Sep 1 2000

Hometown Hostility

The Philadelphia Inquirer vs. Mumia Abu-Jamal

Antioch College’s commencement for the class of 2000 featured a taped speech by death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted in a highly questionable 1981 trial of murdering a Philadelphia police officer. (See Extra!, 11-12/95.) The Ohio college’s graduation events also included a teach-in by supporters of Abu-Jamal and an organized police protest. Although the selection of a condemned prisoner as speaker was surely the most notable and unusual feature of the event, the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s coverage focused on the police protest, with the front-page article (4/30/00) headlined “Speech Met with Silent Protests” and an accompanying picture of Maureen Faulkner, widow of the officer Abu-Jamal is accused of killing.

This skewed framing is typical of the biased coverage accorded Abu-Jamal’s case by his hometown’s major daily. The same slant on the news had already been displayed in the Inquirer‘s coverage of a taped speech by Abu-Jamal at Oregon’s Evergreen State College, in which a page 2 article (6/12/99) focused on Faulkner and what was admittedly a “handful” of protesters. The Inquirer had previously failed to report on a pro-Mumia tribunal held in Philadelphia on December 6, 1997, with over 700 people in attendance and many internationally known panelists. A journalist asking the paper about this was told by an editor that it was not covered because it was a “publicity stunt.” But a full-page ad placed in the New York Times (6/14/98) by the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) was the basis of an Inquirer news article, although a paid ad, by definition, is a bid for publicity. A full-page counter-ad in the Times by Abu-Jamal supporters, on the other hand, was never mentioned.

Also less newsworthy for the Inquirer than the FOP ad was a well-documented report by Amnesty International on the Abu-Jamal case, which described the original trial as “deeply flawed,” contending that it “failed to meet international standards of fair trials,” and calling for a new trial. Although this report was issued by a highly respected, disinterested international organization, and involved a case of significant import in the Philadelphia area, the Inquirer (2/18/00) placed it as the fifth item under “News Briefs” on page 2B.

A massive rally for Abu-Jamal in Madison Square Garden on Sunday, May 8, where 6,000 paid attendees heard an update on the case and called for a new trial, was reported on May 9 in a back-page article that once again featured police protesters in both headlines and text. The article is headed “Skaters Finish Trek for Slain Police,” and the subhead is “The end of the 422-mile skate coincided with a New York rally against backers of Mumia Abu-Jamal.” The newspaper itself put the number of police protesters at 150, so the Inquirer framed the article around the side that was outnumbered 40 to one.

Although the Inquirer has been exceedingly reluctant to feature or even report on rallies, tribunals or reports supporting Abu-Jamal, it has found negative news about his supporters highly newsworthy. When the Black United Fund of Pennsylvania was found to have raised money for Abu-Jamal without full disclosure to donors, the Inquirer ran three front-page articles and an indignant editorial on the case (5/13/99, 5/25/99, 5/28/99). More recently, alleged financial irregularities by another Abu-Jamal support group were also reported (6/25/00). (This focus on Abu-Jamal’s funding has exceeded by a wide margin the attention the paper has given to the much larger and politically significant fund-raising by Pennsylvania’s Republican senators Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum.)

Interestingly, the Inquirer has not yet done a major investigative study of the original trial. Nor has it ever tied together the numerous reports of police fraud in Philadelphia, including forgery, or hinted at their possible relevance to the Abu-Jamal trial evidence. Perhaps the paper’s managers fear that its own serious investigation would not allow the paper to sustain the official truth that the editorialists and news reporters take for granted. The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s hostile bias in reporting on Mumia Abu-Jamal has been so blatant that on May 9, I and a dozen others petitioned the paper’s ombudsman, John Bull, requesting an apology and an end to the bias. Bull rejected the request, claiming, without offering a serious analysis, that the paper’s performance reflected reasonable news judgment.

Bull does not always reject such petitions: In 1996 (7/14/96), he apologized publicly on behalf of the Inquirer for publishing a grimacing photo of Rush Limbaugh that accompanied an overwhelmingly positive article on the right-wing talkshow host.

Edward S. Herman most recently co-edited Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (Pluto Press). His book The Myth of the Liberal Media includes a chapter on “The Inky and Me.”

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