Cable news is covering Kyle Rittenhouse and McMichael/Bryan trials very differently

OPINION: Brown Institute's Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer reveals eye-opening data about how CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are reporting about the two racially-motivated cases.

Travis McMichael Kyle Rittenhouse
Left to right: Travis McMichael, on trial for the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery; and Kyle Rittenhouse, on trial for the fatal shootings of two Black Lives Matter protesters. (Photo: Getty Images)

In recent years, many people have learned to dismiss the media as fake which means falling into the right-wing imperative to attack and erase attempts to critique and challenge them. Most media outlets are not “fake.” I worked at CNN and MSNBC for many years and at both places there are people who care deeply about the news, about integrity, about reputation, and about explaining things honestly and accurately.

At neither place did I find people who were guided by an “agenda,” which is a strange, loaded word suggesting some leader is sending out directions as to what the hosts are supposed to think. I believe, and I have been told, that Fox News operates in this way, especially when Roger Ailes was running the place.

Neither CNN nor MSNBC have a supreme figure who’s directing the ideas disseminated on air, and really, I think CNN, MSNBC and Fox should not be considered equals. They may appear to be playing the same game but they are not any more than the Golden State Warriors, the LA Clippers, and the Harlem Globetrotters are playing the same game.

The News Corp. building, home to the Fox News channel, the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal, is shown in New York City. (Photo: Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

We must, however, watch cable news with a critical eye and examine what we are being told. Media is not a window — which does not change what we see — it is a filter that shapes what we see. The stories that cable news chooses to cover, the way they cover them, and the amount of time they spend on them, are all critical signals to how much we should care about the stories.

Take for example the two racially-motivated murder trials going on right now — the Kyle Rittenhouse trial and the McMichael/Bryan trial (in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery). There’s a tool — the Brown Institute’s Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer — that allows us to compare how the different outlets are covering these two news events by analyzing transcripts from the broadcasts of CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News, and three interesting observations jump out at me.

First, if you watch cable news it may be easy to forget that there are two major trials going on right now — Brown Institute’s Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer shows us that Rittenhouse is mentioned far more often than McMichael/Bryan.

On several days it’s as much as 10x more. This could be because Rittenhouse took the stand in his own defense, and his case centers on a young boy rather than three older men. Also, the Rittenhouse trial seems more controversial, it’s more of a lightning rod. There are lots of people on both sides, many who think he should be convicted and many who think he should not.

Kyle Rittenhouse pulls numbers of jurors out of a tumbler during his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis., on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021. (Sean Krajacic/The Kenosha News via AP, Pool)

Indeed, there’s all sorts of drama around this trial — a recent poll I did on Twitter found about 2/3rds of my followers think Rittenhouse should be convicted but a subsequent poll found that over 4/5ths of my followers think Rittenhouse will not be convicted.

By contrast, the McMichael/Bryan trial is like a look into America’s horrific past where White men grabbed Black men off the street for the smallest of offenses and lynched them. It’s a gory tale that has few people publicly defending the McMichaels and Bryan. As a Black person, my heart bleeds when I think about the terror that Arbery went through in his last moments, running away from these men in pickup trucks. I almost don’t want to hear about it the way I now often turn away from new videos of police violence against Black people. I can’t watch any more. I’ve seen 1,000 of them and I can’t put any more of them in my short-term memory. I’m already in spiritual pain from the ones permanently seared into my mind. 

Unsurprisingly, Brown Institute’s Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer reveals that Fox is barely covering the McMichael/Bryan trial.

Left to right: Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr.(Photo: Glynn County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

It surely does not fit into their angertainment aesthetic. But Rittenhouse is being covered a lot on Fox where he fits neatly into their worldview; Rittenhouse is the kind of person they like, a young White man who was defending his community against the violent lefty woke mob of rioters and using his second amendment rights to protect his world. He’s almost exactly the sort of character they would create if they could. This, opposed to the McMichael/Bryan trial, which proves that violent racism still exists.

Fox is designed to push White people’s blood pressure to the boiling point with stories about the freeloading poor, the immigrants pouring in over the border to steal jobs, and violent Blacks who have forgotten their place. They want White people to feel like they’re losing their country and if they don’t keep watching it’ll soon be gone. Rittenhouse is tailor made for all of that — he got up and did something about it.

One last observation from Brown Institute’s Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer is that the McMichael/Bryan trial continues to be referred to by many as the Arbery trial or the trial in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, thus centering the Black victim rather than his White killers who are on trial for murder (They are not his alleged killers, the fact that they killed him is not in doubt, what’s in doubt is if their killing is homicide in the eyes of the law).

Glynn County courthouse Arbery
Demonstrators gather at the Glynn County courthouse during a court appearance by Gregory and Travis McMichael, two suspects in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, on June 4, 2020 in Brunswick, Georgia. Arbery was killed on February 23. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

It’s interesting how often Black victims’ names become the shorthand for their trials — Trayvon Martin was not on trial then just as Ahmaud Arbery is not now — and how rarely this happens to White victims. I’m not quite sure why this happens but it does place the mental focus on the Black person — i.e., what did they do — and subtly puts them on trial in the court of public opinion rather than putting the White person on trial.

In a nation where there has been far, far more vigilante violence and domestic terrorism by White people against Black bodies than the other way around it’s very problematic to even suggest that we should interrogate what these Black victims did as much as we should interrogate what their White aggressors did.

Overall, we should consume the news so we know what’s going on but we should do so with an eye toward watching what the news is doing to us and how the news is shaping our opinions. To say that the news is fake does not let us critique the news with sufficient nuance. It’s not fake but as it creates our reality we should watch with a thought on what reality is it creating for us?  


Touré is the host of the podcasts Toure Show and Democracyish and the podcast docuseries Who Was Prince? He is also the author of six books.

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