BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Thirty years ago at the Attica Correctional Facility in Upstate New York there was what could be called a collective failure of humanity. After a prison uprising the inmates took 42 hostages and prepared a list of demands including less pork and more fresh fruit in the diet, the freedom to worship and communicate with the outside world and amnesty for the riot that had taken place in which one guard was killed. The inmates called in observers to oversee the negotiations.
PRISONER ON BULLHORN: We want Huey P. Newton from the Black Panther Party, [AGREEMENT FROM OTHER PRISONERS] and we want the chairman of the Young Lord Party. [AGREEMENT FROM OTHER PRISONERS] We want Clarence B. Jones of the Amsterdam News. We want William M. Kunstler, attorney at law. [AGREEMENT FROM OTHER PRISONERS] We want Tom Wicker of the New York Times. [BACKGROUND CONVERSATION]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: New York Times columnist Tom Wicker was asked to observe and eventually mediate the conflict, but there would be no mediation. On September 13th, 1971, state troopers stormed the compound and shot a barrage that left 29 inmates and 10 hostages dead. Tom Wicker is on the line. Welcome to On the Media!
TOM WICKER: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now this Sunday Court TV is airing a documentary on the event produced with your help called The Ghosts of Attica. Can you explain how you functioned as a mediator at Attica?
TOM WICKER: It's -- well [LAUGHS] I'm not sure we did function. We tried hard. We had no real power, but the state officials would allow us 2 or 3 times during the course of the 4 day weekend to go in and consult with the inmates, so in effect we were almost messenger boys. We'd carry messages from them back to the state officials and vice-versa and tried to get some kind of dialogue going between the, the two parties, you know, in the hope that we could work out some kind of a settlement. But I don't think it was ever possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now reporters and mediators - the role that you assumed at Attica - are presumed to have at least one thing in common - they're supposed to be objective. Was that a problem for you?
TOM WICKER: Yes, it was because-- when I got there I found that-- I was deeply involved in the negotiations, and it seemed to me that it would not have been proper for me to turn around and write a--about the negotiations that I was in fact taking part in. And so for the only time in my career as a columnist for the New York Times I called in on Saturday morning to the paper and told them that I could not file a column.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about later? Did your colleagues get on your back for assuming this role to begin with?
TOM WICKER:I never was worried too much about that because you know - journalists are not privy in that sense. If you walk past a pool and the - and there's a child drowning, why you should try to save the child not take notes. And-- I thought I should try to help out; that it was my-- not to be dramatic about it, it was my human duty, and I thought that surpassed my journalistic duty.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:There's a telling bit of tape in the Court TV documentary. Essentially you seem to be admitting to a crisis of conscience - I think. Let's hear that. [TAPE PLAYS]
TOM WICKER: I've thought to myself I should get up and say you guys, you guys are talking big, but-- what you don't understand is a lot of you are going to die. I'm not trying to tell you what to do, and I couldn't tell you what to do, but I think you ought to know the facts -- these guys are coming in - going to come in here and shoot you down. Then if you want to hold out, that's fine, but you should know that. That's what I should have said. I knew I should have said that. I felt it very strongly, and I was afraid to do it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What held you back? What were you afraid of?
TOM WICKER:Well I - as you can tell here, I speak in a Southern accent, and-- I was a white guy; these were mostly black. There was a whole question at that time whether people were--impartial negotiators or whether they were acting as-- as representatives of the state, you know. But in-- in retrospect I still rather think that-- at least from the point of view of my own conscience I should have said to those guys look, you can talk about dying all you want to, but some of you [LAUGHS] in fact are going to die -- and they did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you hope that the events at Attica would shine a light on what was wrong with the prison system?
TOM WICKER:Well yeah, I guess we're all optimists that way, and I thought maybe that writing about what could happen there and, and why it had happened and so forth - maybe that would be enlightening but I think it's one of those journalist's delusions, you know? You always think you're going to enlighten the public somehow, [LAUGHS] and you're, you really don't.
But in any case-- you only have to look at the statistics. At that time in 1971 there were about a quarter of a million people in federal and state prisons, and now I think there's something like 2 million -- even though crime has diminished somewhat in recent years.
I'm not sure that the urge to put people in prison and keep 'em there and throw away the key has, has diminished at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Wicker, thank you very much.
TOM WICKER: Thank you!
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tom Wicker is an author and a former columnist for the New York Times. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] The documentary The Ghosts of Attica airs this Sunday at 9 p.m.