The Media

On Tucker Carlson, Kyle Rittenhouse Was a “Sweet Kid”

A shot of Kyle Rittenhouse sitting during an interview.
Kyle Rittenhouse during his interview with Tucker Carlson. Fox News

In recent years, Fox News host Tucker Carlson has made his weeknightly opinion program Tucker Carlson Tonight into a haven for those supposedly deplatformed by “cancel culture.” If you’ve been banned from your local school board’s meetings after repeatedly denouncing its members as globalist cucks, fear not: There is a decent chance that Carlson will book you on his show, nod sympathetically at your plight, and use your story to advance his own relentless case for the fundamental illiberality and intolerance of the elitist media and the woke left.

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On Monday night, Carlson somehow managed to shoehorn this “cancel culture” storyline onto one of his highest-profile, and least illustrative of this supposed dynamic, interview subjects yet: Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who shot three people and killed two of them in Kenosha, Wis. last year during a protest over the police shooting of Jacob Blake. (He was acquitted of all charges on Friday after claiming self-defense.) Again, Rittenhouse is a bit of an outlier in Carlson’s Cavalcade of the Cancelled. For one thing, he wasn’t “cancelled” so much as “arrested and tried for homicide;” for another, the case against Rittenhouse was prosecuted not primarily by the media, but by literal prosecutors who saw two dead bodies and decided that it made sense to charge their killer with a crime.

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No matter! The fact that some people dared to call Rittenhouse a racist over the past 15 months was, by Carlson’s taxonomy, enough to qualify the shooter as a victim, just as the fact that the media got some things wrong while reporting the ongoing story was enough to qualify Rittenhouse as a hero. Did the press get some things wrong in Kenosha? Sure, they always do. Is the existence of journalistic error prima facie evidence of journalistic malice? According to Carlson, the answer is yes. “The media coverage was, from beginning to end, a tapestry of lies,” Carlson said in his introduction to the segment. The host then proceeded to add some new threads into the sophistic tapestry he’s been weaving for years by fundamentally misleading his viewers about the context of the Rittenhouse case and perhaps offering some revealing self-projection regarding Carlson’s own silver spoon upbringing.

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“It’s hard to ignore the yawning class divide between Kyle Rittenhouse and his many critics in the media. Rittenhouse comes from the least privileged sector of our society,” said Carlson, noting that the boy had worked as a “janitor” and a “fry cook” to help support his family. As it happens, I grew up not far from Antioch, Ill., where Rittenhouse lived. It’s hardly District 12, and working at a fast-food restaurant as a teenager is hardly an uncommon experience. And though Carlson claimed that “in the world Kyle Rittenhouse grew up in, it is not a given that kids go to college, not even close,” 78 percent of the 2021 graduating class of Lakes Community High School, which Rittenhouse briefly attended, went on to college.

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Whatever. It wouldn’t be an episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight if the host didn’t engage in some bogus class warfare, and at least he got it out of the way quickly. Carlson’s dubious framing aside, the interview itself was compelling and at times newsworthy. Rittenhouse offered his own detailed version of the sequence of events on and around August 25, 2020 and twice proclaimed his support for Black Lives Matter.

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Rittenhouse also repeatedly criticized his first attorneys, John Pierce and Lin Wood, for, in his telling, hustling him while being broadly incompetent as defense lawyers. Rittenhouse criticized them for treating him as a symbol for a cause to which he did not subscribe, spreading false information about his purported involvement with an “unorganized militia,” and leaving him in jail for longer than necessary in order to use his incarceration for fundraising purposes even after they had allegedly raised enough money to pay his bail. Rittenhouse came across as broadly sympathetic in this portion of the interview: as an exurban teenager who got played by some hustlers who hoped to use him as a pawn in a much, much bigger game.

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Though it may have been an act for the cameras, Rittenhouse did not present as someone who was especially political, or even particularly embittered by his experience. He joked about having gained back the weight that he lost while locked up, praised the guards for their professionalism, and said that he had made some “friends… acquaintances” in jail, with whom he played card games such as spades. Even after adjusting for the fact that it was a friendly setting and he wasn’t asked a single difficult question, Rittenhouse came across as well as he possibly could have. Carlson referred to Rittenhouse as a “sweet kid,” and, if one were to judge exclusively by the interview—and not from the two men he shot dead in the street—the description sort of worked.

