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What an opportune time to free award winning journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, the most famous death row inmate in the world.
Abu-Jamal symbolizes the struggle of the under served in this country. His voice is representative of the changing demographics of the US and his wide range of knowledge provides much needed forethought to policy decisions we often overlook.
Abu-Jamal was a member of the Philadelphia Black Panthers and a radio journalist who became the President of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists.
In 1981 he was convicted (by a jury of not of his peers and a well known racist judge) of the murder of a Philadelphia police officer and sentenced to death.
His death sentence was vacated and remanded for a new hearing in 2008. This decision was upheld in April of this year.
After watching the lynching of Troy Davis play out on live television, the fight to end the death penalty has become as urgent as ever. Freeing Abu-Jamal and giving him the opportunity to share his knowledge with the American public would be symbolic of the US beginning to make amends with its racism. It would be a defiant gesture against the death penalty as well as a rare vindication of a black person wronged by the criminal justice system.
As the US gets more diverse and the incarceration rate expands, Abu-Jamal provides a face that the public can relate to.
He was stripped of his human rights not so coincidentally after establishing himself as a prominent activist. His questionable murder case is eerily similar to ones faced by other Panthers including Huey P. Newton and Assata Shakur. All claimed they were shot by police officers and survived, only to be charged with the murder of another officer at the scene.
Many Americans have been affected in some way by the injustice of the prison industrial complex and would be more receptive to Abu-Jamal than people of the past that were conned by COINTELPRO influences in the media.
Instead of dismissing him, these people might appreciate the knowledge he’s been sharing from behind bars.
Although he’s been locked up for nearly three decades, Abu-Jamal has released weekly podcasts providing wisdom and incite on American politics, social movements and influential figures in society. He combines an activist spirit with several libraries worth of knowledge (everything from Nietzsche to Fanon to old English plays).
Abu-Jamal’s ability to synthesize current events and add context from the past serves to both provide forethought and make academia engaging.
His uncanny ability to predict the outcome of government initiatives and policies shows the importance of extensive reading and critical thinking.
For example, on “The War vs. Us All” Abu-Jamal expresses his thoughts on the War in Iraq:
“It is ultimately a War on us all. That’s because the billions and billions that are being spent on this War–the cost of tanks, rocketry, bullets and yes even salaries for the 125,000 plus troops–is money that will never be spent on education, on healthcare, on the reconstruction of crumbling public housing or to train and place the millions of workers who have lost manufacturing jobs in the past three years alone. The War in Iraq is in reality a war against the nations’ workers and the poor, who are getting less and less, while the big Defense industries are making a killing literally.”
With drones in six countries in Africa and the Middle East and so many people out of work here, it’s hard to say he got it wrong.
The American public has an obsession with celebrities so who better to speak to it than a celebrity of the global struggle against imperialism? Abu-Jamal has seen it all and has already proven he can inspire many despite being held in the most repressive conditions.
In a country that loves symbolism, nothing would be more fitting than freeing a black political prisoner and letting him convince the public not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
As we get older we have a tendency to look at some of the things we read as kids, in my case AllHipHop.com and SLAM magazine, the same way we look at professional wrestling. Their rampant typos and strictly Q&A style interviews may not have been the marks of professional journalism but there was a reason we loved them. It’s because for all the flaws, those sites and magazines were real; much more real than the traditional journalism I thought my parents were wasting their time consuming.
Once I went through the University of Oregon Journalism School I found a purpose for traditional news and kept asking myself why I hadn’t picked up on “the game” of news reading when I was younger.
I’ve been into history and racial politics since the seventh grade but I always thought the television nightly news was wack. I was much more comfortable reading books, immersing myself in music, or studying the moves of ball players.
What made AllHipHop and SLAM so appealing was that I could relate.
Whereas the traditional news was corny and dependent on limited information (Mainly because it’s corporate controlled and press release dominated), a site like AllHipHop covered all bases. Besides general music news, it offered music, videos, no holds barred forums and even a rumors section.
The rumors were really what revolutionized the news aspect of the site. Most of them were just that, rumors, but they set off the forums and inspired many readers to search for the truth themselves.
What resulted was a better understanding of how the media works, specifically that there’s almost always more to a story then what you hear in the official version. Also, it led to impassioned discussions that challenged both our knowledge and creativity.
For example, when Jim Jones called out Mase for having ulterior motives for becoming a pastor, it had hip-hop forums buzzing. It was cool to be smart and more knowledgeable about Jim Jones and Mase’s history because someone would embarrass you if you didn’t have all your info together.
Likewise, if you had a talent for Photoshop then you had the ability to make light of the situation or a person commenting on it and win over readers with your art. In a sense, it gave everyone from my generation the power of a political cartoonist.
However, if you didn’t know what you were talking about or your joke was lame, your reputation would suffer an instant backlash. This made people step their game up and brought out the best, as far as research and originality, in a generation of young people whose opinions were otherwise marginalized.
SLAM was a publication that brought me closer to the game of basketball than recycled stories on ESPN or more PR friendly, establishment sports papers. At a time when I was downloading most of my music and getting my news from online sites and forums, I always managed to shell out $5 for a copy of SLAM each month.
People called it the “hip-hop basketball magazine” but that was just because the writers wrote with the style and slang we use to talk in real life. The reliance on Q&A interviews formats could be considered tacky but as a reader, I cared more about the content than the presentation. SLAM’s special issues like its Streetball editions and Top 50 or Top 75 players lists were must haves because they gave us stories about people that we would never hear about on TV and/or challenged the establishment’s official status as the arbiters of who’s great and who’s not.
