Freeing the Media: The Exception to the Rulers
I wanted to talk about the idea of
freeing the media. What happens in covering issues that the
consensus defined by Washington and inside the beltway
doesn’t agree with or does not want to cover. I’m
going to talk a little about Mumia Abu-Jamal and my
experiences trying to get his voice on our national radio
show. I’ll also talk about going to White House press
conferences and the kind of questions that are asked and what
it means to have access and what it means not to have access.
On February 24, "Democracy
Now!" began airing the newly recorded commentaries of
Mumia Abu-Jamal. "Democracy Now!" is the radio show
that I host. It began over a year ago as the only daily
national show in public broadcasting covering the election.
After the election it became a general political radio news
magazine. It airs daily around the country and we take on
issues of grassroots activism here in this country and around
the world. We bring people the voices of activists, people
not often covered, so that others around the county can hear
an echo of their own voices, their own projects. So often
progressives are excluded from the media so that people in
different parts of the country don’t even know what
other people are doing in the same field.
One of the issues that we have taken on
is the prison industrial complex. The issue of a growing
prison population and who they are. We had the opportunity,
thanks to a group in San Francisco called The Prison Radio
Project, of getting the commentaries of Mumia Abu-Jamal. We
felt, like many, that Mumia Abu-Jamal is an extremely
significant voice and that it is critical to have a voice
reporting from the death rows of this country.
Mumia’s commentaries were on
everything from capital punishment being punishment for those
without capital to the issue of father hunger—the idea
of so many young black men in prison not having fathers and
him being seen as a father figure to those prisoners and how
ironic that is because he can’t be a father to his own
children, or his own grandchildren.
So, we began airing Mumia’s
commentaries every morning for two weeks. On that day,
minutes before the broadcast, the 12 stations in Pennsylvania
that are owned by Temple University, and that air
"Democracy Now!," pulled us, ended their contract
with Pacifica Network News, and said they would no longer
deal with us because they felt it was inappropriate to air
the commentaries of Mumia Abu-Jamal. They said his voice
should not be heard on the public airwaves. This was a
quasi-public university, so for us it was not only an issue
of freedom of the press but also an issue of academic
freedom. Instead of airing "Democracy Now!" they
played jazz for an hour and a half.
Well, there was a tremendous outcry as
a result. The president of Temple, Peter Liacouras, who
prides himself on being a proponent of free speech (he was
the dean at the law school), was absolutely enraged. He got
more than 1,000 calls, e-mails, letters, and faxes from
academic groups and activists all over the country. It was
taken up in the media, there was some pretty positive
coverage in the Washington Post<D> and the New
York Times<D> framing it as a free speech issue.
We felt it was especially critical to
air Mumia’s voice because of the larger issue of
prisons. As you may know, the number of prisoners in this
country has grown from 333,000 in 1980 to 1.6 million today.
U.S. prison operating costs have swelled from $3 billion in
1980 to $18 billion in 1994. Virginia, California,
Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Illinois are among the states that
are increasingly restricting journalist access to prisons.
Recently the state senate in Virginia
killed a bill that would have made sure that reporters could
interview prisoners. The bill would have forced the
Department of Corrections to allow face to face encounters.
The prison chief there said "No it should be up to us.
We decide on a case by case basis whether a journalist should
be allowed to talk to a prisoner." In the last year they
haven’t granted one interview.
A recent study of prisons and
universities revealed prison building has gone up by more
than $950,000, while university building has gone down by the
same amount. Last November, just after the commentaries of
Mumia were recorded, the Pennsylvania Department of
Corrections ruled that no prisoner could be videotaped,
audiotaped, or photographed again. Last year, California
banned all face to face interviews. This does not happen via
the legislature these are just edicts handed down by the
prison authorities in every state. As journalists it is
critical to insure access because prisons are run by wardens
who are accountable to the public. These are public prisons.
We have to set access precedents as prisons become
In 1980 there were no managed beds in
private prisons. By 1996 there were more than 110,000
prisoners privately incarcerated. The U.S. General Accounting
Office predicts 360,000 by 2004. Others state that it is
likely that 1.5 million prisoners will be in private prisons
by then. In Texas there are more than 5,000 inmates in
There was an example recently of two
prisoners who were transferred from a private prison to a
private prison in Texas. On their way a cop pulled the
transport over because they had a headlight out. They
didn’t have any identification and nobody could figure
out who they were because they had been transferred from
state to state through the private prison system.
The Society Of Professional
Journalists, a very mainstream organization, took great
interest in our case and backed us to the hilt. They were
shocked Temple University took the Mumia series off the air.
They are now doing research on just how little access
journalists have around the state, and are trying to document
it state by state bringing lawsuits. They say that large
networks, particularly TV, are very bad at following up. If
they can’t get into a prison they move on to the next
breaking story as opposed to going to that prison and suing
Journalists should play an essential
role in democracy as watchdogs and at helping to keep public
officials and institutions accountable. If institutions and
officials are honest, they should have nothing to hide.
