Apr 1 2006

Philly Papers Defend Non-Coverage of Mumia Victory

Late in the day on Monday, December 5, 2005, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia issued a surprise ruling in the appeal of Pennsylvania’s most famous prisoner: Philadelphia journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who has been on the state’s death row for 24 years, following his conviction for the murder of white Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner in December 1981.

The ruling stated that Abu-Jamal would be granted the right to appeal his conviction on not just one but three separate grounds. This came after a federal district judge, in 2001, had ruled against Abu-Jamal on all 20 of his claims of constitutional violations in his trial and appeal.

The local Philadelphia press leapt into action at this important breaking news and wrote . . . nothing.

Although the Third Circuit issued its ruling late on December 5, by December 7 the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, not to mention all the news departments of the city’s radio and television stations, remained silent about this story.

When this reporter, working on the story for the online magazine Salon, called the editorial desks of the two papers on December 7 to find out how they were covering the development, the word from their city desks was that they “didn’t know” the story had even happened.

Such is the state of the flagship of the Knight Ridder chain, the once-proud Philadelphia Inquirer, whose staff has become so threadbare that it can’t spare a reporter to regularly cover the Third Circuit Appeals Court on a daily basis. Nor does Knight Ridder’s Daily News, the Inquirer’s tabloid sibling, have a reporter regularly covering the Third Circuit court.

But even when they did get word of the breaking story, courtesy of my inquiries, the results were less than one might have expected for a case of such significance and public fascination, and for a development of such importance in that case.

The Inquirer continued to ignore it. The Daily News ran a grudging one-paragraph item, which appeared as a “Brief” on December 8.

So what exactly was the news? The Third Circuit ruled that Abu-Jamal had a right to appeal his conviction to a three-judge panel of the appellate court on three grounds, any one of which could lead to a new trial. These were:

  • that his jury had been systematically purged of black jurors who were qualified to serve and willing to vote for a death penalty by a prosecutor who used 11 of 15 peremptory challenges to remove qualified black jurors from the panel.
  • that the prosecutor had improperly lowered jurors’ sense of personal responsibility for their verdict by telling them in his closing argument that any guilty verdict they made would be subject to “appeal after appeal,” so their decision “would not be final.”
  • that the trial judge in the case, Albert Sabo, had been biased during the post-conviction appeal of the case, in his role as “fact finder” in determining the truth of facts and testimony presented at trial and in considering the admissibility of new evidence.

The federal district court had granted Abu-Jamal the right to appeal on the ground of jury bias, while rejecting the claim itself, but had denied the right to appeal on the other two grounds. The appellate court did not even have to consider other appeals claims, yet it went ahead and did so. The significance of the appellate court decision was that Abu-Jamal now has three different avenues, instead of just one, to challenge his conviction.

The Associated Press understood the significance of this national story and ran an eight-paragraph news article by Michael Rubinkam on December 8. The story’s lead read:

A federal appeals court has agreed to hear an appeal from death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther convicted in the 1981 murder of a white Philadelphia police officer.

In the most significant ruling in the case in four years, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it would consider three of Abu-Jamal’s claims.

A local Philadelphia supporter of Abu-Jamal, John Jonik, emailed the Inquirer’s court reporter, Emilie Lounsberry, on December 8, 2005 asking her why the Inquirer was ignoring the story. (He later shared his correspondence with me.) Lounsberry responded by email on the same day acknowledging that she had alerted her city desk about the breaking story. She went on to write that, after hearing about the court decision, “I did take the time to look into this ‘startling new development.’ In my view, this is a procedural development that is not—at this time—enough to warrant a story. My editor agreed. But please let me know if there are further developments, and I will certainly reconsider.”

Jonik also wrote to the Daily News, asking why they had limited their coverage to a one-sentence item when Salon magazine was running a full story. He received a reply from News staffer Stu Bykofsky, who wrote:

I’m told we carried a brief. . . . Editors/reporters/lawyers didn’t feel it was as substantial as this makes it out to be.

The author of this [Salon] piece—who has written a book on Mumia’s case—is hardly an objective analyst of what the hearing means.

I was surprised that Bukofsky was questioning my position as an objective analyst because I’d written a book, Killing Time, about the case. I wrote to him to ask if he had read my book, or the review of it in the Inquirer (12/17/02). “It’s an objective book,” I said. “Not a partisan book.” I continued:

I always thought that authors who spent a year or two of their lives researching a subject and becoming expert in it, as I, a 32-year veteran of our profession, did in producing Killing Time, were considered excellent sources of information on developments in those stories.

Who exactly is a good source on the significance of such a development? [Prosecutor] Hugh Burns or [DA] Lynn Abraham? Jamal attorney Robert Bryan?

I don’t know what you are thinking, but don’t shows like Radio Times [on local NPR affiliate WHYY] go to journalists like you and me for commentary precisely because we do cover these kinds of stories, know what the hell we’re talking about, and have some basis for making informed and at least unbiased judgments about the significance of things?

And Bukofsky’s reply:

Dave, your email alert called the decision a “stunning win,” which could lead to a new trial IF upheld by a three-judge panel. That’s a pretty big “if,” and I will go with the evaluation of our reporters, editors and lawyer, that this is NOT as big a deal as you make it.

I could be wrong, but I know them and I don’t know you.

He added, in a second note: “I’ve said all I care to, Dave. This is a non-issue with me, and should be with you. It was a private communication seen by one person, Mr. Jonik.”

The low priority assigned to this story by the two major newspapers in Philadelphia is consistent with a long history of downplaying coverage of the Abu-Jamal case in its hometown (Extra!, 9-10/00).

Temple University journalism professor Linn Washington, who writes for the Philadelphia Tribune, the nation’s oldest African-American newspaper, comments, “The dismissive stance by Philly’s two dailies on this case is obscene and goes against any textbook definition of ‘news.’”

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist whose book Killing Time: An Investigation Into the Death-Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal was published in 2002.