Aug 11 1999

The Media & Mumia: Were ABC and Vanity Fair Taken for a Ride?

Vanity Fair's piece on Mumia Abu-JamalTwo mainstream news outlets reported on the case of Pennsylvania death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, claiming to present new evidence pointing to Abu-Jamal’s guilt. But the evidence that both outlets rely on–testimony of a supposed confession made eight years ago–is questionable on its face, and an old letter that has subsequently surfaced suggests that this star witness is lying about Abu-Jamal.

The major news in both ABC 20/20‘s July 11 broadcast and the August 1999 issue of Vanity Fair is the testimony of Philip Bloch, a former prison volunteer who now claims to have heard Abu-Jamal confess to the 1981 murder of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. During a conversation in 1991, Bloch claims that he asked Abu-Jamal if he had any regrets about shooting Faulkner, to which Abu-Jamal allegedly replied, “Yes.”

Why has Bloch waited 8 years? Vanity Fair‘s Buzz Bissinger doesn’t ask (or at the very least doesn’t share his curiosity), and ABC‘s Sam Donaldson, in a virtual re-run of 20/20‘s 12/9/98 report, explains only that Bloch “felt no need to come forward,” since “his friend was already on death row.”

But Bloch’s story has some serious problems, and new evidence casts considerable doubt on his credibility. A 1993 letter from Bloch to Abu-Jamal–two years after the “confession”–ended with the following passage: “So–it is possible to get justice from a jury–not always–but sometimes. So, when you get a new trial–I think that there is a good chance of acquittal.” Why would one write that to a confessed murderer?

But even without this documentary contradiction, Bloch’s tale is too dubious for a responsible journalist to run with. Over 18 years of imprisonment, Abu-Jamal has consistently refused to answer questions about the night of the shooting. Journalism professor Linn Washington, Jr. explained Abu-Jamal’s stance (Philadelphia Tribune, 7/20/99), describing an interview conducted under circumstances similar to those Bloch had described: “During an interview, I asked Mumia a question regarding the shooting of Faulkner. He refused to respond, giving two reasons: (1) his lawyers told him not to discuss that incident; and (2) the cubicle was bugged.”

In the rest of his account of the case, Bissinger consistently presents a version of reality that is partial to the prosecution–unsurprisingly, given that the writer has an extraordinarily close relationship with Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, who was Philadelphia’s district attorney at the time of Abu-Jamal’s trial. It’s instructive to compare Bissinger’s article with perhaps the most thorough journalistic account of the case, legal journalist Stuart Taylor’s article in American Lawyer (12/95), to see how Bissinger leaves out information that undermines the prosecution’s witnesses and points to the basic unfairness of Abu-Jamal’s trial.

For example, Bissinger makes much of the fact the prosecution witnesses “formed a consistent picture of what happened that night.” What he doesn’t mention, though it is amply documented by Taylor, is that these witnesses changed their stories markedly after they were first interviewed by police.

Absurdly, Bissinger spends a considerable amount of space scolding supporters of Abu-Jamal for not reading the entire transcript of his case (which totals more than 12,000 pages). But several basic errors in Bissinger’s account seem to indicate he did not carefully review the documents either. For example, Bissinger refers to Judge Albert Sabo as Alfred Sabo. He also misidentifies a key prosecution witness as a defense witness.

Such reporting might have been anticipated by Leonard Weinglass, who wrote Vanity Fair‘s editors in June requesting a less biased journalist be assigned to the story. “I found (Bissinger’s) manner and demeanor to be that of an angry, even furious, advocate for Mr. Jamal’s detractors.”

As for 20/20, the program seemed to leap on the claims of Philip Bloch in order to bolster its 12/9/98 hatchet-job on Abu-Jamal, for which it received a great deal of criticism: “Even before we broadcast our investigation into the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal last December, we began to hear from his supporters,” explained ABC‘s Charles Gibson. “Our four-month investigation turned up provocative evidence, and recently turned up something startling.” Aside from Bloch’s far-fetched, subsequently debunked tale, much of the broadcast simply reiterated the distortions of the previous report, which was analyzed by FAIR in a previous action alert and article.

ACTION: Please contact Vanity Fair‘s editors and suggest that they issue a retraction regarding the supposed confession related in Buzz Bissinger’s August 1999 report. Philip Bloch’s claim was dubious and unsubstantiated to begin with, and is completely undermined by his letter expressing hope for Abu-Jamal’s acquittal.

Vanity Fair, 350 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10017212-880-8800

In New York, the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal coalition and Simon Nkoli Queer Crusaders for Mumia are sponsoring a picket outside the Vanity Fair offices on Tuesday, August 17 from 4:30 to 6:30 pm. The offices are located at 4 Times Square (42nd Street and Broadway). Please call (212) 330-8029 for more information.

Also, let ABC know that Bloch’s implausible story was no excuse for re-running the bulk of its deeply flawed 12/9/98 report. Sam Donaldson and others were clearly troubled by the criticism their original broadcast received; let them know that the segment simply compounded their journalistic irresponsibility.

Contact: ABC News, 77 W. 66th Street, New York, NY 10023

Phone: 212-456-2020 (20/20)202-222-7090 (Sam Donaldson) 212-456-4000 (Roone Arledge, ABC News chair) 212-456-7777 (ABC News general number) 212-456-6533 (ABC News fax) (ABC News) (20/20)