had their throats cut. We all reported it with a sense of disgust and shame.
What was responsible, we wondered, for the rage that would provoke prisoners to
perpetrate such an atrocity?
then, thanks to an independent autopsy and the persistence of some
investigators, that story was unmasked as a total lie. The truth was that the
guards were killed, not by the maliciousness of murderous inmates, but by out of
control police fire, gunned down by their own comrades, a blatant case of
unfriendly fire. The public and the media had been taken, but many journalists
were quite prepared at the time to believe the worst about ‘hardened’ convicts
that newspaper accounts had demonized as brutal killers.
say thanks to retired New York Times columnist Tom Wicker, for reminding
us on Saturday, January 7th about what really happened in Attica in a thoroughly
documented opinion piece in his old roost, the Times op-ed page. (Sadly,
Saturday is the paper’s least read day.) Wicker had, at the time of the Attica
rebellion, been invited inside the prison by the prisoners as an observer and
later wrote a best selling book about his experiences.
was commenting on a recent judges order, nearly 30 years after the incident,
awarding the surviving prisoners $8 million dollars, and their lawyers $4
million, for the crimes committed by the state during an uprising that claimed
43 lives and 60 injured. The massacre occurred after then ‘liberal’ governor
Nelson Rockefeller ordered a police assault to retake the correctional facility
leading to the slaughter of unarmed men. Wicker notes that because of the
niceties of the law, the State of New York is under no obligation to apologize
for its criminal conduct. Attica may be settled, he concludes, but there has
been no healing. Even the Afrikaners of South Africa apologized for apartheid.
noted in Wicker’s column was the willingness of the American media to allow the
memory of this tragedy and the prisoners legal claims to go largely reported for
decades. The amnesia over events like these is partly a function of the failure
of the media to keep the light of public scrutiny shining on news that falls out
of the news.
just as Attica was back for a brief second, the new Hollywood movie, Hurricane,
with Denzel Washington playing long time incarcerated former middleweight boxing
champion Reuben "Hurricane" Carter came out in some theaters. Carter
was finally released after serving twenty years in a New Jersey prison for a
crime he didn’t commit. That case also was only kept alive by the diligence of
citizen investigators and politically committed lawyers, not a zealous press.
The judge that freed him indicted pervasive institutionalized racism in the
state prison system.
Hollywoodization of the case will bring it to the attention of a global audience
in a way that news programs rarely do–just this week two screenings of the film
were scheduled at the United Nations. But that case, too, had disappeared from
public view because the painful realities of life in America’s gulags, which now
house more prisoners than any country, excerpt perhaps for Russia, is rarely a
subject for media attention.
programs on American TV about cases like Carter’s or incidents like Attica is
not so simple. Two years ago, our company Globalvision, fresh from four years of
producing the human rights series "Rights & Wrongs" for public
television stations created a program to do just that with Defense attorney
Barry Scheck, the lawyer known for winning acquittals in such high profile
trials as the O.J. Simpson and Louise Woodward cases. Called "Falsely
Accused/Wrongly Convicted,’ it set out to tell the stories of innocent people
behind bars in America. As the Director of the "Innocence Project" at
the Benjamin Cardoso Law school in New York, Scheck and his team had compiled
extensive files on cases that the program hoped to present.
the end of the day, as they say, two networks expressed interest but the show
was never bought. Two news divisions were more interested in denying Scheck’s
services to each other than devoting resources to telling stories that would,
partially anyway, contradict a media fostered perception that everyone in prison
belongs there. One MSNBC talk show was all that came out of it. After our
depressing network experience, the show was offered to Court TV, which
specializes in criminal justice issues. They "passed," preferring
exploitative and entertaining documentaries on serial killers to a substantive
series on serial injustices.
was these experiences in trying to get attention to human rights abuses in our
country that makes me a bit skeptical about the latest media debate over the
case of a one time journalist, Mumia Abu Jamal, who faces execution in
Pennsylvania for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman. The Jamal case has
become a cause celeb among many activists, some of whom are demanding his
freedom, others a new trial. The case has been in the courts for years with
fierce disagreements between Jamal’s supporters and those who believe he did the
crime and deserves the sentence.
the last two years, major media outlets including ABC News 20/20 and Vanity Fair
have sought to debunk Mumia’s claims, without, incidentally ever speaking with
him on death row. Their own "investigations" seemed aimed more at
ridiculing Jamal’s "naïve" supporters than objectively investigating
what did happen. They had a clear agenda and are prime examples of that genre
which uses the appearance of investigative journalism to score political points.
Later those stories themselves were debunked thoroughly on many details by media
analysts and Mumia’s attorneys. Now, a prominent left journalist, Marc Cooper of
the Nation Magazine and KPFK radio in Los Angeles, has joined this temple of the
self-righteous, with a flip column for New York’s neo-conservative weekly, New
York Press, asking to be "free of Mumia."
had it. If I go to one more lefty event and see one more Free Mumia poster, I
might just have to switch sides on this one," he writes sarcastically.
"What collective affliction has overcome my fellow pinkos? You haven’t had
enough defeats and embarrassments these past two decades? Now you want to take
the deathly serious issue of capital punishment and tie it to some flaky
cult-member like Mumia Abu-Jamal?"
is now being hailed by some for his "bravery" in denouncing Mumia and
his supporters. Cooper took a similar contrarian view on the radio strike last
summer at Pacifica Radio’s KPFA in Berkeley where he ‘bravely’ grand standed
against the strikers. Cooper’s measured, oozing and "anguished" slide
from left to right aside, I would caution those who are so ready to make
pronouncements of guilt on this case to carefully example the highly flawed
court record and disputed evidence.
Mumia side of this argument is barely heard in the mainstream media which is
busy being brave by echoing the claims of Philadelphia’s prosecutors, police,
and a trial judge who proudly holds the state record for handing out the most
death sentences. 20/20 pats itself on the back for its bravery on this case, but
years ago, when I was a producer there, I was turned down in a bid to tell the
story of one of ‘Attica brothers,’ the jailhouse lawyer "Jerry "the
Jew" Rosenberg, who survived the massacre in the prison yard, but continued
to serve a life sentence for the murder of a New York City policeman, a crime
for which he insisted he was unfairly convicted.
own voice has been censored and suppressed, even by National Public Radio which
contracted for some of his commentaries years ago, and then refused to air them
after police in the city of brotherly love threatened a boycott.
hope that we will not have to wait for some Attica-like judicial order in thirty
years, or a new movie with Denzell playing the late Mumia, to discover all the
sleazy details about this highly politicized case.
Schechter, author of the More You Watch, The Less You Know (Seven Stories
Press) is the executive editor of the new internet supersite, The Media