Mainstream media outlets in the United States are doing a poor job of fairly covering the nation’s minority communities in times of crisis, according to members of a panel discussion held in Ritter Hall last Thursday, Dec. 1.
The discussion, titled “From MOVE to Katrina: Covering Communities of Color in Times of Crisis,” was organized by Temple’s journalism department and co-sponsored by Media Tank, a nonprofit organization dedicated to media reform.
Comprised of journalism experts, the panel offered their opinion of media coverage of the MOVE crisis in Philadelphia 20 years ago and the impact and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the black community of New Orleans a few months ago.
“The problem with covering race in America is that the media approaches it as isolated incidents, instead of an institutional attitude,” Linn Washington Jr., journalism professor and head of the department’s news-editorial sequence, said.
“Has there ever been a time when people of color have not been in crisis?” Michael Days, panel member and Philadelphia Daily News editor, asked.
Days, along with Washington and two other Temple professors, Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon and Maida C. Odom, made up the panel, which focused primarily on Philadelphia’s confrontation with the MOVE organization – a group that advocated a “back to nature” lifestyle and spoke against technology.
On May 13, 1985, a longstanding conflict between the group and Philadelphia police came to an end when the city dropped a bomb on the organization’s Osage Avenue home in West Philadelphia, igniting a fire that burned out of control, killing six adults and five children and ultimately burning 62 homes. According to Washington, the Philadelphia Fire Department watched as it all unfolded, doing nothing to stop the blaze.
Odom was the only black reporter working on the Philadelphia Inquirer’s city desk when the 1985 standoff took place. She gave a brief history of the MOVE organization and their clashes with Philadelphia police in the 1970s and a detailed account of her experience covering the conflict.
Hiding out in a vacant house across the street from the MOVE compound, and remaining on the scene for 27 hours, Odom said she risked her life to report the story.
As she learned more about the conflict, Odom said she began to believe the Philadelphia police were gearing up to deliberately kill MOVE members in retaliation for the 1978 death of police officer James Ramp, who was apparently killed by “friendly fire” during a standoff with MOVE at their Powelton Village house.
Nine MOVE members were tried and convicted in what Odom called “a kangaroo court,” and were each sentenced to 30 to 100 years in prison.
By 1985, outraged at the imprisonment of their fellow members, the group had fortified their home in the Cobbs Creek section of West Philadelphia and began wielding weapons and haranguing neighbors about “the injustice of the system” on a 24-hour basis over loudspeakers.
Concerns about the group’s sanitation contributed to tensions between MOVE and neighbors.
Odom, Washington and other members of the panel who were there on May 13 said they had trouble telling the whole story, as editors seemed more interested in criticizing then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode, the city’s first black mayor.
“I was in a hostile work environment,” Odom said. “I felt like I had more of an interest in telling the critical parts of the truth than many of my colleagues.”
Washington detailed examples of police brutality that took place during this era of Philadelphia history, but said mainstream news outlets simply didn’t care.
“Before there was Rodney King, there was the televised beating of Delbert Africa,” he said, referring to the MOVE member who surrendered to police with his hands in the air and was beaten, kicked and dragged through the streets by police.
Washington said no police officers or city officials were ever indicted or convicted of anything stemming from either MOVE standoff.
“The whole thing started with police brutality,” Washington said. “Every single day, somebody would walk into the [Philadelphia] Tribune, beaten and bloody. They would go the Inquirer and the Daily News and no one would listen to them.”
During one year, according to Washington, “Philadelphia police shot and killed 162 people.”
“Were MOVE victims?” Washington asked. “No.”
Echoing the words of other panel members, he said he has yet to understand what they did to warrant thousands of rounds of ammunition, fire hoses and a bomb being deposited on their house.
The panel was unanimous in comparing what they viewed was the press’s lackadaisical coverage of the MOVE confrontation with the treatment of black residents of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The two-hour discussion was the first of several events to be sponsored by the Philadelphia-based Media Tank in the city over the next year. Professor Karen Turner, head of the broadcast journalism sequence, moderated the panel.
John Paul Titlow can be reached at johnpaultitlow@GMail.com.