar.
While it was initially unclear if Rittenhouse would lean into becoming a Republican celebrity in the way Sandmann did — speaking at the 2020 Republican National Convention and appearing on outlets such as Fox News — he granted his first post-trial interview to Fox's Tucker Carlson on Monday night and accused President Joe Biden of defaming his character.
Definitions and connotations for which organizations constitute the mainstream media diverge greatly, but targets of defamation suits from Sandmann have included CNN, the Post, ABC, CBS, The Guardian, The Hill and NBC.
Conservative media personalities who have decried the coverage surrounding both teens also conflate mainstream media outlets with Democratic activists and lawmakers, an argument that cuts back to the origin of Fox News and an underserved demographic across the country who felt alienated watching TV coverage from coastal cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C.
On Fox News Tuesday afternoon, anchor Martha MacCallum read from a Wall Street Journal opinion column by Gerard Baker to sum up what Rittenhouse and Sandmann share.
"In the minds of the ranting radicals of the Squad or MSNBC, dimly repeated by the president, these so-called rights—presumption of innocence, due process, trial by jury, proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, etc., are not the bedrock legal protections against overweening authority the Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence has deemed them to be," Baker writes. "In the minds of the regnant left when they find the defendant unsympathetic, they are inconveniences, fetishized excrescences of judicial process that obstruct and subvert the larger and more important objective of social justice."
While Rittenhouse and Sandmann are not neutral actors in this phenomenon, they've become symbols for one of the issues that animates the Republican base the most.
No matter the specifics and nuances behind the incidents that made them famous — which, in Rittenhouse's case, resulted in the deaths of two people and severe injury to a third — grievances against non-conservative media outlets and the changing landscape of racial politics in the US trump everything else.