Commentaries from prison nixed, but —

By Jacqueline Conciatore

NPR’s decisions to air, and then not to air, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s death-row commentaries might yet take another turn.

The network is committed to airing prisoners’ voices — perhaps Abu-Jamal’s, in a form different from the stand-alone commentaries originally planned, NPR Vice President Bill Buzenberg said Wednesday. “I see this as a decision to pull back” and “postpone,” he said. “We’ll make other editorial decisions down the road.”

The silence from prisons allows a public hysterical about crime to maintain its stereotyped image
of prisoners and not think about them as complex human beings, says Sussman.

The NPR-distributed Fresh Air interview program, meanwhile, may hire an inmate commentator (separate story below).

The network announced May 3 that Abu-Jamal would do commentaries for All Things Considered, but Managing Editor Bruce Drake pulled them 12 days later — one day before the first was to air. Drake made the call during Buzenberg’s absence, but Buzenberg later said the cancellation was a news department decision, not any one individual’s.

Although theATC audience didn’t hear Abu-Jamal, Pacifica listeners did. The day after NPR reneged, the California-based network announced Abu-Jamal would be a regular commentator on crime and justice issues, and aired one of his pieces.

A former public radio journalist, Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the 1981 killing of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.

News about the commentaries ignited the passions of people with widely divergent interests and agendas— opponents and proponents of the death penalty, of Abu-Jamal himself and of public broadcasting.

Perhaps the most prominent voice was a frequent critic of NPR, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.). From the Senate floor a day after NPR cancelled the commentaries, Dole said: “The last time I checked, we were trying to fight crime, not promote the fortunes of convicted murderers through taxpayer-supported public broadcasting.” The senator warned that “closer oversight by the Congress” would be one way to prevent future “mistakes” by NPR.

In response, Buzenberg says that NPR is an independent entity that makes editorial decisions based solely on its news judgment and not external pressure.

The controversy first heated up in the media, over the weekend of May 13-15. In an angry editorial titled “All things ill-considered,” the New York Post spoke for  “ordinary working folks who are paying for the dissemination of Abu-Jamal’s musings.” Several major dailies ran an Associated Press article in which Pennsylvania State University Prof. Philip Jenkins said the commentaries could help Abu-Jamal win a pardon.

In the same article, the head of Philadelphia’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), Michael Lutz, expressed outrage on behalf of the slain officer’s family.

Much of the heat emanated from Lutz, who also blasted NPR on several Philadelphia talk shows. As soon as he heard about the commentaries, he called for a demonstration in front of public television and radio station WHYY, he told Current.

“What in God’s name are we making contributions to public radio and TV [for]?,” he said. “To air a cop killer?”

Lutz also expressed disbelief that NPR planned to pay Abu-Jamal $150 for each commentary.

Least appealing option

Though Drake reversed NPR’s decision right on the heels of all this media attention, he insists he cancelled the series for editorial reasons only. In fact,  the certain appearance of caving in to outside pressure made cancellation the least appealing option, he says. But to run a series of commentaries from a convicted murderer, without accompanying material to provide context or contrasting viewpoints, would have been inappropriate, he says. There’s “a legitimate place on the air” for prisoners’ voices in occasional essays, news stories and interviews, but “a different standard has to be held in choosing commentators,” he says. Drake had been unaware of the Abu-Jamal commentaries until he read about them in Current (May 9), he says.

Pacifica National News Director Julie Drizin shares none of Drake’s qualms, though she empathizes with Drake in having to make a tough call. Abu-Jamal’s commentaries are a natural for the network, she says. “Pacifica is about trying to bring unpopular, controversial, often progressive voices to the radio — people who don’t have access to commercial media or corporate-sponsored media, people who can’t be packaged. Mumia fits into that category.”

Pacifica has aired Abu-Jamal’s essays in the past; what’s new is that he will be a commentator on the national daily news program, aired on Pacifica’s five stations and 60 affiliates. Via NPR, the commentaries would have reached many more listeners — more than 1 million, according to NPR’s figures.

Prolific writer

Abu-Jamal’s ATC commentaries, already taped before Drake’s decision, described life on death row: a fellow inmate’s sudden release, another’s slip into insanity, how the prison uses TV-watching privileges to control inmates, and his opinions of three-strikes-and-you’re-out legislation.

Abu-Jamal writes prolifically from prison, says Noelle Hanrahan of the Prison Radio Project, which produced his past radio commentaries on Pacifica. His work has appeared in publications including The Nation and the Yale Law Journal, she says.

As a radio reporter, Abu-Jamal covered Philadelphia police, including their relationship with the radical group MOVE. Later, he became known as a MOVE supporter.

