Deconstructing Vanity Fair
Sinister Scenarios Behind the Media Lies About Mumiaby C. Clark Kissinger
Revolutionary Worker #1028, October 31, 1999
The following article by C. Clark Kissinger was written in September of this year.
As you know, this fall is a critical moment in the fight to save the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal. With his appeal going to the federal courts, the battle enters its final stage. Vanity Fair magazine chose this juncture to publish an article claiming to present the "real inside story" on Mumia. Their article was capped off with a claim by a former volunteer for the Philadelphia Prison Society, that Mumia had confessed to him. As part of an organized media campaign, ABC's 20/20 and the Associated Press also carried the alleged "confession" story at the same time.
In July I published an article refuting some of the most blatant factual distortions in the Vanity Fair piece, and exposing the long-standing ties of its author to Philadelphia's power structure. (See "A Myth Repeated: A Reply to Vanity Fair and the F.O.P.", RW #1015. Also available online at: rwor.org) Subsequently, the "confession" claim was thoroughly refuted by written documents from the person making the claim. But as always happens, the sensational charge got massive publicity while the refutation was heard by few.
The "confession" hoax was not the heart of the Vanity Fair article, however. So I am taking the time now to "deconstruct" the approach of the Vanity Fair article, and look more deeply at what it sought to do. I hope you find this useful.
Analyzing the 20/20 Program
Both 20/20 and Vanity Fair try to provide a narrative framework for their respective audiences to guide how those audiences will understand what they hear about the case. Let's look at 20/20 first.
To make their narratives more compelling, both 20/20 and Vanity Fair provide "characters." 20/20 draws its heroes and villains somewhat crudely. Its narrative is relatively simple: A young policeman, just starting his life, is tragically gunned down. The open-and-shut case is quickly disposed of by a jury. But a charlatan lawyer, together with frivolous Hollywood celebrities who don't really know or care about the facts, twists this into an international cause célèbre. The defense has nothing but a few easily dismissed technicalities to harp on, but they seize on anything to argue for Mumia Abu-Jamal's innocence. 20/20 paints a movement made up of paranoid Black militants, impressionable students, and foreigners with an anti-American bias. Pitted against this "juggernaut" is the lonely widow of the officer, working alone at her computer writing 100-page documents, subject to abuse and vilification by this movement and by Jamal himself.
In this narrative, the main characters are the widow (the hero) and attorney Leonard Weinglass (the villain). Ed Asner and Mike Farrell are cast as dilettantes with a cause. Mumia himself is relegated to a strange role--an offstage character around whom the action pivots, but whose persona and motivations are never clearly delineated. Sam Donaldson plays both narrator and open-minded tough-guy journalist. He is supposed to guide the audience's emotions--sympathetic to the widow, barely able to contain his incredulity at the absurdities he encounters from the lawyer, and impatient to see the sentence carried out and the noble widow given closure.
This 20/20 show was first shown at the end of last year. But it clearly did not accomplish its aim of slowing down the momentum of the movement to stop Mumia's execution. A Rage Against the Machine concert and large-scale teach-ins in the Oakland public schools showed the potential for the movement to reach out quite broadly. The success of the "Millions for Mumia" demonstrations on April 24 probably surprised Mumia's would-be executioners. The Evergreen State College incident clearly stung them. So the 20/20 piece was updated and run again in July.
Vanity Fair--A More Refined Strategy of Attack
But the Vanity Fair article represented a new development. I think they are finally starting to realize that a big attraction of the Mumia movement is Mumia himself. The statement of Evergreen State College President Jane Jervis put it well. "Abu-Jamal deserved inclusion [as a speaker at the Evergreen graduation ceremony] because he has used his free speech rights to galvanize an international conversation about the death penalty, the disproportionate number of Blacks on death row, the relationship between poverty and the criminal justice system."
So Vanity Fair appears in July with a refined strategy. More sophisticated audiences require more motivations and subtlety to make the case against Mumia believable. Vanity Fair does at least three things differently than 20/20--and one thing similar. The similar thing is their treatment of the widow Maureen Faulkner. The different things are these:
First, they actually mention some of the key issues surrounding the case. They acknowledge that, "After reading the trial transcript, one could reasonably conclude that, in terms of fairness, there were some potentially troubling developments." They cite questions about the impartiality of the judge, questions about whether Mumia's right to defend himself was violated. "There was the possibility [sic] that the resources allotted by the court for Abu-Jamal's representation, roughly $14,000, were simply inadequate by any standard, since he was facing the death penalty." They gently say, "There was the question of why witnesses who might conceivably have been helpful in advancing the defense theory that another person had shot Faulkner were never called."
