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How Mumia Gets Declared "Guilty" in the Media

by Mark Taylor

A sinister attempt to portray Jamal and his supporters in a negative light
I watched the Dec. 8 20/20 segment on ABC with a "liberal" colleague, not an activist in the organizing struggle to free Mumia, but more inclined to support Mumia than not. "Too bad," he said half way through the segment, "people are going to watch this and think he's guilty."

I don't know what most viewers will decide, but the 20/20 segment was another case of "infotainment" -- this time, with a sinister attempt to portray Jamal and his supporters in a negative light. So which strategies did narrator Sam Donaldson and the producers use? How did they try to persuade their audience? What rhetoric did they use? The media does not use arguments, it uses ploys and images to try to impress and keep its audiences.

Focus on movie star supporters

First, note the overall rhetorical frame of the show. Advance TV notices about the show trumpeted Donaldson's so-called "investigation" as having some surprises for the "celebrity left" that supports Jamal. Viewers were teased with the possibility of watching the celebrities cut down to human size, i.e. poor, fallible, unknowing.

In addition to ABC's selective manipulation of Asner and Farrell's words, 20/20 thus played on a longstanding tendency of American attitudes toward Hollywood celebrities -- to worship them, and also to see them fall from fame into shame. The public both loves and resents celebrities. Pop culture theorists have tracked this tendency through a host of fanzines and yellow journalist coverage of Hollywood stars. Even if the celebrities are "innocent" of the infamy with which they are charged, the public likes its media, from time to time, to take them down.

By focusing almost entirely on the Hollywood supporters, and cooking up "the surprise" for celebrities, 20/20 played on this American love/hate relationship to celebrities. On this occasion, though, the fall of Hollywood stars was dramatized by their support for and association with a Black "convicted killer."

ABC chose to exaggerate his voice with sinister echos

In a second rhetorical move -- one so typical today and older than this country -- ABC demonized the Black man. Do I exaggerate? Hardly. Recall all the presentations of Jamal, through the eyes of Maureen Faulkner as "haunting" her. The "cold-blooded killer," as she is quoted as saying twice, "haunts her." Donaldson reiterated the phrase about "haunting" as well. Note also, what ABC did with the radio voice of Mumia. Viewers never received a full, insightful speech from Mumia the human being; no, instead, ABC sound technicians chose to exaggerate his voice with sinister echos. His voice was made resounding, menacing, scary -- a night-time terror. This becomes all the clearer on a second or third viewing.

Martin Espada, the award-winning poet and professor of the University of Massachusetts (Amherst), mentioned to me later that Mumia and his brother, William Cook, were usually depicted by the TV lens with "intense facial close-ups." This was a strategy used to great effect in George Bush's presidential campaign against Massachusetts governor, Michael Dukakis.

The Bush campaign played on whites' fears of Willie Horton, a black man who had escaped a Massachusetts prison, and whose picture was made more fearsome by way of the intense close-up. Especially when a portrayed man is being stereotyped and demonized in other ways, this media technique encourages viewers to project their already-formed biases onto the face. The face, in an intense close-up, is denied context, perspective, a setting-in-life that might humanize and create understanding. But then, this video segment does not seem to take aim at real "understanding."

Jamal's family excluded

Third, ABC selected and controlled very carefully which people got to be emotionally compelling. In terms of family emotion, Maureen Faulkner, not Mumia's family, received the major attention. (Actually, I did not find Maureen Faulkner very "emotional" at all. ABC tried to play up her suffering, however, by using the black-and-white photos of the 1981 funeral and by airing her rage at Mumia and his supporters.)

Note that producers even allowed the widow, Maureen Faulkner, to serve as a kind of expert witness. Why is she there at all? You might answer, "Well, to show the emotional drama and human interest in the story." Okay, but why just Maureen? Mumia has relatives in pain all around him, too. Where were they? They were excluded. ABC kept viewers from being emotionally compelled by the community of those who love and feel with Jamal. This was a selective and distorting use of emotional material, and worse, ABC let it function to impact viewers while discussing supposed evidence. This is not the stuff of a careful investigation at all.

ABC sifted out all the scholars, human rights observers, and law professors

Fourth, I would highlight an overall strategy, to thin-out and cut short all potential arguments for Jamal. In a way this thinning of arguments, this "dumbing down," as I call it here, results from the very nature of mass media today. It is more interested in spectacle than information. It is notoriously difficult to communicate careful arguments, especially those that go against mainstream expectations, in the sound-byte worlds of the media.

Mumia Beyond that general problem, though, Weinglass' comments were, on several occasions, not just thinned out, but chopped up. Fragments from the beginning of a sentence, maybe from the middle of a sentence (!), were blatantly and obviously cut out of his discourse, and then made to stand as answers to Donaldson's "interrogation." (By the way, note that Donaldson interrogates Weinglass with an authoritative-looking, opened volume in his lap, which Donaldson does not even bother to identify. He just poses as the "smart one with a book," while Weinglass gets cut off.) You could actually hear the incompleted resonances in Weinglass's voice as he was cut off. I found the selective editing of Weinglass, then, to be a rather messy hatchet job, without the technological finesse of some news editors. Weinglass also received the intense facial close-up, and thus he, too, was denied a contextual frame (unlike Joe McGill, who got to stroll around the crime scene and on the street with Donaldson). All this is part of the process of "dumbing down" -- here, of Mumia's capable attorney.

