Rallying 'Round Mayor Barry

By Ruffins, Paul | The Nation, July 30, 1990 | Go to article overview

Rallying 'Round Mayor Barry


Ruffins, Paul, The Nation


Washington Mayor Marion Barry's trial on fourteen counts of cocaine possession and perjury turned out to be one of the news media's bloodiest feeding frenzies since Watergate. There was everything reporters could possibly want to sink their teeth into. On Barry's side there were drugs, sex, lies and videotape. On the government side there were pimping, entrapment and prosecutorial misconduct. With the mainstream media mired in racism and hype, Washington's black press had a great opportunity to bring to its audience the tragedy of how a once progressive activist had been so corrupted by power, blinded by hubris and disoriented by drugs that he gave his sworn enemies more than enough rope to hang him.

Most important, in addition to breaking a complex, multidimensional story, the black media could have helped reform a corrupt bureaucracy and aided the community in setting new standards of accountability for its leadership. Unfortunately most of the city's black newspapers did no such thing. Instead, most engaged in reactive skin-color nationalism and virtually ignored Barry's failings in favor of concentrating their fire almost entirely on the racism of whites.

Now, the Barry case obviously involves many real injustices. The media coverage of his arrest was clearly out Of bounds. Reporters surrounded his home and later interviewed the boyfriend of Karen Johnson, a former Barry mistress who had in 1988 published details of their sexual relationship in Regardie's, a local magazine. Subsequendy Bill Lawlor, the assistant news director of WUSA TV, admitted that his station had gone overboard by showing an artist's sketch of the Mayor that seemed like something out of Amos'n'Andy and by airing clips of the Mayor's young son trying to escape news cameras by running to a car with a coat over his head.

But according to Laveme Gill, publisher of The Metro Chronicle, the larger issue in the media coverage is the complete hypocrisy involved. "The white media is Pumping up the fact that Barry smoked crack but has virtually ignored the fact that Bush, the Reagan Administration and Oliver North all knew the contras were smuggling millions of dollars worth of cocaine.'

There is also clearly some racism involved in the federal prosecution of Barry. Like Nixon before him, Bush made cleaning up Washington an important part of his effort to show that his Administration was getting tough on crime. To nail Barry, Republican-appointed U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens made use of crack, alcohol and a former model to entice him into possessing a misdemeanor amount of cocaine. The Capital Spotlight reported that while Stephens was busy pursuing Barry on drug possession and perjury charges, between January 1988 and March 1990 his office was forced to dismiss first-degree murder charges against sixty-two defendants because they hadn't been indicted within the proper period of time. Thus there were two evils, but rather than rising to the challenge of exposing both of them, the black press took the easy route.

The May 7 issue of The New Republic carried an article called Barry's Free Ride,' which pointed out that the timidity of the city's black elected officials in criticizing the Mayor had been more than matched by the city's three black weeklies, which have been unanimous in their defense of Barry, telling their readers in article after article that he was 'set up' by racist whites."

Since Washington has at least six black weeklies, this statement by The New Republic, like many of the white press's observations of the black community, was at best a half-truth. But the part that was true illustrated why Washington needs a more vigorously critical black press than it has now. Only a week before the beginning of Barry's trial the Washington Afro-American and the Washington Tribune ran a front-page story titled Va. Official Says: Barry Can Still Win,' with the last four words in headline-size type. The Virginia official was Richmond City Council member Henry (Chuck) Richardson, who himself has been re-elected twice since being arrested for possession of heroin and cocaine in 1987. …

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