There are reasons, according to Vanity Fair, why people might have qualms about the trial and the political situation in Philadelphia surrounding it. Well-documented brutality and corruption in the Philadelphia police department are referred to, but as part of an effort to debunk Mumia's credentials as an anti-police brutality reporter. It establishes that the author, Buzz Bissinger, knows that the Philly cops have a dark underside. Of course, Bissinger acknowledges all this only so that he can say that despite the justness of these concerns, the fact remains that Mumia killed Faulkner. By doing so, he hopes to disarm a more savvy audience.
Of course, there are many problems that Bissinger does not address. He steers clear, for example, of ballistics evidence on the trajectory of the bullet that shot Mumia that shows the prosecution scenario to be impossible. Even if Faulkner were shot first (for which there is no evidence), the prosecution scenario would have him wheel around after being shot in the back and stand above Mumia to fire the bullet that entered him heading downward. Further, various witness statements changed dramatically between the time they were first given to police to the time of trial. And, not only were there important witnesses not called, but one key witness, a police officer whose report refutes the claim that Mumia confessed the night of the shooting, was "on vacation" and kept unavailable to testify.
The point is this: The burden of proof rests on the prosecution. If their scenario is impossible, if their witnesses are not credible, if they have not assembled irrefutable physical evidence--and they have not in this case--then the accused is not guilty. Moreover, if errors in procedure have been committed that are so grave as to deny the defendant due process, then according to the rules of the court system, the trial must be thrown out.
Vanity Fair tries to say that it doesn't matter that the Philadelphia District Attorney's office is world-renowned for racism and corruption. It has been investigated numerous times by federal authorities for this, and made a cover-story for TIME magazine. According to Vanity Fair it doesn't matter that the Philly D.A.'s office has been caught using instructional videotapes on how to exclude Black jurors, which is, by the way, illegal. Eleven Black jurors were dismissed from Mumia's jury pool. It doesn't matter that hundreds of people have been released from jail based on an investigation in 1995 of the regular Philadelphia police practice of framing people and planting evidence. It doesn't matter that one of the very same cops who was exposed for these practices was exposed for his role in trying to get someone to make false statements to incriminate Mumia. Most recently Len Weinglass has cited the case of Matthew Connor, another case that Mumia-prosecutor Joseph McGill called "open and shut." Connor spent 12 years in prison before the truth came out.
The second difference with 20/20 is that Bissinger and Vanity Fair bring Mumia himself front and center. This begins with an attempt to debunk Mumia's bona fides as a reporter. Bissinger understands that the true story of Mumia has actually been key to the way this struggle has developed. People look at the man's life--from the Black Panther Party to his years as a journalist and now to his time on death row--and they see someone who's devoted his life to fighting for justice. They read his writings today and have no trouble understanding both how he could have been a very compelling journalist and why his brand of journalism could earn the hatred of the authorities. So people figure that whatever happened on that night, that the police and courts were going to get Mumia by hook or crook. At minimum, most people cannot reconcile the life of Mumia with the prosecution scenario and charge of murder in the first degree.
Bissinger responds with a cynical counter-scenario, well-suited to a cynical age. Bissinger labels Mumia's conviction and sentence as a good career move on Mumia's part! Bissinger wants people to see Mumia as someone who lost direction at a certain point and, in a not very subtle racist slant, a Black man just too irresponsible to make it. He tried the patience of his long-suffering employers one time too many, and finally came "apart personally and professionally." Bissinger paints Mumia as extremely unstable, perhaps on drugs ("he seemed high all the time," one anonymous source says), a guy who had carried a gun for 2 1/2 years, a time-bomb waiting to go off who happened to go off on a well-meaning, nice cop like "Danny" Faulkner. Then, once in prison, Mumia begins a new "career," one in which he is lionized by the mighty.
Here Bissinger is trying to supply a plausible explanation of Mumia's behavior that would fit the prosecution scenario. It is worth noting that all of Bissinger's Mumia-detractors are anonymous. Bissinger chose not to use a three-hour interview he conducted with Philadelphia journalist Linn Washington. Washington's close knowledge of Mumia and the case put the lie to Bissinger's portrait.
The third new thing Bissinger does is the news hook of the story: he introduces a new character--Philip Bloch. Bloch is presented as someone with liberal leanings, someone drawn to Mumia in many ways, but still someone whose conscience finally compelled him to "come forward." Not an easy decision, Bloch says, as he still respects Mumia and hopes that he doesn't get executed. But truth is truth, and so he had "to come forward."