Other activists, with excellent understandings and commitments, are also quoted fragmentarily, and in ways designed to make them look silly. One woman is quoted as saying (again, this sounded like it was cut out of mid-sentence) that she "feels so small" in the presence of Mumia. We do not learn who this woman is; she is presented only as a kind of foolish "Mumia groupie." I would call this a "rhetoric of ridicule" used by the producers, and ABC thus makes a mockery of its pretense to be conducting an "investigation."

Not only are Mumia's attorney and committed activists denied full voice, but the voices of a host of intelligent minds and lives are not even presented. Not a word is included in the segment from Pierre Sane of Amnesty International. Nothing from Alice Walker or E.L. Doctorow. No point of view shared by the nation's law professors who speak out for Mumia. There is no voice allowed from a Cornel West of Harvard, or from Nobel Laureates, Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Toni Morrison of the U.S.A. or Wole Soyinka of Nigeria. How about the 500 professors from around the United States who have called for a new trial for Mumia? They, too, are never mentioned, even though many of them are from Philadelphia universities and have put on three press conferences in Philadelphia to register their positions.

Recall how the lawyer who wrote for American Lawyer magazine in December 1995, and who had little or no respect for Mumia and his politics, nevertheless explored both sides of many questions, and then wrote at the head of his long essay in that magazine, "I'm joining the 'Save Mumia" movement here and now." Did 20/20 consult any voice like that? Never.

ABC disregards such voices as these, sifting out all the intelligence of scholars, all the assessments of human rights observers and law professors, all the eloquence of artists and writers who have spoken out for Mumia time and again. 20/20 thus resolutely pursued its strategy of "dumbing down" the supporters of Jamal.

As one more additional sign of the "dumbing down," note that Donaldson and the producers never once go outside the two contesting, legal parties, to a voice which might offer a valuable third view or assessment. No, whenever Donaldson is moved away from talking to Weinglass or to Jamal's supporters, he is shown getting "insight" from the likes of prosecutor McGill, and the former D.A., now Philadelphia Mayor, Ed Rendell. McGill even gets the visual privilege of escorting Donaldson around the crime scene. Weinglass is not allowed to develop his portrait of the occurrences on site, and so a certain aura of "mastery of detail" is given to McGill.

By continually deriving final opinions from the prosecutor or city officials, 20/20 only perpetuates the longstanding policy of preventing outside perspectives, impartial minds or other tribunals from taking another look at this case. In other terms, there is a rhetorical strategy of avoiding new perspectives on the events of December 9 and on the trial that followed. No one outside the contesting parties is consulted by Donovan. Mumia's critics, here Donaldson, do little more than repeat the same prosecution lines, from the same people, touting the same positions. This failure puts the 20/20 show in violation of the most basic of criteria for a good investigation.

A rhetoric that loves the prospect of putting Mumia Abu-Jamal to death

Fifth, this media segment on Mumia showed a clear bias for judge's rulings over juries' opportunities to deliberate over contested evidence. Complexities of evidence are difficult to discuss in almost any media context. I suspect Weinglass knew that, and therefore, at least twice tried to resist getting into all the detail about evidence, in order to make the more basic point that "the jury never heard," or was "unable to consider," the evidence or other interpretations of evidence. When Weinglass argued on behalf of the need for jury deliberation on these points, ABC producers implemented the media power of interruption with Donaldson's decree, "but the judge didn't see it that way."

The 20/20 segment gave little or no attention, then, to the possibilities of judicial corruption -- of Judge Albert Sabo, or of later appeal court justices -- except through the words of Mike Farrell who was heard to speak critically of Sabo. The possibility of judicial fallibility, and the need for jury review of some of the most contested and exculpatory evidence, was not deemed by ABC to be worthy of attention. Here the media signaled its unquestioning obedience to judicial power and slighted the jury process that is a hallmark of a people's democratic life.

There could hardly be a better example of the claims made by MIT linguist, Noam Chomsky, that the media today often subverts democratic process. 20/20 did its viewers and this citizenry a disservice.

I have not even addressed the way the 20/20 show tried to handle the debates about evidence. Again, in the media format of ABC, there is really no time to deal with the complexities of detail -- about Mumia's brother, about the caliber of the bullet, about witnesses. I could point out that Donaldson handled the very extensive testimony by Singletary in a very piece-meal fashion, and that never once, to my recollection, did Donaldson note that the supposed eye-witnesses to the shooting had changed their stories.

This is not really the place, however, to debate the evidence. That belongs in court with the fair jury and judge, which Mumia is yet to have. Debating evidence with 20/20 is not appropriate, especially since the ABC show was really not about examining evidence at all. It was about telling a story with a rhetorical spin that demonized Jamal and his supporters, and in doing so participated in the deep-running penchants for racism, authoritarianism, and subversion of democracy that plague our country today.

The ugliness of this rhetoric of distortion shows its hand as also a rhetoric that loves the prospect of putting Mumia Abu-Jamal to death. This is what we must fight now. Sam Donaldson himself even seems to relish the death of Jamal? Note the quote he gave to Jennifer Weiner of The Philadelphia Inquirer on the same day that he and ABC dished out their rhetorical attack on TV. Donaldson said this:

"Everything that we looked at compellingly points to the fact that Mumia shot Faulkner in cold blood. . . and was convicted properly, and was sentenced according to the law of the state of Pennsylvania. And as far as I'm concerned, as long as it's on the books, the death sentence has to be carried out."

Mark L. Taylor is Associate Professor of Religion and Culture, Princeton Theological Seminary

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Albion Monitor December 17, 1998 (

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