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Freeing the Media: The Exception to the Rulers
A Talk Given at the Z Media Institute
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 doesnt agree with or does not want to cover. Im going to talk a little about Mumia Abu-Jamal and my experiences trying to get his voice on our national radio show. Ill 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 dont 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.
Mumias commentaries were on everything from capital punishment being punishment for those without capital to the issue of father hungerthe 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 cant be a father to his own children, or his own grandchildren.
So, we began airing Mumias 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 Mumias 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 havent 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 increasingly privatized.
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 private prisons.
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 didnt 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 cant get into a prison they move on to the next breaking story as opposed to going to that prison and suing for access.
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 corporate accountability.
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 death penalty.
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 werent 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 wont 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 NPRs 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 wont 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 Mumias case was in litigation. Every death row prisoners case is in litigation until they are executed. Until it is resolved. So in saying they wouldnt 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 everyones mind was Mumia Abu-Jamal. So he wrote a poem about that and faxed it in and he didnt get a call back. He couldnt 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 "whats up." They said "no, we wont be airing it." He said "but you asked me for a poem." NPR said "yes but we cant do this poem." He said "Why cant 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. Youre saying that youre not going to air this for political reasons?" And they said "yes." They dont 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 Pacificas, NPRs, ABCs, or NBCs. 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 youre always seeing people fighting to get a question in?
Well, every day the White House press secretary has two meetings. I havent 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 dont 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 journaliststhese are the ones that hang out at the White House all day; people like Wolf Blitzer and others from the various networksget 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 organizationscertainly the smaller ones, the alternative ones, the ethnic press, the nonprofit presscannot 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 press corps."
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 doesnt 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 youve 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. Youve 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.
Ill 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 Clintons press conference. The White House liaison to the press said, "Im sorry you wont 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 doesnt have much effect.
So, Julie said "No. She doesnt 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 cant be in the front row. That is reserved for White House reporters."
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 "Dont 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 answer."
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 youre wondering why the tough questions are not asked, this explains it.
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 Id 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 critical time."
Looking down her nose she said "No. I dont want to know about it."