On July 12th, 2018, twenty-year-old Michael White fatally stabbed local real estate developer Sean Schellenger in the back.
There are conflicting reports as to how the incident unfolded, each side claiming the other as the instigator. In one instance, Schellenger and friend, Uri Jacobson, exited their vehicle to expedite traffic, before being confronted by Michael White, who would go on to stab Schellenger in the back. The other story cites an intoxicated Schellenger and Jacobson exiting their vehicle and berating White amidst a traffic jam. Schellenger would go on to spit in White’s face before tackling him. In this instance, White stabbing Schellenger was a means of self-defense.
Truth be told, we don’t yet know the context surrounding the unfortunate death of Sean Schellenger. Witnesses are still being surveyed, and footage is being sought out.
The purpose of this article is not to assert guilt or blame, but to shed light on dangerous journalism.
When Google searching “Rittenhouse Square Stabbing”, “Michael White Rittenhouse Square”, and “Sean Schellenger Rittenhouse Square”, three articles from city staple, The Philadelphia Inquirer, top the list. Each demonstrate the legitimacy of my concern.
This article details the stabbing and death of Schellenger in its first 164 words. Much of the following 1389 are spent on glowing character references from family, friends, and business colleagues, covering Schellenger’s likable disposition, commitment to the community, and time as a walk-on quarterback at The Pennsylvania State University.
White, meanwhile, has his name referenced twice, all in a single paragraph, dedicated exclusively to turning himself in. There are no character references, accomplishments, or background. He is reduced to no more than “the stabber”.
The second article covers Schellenger’s memorial.
Here, he again benefits from a multitude of character references, each given their own paragraph, from his father, mother, brother, and uncle. His favorite song, “American Pie,” is detailed, as is his competition in wrestling, baseball, and football, with further emphasis on his aforementioned achievement as walk-on quarterback at Penn State. To be frank, the only strange thing about this article is that it exists in Philadelphia’s leading publication. Is it irresponsible to slant public opinion on behalf of a man who may have provoked his own stabbing? The trial looms, and Michael White’s life hangs in the balance.
For whatever reason, White is offered a lazy portrayal in the memorializing article, given a single paragraph detailing his merit as a person. Within the same paragraph, and in even greater verbiage: A summary of White’s legal history — previous charges for possession of marijuana, theft, and other non-violent counts. The relevancy of this to remembering Schellenger is questionable.
Two weeks after their premature burial of White, the Philadelphia publication bowed in a last-second battle with its conscience, releasing a concession piece on his behalf titled “Backers of accused Rittenhouse stabber to hold vigil, rally (Now: “No 1st-degree-murder charge in Rittenhouse stabbing”).
Little is said of White himself in the piece. A short read, the majority is spent covering the stabbing and White’s representation seeking a reduction of the charges, such that he may post bail — a luxury not afforded to those charged with first-degree murder.
Supporters of White held vigil at True Gospel Tabernacle Church on July 31st. The updated article reveals roughly 50 showed. Another 60 attended a same-day rally at the District Attorney’s office, influencing a downgrade in White’s charges to third-degree murder, voluntary manslaughter, and possession of an instrument of crime. City records indicate that 10% of the $150,000 bail was posted Thursday, August 2nd, courtesy of two Philadelphia non-profits.
In its original release, the article included a single picture, that of a smiling Sean Schellenger. It has since been updated to include two images showing supporters gathered at White’s rally, along with a picture of White himself. At one point, the author needlessly contrasts the vigil and rally with the hundreds present for Schellenger’s memorial. A cherry on top: The piece was published just hours before the vigil and rally were said to be taking place.
One thing is unmistakably clear: The Philadelphia Inquirer is seeing to it that Sean Schellenger is purported as a victim and Michael White as the assailant.
Privy to the situation, local NAACP President, Minister Rodney Muhammad, illustrated the dangers of lopsided reporting:
“We are talking because we want to make sure that race and class don’t overpower the truth and due process for Michael White. This is a tragedy. But so far the coverage of it has seen people talking about how wonderful a person Sean Schellenger was because he was trying to help rebuild the inner city. That’s commendable. And it sends the message, ‘why would somebody want to kill him?’ We want people to know that Michael White is also a very good person.”
Michael is a slam poet, a high school graduate, and a determined young man working to put himself through college at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland. He delivers food as a bicycle courier, which is the reason for him being in Rittenhouse Square that Thursday night. Life has been tough for him, as he claims to have survived somewhat independently for the past 7 years, despite being only 21 years old. In an effort to secure the education he is struggling to afford, White started a GoFundMe in 2016. Seeking $1,600, White raised $4,195. Comments from donors illustrate his growth as a person, his character, and his part in “shifting the culture”. All signs indicate a respected person of passion, art, and ambition. White is said to have carried the knife used in the stabbing as a means of protection during his deliveries to Philadelphia’s various neighborhoods.
For all the positive references, Sean Schellenger, along with his friend, Uri Jacobson, are not without their blemishes. Both have been charged with multiple offenses in the past 20 years. Furthermore, both men have been charged with offenses of the violent variety.
A toxicology report confirming or denying Schellenger’s inebriation will go a long way toward a verdict. An arduous legal process remains, with the next hearing set for October 30th. Schellenger appears to have been loved by many, and I wish his family, friends, and colleagues peace of thought in this trying time. I also hope The Philadelphia Inquirer starts making softer newspapers, because with journalism like this, the publication makes for little more than a rough ass wipe.
Whatever the result may be, I hope justice casts you its truest eye, Mr. White.
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