"Democracy Now!" is about public participation and
We have to look at the racial
disparities when it comes to people in prison and
particularly people on death row. Nearly 90 percent of people
executed were convicted of killing whites, even though half
the homicide victims in this country are people of color. In
Illinois, Oklahoma, and North Carolina killers of white
victims are four times more likely to get the death penalty
than killers of black victims. In Mississippi they are five
times more likely. In Maryland seven times. Forty percent of
the people on death row are black despite the fact that
African Americans make up twelve percent of the population.
In Pennsylvania alone more than two-thirds of the people on
death row are African American. Since 1977 more than 60
people have been released from death row being found innocent
which is why it is so critical to take on this issue of the
The motto of "Democracy Now!"
is "the exception to the rulers." Of course, that
refers to people in power but also unfortunately refers to
the media. Temple University said that they where following
the "lead" of National Public Radio when they
decided to take us off the air, because NPR, three years ago,
said it was inappropriate to air his voice, so they simply
cited that example.
Three years ago NPR commissioned Mumia
to do a series of commentaries not related to his case. When
the editor left the prison she said that these were some of
the finest commentaries she had ever heard on any subject.
They were set to air. They promoted them heavily. Then the
day before they were scheduled to air the Fraternal Order of
Police was having a national meeting in DC. They put
tremendous pressure on NPR not to air these commentaries. NPR
knew what they were doing. They had promoted this heavily,
they weighed whether to air this, but they just could not
take the heat. So they pulled the commentaries, saying they
weren’t anything special. They put them in a vault. No
other commentary is possible now because of the crackdown on
all prisoners in the Pennsylvania system.
I am not sure why it is NPR won’t
release the Mumia tapes. Perhaps if Mumia is executed they
can have an exclusive airing of the only unaired commentaries
of Mumia Abu-Jamal. They say it is because the case is in
litigation. Mumia and the Prison Radio Project are suing NPR
to release these commentaries.
You see the kind of ripple effect that
a cowardly act like NPR’s has. They set precedent three
years ago and then they turn it into a principle. Then you
have smaller networks like Temple University Public Radio
Network citing NPR as the example of why they won’t do
it. Fewer and fewer journalists will dare to do these kind of
stories, they do not want to be frozen out of the mainstream
network of which NPR is very much a part. Many now call NPR
National Police Radio for what they have done.
When we aired the Mumia commentaries we
held a news conference at the National Press Club. NPR would
not comment, saying Mumia’s case was in litigation.
Every death row prisoner’s case is in litigation until
they are executed. Until it is resolved. So in saying they
wouldn’t cover it until it was resolved, they are saying
they are not going to cover the case.
A few months ago NPR called poet Martin
Espada and asked him to do a series of poems to air as
commentaries on "All Things Considered." So Martin
said great. He happened to be going to Philadelphia and he
said "hmm, what is on peoples minds in Philly." The
one thing that came up that was on everyone’s mind was
Mumia Abu-Jamal. So he wrote a poem about that and faxed it
in and he didn’t get a call back. He couldn’t
understand it. They had pursued him to get these poems and he
thought it was a very good poem. In the poem he talks about
Walt Whitman, poetry, Mumia, and the witnesses that were
coming forward to say that they were coerced by the police.
It was done the way NPR wanted it: as poetry but also dealing
with the news of the day.
He finally called them and said
"what’s up." They said "no, we won’t
be airing it." He said "but you asked me for a
poem." NPR said "yes but we can’t do this
poem." He said "Why can’t you." They said
"because it deals with Mumia Abu-Jamal." He said
"what are you talking about." He was completely out
of the loop when it came to "national police
radio." He said "wait a second. You’re saying
that you’re not going to air this for political
reasons?" And they said "yes." They don’t
even cover it up anymore. This is the arrogance of a very
powerful corporate- supported network.
"Democracy Now!" did an
interview with Martin Espada talking about this case. NPR
said they had every right not to air his poetry. So they can
choose what voices are heard. Which is true of any outlet.
But because it is public we have more of a responsibility to
protect the airwaves. They are not Pacifica’s,
NPR’s, ABC’s, or NBC’s. They are not owned by
these corporations. They are leased. They are public
airwaves. We should protect them and use them. It has always
been my philosophy that it is our job to go to where the
silence is and say something. We are not entertainers. We are
reporters. We go to places that are unpopular. We bring
voices out that are unpopular. We are not here to run
popularity contests. We are here to cover the issues that we
feel are critical to a democratic society. We have to
pressure the media, to shame the media to go to these places
where so many in certain populations end up.
I want to talk about going to press
conferences of President Clinton. Sometimes getting in a
question there is even harder than getting into a prison. I
had been in Washington for the last year covering the
election and going to a lot of press briefings at the White
House. If you watch CSPAN or the news you might notice that
Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary, is asked a lot
of questions but they all seem to be of the same ilk. Why is
it that when there are a lot of journalists there, and
you’re always seeing people fighting to get a question
Well, every day the White House press
secretary has two meetings. I haven’t been to the first.
