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A History of Racist Media Bias: ABC's 20/20 Report on Mumia Abu-Jamal

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A History of Racist Media Bias: ABC's 20/20 Report on Mumia Abu-Jamal

--Journalists for Mumia (Abu-Jamal-News.com)

As part of our current media-activist campaign demanding fairness on the upcoming Dec.6 NBC Today Show feature on the new book "Murdered by Mumia," we are spotlighting a past case of serious bias from the mainstream media towards Mumia. This history of bias, with 1998 20/20 show and many other cases, is why Journalists for Mumia and others are so concerned about the upcoming Dec. 6 Today Show and other coverage about the release of "Murdered by Mumia." Biased and unfair reporting has happened before and will happen again if we don't make our voices be heard, and politely, yet firmly contact NBC's Today Show, to make sure both side are fairly presented. Please CLICK HERE for the sample letter.

ABC's 20/20

Sam Donaldson was quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 9, 1998, on the eve of his 20/20 report on Mumia, as saying: "The people who support his [Mumia's] release don't do so from a position of knowledge...They either oppose the death penalty, or they're campus rebels, or they're African-American activists who believe that a black man was railroaded, and will continue to believe it, no matter what's presented to them."

Donaldson's show was as biased as one might expect from a journalist so overt in his racism. "African-American activists who believe that a black man was railroaded, and will continue to believe it, no matter what's presented to them."???????!!! Here he's talking about major African American intellectuals, like Angela Y. Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, June Jordan, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, Manning Marable, and many more.

Fortunately, so many people were offended by this show, that there are several excellent analyses of it, which we present here. First is the film, now available for online viewing, Framing an Execution: Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Media, narrated by Danny Glover. This examines the media coverage in the Mumia's case and specifically dissects the 20/20 special with Sam Donaldson.

Covert Action Quarterly Magazine published an excellent, in-depth analysis, including several interviews with the show's producer (CLICK HERE).

Media watchdog FAIR.ORG also criticized the bias of the 20/20 show in this report, featured below.

EXTRA! Update, (FAIR.ORG) February 1999, Sam Donaldson: Hanging Judge

In a statement published the day that ABC's 20/20 aired his report on the case, Sam Donaldson called for the death of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal.

"Everything that we looked at compellingly points to the fact that Mumia shot [Philadelphia police officer Daniel] Faulkner in cold blood . . . and was convicted properly, and was sentenced according to the laws of the state of Pennsylvania," Donaldson told the Philadelphia Inquirer (12/9/98). "And as far as I'm concerned, as long as it's on the books, the death sentence has to be carried out."

FAIR supporters and other activists had sent hundreds of letters to 20/20, asking that the news show not take the same one-sided approach to the story that many news outlets have adopted (Extra!, 11-12/95), and calling for coverage of the unfair trial that Jamal received. These pleas were apparently ignored, with Donaldson dismissing critics of the case against Jamal: "The people who support his release don't do so from a position of knowledge," he told the Inquirer. "They either oppose the death penalty, or they're campus rebels, or they're African-American activists who believe that a black man was railroaded, and will continue to believe it, no matter what's presented to them."

The report that 20/20 aired that night was the kind you would expect to be associated with a journalist who believes that black activists cling to their beliefs "no matter what's presented to them." ABC left out virtually all the information that would weaken the prosecution's case, and presented a truncated and distorted version of Jamal's defense.

For example, Donaldson runs through a list of the witnesses that have been cited by the defense, and raises questions about their stories or ability to see what happened. Completely left out of this account is arguably the defense's most important witness, Dessie Hightower, who saw an unidentified man running from the scene of Faulkner's shooting. (Donaldson refers to a person with a dubious account as Jamal's "number one witness." This person's story is barely mentioned in Race for Justice, the book-length account of the case written by Jamal attorney Leonard Weinglass.)

While dwelling on flaws in defense witnesses' accounts, Donaldson completely ignores the problems with the witnesses presented by the prosecution--which, after all, has the burden of proving its case. "Three eyewitnesses…all say they saw Jamal run from across the street and shoot the officers in the back," Donaldson states flatly.

You'd never know from this report that one of these witnesses, when asked by police two days after the shooting, "Did you see which male shot the officer?," replied, "No, all I saw was the flash from the gun." Nor would you know that another of these witnesses misidentified Jamal after the shooting. The third witness, who worked as a prostitute, repeatedly changed her story after being arrested by police, and other witnesses say was not even at the scene during the incident. Donaldson doesn't cite the credibility problems that each of these witnesses has, instead merely tabulating them as part of the "spectacular array of evidence" for Jamal's guilt. (For a more thorough look at the evidence, and at the violations of Jamal's legal rights during his trial, see American Lawyer, 12/95.)

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www.insubordination.blogspot.com

Hans Bennett is a multi-media journalist mostly focusing on the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners. An archive of his work is available at insubordination.blogspot.com and he is also co-founder of "Journalists for Mumia," (more...)
 
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