- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Marion Barry built his career railing against the man — sometimes with good reason, sometimes with none.

His latest diatribe is directed toward television news, and it may represent one of those moments when his outrage is justified.

In an interview in this week’s edition of Time magazine, Mr. Barry — a Democrat who just returned to office as Ward 8’s representative on the D.C. Council — griped that when TV news programs do stories about him, they invariably trot out the grainy video clip that shows him smoking crack in a D.C. hotel.

The image, from an FBI surveillance tape in January 1990, triggered the scandal that forced Mr. Barry from the mayor’s office that fall after 12 years.

“You hardly hear anything about Bill Clinton or Robert Downey Jr. There’s racism in the downfallen community. If you’re white, people forget about it in a year. Now, 14 years later, you find the ‘Today’ show showing the clip,” he told Time.

The reporters and producers who include the clip in stories about Mr. Barry probably don’t think it’s racist, said Andrew Rojecki, an associate communications professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the co-author of a 2001 study that found TV news perpetuates racial stereotypes.

“It’s probably the sort of thing where there’s an image caught on tape that’s powerful, and it becomes convenient for them to use it,” Mr. Rojecki said.

But the news media should be careful: Pictures speak louder than words, and the sight of Mr. Barry firing up that crack pipe — even if it is 15 years old — could reinforce the idea that black politicians are corrupt, Mr. Rojecki said.

A spokeswoman for NBC’s “Today” show did not return a telephone call and two e-mail messages.

The network’s station in the Washington area, WRC-TV (Channel 4), stopped airing the clip of Mr. Barry years ago because he was never convicted of crack possession. The jury at his 1990 trial convicted him of one misdemeanor drug charge, but it failed to reach a verdict on the 12 remaining charges, including one that stemmed from the FBI sting.

“We don’t use it as wallpaper,” said Vicki Burns, WRC’s news director.

Mr. Barry served six months in federal prison. He was elected to the City Council in 1992, then served one more term as mayor in 1994.

“People here know what Marion Barry did. You don’t have to show it to them over and over,” said Bruce Johnson, who has reported on District politics for WUSA-TV (Channel 9), the local CBS affiliate, since 1976.

In the Time interview, Mr. Barry cited Mr. Clinton and Mr. Downey, an actor who has battled addiction, as examples of white celebrities who are not haunted in the press by their past scandals. Mr. Johnson said the comparisons don’t work.

“Bill Clinton was a national figure before Monica Lewinsky. Robert Downey Jr. made a lot of movies. But [Mr. Barry’s arrest is] how most people outside Washington came to know him,” he said.

Right or wrong, Mr. Rojecki said it’s unlikely the networks will cut Mr. Barry the same slack the local stations have.

“He’s probably saddled with that image for the rest of his life,” he said.

Call Chris Baker at 202/636-3139 or send e-mail to cbaker@washingtontimes.com.

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