By: Tony Case
NABJ Convention Divided black journalists group calls for judicial review of
case of activist radio commentator and former NABJ leader
TWO THOUSAND BLACK newspeople met in Philadelphia last week to talk journalism and politics and to socialize with their peers. But their agenda was dominated by a former radio commentator and convicted cop killer who sits on Pennsylvania’s death row.
After weeks of conflict and confusion in its ranks over the celebrated cause of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the National Association of Black Journalists, during its 20th annual convention, called for a judicial review of the case.
During a sometimes quarrelsome business meeting that was supposed to last an hour but dragged on five times that long, NABJ members voted to stand up for Abu-Jamal, a past NABJ Philadelphia chapter president. One contingent argued NABJ had a moral obligation to fight for one of its own, while the other side maintained journalists shouldn’t be advocates.
Those who felt NABJ should have gone further in its public statement by demanding a new trial for Abu-Jamal issued a dissenting opinion. Philadelphia and New York were among several large NABJ chapters that called for another trial.
NABJ vice president Vanessa Williams of the Philadelphia Inquirer said newspeople ought to steer clear of activism.
“I think journalists should write, analyze and inform the public so that those segments of the community that do the demonstrating and lobbying and what have you can have information to go on, and then go and do what they think is appropriate,” she said.
Past president Sidmel Estes-Sumpter of Atlanta’s WAGA-TV commented, “As the National Association of Black Journalists, journalist is part of what we stand for. Therefore, we have to maintain some professional integrity in all the policies of our organization.”
The argument that African Americans often receive unfair treatment by law enforcement and the courts is valid, Estes-Sumpter feels. But she thinks it’s misguided for newspeople to work to effect change.
“It isn’t our role as journalists,” she insisted. “We have to allow the system to work. Whether the system fails us or exonerates us, we have to allow it to work.”
Before the incendiary business meeting, NABJ’s board voted to ask the Pennsylvania judicial system to review Abu-Jamal’s case but stopped short of requesting a new trial.
Board members went on to repudiate a statement released on their behalf last June by NABJ president Dorothy Butler Gilliam that refused to take a stand on Abu-Jamal’s guilt or innocence.
“There was never any formal vote taken by the board on anything related to Abu-Jamal,” Estes-Sumpter said for the board. “The topic was brought up by the president with no advance notice and no background information.”
The leadership also urged NABJ members to investigate and report on the Abu-Jamal case.
“We can use the weapons at our disposal ? the written and spoken word, sound and pictures ? to communicate to the entire nation,” it said.
The resolutions were approved 15-1, with Gilliam the only dissenter.
Gilliam was unfazed that NABJ members weren’t “in lockstep” over Abu-Jamal, noting the controversy had stirred up a healthy debate about the conflict between journalism and advocacy.
But, the Washington Post columnist conceded, “It’s been a bigger issue than any of us expected.”
Gilliam ? who turned over the NABJ reins to Arthur Fennell, an anchor at WCAU-TV in Philadelphia, upon the completion of her two-year term ? hoped her presidency wouldn’t be defined by the Abu-Jamal matter. She mentioned several projects carried out on her watch, including the Unity ’94 convention of minority journalists and a South African journalist exchange program.
In July, NABJ decried alleged violations of Abu-Jamal’s First Amendment rights during his incarceration. It joined other press groups, including the Society of Professional Journalists and American Society of Newspaper Editors, in filing a friend-of-the-court brief allowing Abu-Jamal contact with the media.
Abu-Jamal was convicted in the 1981 shooting death of Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Testimony in his appeal wrapped up two weeks ago. Final arguments were scheduled for Sept. 11.
Ironically, Abu-Jamal was to have been put to death the week of the convention. But lingering questions about the case, and a massive media campaign led by celebrities such as author Norman Mailer and actress Susan Sarandon, helped win a stay of execution.
Some lesser-known Abu-Jamal proponents crashed NABJ’s conclave to denounce the association’s stance, prompting local police and the downtown Marriott Hotel, the site of the gathering, to beef up security.
Noisy demonstrators outside the hotel chanted, “NABJ Uncle Toms: Who do you get your orders from?” A woman held up a sign that read, “Cowards, traitors, bourgeois two faces: Mumia would not have turned his back on you.”
One protester interrupted a luncheon featuring NAACP head Myrlie Evers-Williams by tossing fliers on tables and yelling, “Free Mumia.”
Estes-Sumpter, who received threatening letters from Abu-Jamal backers prior to going to Philadelphia, said one convention interloper threatened to “expose” her as a race traitor.
The TV producer regretted that the Abu-Jamal business overshadowed the meeting, forcing such issues as affirmative action and telecommunications legislation onto the back burner.
Estes-Sumpter was especially miffed that a cabal of outsiders managed to infiltrate and disrupt the convention.
Representatives of the pro-Abu-Jamal group Equal Justice USA tried to sell books, posters and T-shirts. But convention organizers ordered them to
Supporters of former radio commentator and convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal distributed copies of this newspaper at the NABJ convention.
?( Supporters of former radio commentator and convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal distributed copies of this newspaper at the NABJ convention.) [Photo & Caption]