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Carlson has his own reasons for wanting you to see Rittenhouse as a “sweet kid,” and it has everything to do with Fox News’ preferred us vs them storyline the network sells its viewers. Carlson and many of his Fox News colleagues helped to create and perpetuate the “American carnage” narrative that overinflated the extent and intent of the protest-related violence last summer, and Rittenhouse has become a very convenient avatar for that frame. The right also continues to use this narrative to downplay what happened at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Fox News and Carlson have absolutely zero incentive to present a complete, contextualized picture of the circumstances surrounding the outrage over Blake’s shooting in Kenosha last year, or the ways in which Rittenhouse may have escalated tensions by bringing a gun to the protest in the first place, or anything else that might complicate the “sweet kid” vs. (dead) “rioters” binary that the network has established. Fox also has zero incentive to interrogate the premises by which Rittenhouse, who shot three men and beat the charges, is deemed a “sweet kid,” while other kids who have found themselves on the receiving end of police or vigilante violence get described much less graciously or ignored entirely on the network’s airwaves.

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In that sense, Carlson and Fox were using Rittenhouse just as surely as his former lawyers were. They brought him on the air for an exclusive softball interview in which Rittenhouse’s essential sweetness was confirmed not because of his baby face or his demeanor, but because he took a gun to a protest, used it to kill two “rioters,” and was subsequently prosecuted by the law and, almost as bad, criticized for doing so by meanies on the left. For Fox News, any substantive criticism of Rittenhouse qualifies as a tainted partisan smear, and any acknowledgment of the existence of race-based structural inequality in America is in itself enough to discredit the acknowledger.

Sometimes, of course, these criticisms and claims don’t even have to have been made in the first place in order for Fox to use them to advance its agenda. In the middle of the interview, Carlson asked Rittenhouse what he made of “the president of the United States calling you a white supremacist?” Biden never said this, as far as I can tell, but Carlson very much wants his viewers to think that he did. The evidence for the claim, according to my research, rests on a statement Biden made to CNN in August 2020 about Donald Trump’s reluctance to condemn white supremacists, and on a video clip that Biden tweeted on September 30, 2020, which featured audio from the first presidential debate, in which Fox’s Chris Wallace asked Trump if he was “willing, tonight, to condemn white supremacists and militia groups, and to say that they need to stand down and not add to the violence that we’ve seen in a number of these cities, as we saw in Kenosha and as we’ve seen in Portland.” An image of Rittenhouse holding a gun appeared briefly on the video as Wallace said “Kenosha.”

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No rational person would look at this as evidence that Biden called Rittenhouse a white supremacist. But the teenager took Carlson’s bait all the same, saying that it was “actual malice, defaming my character for [Biden] to say something like that.” Maybe Rittenhouse didn’t know what had or hadn’t been said. Maybe he thought Biden had said that because so many people had told him as much. Or maybe, just maybe, an 18-year-old who decides to give Tucker Carlson an exclusive post-acquittal interview is capable of playing the game himself. When asked if he was planning to take any further action against any of the people who had allegedly defamed his character over the past 15 months, Rittenhouse said that he had “really good lawyers who were taking care of that right now,” and that he was hoping that one day there’d be “accountability for their actions that they did.”

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The extent to which this is a live possibility—or at least a deep wish of the Fox News set—was made clear on Friday evening, when Nicholas Sandmann, the former Covington Catholic high school student who has parlayed his misbegotten MAGA-hatted brush with media infamy into cult hero status on the right, told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that Rittenhouse should follow his path and sue his alleged persecutors in the media for defamation. Sandmann came on the show to discuss an article he had written for the Daily Mail in which he claimed that “the parallels between me and Kyle Rittenhouse are impossible not to draw.”

This vapid comparison only makes sense if you accept the premise that cancellation is a fate worse than death, and that any and all criticism of any right-wing-aligned person in the news—no matter what they’ve done—is equivalent to cancellation. If liberal-leaning criticism and protest are the ultimate evils, then it makes sense to laud and celebrate those who strike back against them, whether with a lawsuit, a bullet, or both.

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