On October 26, video emerged that showed multiple police officers fatally shooting Walter Wallace Jr. in Philadelphia, triggering a wave of protests in the city. Right-wing media have weaponized the ensuing protests and violence to push a conservative “law and order” narrative ahead of the election, while obscuring the actual details behind the shooting -- which involve a deadly intersection of police brutality, systemic racism, and lack of support services for people living with mental illness.
Ring-wing media’s coverage of police brutality and subsequent protests have sought to fan the flames in the already tense aftermath of police shootings; a recent review of Fox News’ top prime-time shows found that the hosts spent August pushing out violent images of fires and ransacked storefronts. Similarly, Fox News’ coverage of Wallace’s shooting has been intensely focused on looting and violence at protests rather than his killing by police.
From 4 a.m. EDT on October 27 through midnight on October 28, Fox News covered damage and violence during protests in Philadelphia nearly three times as much as the actual shooting itself -- 1 hour and 30 minutes were dedicated to covering the protests, while just 35 minutes were spent covering the police shooting.
Police officers were reportedly sent to Wallace’s home after receiving a call about a man with a knife. When they arrived, Wallace’s wife told the officers the 27-year-old Black man had manic bipolar disorder, and his mother tried to get Wallace to drop the knife while shielding him from officers and pleading with them not to shoot. Wallace took a step toward the police, who then fired more than a dozen shots at him. The Wallace family’s lawyer has said that the family had called for an ambulance and was seeking medical assistance, as Wallace has struggled with mental illness for the majority of his life.
A 2015 study conducted by the Treatment Advocacy Center reports that people “with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians.”
“By dismantling the mental illness treatment system, we have turned mental health crisis from a medical issue into a police matter,” said John Snook, executive director and a co-author of the study. “This is patently unfair, illogical and is proving harmful both to the individual in desperate need of care and the officer who is forced to respond.”
“It should horrify but not surprise us that people with untreated mental illness are overrepresented in deadly encounters with law enforcement,” said Snook. “Individuals with untreated mental illness are vastly overrepresented in every corner of the criminal justice system. Until we reform the public policies that have abandoned them there, these tragic outcomes will continue.”
President Donald Trump’s campaign and right-wing media swiftly moved to weaponize the shooting and subsequent protests in advance of next week's election; Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany released a statement that began: “The riots in Philadelphia are the most recent consequence of the Liberal Democrats’ war against the police.”
Right-wing media’s coverage of the protests has intensely focused on chaos and damage to physical property while trying to link any destruction to Democrats, presidential nominee Joe Biden, and Black Lives Matter.
- The Daily Wire:
- Fox correspondent Leland Vittert detailed the various items taken from a Walmart, saying: “If you imagine a game of whack-a-mole between police and the looters, the looters had the upper hand.”
- TheBlaze’s Elijah Schaffer:
Coverage of the protests also focused on violence directed toward police officers.
- The Daily Wire:
- The Federalist:
- Fox “news side” anchor Martha MacCallum’s brief mention of the unrest in Philadelphia focused almost entirely on injuries to police officers:
When conservative media did cover the police shooting of Wallace, many largely obscured the underlying problems of how police interact with people with severe mental illnesses, the brutal circumstances involving Wallace’s wife and mother being present and pleading with the officers to spare his life, or the fact that Wallace was several feet away from the police when he was shot.
Instead, right-wing media coverage has emphasized that Wallace was holding a knife during the mental health crisis, claiming he was “armed” and “charging” the officers and defending the officers’ response.
- The Daily Caller:
- Right-wing commentator Robby Starbuck:
- Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt echoed talking points from various police officers about why a less lethal method of confrontation was not used.
Right-wing media also highlighted a supposed criminal past, continuing the trend of demanding a “perfect victim” when confronted with an incident of police brutality.
- The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh:
- Right-wing propagandist Andy Ngo:
- Reporting for Fox & Friends, correspondent Aishah Hasnie summarized the police shooting of Wallace: “Police say they ordered him -- who by the way had a criminal history -- to drop a knife, but he continued to move towards those officers in this video, who then each fired seven shots at him.”
Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming from 4 a.m. EDT to midnight on Fox News Channel for any of the terms “Walter,” “Wallace,” or “Philadelphia,” within close proximity of any of the terms “unrest,” “chaos,” “demonstration,” “national guard,” “death,” “anger,” “murder,” or “shot” or any variations of any of the terms “protest,” “violence,” “loot,” “riot,” “kill,” “destruct,” “dead,” “march,” or “shoot” from October 27-28, 2020.