The Mumia Abu-Jamal Case and Questions for African-American Journalists

September 03, 1995|By GLENN McNATT

What is one to make of the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther and radio journalist who has been on Pennsylvania's death row for the last 13 years awaiting execution for the 1981 murder of a white Philadelphia police officer?

Quite aside from the issue of his guilt or innocence, the case raises troubling questions for Abu-Jamal's fellow black journalists, who held their annual meeting last month in Philadelphia. The case drew a well-attended panel discussion in which both the prosecutor in Abu-Jamal's original trial and the lawyer handling his appeal participated.

Earlier this summer it looked as if Abu-Jamal's death sentence actually would be carried out Aug. 17, the day after the National Association of Black Journalists convened in Philadelphia. But in July, a Philadelphia judge stayed the execution indefinitely to allow Abu-Jamal's attorney to argue for a new trial.

Meanwhile, Abu-Jamal has published a collection of prison commentaries, "Live From Death Row," which sold more than 50,000 copies and made him something of an international cause celebre.

In July, novelist E. L. Doctorow wrote an impassioned polemic for the New York Times Op-Ed page condemning Philadelphia's criminal justice system. College students in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy have demonstrated on his behalf, and the president of France and the foreign minister of Germany have appealed to the U.S. government to review his case.

Abu-Jamal is even on the Internet, making him, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, "the first cyberspace 'political prisoner.' "

Do African-American journalists bear any special responsibility regarding the way Abu-Jamal's case gets covered by the news media?

That was one of the most hotly debated questions at the recent NABJ convention. Abu-Jamal, 41, had once worked as a reporter at several Philadelphia radio stations and was president of the local chapter of the black journalists association in 1980 and 1981 -- the year before he was convicted of murdering Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner.

At the trial, two eyewitnesses identified Abu-Jamal as the gunman. Prosecutors also offered ballistic evidence that the bullet removed from the officer came from Abu-Jamal's gun and produced two other witnesses who said they heard Abu-Jamal confess to the shooting.

The defense contends that Abu-Jamal was framed by police because he had helped found a chapter of the Black Panther Party in Philadelphia and later became a radio commentator known for strident denunciations of police brutality and support for MOVE, a radical black group.

African-American journalists, like other journalists, have a professional responsibility to strive for objectivity in their work. In practical terms, that usually means a concern for "balance" and "fairness." But problems arise when conventional notions of what is "balanced" and "fair" divide sharply along racial lines.

Mumia Abu-Jamal's case is similar to the O. J. Simpson trial and the Rodney King case in that blacks generally regard police conduct more skeptically than whites, a split that extends to black journalists vis-a-vis their white counterparts.

A black journalist may consider it fair to point out that courts often treat black defendants more harshly than whites accused of similar crimes, or that blacks are disproportionately represented among death row inmates. But in doing so he or she also risks the charge of bias from white colleagues and editors, for whom such considerations may seem irrelevant.

Dorothy Gilliam, the national president of the black journalists group last June, when supporters of Abu-Jamal criticized the group for failing to take a stand on his efforts to win a new trial, said she was concerned that any action the organization took could be construed as compromising its journalistic integrity and standards of objectivity.

"What's unusual here is that the organization is being pressed to take a stand almost on the merits of a criminal case," she said at the time. "The question is: Should journalists be advocates? And how far they should go, of course, is the issue."

There was a particular irony in Ms. Gilliam's question, because Abu-Jamal himself never made any pretense of "objectivity" in his own work as a reporter. He was an outspoken, unapologetic exponent of advocacy journalism who probably would have regarded the kind of soul-searching Ms. Gilliam engaged in as a form of selling out. So the black journalists were put in the position of deciding whether to defend someone who, by his own example, rejected the basic principles their organization was bound to uphold.

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