The Philly Media and Mumia Abu-Jamal

Let’s try to figure this one outshall we

Four of America’s largest news organizations recently carried reports about a major new development in the biggest murder case in Philadelphia’s history yet Philly’s two largest newspapers treated this hometown news as snooze unworthy of coverage.

These reports covered the federal Third Circuit appeals court issuing an order in the Mumia Abu-Jamal case that the Associated Press (AP) news wire service described as “the most significant ruling in the case in four years”

The Third Circuit order stated it would consider three of Abu- Jamal’s claims appealing his conviction for murdering a Philadelphia policeman in 1981.

The import of the Third Circuit order–a/k/a ‘news’ about this development–is two-fold:

(1) significantly, the Third Circuit agreed to hear two more appeal claims than a federal District Court judge certified for appeal in his 2001 ruling; and

(2) the Third Circuit apparently is not back-handing Abu-Jamal’s appeal like Pa state courts routinely do.

Under standard journalism text book definitions of news the Third Circuit order constitutes news–not front-page headline news yet news arguably meriting more than brief coverage since Abu-Jamal’s case constantly receives international attention…inclusive of foreign governmental leaders.

The AP, along with ABC, CBS and CNN carried articles on the Third Circuit order.

This contrasted starkly to the Philadelphia Daily News which only carried a ‘news brief’ and the Philadelphia Inquirer which initially ignored the order.

The ‘Inky’ did run a ‘news brief’ days after release of the order on the same day that the New York Times carried a news brief item on this major case from the center of the Inquirer’s coverage area.

Both the scene of the 1981 murder producing Abu-Jamal’s conviction and where he grew up are just blocks from the Inky’s main office.

Now, let’s be clear: determinations on the news ‘value’ of events are subjective decisions made daily by experienced editors and reporters in the news business.

There is legitimate debate among news professionals on where a valid news item should be placed in a newspaper and what headline that item should carry.

However, it should be a no-brainer for news professionals that a “significant” development in clearly the most widely examined murder case in Philly’s history constitutes valid news that should not be downplayed or dismissed.

The fact that the Daily News and Inquirer downplayed news of this federal appeals court order–while seemingly startling–is sadly consistent with the dismissive coverage procedures practiced by Philly’s mainstream news media in the Abu-Jamal casepractices too often replicated by non-Philly news media.

Noted media critic and University of Pennsylvania Professor Edward Herman termed these coverage practices ‘Hometown Hostility’ in an analysis of Inquirer coverage of the Abu-Jamal case published in 2000.

“Biased coverage” by the Inquirer on the Abu-Jamal case is “typical” Herman noted in his analysis.

“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,” Herman wrote.

Philadelphia area investigative reporter David Lindorff, author of the best&only non-partisan book examining the Abu-Jamal case, is also critical of Philadelphia news coverage of this case.

“For a long time, it has been obvious that with the Mumia Abu- Jamal story, the farther you got from Philadelphia, the more honest and fair the coverage. Conversely, the closer you get to Philadelphia, the more strained and skittish the coverage, if developments get covered at all,” Lindorff stated during a recent interview.

“The latest news development in the case, which is really quite dramatic and important for several reasons, provides a case study in local media gutlessness,” Lindorff noted.

So, what is news?

Well, Philly print and broadcast mainstream news media could have ‘discovered’ news in the fact that Abu-Jamal’s main support group–based in Philadelphia–immediately posted Lindorff’s article on the court order on its web site.

How is that news?

Well, many of Abu-Jamal’s staunchest supporters–including the Philly based group–have trashed Lindorff’s meticulously researched book, damning it as too objective in part for its failings to exude the hero-worship posture they desire.

The web based Counterpunch and posted Lindorff’s articles on the order.

On a more substantial matter, Philly’s news media could have found news in the fact that twice this year, the Third Circuit granted relief in Philadelphia murder cases on the issue of prosecution discrimination in jury selection–one of the appeal points in last week’s Abu-Jamal order.

One of these two rulings occurred in mid-October.

These rulings, and others on this legal point since the mid- 1980s, expose a pattern of jury discrimination practices by Philadelphia prosecutors that bracket Abu-Jamal’s heavily criticized 1982 trial. An Amnesty International report on Abu- Jamal’s case described that ’82 trial as “deeply flawed” failing to meet “international standards for a fair trial.”

Evidence cited by Philadelphia based federal judges when voiding jury discrimination tainted murder convictions includes notes prosecutors kept on the race of potential jury members and a videotaped training session where a veteran prosecutor instructed rookie prosecutors on how to craftily rid juries of non- whites and whites living in racially integrated, liberal communities of Philadelphia.

In 1991, the Inquirer ran articles on Charles Diggs and Harold McKendrick, after local federal judges voided their respective murder convictions due to jury selection bias by Philly prosecutors.

These articles ran during a period when local media ignored discriminatory US Supreme Court actions refusing to grant Abu- Jamal relief on the same constitutional protection that Court was giving two convicted murderers: a white racist prison gang member and a white devil worshiper.

Email exchanges immediately after issuance of the Third Circuit’s order provide a window into the news decision making at the Inquirer and Daily News.

An Inquirer staffer deemed the court order “a procedural development that is notenough to warrant a story.”

A Daily News staffer stated “the evaluation of our reporters, editors and lawyer [is] that this is NOT a big deal”

Well, there you have it–go figure?

Linn Washington Jr. a journalism professor at Temple University, has covered the Abu-Jamal case since December 1981.


Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.