ABC Television Documentary on Mumia: ‘Objective Journalism’ or Hit Piece?


At a Dec. 12 conference in Philadelphia, defense attorney Leonard Weinglass responded in detail to the Dec. 9, ABC-TV “20/20” broadcast in which host Sam Donaldson, in the name of “objective” journalism, championed the efforts of the Fraternal Order of Police and other lying state officials who seek to murder Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Like the hit piece prepared in May 1998 by ABC’s San Francisco affiliate, KGO-TV, the Donaldson piece ignored virtually all defense positions, eyewitness testimony, ballistic evidence, and other refutations of the prosecution’s case.

Instead, the program resorted to the kind of gutter journalism that characterized the U.S. media’s coverage of the bombing of Iraq. While presented in the format of “investigative journalism,” Donaldson’s broadcast team, in fact, reached their conclusion well in advance of their “investigation.”

In a private June 30, 1998, letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections seeking an interview with Jamal, ABC NEWS-“20/20” “researcher” Phuong Nguyen revealed Donaldson’s intentions. Nguyen’s letter was designed to convince the state authorities that Donaldson’s objective was to vilify Mumia and thereby remove any fears they might have had regarding an honest presentation of the facts.

“Mr. Donaldson has had a long history of effectively confronting convicted killers such as Nazis Erik Freibke and Randy Weaver,” wrote Nguyen on ABC’s behalf.

Nguyen continued: “In our new magazine long-format, 20/20 would provide the first in-depth and impartial look at the case of a slain police officer and the international movement to free his convicted killer.

“Presently, the only information available to the public regarding Mumia Abu-Jamal is the following: the one-sided HBO documentary “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt”; Jamal and his attorney’s many books and recordings; vast pro-Mumia internet sites; and your typical evening news two-minute pieces featuring celebrity sound bites.

“We are currently working in conjunction with Maureen Faulkner and the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police. We would like to balance this with an interview with Jamal, himself.” (Emphasis added.-J.M.)

It is noteworthy that Donaldson’s aide used the term “one-sided HBO documentary” in reference to the film, “Mumia Abu-Jamal: A Case for Reasonable Doubt?” (Nguyen misnames the film, “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt.”)

One can only wonder how she determined that the film was one-sided since, at the time she wrote her letter, “20/20’s” “investigation” supposedly had not begun.

Most of the Mumia materials that Nguyen mentions above were sent to her by this writer, as a representative of the West Coast-based Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal. The material was sent following a conversation I had with her regarding the totally biased and lying piece on Mumia produced by ABC’s San Francisco affiliate seven months earlier.

In preparing that two-part series, designed to pressure several California city governments (San Francisco, Berkeley, and Santa Cruz) to rescind resolutions they had passed calling for a new trial for Mumia, ABC interviewed me on camera for three hours.

However, ABC’s selectively edited final broadcast included only three of my comments, for a total of 18 seconds. Each of my responses had been cut, distorted, and/or taken out of context in order to portray me as a liar who consciously misrepresented key facts of the case in order to dupe various state and city officials, trade unions, and other groups into signing on to Mumia’s cause.

ABC refused my request for a copy of the complete footage of their interview. And Nguyen, on her part, insisted that “20/20” had no knowledge of their local affiliate’s conduct. She promised that Donaldson’s presentation would be a fresh and objective look at the case.

In the end, however, the Dec. 9, “20/20” broadcast based itself on the same Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) anti-Mumia website texts and the fabricated stories of Philadelphia district attorneys who framed Mumia that served as the basis for the earlier broadcast.

All the evidence collected by the defense that demonstrates Mumia’s innocence was omitted or distorted. All eyewitnesses who testified that Mumia was not the “shooter” were similarly discredited, utilizing FOP arguments, or omitted.

Leonard Weinglass’s two-hour interview was reduced to a few out-of-context statements designed to make this renowned criminal defense attorney look like an incompetent hustler.

On the other hand, Maureen Faulkner, wife of the slain police officer-who has appeared on FOP podiums with President Clinton-was shown quite sympathetically.

Faulkner was portrayed as a lone individual seeking justice and truth on her husband’s behalf in the face of unprincipled attorneys like Weinglass, duped city governments, and Hollywood celebrities such as actors Ed Asner and Mike Farrell.

Mumia’s solidarity with workers

An interview with Mumia himself was not initially on 20/20’s agenda. It was only after hundreds of protests were lodged with ABC that Donaldson, who had been prepared to air his show with Maureen Faulkner and the prosecuting attorney on the one hand and only Weinglass on the other, consented to write Pennsylvania prison authorities for permission to interview Mumia.

