Albion Monitor /Commentary

NPR Censors Poet -- a Dangerous Precedent

by Dennis Burnstein

NPR commissions, then cancels, poem by award winner
National Public Radio's refusal to air a poem it commissioned for National Poetry Month sets a dangerous precedent. The effect is particularly chilling because so many consider NPR as an alternative, willing to air voices that do not find their way into the mass media.

In April, NPR staff commissioned the poet Martin Espada to write a poem in response to some recent item in the news. Espada, whose latest volume of poetry won this year's American Book Award, is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, and his poems have been broadcast on NPR in conjunction with news stories on a number of occasions.

While visiting Philadelphia, Espada says, he read a Philadelphia Weekly story about a move by lawyers for Mumia Abu Jamal, a death row inmate and former reporter whose 15 year struggle to win a new trial for the murder of a police officer has drawn international attention.

The story reported that Jamal's lawyers had found "an unnamed prostitute" who was on the scene the night of the killing and can exonerate Jamal. It also noted that another prostitute, Cynthia White, had disappeared after testifying on Abu-Jamal's behalf.

Under pressure from the police lobby, congress had threatened to slash NPR's funds if it ran the commentaries
Espada says the article, along with a visit he made to Walt Whitman's tomb in nearby Camden, New Jersey, inspired his poem, "Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man is Innocent."

Espada faxed the poem to NPR on April 21. Three days later, NPR informed Espada that the poem would not be aired. The producers who commissioned the poem, Sara Sarasohn and Diantha Parker, "were quite explicit," Espada recalls. "It would not air because of the subject matter -- Mumia Abu Jamal -- and its political sympathies."

"We never expected he would write something like this," Parker explained in a recent interview. "It wasn't like this was a wrist slap or anything, but he knew what our relationship was with Jamal and he should have known better than to put us in this kind of position."

In March of 1996 lawyers representing Abu-Jamal filed a lawsuit against NPR for violating his First Amendment rights. Two years earlier, the station had announced it would run weekly commentaries by the death row writer -- who had won broadcasting's prestigious Peabody Award in 1984 -- but then canceled them at the eleventh hour. Under pressure from the police lobby, members of congress, including Bob Dole, then Senate majority leader, had threatened to slash NPR's funds if it ran the commentaries.

"The implication of what they are saying is that I should have been the good soldier like them, that I should have gone along and participated in the silence, that I should have censored Mumia myself," Espada says.

NPR now claims the poem was spiked because of Abu-Jamal's lawsuit. Executive producer Ellen Weiss says the station has a policy of not airing any commentaries or op-ed pieces by or about Abu-Jamal as long as his lawsuit is pending against them.

"Does that mean they'll run his commentaries and my poem if Jamal drops the law suit," Espada wonders aloud. On the legal issue he quotes attorney Bill Newman, head of the western Massachusetts ACLU. "That rationale does not apply to a poet reading a poem. As a poet, an independent person, you are not corporate spokesman. You cannot bind the corporation."

Espada, who is also an attorney, adds that the subject of the lawsuit is not at all the subject of the poem. "The censored poem is not about Mumia's censored commentaries, nor about his First Amendment rights. Mumia's lawsuit against NPR does not concern his criminal case or his possible execution, which is the subject of my poem."

The legal argument may be an afterthought. Both Sarasohn and Parker confirm they rejected the poem before consulting their supervisors or network lawyers.

Espada views NPR's decision as just one more "punitive strike against Mumia, another means to perpetuate his silence."

"Mumia, if the last nameless prostitute
becomes an unraveling turban of steam...
if your dreadlocks are snipped during autopsy,
then drift above the ruined RCA factory
that once birthed radios
to the tomb of Walt Whitman,
where the granite door is open
and fugitive slaves may rest."

Pacific News Service

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Albion Monitor June 1, 1997 (

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