SOLOMON: Media "Peep Show" Gawks at the Poor
[Ed note: To register a complaint , call Ellen Weiss , the Executive Producer for "All Things Considered" at 1-800- 235-1212 ]News coverage of poverty in America has become a peep show. Every day, poor people are on display as victims of misfortune or victimizers of each other: Step right up and take a look at violence, drug abuse and despair.Media peepholes allow the public to see some lurid effects of widespread poverty in this land of plenty. But the range of sight is so narrow that even the better coverage gets jammed into a woefully inadequate frame.A case in point is "Remorse," the National Public Radio documentary that just won the grand prize of the 1997 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards. With the help of NPR producers, two black teenagers assembled a moving audio portrait of life and death in their Chicago housing project.The one-hour documentary, which aired on the "All Things Considered" program, was laudable. Yet NPR's role leaves a bad odor. The problem is context: NPR News rarely explores how powerful elites benefit from -- and perpetuate -- chronic poverty.That avoidance is routine. The mass media dodge the basic inequities that mean great profits for some and great misery for many others. Mainstream outlets don't shed light on how investors and faceless corporations keep feeding their bottom lines at the expense of America's poor.A lot of people abhor this status quo -- which has a clear racial component. While poverty afflicts millions of whites, it falls disproportionately on blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. But media peepholes exclude a full view of such realities.In fact, days before NPR put out a press release to announce the RFK Journalism Award, "All Things Considered" censored a two- minute poem making a strong statement about some current manifestations of power and racism.In the past, "All Things Considered" has aired a number of poems by Martin Espada. Three years ago, the program commissioned what became the title poem of his book "Imagine the Angels of Bread." Soon after it won the American Book Award this spring, "All Things Considered" asked him to write a poem for broadcast in connection with National Poetry Month.Espada wrote a poem about Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and black activist who is on death row after being convicted of the murder of a Philadelphia police officer. While alluding to evidence of an unfair trial, the poem lyrically evokes "fugitive slaves" and a history of racial oppression spanning to the present time.NPR refused to air the poem. Evidently, the last thing NPR's management wanted to do was rile the formidable police lobby, which went ballistic in 1994 when "All Things Considered" scheduled a series of commentaries by Abu-Jamal about crime and prison life. NPR quickly canceled the commentaries.Now, NPR has also banned poems about Abu-Jamal.In a mid-May interview, NPR's director of communications, Kathy Scott, told me that the poem has been blocked for the same reason that Abu-Jamal's original commentaries were axed: pending litigation.Using a rationale without legal basis, Scott asserted that the problem with the poem is a lawsuit filed by Abu-Jamal against NPR for canceling his commentaries. And, she claimed, the problem with those commentaries was Abu-Jamal's appeal of his death sentence: NPR's intention was to "not influence the case so that the legal system can take its course."So, once Abu-Jamal's case is settled, perhaps by execution, NPR's ban on his voice might be lifted.On the phone from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where he's an associate professor, Espada sounded calm - - and disgusted. He recalled his question to an NPR producer: "NPR is refusing to air this poem because of its political content. Do you agree?" The answer was yes.James Baldwin once wrote that many people who live with complicity in the destruction of other human beings "do not know it and do not want to know it." He added: "But it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime."For news coverage to keep the public "innocent," the peep show must go on.