Bloch is important to the article for two reasons: first, he is supposed to be the final piece of evidence. But Bloch also fills an important symbolic function. He is supposed to be the stand-in for the reader--the reader who may have been attracted to Mumia, may have doubts about the case against him, may not wish to see him executed, but who--unlike the callous celebrities--has finally seen the light and decided to side with Maureen Faulkner. Note how Bloch's conversation is framed--the alleged "calumny" against Maureen Faulkner is what drives him to go public (in Philly papers Bloch said that had Faulkner been single, he probably never would have "gone public"). These angles have all been deepened as Bloch became a celebrity himself in Philadelphia, all the while claiming to have been Mumia's "friend."
Bloch makes a another noteworthy statement in Vanity Fair on why he came forward. He says that "I see the level of hatred that's being aroused in people towards the police. And I think it's just crossed a line." My observation is that the movement for justice for Mumia has focused a good deal on the travesty of Mumia's trial, and not on brutality by police. We don't talk enough, in my opinion, about the brutality inflicted on Mumia that night. One thing that has changed in the past few years is the growing movement against police brutality. This movement has given voice to the families of people killed by the police, and has begun to point to a problem of epidemic proportions. Bloch now describes this as a motivating factor for his "coming forward."
Whatever his motivations, Bloch's story does not hold up. Linn Washington writes, "I question Bloch's allegation, especially since I sat in the same place Bloch says he sat when Mumia made his indirect confession.... I interviewed Mumia inside these cubicles at Huntingdon and Mumia refused to talk freely in the cubicles because he said prison authorities planted hidden microphones to eavesdrop. During the interview, I asked Mumia a question regarding the shooting of Faulkner. He refused to respond giving two reasons: (1) his lawyers told him not to discuss that incident; and (2) the cubicle was bugged. Mumia is no fool. By the time of Bloch's visits in 1991-1992, Mumia was a veteran of many battles with prison authorities and was well aware of their tactics, like bugging these cubicles."
Since the Vanity Fair article appeared, we have uncovered a letter that Bloch sent to Mumia many months after the "confession" conversation supposedly took place. In the letter Bloch writes, "So, it is possible to get justice from a jury. Not always, but sometimes. So, when you get a new trial I think there is a good chance of acquittal." Bloch also signed an ad for Mumia in the Harrisburg Patriot News in 1995. The ad called on people to "Take a Stand for Mumia," the signatories declaring, "We care about Mumia because there is compelling evidence that points to his innocence." These are hardly the actions of someone privy to information of Mumia's guilt.
Maureen Faulkner-- Pointwoman for a Reactionary Crusade
Yet Bloch's symbolic importance becomes clearer when you see that it is he who leads the reader to the final focus on Maureen Faulkner. She is portrayed as suffering alone, "putting out the fires of hell," while Mumia is living the life of Riley...on death row!
A few things that need to be said here. First, the portrayal in Vanity Fair not withstanding, Maureen Faulkner is not out there alone. She is the spokesperson for powerful forces who have a whole agenda for society that includes intensified police powers, gutting of defendants' rights, and stepped-up use of the death penalty. Second, I think Maureen does have to be accountable for what she is doing. She has willingly become the pointwoman for a crusade to kill a man railroaded in a kangaroo court, as well as for the larger agenda of racist mass imprisonment and state-sponsored murder bound up in his case. Third, Mumia has a right to due process, and Maureen Faulkner does NOT have a right to prevent him from getting it in the name of "closure."
I feel there are a number of questions that need to be addressed by these people campaigning for Mumia's execution, especially those who claim to be great authorities on the trial transcripts. I think we need to know what they think of the jury-picking practices in Philadelphia and at Mumia's trial itself. We need to know what they think of Judge Sabo--his record overall and his conduct at Mumia's trial in particular. We need to understand whether they consider it to be judicial or prosecutorial misconduct when critical witnesses and evidence are hidden from the defense.
We also need to know their views on the death penalty. Do they find it alarming that 61 percent of those on death row in Pennsylvania are Black when Black people make up only 10 percent of the state's population? What do they think about the fact that 55 percent of Pennsylvania's death row is made up of people from Philadelphia, while Philadelphia holds only 15 percent of the state's population. And, beyond Pennsylvania, what do they think about the 80+ people nationally, who have gotten off death row in recent years only because they had a chance to prove their innocence after their regular trial was over?
Time is short in the fight for Mumia's life. As is the case with everything worth fighting for, we expect it to be just that--a fight. But to win, we must face every attack and turn it around. If Vanity Fair (and the accompanying stories on 20/20 and AP) brought knowledge of Mumia to many more people, we must reach those many people with the issues and the truth.
This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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