Abu-Jamal’s political affiliations at the time of his arrest are not clear. Media reports that he was a founding member and lieutenant minister of information of a Black Panther chapter in Philadelphia are true, but he was in high school at the time, says Linda Thurston, a death penalty foe and member of Concerned Family and Friends for Mumia Abu-Jamal. “He was respected as a journalist up until the moment he was arrested.”

Abu-Jamal has an active group of supporters who say he’s innocent and wasn’t given a fair trial. Although the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Abu-Jamal’s appeal and the state supreme court refused twice, Abu-Jamal still has another set of appeals, says Thurston.

An investigation is being led by defense attorney Leonard Weinglass and should yield new evidence that will prove his innocence, says prison reform activist Jane Henderson.

Given Abu-Jamal’s association with MOVE, the NPR controversy came at a sensitive time for Philadelphians — the anniversary of the 1985 bombing of MOVE members by authorities. “The timing’s kind of bizarre,” admits WHYY radio manager Fred Brown, who spent a couple of days fielding calls about the commentaries from reporters. Although the MOVE catastrophe happened nearly a decade ago, local media revisit it every year at this time, and it’s “fresh on the minds of Philadelphians,” Brown says.

ATC did not think of the MOVE anniversary when it scheduled the first commentary, Weiss says. “We literally just looked at a calendar and said, `Let’s do it then,’ ” she says.

Since WRTI-FM is a Pacifica affiliate, Abu-Jamal’s commentaries did reach some Philadelphians after all, with Pacifica’s news broadcast May 16.

Voices from the dark

Earlier this month, ATC Executive Producer Ellen Weiss said Abu-Jamal’s pieces would offer a rare opportunity to hear about prison life from inside, and to gain a prisoner’s perspective on crime issues. “This is a voice that isn’t going to normally make it into a piece,” she said.

The scarcity of prisoners’ perspectives means that NPR’s later reversal “has nothing to do with journalistic balance, since the opposing views are more than represented” in the media, says Peter Sussman, who co-authored Committing Journalism with former California inmate Danny Martin. The silence from prisons allows a public hysterical about crime to maintain its stereotyped image of prisoners and not think about them as complex human beings, he says. Squelching prisoners’ voices also limits the policy debate about how to deal with crime and criminals, he says. “There are 1.2 million people at any given time in prisons and jails in this country,” he says. “It’s not my sense that we’re hearing a current policy debate that’s in any way informed by that population.”

The argument is especially compelling given prison demographics, says Drizin. “What Mumia Abu-Jamal has to say matters because the U.S. has more people in prison than any other country<\p>.<\p>.<\p>.<\p>a disproportionate number of [them] people of color. There is a growing community of incarcerated people and those connected to them, and there is a voice and perspective there that needs to be heard.”

“He should be dead”

For his part, police officer Lutz — who was the murdered policeman’s supervisor — believes Abu-Jamal shouldn’t be allowed to breathe, let alone speak. He says Abu-Jamal killed Faulkner in cold blood, when Faulkner was already wounded and down, and that three people saw it happen. The fact that Abu-Jamal was paid to write commentaries, is even still alive, represents to Lutz “our whole judicial system falling down right before our eyes,” he says. “Punishment should be swift and sure.”

Thus his statement to AP: “[Abu-Jamal] should be dead. He should be dead. He should have been dead a long time ago.” Later, Lutz told Current: “We feel [the commentaries] are a springboard for him to get up on a soapbox and try to keep from being executed.”

Because NPR had stipulated that Abu-Jamal was not to discuss his case on the air, “to say that it becomes a platform for [Abu-Jamal] to effect his appeal is really not honest,” says Henderson. The pertinent issues, she says, is that a “unique perspective is being shut out” of the realm of public discussion. “We can hear the FOP say over and over, `he should be dead by now,’ but we can’t hear what Mumia has to say.”

Lutz counters: “Don’t talk about Jamal’s First Amendment rights. Where’s Faulkner’s First Amendment rights? He can’t speak.”

Fresh Air may hire writer in jail

In the midst of the controversy over death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal’s aborted NPR commentaries, Fresh Air producers are hoping to hire a well-known prison journalist, Wilbert Rideau, as a regular commentator. The deal is not finalized, however.

Any comparisons between Rideau and Abu-Jamal are unfair, says Danny Miller, producer of the NPR-distributed program at WHYY, Philadelphia.

“Every potential commentator has to be evaluated on his own merits,” he says. Rideau produces a newspaper from his Louisiana prison and has won many awards for his work.

He was convicted of killing a woman during a bank robbery in 1961, at the age of 19. His death sentence was commuted to a life sentence in 1973, and he is petitioning for clemency, Miller says.

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