What is one to make of the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther and radio journalist who has been on Pennsylvania's death row for the last 13 years awaiting execution for the 1981 murder of a white Philadelphia police officer?
Quite aside from the issue of his guilt or innocence, the case raises troubling questions for Abu-Jamal's fellow black journalists, who held their annual meeting last month in Philadelphia. The case drew a well-attended panel discussion in which both the prosecutor in Abu-Jamal's original trial and the lawyer handling his appeal participated.
Earlier this summer it looked as if Abu-Jamal's death sentence actually would be carried out Aug. 17, the day after the National Association of Black Journalists convened in Philadelphia. But in July, a Philadelphia judge stayed the execution indefinitely to allow Abu-Jamal's attorney to argue for a new trial.
Meanwhile, Abu-Jamal has published a collection of prison commentaries, "Live From Death Row," which sold more than 50,000 copies and made him something of an international cause celebre.
In July, novelist E. L. Doctorow wrote an impassioned polemic for the New York Times Op-Ed page condemning Philadelphia's criminal justice system. College students in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy have demonstrated on his behalf, and the president of France and the foreign minister of Germany have appealed to the U.S. government to review his case.
Abu-Jamal is even on the Internet, making him, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, "the first cyberspace 'political prisoner.' "
Do African-American journalists bear any special responsibility regarding the way Abu-Jamal's case gets covered by the news media?
That was one of the most hotly debated questions at the recent NABJ convention. Abu-Jamal, 41, had once worked as a reporter at several Philadelphia radio stations and was president of the local chapter of the black journalists association in 1980 and 1981 -- the year before he was convicted of murdering Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner.
At the trial, two eyewitnesses identified Abu-Jamal as the gunman. Prosecutors also offered ballistic evidence that the bullet removed from the officer came from Abu-Jamal's gun and produced two other witnesses who said they heard Abu-Jamal confess to the shooting.
The defense contends that Abu-Jamal was framed by police because he had helped found a chapter of the Black Panther Party in Philadelphia and later became a radio commentator known for strident denunciations of police brutality and support for MOVE, a radical black group.
African-American journalists, like other journalists, have a professional responsibility to strive for objectivity in their work. In practical terms, that usually means a concern for "balance" and "fairness." But problems arise when conventional notions of what is "balanced" and "fair" divide sharply along racial lines.
Mumia Abu-Jamal's case is similar to the O. J. Simpson trial and the Rodney King case in that blacks generally regard police conduct more skeptically than whites, a split that extends to black journalists vis-a-vis their white counterparts.
A black journalist may consider it fair to point out that courts often treat black defendants more harshly than whites accused of similar crimes, or that blacks are disproportionately represented among death row inmates. But in doing so he or she also risks the charge of bias from white colleagues and editors, for whom such considerations may seem irrelevant.
Dorothy Gilliam, the national president of the black journalists group last June, when supporters of Abu-Jamal criticized the group for failing to take a stand on his efforts to win a new trial, said she was concerned that any action the organization took could be construed as compromising its journalistic integrity and standards of objectivity.
"What's unusual here is that the organization is being pressed to take a stand almost on the merits of a criminal case," she said at the time. "The question is: Should journalists be advocates? And how far they should go, of course, is the issue."
There was a particular irony in Ms. Gilliam's question, because Abu-Jamal himself never made any pretense of "objectivity" in his own work as a reporter. He was an outspoken, unapologetic exponent of advocacy journalism who probably would have regarded the kind of soul-searching Ms. Gilliam engaged in as a form of selling out. So the black journalists were put in the position of deciding whether to defend someone who, by his own example, rejected the basic principles their organization was bound to uphold.
On the last day of the conference, after intensive lobbying by some of the local chapters on Abu-Jamal's behalf, the convention compromised by voting to adopt two separate position statements. The first was an "unofficial" -- and unequivocal -- call for a new trial. The second, however, was a more nuanced, "official" demand for "full and fair disclosure and judicial examination of all the facts" in the case.
Naturally, some members complained that the "official" position merely reiterated the stronger, "unofficial" statement in less pointed language. But others felt the difference between the two was significant enough to avoid any appearance that the organization was taking sides.
Such linguistic hair-splitting illustrates the conflicting pressures many black journalists experience in trying to reconcile the often contradictory demands of professional objectivity with their gut feeling that news organizations generally are neither balanced nor fair in the way they cover stories involving African-Americans.
It is a dilemma that has its roots in the history of race relations in America's newsrooms and how that history has played out in the years since the nation's major news organizations first began hiring black reporters in the aftermath of the urban riots of the 1960s.
One of the rationales given at the time for desegregating America's newsrooms was that black journalists would bring a different perspective to bear on stories involving African-Americans, one that would lend increased balance and fairness to overall news coverage.
But things turned out to be not quite that simple. For one thing, newsrooms, like other organizations, evolve their own institutional cultures and consequent pressures to conform. Once black journalists arrived on the scene they were encouraged to make professional judgments on such matters as "newsworthiness" and "timeliness" according to the standards that had always prevailed.
Thus blacks were brought into the newsroom because they had a different perspective to offer, but the editors who hired them then expected them to think more or less exactly like their white counterparts. Those who insisted that there was another way of looking at things ran the risk of "not fitting in" or -- worse -- being labeled as "unprofessional."
No wonder many of the older members of the black journalists association were reluctant to push the organization to take a stand. They feared it would only reinforce the perception among their white colleagues that black reporters are automatically biased.
Yet most black journalists are acutely aware that grave injustices
still occur routinely when blacks and other minorities confront the criminal justice system. They are under no illusions that just because racism has been outlawed, it no longer affects the way judges, prosecutors and police officers deal with cases involving black defendants. But to say openly that the system is stacked against blacks and other minorities is to risk censure by one's colleagues and employers.
For example, though many white Americans were genuinely shocked by the videotaped beating of Rodney King, it was exceedingly difficult for them to admit that the police in that case might have been motivated purely by racial animosity. The all-white jury in the officers' first trial actually managed to convince itself that the police must have had a valid reason to act as they did and acquitted them of all charges.
Similarly, when taped interviews with Los Angeles police Detective Mark Fuhrman were played in court last week during the O. J. Simpson trial, almost all the press reports expressed horror and revulsion at his repeated use of racial slurs and denigration of women.
Yet much of the analysis that followed focused on the potential effect of allowing the mostly black jury to hear Detective Fuhrman using the "N-word" -- rather than on the endemic racism within the LAPD which the officer's remarks clearly implied.
It was as if the media had already decided that, however tainted Detective Fuhrman may be, he is the exception in a system that is basically fair and "color-blind."
That is still what most white Americans would like to believe. And that is why, if only for the sake of balance and fairness, it's the job of black journalists to tell them that it ain't necessarily so -- even when they don't want to hear it.
Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.