NABJ’s Conundrum

There’s a line, and journalists cross it at their peril. But perhaps there is no line.

Perhaps there is only the idea of a line, which is why the debate over breaching it is eternal and will never be resolved.

Without a line journalism makes no sense, and nothing on the air or in the paper can be trusted. But you who believe in the line must explain why it tolerates not merely advertising but editorials, commentary, and the seductive adjectives of subjective prose. Journalism is by its nature a mess. From minute to minute and page to page the rules change.

Yet in a time of casual passions and crackpot philosophies, many serious journalists believe a line is more necessary than ever.

Some of these journalists spoke last month in Philadelphia at the convention of the National Association of Black Journalists. They told other delegates that despite every temptation the NABJ’s position on Mumia Abu-Jamal must be measured and restrained.

According to Editor & Publisher, the organization’s vice president offered this advice: “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.”

A former NABJ officer argued that activism would violate professional integrity. “It isn’t our role as journalists,” she said. “We have to allow the system to work. Whether the system fails us or exonerates us, we have to allow it to work.”

As black journalists began to enter the business in significant numbers a quarter century ago, they were met with the question: Are you blacks first or journalists first? It put them in a quandary, in large part because the choice posed was a false one. A black reporter eager to reveal the Mark Fuhrmans of his time before his white editors or readers were prepared to confront them was no less a journalist for his ambitions. A black weatherman in the same city was no less black. And the membership of the NABJ has grown to more than 2,000 because of the need for a common tent.

The debate over Abu-Jamal was expected to last an hour. It went on for five and a half. “There was a long line at the microphone,” the Sun-Times’s Mary Johnson Mitchell told me. “Everyone was getting up and giving impassioned speeches.”

Eventually the delegates passed a motion that called for a full judicial review of his case. A former president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NABJ, Abu-Jamal was sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia policeman. An indefinite stay of his August 17 execution was granted in early August.

The convention was fiercely divided, says Mitchell, between delegates–particularly those from Philadelphia and New York–who supported a resolution demanding a new trial and those who argued that this would cross the line. “The people from the south felt very impassioned about it. “We are journalists, not advocates. Our job is to agitate so those people whose job it is can advocate.”‘

Mitchell believes that many delegates from regions other than the northeast felt too uninformed to take an aggressive position. “That was said over and over. “Here we are caught with our pants down. We come to the convention. We’re picketed. [Editor & Publisher said demonstrators yelled, “NABJ Uncle Toms. Who do you get your orders from?” and one woman held up the sign, “Cowards, traitors, bourgeois two faces: Mumia would not have turned his back on you.”] We’re told we have to make an official statement.’ And there are so many people who didn’t know the issues. NABJ hadn’t done an internal investigation and presented the facts for the chapters to review before it came to a vote.”

Even so, she says, the more militant delegates wandered away from the meeting confident their position would carry. But in their absence a compromise was carpentered. It dismayed Mitchell. “We’re good journalists. We know how to use words. But to use words like ‘full review of the facts’ doesn’t mean very much. Some say that means a new trial. Then say we’re for a new trial! We wound up looking quite disjointed and disorganized.”

The St. Petersburg Times saw through the NABJ’s euphemisms. An editorial headlined “Black journalists cross a line” announced that the organization “has carelessly squandered its professional credibility. . . . So far there is no compelling evidence to justify a new trial, and in jumping to the defense of Abu-Jamal, the NABJ has sided with those who are trying to portray this convicted cop killer as a political prisoner. Did anyone even consider the possibility this guy is not the innocent his defenders in Hollywood and the NABJ depict?”

This is puzzling reasoning. It assumes that members of the NABJ can’t cope with clashing ideas. Mitchell is as insistent as anybody that Abu-Jamal deserves a new trial, but not because she believes he’s innocent. She believes in fairness, and she believes his 1982 trial wasn’t fair. As someone much more casual on the subject, NBC’s Warner Saunders, the new president of the Chicago Association of Black Journalists, put it at last month’s meeting of the CABJ, “There are a lot of loose ends that have to be tied up before this man can be put to death.”