I just learned about it. In the morning he has something
called a "gaggle," an off-the-record meeting with
reporters where they basically get the agenda straight for
the day. I don’t think journalists should be meeting
with these guys off the record because it is their chance to
spin the news, of course. You can also say, based on those
meetings, "a source said," and then you can quote
Mike McCurry in the next paragraph and it sounds like McCurry
and the source are agreeing, when it is the same person. It
is a way for those in power not to be accountable because
they can put out anything they want and they are simply a
source. So, there is the gaggle in the morning. In the
afternoon there is the White House press briefing where the
White House journalists—these are the ones that hang out
at the White House all day; people like Wolf Blitzer and
others from the various networks—get the latest news
that the White House wants to put out. Now, think about who
can be at the White House all day. Most news
organizations—certainly the smaller ones, the
alternative ones, the ethnic press, the nonprofit
press—cannot afford to have a person sitting at the
White House all day because we have one person covering all
of Washington. So you end up with the most powerful corporate
press being the ones that are part of the "White House
Even when Clinton goes abroad, say, to
Indonesia in 1994, and you go to that press conference or you
see it on TV you say "God, the same questions are asked.
Does every reporter in the world have the same question?
Display the same ignorance?" No, it is the same set of
reporters that travel with him everywhere.
This year when Clinton was holding a
news conference after his reelection, I tried to get into
that press conference, as opposed to the press briefings that
I can go to every day. Although even in the press briefings
you see the gold plates on each of the chairs, The Wall
Street Journal, The Washington Post, The New York Times. Pacifica
doesn’t have one of those gold plates. I have to stand
at the back of the room. Of course someone is always absent,
so I run to the front and sit down. When it is really crowded
I climb up on the camera ladders and hang there so I can get
my questions in. All this makes reporters from smaller news
outlets, from alternative news outlets, look a bit crazy.
Because you’ve got Andrea Mitchell and Wolf Blitzer in
the front, they spend their five minutes combing their hair,
because they know the camera is going to be on them. When the
White House spokesperson or the President is there, they say
from the front row, calm and secure, "Mr.
President" and he says, without fear, "yes
Wolf." Wolf asks his question, no need to rush. He talks
quietly and the President listens. You’ve got me 20 rows
back yelling "Mr. President," jumping up and down,
wearing the brightest colors you can wear. This is how it
really works. You look crazed, and you are by the time you
get into one of these press conferences.
I’ll give you an example of the
first and last one I went to. July Griffin, the Washington
bureau chief at Pacifica, called to reserve me a seat at
Clinton’s press conference. The White House liaison to
the press said, "I’m sorry you won’t be having
a reserved seat, but we can put you in the next room. Amy can
watch it on TV." Now, I can stay at home in New York and
watch it on television. I do shout questions at him from my
TV, but that doesn’t have much effect.
So, Julie said "No. She
doesn’t want to watch him on TV. She wants to be, not
only at the press conference, but in the front row.
The liaison said "Sorry, you
can’t be in the front row. That is reserved for White
Julie asked "Why is it reserved
for a certain set of people?"
He responded, "Because they have a
special relationship with the President."
Well, clearly that is the special
relationship we want to cover as media critics, and that we
feel has to be broken. The liaison finally said
"Don’t take it up with me. Take it up with the
heads of the White House press corps."
Julie said "You mean we have to
ask Westinghouse, GE, and Disney whether Pacifica can be
included in this news conference? I think we have the
So, I went to this press conference. We
were led across the street to the old executive office
building. I was running as fast as I could. I wanted to be
the first person into the room. I raced up the stairs when
everyone else was taking the elevator. I went to the first
row and there were the name plates for Andrea, Wolf, etc.
Then I went to where they had just white pieces of paper with
journalists names, about six rows back. I could not find my
name. I ended up viewing with the cameramen at the back.
Every time I poked my head up they would say "get
down" because I was in the way of the cameras.
That is the way it works. That is why
it is so difficult to break through this media blockade that
is actually created by the media itself. So, if you’re
wondering why the tough questions are not asked, this
I have gotten a chance to ask a number
of questions of Mike McCurry, and also, at the State
Department briefings, of Nicholas Burns. One the questions
I’d been persuing is the issue of Indonesia and East
Timor before it became a major issue. I was pressing Mike
McCurry as to why President Clinton would be trying to sell
F-16s to the Indonesian dictatorship when you look at the
genocide that is occurring in East Timor, with a third of the
population killed there. The first time I asked a question
along those lines, I had then walked out of the press
briefing and I heard one of the big journalists saying to
another "Why do they let people in like that?" Then
I looked over and she said in quizzical condescending
fashion, "East Timor?"
I said "Yes. Would you like to
know something about it. In fact, this week is a particularly
Looking down her nose she said
"No. I don’t want to know about it."