When permission was denied, 20/20 sought to drop the matter. But Weinglass informed ABC that they would likely succeed if they challenged in court the Department of Correction’s refusal to grant the Mumia interview.

20/20 responded that ABC, a Disney-owned corporation, didn’t have the funds for such a lawsuit, whereupon Mumia’s legal team, with the agreement of ABC, proceeded to file the suit. The Department of Corrections was urged by the presiding judge to rethink their position denying the interview.

It was then that Mumia himself intervened, indicating that he would be pleased to accept an ABC interview but only after ABC’s labor dispute with the National Association of Broadcast Engineers and Technicians (NABET) and the Communication of Workers of America (CWA) was resolved.

Mumia simply refused to cross a union picket line, even though the stakes involved were his very life.

ABC’s lockout of the NABET and CWA workers, who had been without a contract for more than a year, was in the process of mediation. When the legal team asked ABC to postpone the airing of its broadcast for two weeks, after which time the mediation might have resulted in a settlement, ABC refused.

Mumia’s principled refusal to cross a union picket line was apparently more than this corrupt representative of the capitalist media could stand. Despite Mumia’s qualified agreement for the first such interview in the 17 years he had spent on death row, and despite the fact that a favorable court decision granting the interview was likely, ABC went on with the hit piece it had originally prepared.

ABC was fully aware that friendly prison authorities and state courts would have liked nothing better than to subject Mumia’s interview to the decisions of the network’s paid liars who have carte blanche in the studio cutting room. They made the point quite clear in the Nguyen letter, as follows:

“Also, you may have seen the recent Nightline broadcast from a top security prison in Huntsville, Texas. This is an example of another special situation in which ABC was allowed to bend standard correctional facility rules for a worthwhile cause that benefited the public.” (Emphasis added.- J.M.)

ABC ignored evidence

ABC ignored the still unrefuted facts presented by Mumia’s legal team debunking the 1982 frame-up trial findings in relation to the alleged confession, the ballistics evidence, and eyewitness testimony.

ABC ignored the fact that slain police officer Daniel Faulkner had in his possession the driver’s license of a third person. Mumia’s lawyer in the original 1982 trial was not told that this person had been arrested by the police. The information was illegally kept from the defense for 13 years.

During the 1995 trial, this person was brought to court and released after he presented an ironclad alibi to prove that he had not been present at the crime scene. He testified, however, that he had given his driver’s license to another person who, he states, was taken into custody by the police and brought to the homicide division.

Again, the defense team was not given this information. According to the owner of the driver’s license, the person was then identified in a police line up but released. He was found dead three years later, in 1985-on the day that the Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE headquarters.

(MOVE is the organization founded by John Africa that led major protests against Philadelphia police brutality in the late 1970s and ’80s. Its headquarters were blockaded by the police in 1977, attacked with gun fire by the police in 1978, and bombed in 1985-leaving nine dead and 60 houses destroyed.)

(Nine MOVE members were imprisoned on frame-up charges following the police attack in 1978, receiving sentences from 30 to 100 years. MOVE members today are central to the defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was a MOVE supporter and leading critic of police violence during this period.)

ABC relied on inconclusive police ballistics testimony, ignoring the ballistics evidence supporting Mumia’s innocence that was presented by Mumia’s defense.

The network ignored the fact, for example, that a copper-jacketed bullet was found at the crime scene, a bullet that could not have been fired by either the gun of the slain police officer or the gun of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Weinglass and Mumia supporters presented ABC with critical evidence indicating that five eyewitnesses to the murder stated that the shooter ran away while Mumia lay wounded on the ground. These witnesses included William Singletary, Debra Kordansky, Robert Chobert, and Veronica Jones.

(See “Update to Race for Justice,” by Leonard Weinglass, reprinted in the “Mumia Abu-Jamal Resource Book,” published by Refuse and Resist.)

But ABC accepted as good coin only the testimony of witnesses who had been pressured by police-either bribed, intimidated, or threatened with imprisonment.

ABC’s hit piece was crafted to foster the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal by arguing that Mumia’s demand for a new trial was based on spurious evidence and gross misrepresentation of facts.

The program was produced by leading media agents of the ruling-class death machine, who are increasingly concerned that mounting national and international support for Mumia’s fight for a new trial and freedom will make his death more politically costly than they desire.

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