The division the NABJ resolution finessed, Mitchell says, was between delegates who wanted a new trial and delegates who wanted a new trial but didn’t know how to ask for one as journalists. So NABJ pretended it wasn’t asking.

“I think the organization is at a crossroads,” Mitchell says. “A president ran unopposed. There were six vacant slots for the national board. There will definitely be some splintering. This is an issue simmering in the organization for a long time–how do you effect change without taking a stand on issues like affirmative action, the death penalty? The next issue will be affirmative action. Do we just do stories, or do we take a public stand?

“There are younger people in the organization who see job opportunities slipping away. With the whole debate going on over affirmative action they want to do something. Then there are the people who are settled, who have good jobs, and they’re on the side of ‘Let’s just write stories about this and have a convention once a year and have a good time.'”

Mitchell had never bothered to be involved at the national level. Now she’s seeking one of those six vacant places on the board.

News Bites

Credit where due, part one: Last week I chided the Tribune for running shriveled, flavorless versions of stories it picks up from the New York Times. True enough. However, the Tribune doesn’t always suffer by comparison. Its own reporting frequently excels. For example, two Sundays ago it carried a nifty feature by staffer Kerry Luft on an initiative to end racial discrimination in the elevators of Sao Paulo, Brazil. Three days later the Times covered the same topic.

Credit where due, part two: Two weeks ago Hot Type hinted that former governor Jim Thompson is in a position to throw some weight around as a member of the board of the American Publishing Company, which owns the Sun-Times. The following Monday the Sun-Times reported in its lead story that the “bustling mall in the James R. Thompson Center has been a bust for Illinois taxpayers.” Reporter Tim Novak pointed out that Charles Palmer, who was named to develop the center’s commercial spaces in 1983 and still controls them in a peculiar subleasing arrangement, made several contributions to Thompson’s political campaigns.

The Sun-Times did a brave thing in dumping Mallard Fillmore. It was the Wee Pals of the new right, unassailably PC. To quote Forbes, as cited in a King Features promotional: “In the era of Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, Fillmore has become the hottest launch of any comic strip in years.” Papers carried it to cover their bases. But when the Sun-Times did a reader survey, Fillmore finished damn close to the bottom. It wasn’t funny.

I gave up on the strip when cartoonist Bruce Tinsley reacted to the Oklahoma City bombing with his notion of pungent satire: reporters so obsessed with tracking down secret militias that they sneaked up on a Boy Scout camp. Yet now that he’s gone I wonder how Fillmore’s doing. At the very end Tinsley conceded a little of life’s ambiguity: he allowed his web-footed conservative friend to be smitten by eco-icon Pocahontas.

More bleeding at the Sun-Times. Travel editor Lis Levine, who asked for assistance she never got, leaves this month. And the popular chief of photography, Robin Daughtridge, and veteran reporter Bob Secter shocked their bosses and colleagues by taking jobs at the Tribune. Daughtridge’s resignation was graciously received and Secter’s wasn’t, but both disappeared a day or two after they broke the news. “When you’re crossing the street,” says a reporter left behind, “you don’t tell them until you’re packing your bags.”

George Will pounces on every slippery use of language but his own. He wrote last week, “Clinton is now running with Carter’s game plan. When he does something that divides Americans, such as sending his wife to China, he says people who disagree are dividing America.” Will might want to heed the difference between tepid disagreement over a matter hardly anyone gives a damn about and a divided nation. Unless he’s more careful, constant readers will begin to question why Will believes term limits are a great idea for everyone in Washington but pettifogging beltway pundits. I’m picking up more and more tepid disagreement over whether Will is still worth the newsprint it takes to carry him, although civil war is unlikely.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.