World

The media’s wavering burden of proof

2 September 2020

1:40 PM

2 September 2020

1:40 PM

President Trump spoke mildly in defense of Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse on Tuesday, saying that the 17-year-old seemed to be defending himself when he shot three people, killing two of them.

NPR, fresh off of interviewing In Defense of Looting author Vicky Osterweil, had something stern to say about that, tweeting ‘President Trump declined to condemn the actions of the suspected 17-year-old shooter of three protesters against police brutality in Kenosha — claiming, without evidence, that it appeared the gunman was acting in self-defense.’

President Trump declined to condemn the actions of the suspected 17-year-old shooter of 3 protesters against police brutality in Kenosha — claiming, without evidence, that it appeared the gunman was acting in self-defense.https://t.co/a7LnGABckN

— NPR (@NPR) September 1, 2020

Without evidence! Cockburn tries to live an upright life these days, but he had to pause for a moment to be sure he had not mistakenly consumed peyote or some other mind-altering substance. Without evidence? The entire Rittenhouse episode was caught on tape. You can watch both shootings on YouTube, along with lengthy dissections of what they show. You can watch him get interviewed immediately before the shooting.


Without evidence? Kyle Rittenhouse’s night in Kenosha is one of the single best-documented shootings of all time. Even in the most literal sense, NPR’s tweet isn’t true; President Trump directly cited the videos, telling reporters that ‘you saw the same tape as I saw.’ What other evidence could he have possibly produced? Was he supposed to replay the tape right there?

NPR’s blunder is sadly unexceptional by now. Last week, the Associated Press published this astonishing sentence: ‘Sen. Rand Paul, who was surrounded by screaming protesters when he and his wife left President Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention speech at the White House, claimed without evidence on Friday that he had been “attacked by an angry mob” of the type that would be unleashed in Joe Biden’s America.’

Wait a minute! This entire incident was also on tape. You can see a police officer get attacked in it. Perhaps Paul was exaggerating in his description of events, but it wasn’t ‘without evidence’. What, is the AP demanding that he produce notarized testimony? Does he need a peer-reviewed study? Is science sufficiently prestigious?

Enough is enough. Cockburn is calling for a total and complete shutdown of the phrase ‘without evidence’ until our country’s press can figure out what it is doing. It serves no useful purpose. For the press, ‘without evidence’ has become a literary tic when referring to the President and his allies. The phrase was essentially non-existent in news media prior to Trump’s election. Searching on Twitter, you find that NPR has used the phrase 10 times, seven of them in relation to the President. CNN, meanwhile, has tweeted the phrase 19 times, 14 of them about Trump. The Washington Post has used the phrase 18 times, and all but one of them are about Trump or a member of his inner circle.

This isn’t journalism. Politicians are allowed to assert things without an accompanying mathematical proof. Nobody responded to Biden’s Pittsburgh speech with the headline ‘Biden, without evidence, accuses Trump of stoking riots’. The President is the exception, treated as though he is a prosecutor in a capital case every time he opens his mouth. ‘Without evidence’ has become a totem, used not to convey any useful information, but as filler to signal that the President is Bad and that he Tells Lies. If holding leaders accountable for baseless claims is an objective, then CNN and NPR ought to be holding Rep. Ayanna Pressley to account for her tweet on the Rittenhouse story, which read: ‘A 17 year old white supremacist domestic terrorist drove across state lines, armed with an AR-15. He shot and killed two people who had assembled to affirm the value, dignity, and worth of Black lives. Fix your damn headlines.’

A 17 year old white supremacist domestic terrorist drove across state lines, armed with an AR 15.

He shot and killed 2 people who had assembled to affirm the value, dignity, and worth of Black lives.

Fix your damn headlines.

— Ayanna Pressley (@AyannaPressley) August 27, 2020

Unlike the President’s remarks, there really is no evidence for Pressley’s claim. In fact, once he beats the murder charge against him, Rittenhouse could plausibly sue her for defamation. But, of course, there is no apoplectic NPR headline along the lines of ‘Democratic congresswoman, without evidence, calls Kyle Rittenhouse a “white supremacist domestic terrorist”‘. Nor will there be. Pressley has privilege: The privilege of being able to say whatever she wants, without being called a liar. The President, meanwhile, is cursed to be called a liar, even when he has everything on video.

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