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How NPR keeps inmate Abu-Jamal off the air

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

National Public Radio, widely perceived as a staunch defender of the right to free expression no matter how unpopular the cause or the individual, has been accused a second time of censorship in the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Abu-Jamal is the black journalist on death row in Philadelphia, where he was convicted in the 1981 murder of police officer Daniel Faulkner; in August 1995 Abu-Jamal came within 10 days of execution.

The case has generated controversy from the start, with a broad spectrum of human rights activists, writers and death penalty opponents taking up Abu-Jamal's cause, claiming that he did not receive a fair trial because of alleged police manipulation of testimony and evidence. His supporters also charge that the courts have refused to consider relevant new testimony.

His legal team, headed by Leonard Weinglass, is arguing for a new trial based on what they claim is a great deal of new evidence and new witnesses that would point to Abu-Jamal's innocence.

Human rights activists also argue that Abu-Jamal's constitutional rights were violated throughout the trial -- most grievously in the sentencing phase, when the prosecution emphasized his political beliefs and activism.

NPR became involved in the controversy around the case in 1994, when the network agreed to employ Abu-Jamal as a regular commentator from death row for the program "All Things Considered." A series of his commentaries (about topics other than his own legal situation) were produced by the San Francisco-based Prison Radio Project. But the National Fraternal Order of Police spearheaded a campaign criticizing NPR for its plan to air the Abu-Jamal series, which was scheduled to begin May 16, 1994. NPR canceled the series. The next day Robert Dole, then senator, echoed the sentiments of the FOP campaign in comments from the senate floor. NPR now faces a lawsuit brought by Abu-Jamal on First Amendment grounds.

New charges of censorship are being tossed at NPR since it refused in late April to broadcast a poem it had solicited from Martin Espada for National Poetry Month.

An attorney and activist who teaches literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Espada recently won an American Book Award for his latest collection of poetry, Imagine the Angels of Bread (see NCR review May 2, 1996). The title poem, an appeal for political imagination and healing, had been commissioned by NPR as a 1994 New Year's poem.

This time the staff at "All Things Considered" asked Espada to write a poem, suggesting as one idea that he base it on a news story in whatever city he might be traveling to in April. Espada replied that he would be doing a reading in Philadelphia and he would see what presented itself. While there, Espada made a pilgrimage to Walt Whitman's tomb in nearby Camden. He also read an article in the Philadelphia Weekly that said Abu-Jamal's lawyer had filed a brief to allow new testimony by an unnamed prostitute. What resulted was a poem titled "Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man is Innocent."

The poem envisions Whitman's tomb as a place of refuge for the prostitute and her story -- a sanctuary "where the granite door is open and fugitive slaves may rest," writes Espada, alluding to Whitman's abolitionist stance.

And Abu-Jamal will also find rest there should the worst happen: "The executioner's needle would flush the poison/down into Mumia's writing hand/so the fingers curl like a burned spider," writes Espada.

"How could I not write the poem?" said Espada in a May 8 interview with NCR. "Everyone in Philadelphia was talking about Mumia's case."

Long before his arrest, Abu-Jamal was well known to Philadelphia police as a journalist and advocate of black and Latino causes. In his younger years, he belonged to the Black Panthers (in the late '60s and early '70s, the FBI was tracking him, according to 800 pages of FBI documents obtained by his attorneys). And as a print and radio journalist, he was a prominent critic of police brutality -- in particular, police efforts to evict a black radical collective known as MOVE, about whom Abu-Jamal had written favorably. On May 13, 1985, the police bombed several buildings, killing 11 men, women and children affiliated with MOVE.

Even in prison Abu-Jamal has been a prolific author of commentaries on prison conditions, the judicial system and black males and other topics.

The topic of Mumia may have seemed inescapable to Espada, but the executives at "All Things Considered" wish the muse had considered anything but the Abu-Jamal case.

Late last month, Espada was told his poem would not be aired. "They were explicit," he said, referring to notes he took while speaking to program producers. "I was told the poem could not be aired because of its subject matter and its political content."

Sara Sarasohn, producer of "All Things Considered," told NCR that "it's not in our best interest" to air anything of an editorial nature about Abu-Jamal as long as the lawsuit is pending. A poem is an opinion also, she said.

Ellen Weiss, executive producer of "All Things Considered," defended the decision. "We've tried to deal with this strictly from a reporting perspective," she said, citing a 20-minute report NPR produced recently about Abu-Jamal's case. Weiss had not read the poem at the time of the NCR interview. She said she was the one who had originally solicited Abu-Jamal's commentaries and that a superior decided to pull them. The controversy "is going to follow me to my tombstone," she said.

Espada said the reasons NPR cites for not using his poem amount to "a cynical smoke screen."

"Mumia was denied his First Amendment rights when NPR refused to air his commentaries. He sued them to enforce his First Amendment rights. Then they apparently have instituted a policy that forbids commentary on Mumia during the life of the lawsuit," said Espada.

"So their first action against him chilled his First Amendment rights and now their second decision has chilled the redress of his rights," he said. "Their policy is another mechanism for de facto censorship. What we have here is the deliberate misreading of the standard practice of refusing to comment on matters in litigation," explained Espada.

Last year the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections banned journalists from the entire prison population -- a decision known as the "Mumia Rule." Abu-Jamal gets two 10-minute phone calls a month and one two-hour noncontact visit a week -- followed by a full cavity strip search, according to Noelle Hanrahan of the Prison Radio Project. Meanwhile, opinions both for or against Abu-Jamal are banned from public radio as executives fret over a lawsuit.

National Catholic Reporter, May 23, 1997