The NPR Censorship of Martin Espada

Radio Police Ban Mumia's Story

Revolutionary Worker #910, June 8, 1997

April is National Poetry Month. For the occasion, National Public Radio decided to commission a poem from Martin Espada, to be read on its show, "All Things Considered."

Martin Espada is a well-known Latino poet whose work has appeared in such publications as The New York Times Book Review, Harper's, The Nation, Ploughshares and The Best American Poetry. Three years ago, NPR commissioned what became the title poem of Espada's book "Imagine the Angels of Bread," which won the American Book Award this year. And NPR has broadcast other poems by Espada together with various news stories.

NPR suggested that for National Poetry Month, Espada write a poem focused on a news story in one of the cities he was visiting during a recent reading tour.

While visiting Philadelphia, Espada read a newspaper article about Mumia Abu-Jamal--the political prisoner who was framed up and railroaded onto death row for the killing of Philly cop William Faulkner in 1982. The news item reported that Mumia's lawyers were filing new legal papers to allow testimony by an "unnamed prostitute"--Pamela Jenkins--who was not on the scene the night Faulkner was killed, but was pressured by police to testify she saw Mumia shoot Faulkner. Veronica Jones had already come forward to reveal how the police coerced her into helping them frame Mumia.

All this became the inspiration for a poem Espada wrote, titled "Another Nameless Prostitute Says the Man Is Innocent." And this is the poem Martin Espada decided to submit to NPR.

On April 21, Espada faxed the poem to NPR. Three days later, NPR told him they would not put the poem on the air. When Espada asked them why, the NPR producers who commissioned the poem, Sara Sarasohn and Diantha Parker, explicitly said it would not be aired because of the subject matter--Mumia Abu-Jamal--and its political sympathies.

When it comes to the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, this is not the first time National Public Radio has blatantly censored the airwaves. In 1994 the NPR program `All Things Considered' commissioned 10 radio commentaries which had been recorded by Mumia in prison. But when the Fraternal Order of Police and other reactionary forces, including then-senator Bob Dole, complained, NPR quickly canceled the broadcasts. Mumia now has a $2 million lawsuit pending against NPR, stemming from the censorship of his commentaries.

In 1994 National Public Radio censored commentaries by Mumia. Now, NPR has decided to ban poems about Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Trying to explain why it censored the poem about Mumia, NPR told Espada that this was "not the way NPR wants to return to this subject." And now NPR is trying to say they didn't air the poem because of Mumia's lawsuit against NPR. They say they have a policy of not airing any commentaries or op-ed pieces by or about Mumia as long as his lawsuit is pending against them.

The supposed legal justification for this censorship is that NPR doesn't want to make any comments about Mumia's case against them that could be used against them in court. But this "legal concern" doesn't really apply to airing a poem about Mumia's criminal case that isn't even about the legal case against NPR.

As Martin Espada, who is also an attorney, points out, "The censored poem is not about Mumia's censored commentaries, nor about his First Amendment rights. Mumia's lawsuit against NPR does not concern his criminal case or his possible execution, which is the subject of my poem."

According to journalist Dennis Bernstein, NPR producer Diantha Parker said, "We never expected he would write something like this.... It wasn't like this was a wrist slap or anything, but he knew what our relationship was with Jamal and he should have known better than to put us in this kind of position."

"They say I should have known better," Espada said, "The implication of what they are saying is that I should have been the good soldier like them, that I should have gone along and participated in the silence, that I should have censored Mumia myself.... I did not want to give them the benefit of the doubt when I wrote this poem. In fact, I surmised, given NPR's refusal to air [Mumia's] commentaries, fairness would require NPR to broadcast the poem. I did not anticipate an editorial policy based on cowardice."

It's important that the people hear the voice of Mumia Abu-Jamal and learn the truth about how he was framed up and railroaded onto death row. And exposing and fighting against the shameful NPR radio police--and any other attempts to censor this important political prisoner and his supporters--is an important part of the overall battle to free Mumia Abu-Jamal.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
Write: Box 3486, Merchandise Mart, Chicago, IL 60654
Phone: 773-227-4066 Fax: 773-227-4497
(The RW Online does not currently communicate via email.)