This week on CounterSpin: A 1995 Washington Post story led with a macabre account from the widow of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner, about how when her husband’s bloody shirt was held up in court, his accused killer Mumia Abu-Jamal turned in his chair and smiled at her. An evocatively sinister report, which the paper printed untroubled by the fact that the court record showed that Abu-Jamal wasn’t in court when the shirt was displayed.
ABC‘s investigative news show 20/20 used all the techniques for their big 1998 piece on the conviction of Abu-Jamal for Faulkner’s killing—stating prosecution claims as fact, even when they were disputed by some of the prosecution’s own witnesses or the forensic record; stressing how a defense witness admitted being intoxicated, while omitting that prosecution witnesses said the same. At one point, actor and activist Ed Asner was quoted saying, “No ballistic tests were done, which is pretty stupid”—but then host ABC‘s Sam Donaldson’s voiceover cut him off, saying: “But ballistics test were done”—referring to tests that suggested that the bullet that killed Faulkner might have been the same caliber as Abu-Jamal’s gun, but refraining from noting that tests had not been done to determine whether that gun had fired the bullet, or whether it had been fired at all, or if there were gunpowder residues on Abu-Jamal’s hands.
ABC used clips of Abu-Jamal from the independent People’s Video Network, without permission, and, as PVN told FAIR at the time, the network added layers of echo to the tape, making him sound “like a cave-dwelling animal.”
No one paying attention was surprised when it was revealed that in a letter asking permission from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections to interview Abu-Jamal (a request that was denied), ABC noted that “we are currently working in conjunction with Maureen Faulkner and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police.”
That kind of overt, proud-of-it bias has shaped coverage of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s case from the outset; and current mentions suggest little has changed. Elite media will report without question a right-wing Senate candidate’s tossed-off reference to Mumia as the face of unrepentant criminality—while, out of the other side of their mouths, respectfully noting how Brown University is “acquiring the papers” of Mumia Abu-Jamal, as he’s an acknowledged representative of the very serious problem of mass incarceration, whose communications are “historically important.”
Meanwhile, Abu-Jamal’s chances for a new trial, based on significant new evidence, were shot down summarily this week—but a glance at national media coverage, as we taped on October 27, would tell you, well, nothing about that.
CounterSpin got an update, and a reminder of the real life vs. the media story of Mumia Abu-Jamal, from someone involved from early days: Noelle Hanrahan is legal director at Prison Radio. We spoke with her for this week’s show.