Back in the day, my favorite section was “Punks”. It gave shine to notable high school players and provided one player each year with the opportunity to be a columnist. “Punks” helped inspire me as a player to work hard for the dream of getting that level of exposure and appreciation.
It also taught me how to read between the lines without even thinking about it because I could compare the stories of people featured with those I personally knew going through the same thing. I could tell what was real and what was fabricated for the sake of not losing an opportunity, which in a sense, was just as real.
AllHipHop and SLAM also had space for traditional journalism. Writers like Davey D, Kevin Powell and Dave Zirin inspired me to be a journalist with the way they used words in their columns. They didn’t just write what my 11th grade teacher would call “journal entries”. Their pieces were filled with interviews, insight and a commitment to the communities around them rather than a singular desire to make money writing.
The combination of unconventional and traditional, along with exhaustive content, made reading fun, rather than a chore I needed to do so some banker or business executive wouldn’t hoodwink me in the future.
Fast forward to today and I find myself trying to transition from college into professional journalism. I constantly ask myself why I’m trying to break into a dying industry.
War, politics and social justice have replaced my former obsessions of basketball and hip-hop so I have to pore over the traditional media I resisted when I was young. The coverage doesn’t have nearly the depth, writers insist on traditional (often cookie cutter) styles and the business nature has tainted what made “less professional” media so engaging.
Perhaps that’s what makes sites like World Star Hip Hop, Wikileaks and Twitter so successful. They aren’t traditional. Users feel completely in control and pick and choose what they want to consume, whether it be videos, documents, stories, etc.
Most importantly, their wealth of information creates depth in itself. Knowledge is like a puzzle, and these sites give users the opportunity to piece it together however they desire. They thrive for the same reason that people can sit around and watch Brett Farve updates on ESPN. They’re obnoxiously informative.
Writers constantly discuss where journalism is going, as if there’s a magic formula that’s just waiting to be discovered. If users don’t feel a purpose reading news, then it will never appeal.
AllHipHop and other sites with forums were so great because we could interact with news and music from our favorite artists as well as share our own work, whether it be rhymes, beats, comedy or poetry.
Imagine if we dissected political speeches the same way we do hip-hop lyrics. Even though both have to be taken with a grain of salt in most cases, hip-hop at least gets judged as a craft. Media analyzing the craft of political speeches would be much more effective in holding our leaders accountable than regurgitating bits and pieces depending on our political beliefs.
If we had politicians doing SLAM style interviews, which would certainly be off the record in traditional media, we might have more time to worry about the issues they’re debating rather than the high school popularity contest the institution is portrayed as.
The news media rose out of a necessity for information with limited resources. With more technology than ever, the artificial nature of the industry is being exposed. We become less dependent on secondhand stories with every new creation.
To borrow from Mos Def’s track “Fear Not a Man”, people talk about journalism like it’s a giant living in the hillside, coming down to visit the townspeople. We are journalism. So the next time you ask yourself where journalism is going, ask yourself, “Where am I going? How am I doing?”
Although recent news that MSNBC is ready to hire Al Sharpton has continued the trend of no black journalists in prime time, we should see this as an opportunity rather than a thinly veiled slight. It’s no secret that cable news networks’ primary audience is not black people so why would we expect them to pander to our interests? We have the resources to create our own wide reaching news. Now is as good a time as ever to carve out our place in the market.
The potential hiring Al Sharpton for MSNBC’s weekday 6 pm slot represents the larger theme of infotainment throughout cable news. All three major stations, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News represent center to extreme right flavors of the same news, catered to the same socioeconomic audiences. As news has become less valued in our society, they have chose to hire based on celebrity rather than journalist credentials. Everyone from Mike Huckabee to Piers Morgan (who is actually a journalist but probably wouldn’t be on CNN if it weren’t for his fame as a winner of Celebrity Apprentice and judge on popular TV talent shows) to Al Sharpton follows the pattern.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy to see Al Sharpton get a show even if I disagree with his tactics for advocacy from time to time. I respect his work and look forward to him giving a voice to black people on the infotainment airwaves.
However, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) is correct in crying foul over no black journalists serving as anchors or hosts in prime time. With the trend towards hiring personalities rather than journalists, it doesn’t seem like this will be resolved any time soon.
Instead of asking for change from news organizations that don’t prioritize their black consumers, we should step in and serve ourselves. We have organs like the NABJ, the NAACP, Johnson Publishing Company as well as numerous national news organizations like The Root and Our News Now. To say we don’t have the resources to compete with national news conglomerates only makes sense as long as we’re not willing to work together. If there was ever a worthy area to apply the gang mentality then this is it.
It’s a foregone conclusion that black culture and expression is infectious across the globe. Joining together to create an international news competitor could not just serve our own constituency but take in a number of people that couldn’t get into cable news previously. Who knows? It could even steal viewers from the old guard.
Back when I was in elementary school I remember when Black Entertainment Television (BET) used to have the nightly news and weekly panel discussions. I loved tuning into Jacque Reid and getting informed on world events every night.
Ever since Viacom bought BET and decided to give the station a makeover for a larger white audience things haven’t been the same. There’s no channel I can turn to for nightly news catering to me. Getting news that serves the black community is a matter of digging through an assortment of internet sources and occasionally coming across token stories on the TV news.
With the advent of new media and more televisions with internet capabilities, this is the time to take advantage of the shift in technology. Soon we’ll no longer need to buy TV channels to compete with corporations whose only advantage is a larger bullhorn.
Instead of waiting for them to figure out how to monopolize the next wave, let’s hit them before they see it coming. The lane is open. The people are waiting to be served. All we need is people brave enough to stop playing the game with these gatekeeper news organizations. After all, we aren’t winning.