When Marion Barry, Washington D.C. ‘s second elected, four time Mayor passed away on November 23, the residents of DC were in shock. In 1990, Barry was caught on tape smoking crack cocaine in 1990. He became known thereafter for his “bitch set me up” comment when he realized he was being busted. Though he struggled with drugs at a time when DC was known as the “murder capital”, Barry was an incredibly smart man, who was an unrelenting advocate or the disadvantaged people of Washington. This got him constant forgiveness in the eyes of the people he served. Despite this, news broke of his death with TMZ’s headline reading “Marion Barry crack mayor dead at 78.”
Outrage started immediately after the headline broke. It wasn’t long before a Change.org petition was started to have TMZ remove and apologize for the headline. “We want his legacy to be honored the right way. Show respect to his family, friends and supporters,” the petition says. Marc Lamont Hill, a journalist for the Huffington Post suggested via Twitter that this was another example of the racism that seems to be front and center in our headlines today. He “something tells me that @tmz won’t write ‘Philandering President passes’ when Bill Clinton dies one day.”
In an interview with Tony Perkins of FOX 5 news, It was also suggested that the comparison between the reports of Health Ledger’s death and Barry’s death also suggested an undertone of racism.
“When Heath Ledger died, there wasn’t a defining video that marked Heath Ledger’s life,” Levin said. “Heath Ledger was an actor who suddenly and shockingly died from something that a lot of people didn’t really think was the case with Heath Ledger. So, the difference is that there was something defining in the mayor’s life that wasn’t defining in the life of Heath Ledger, but in terms of a racial component, no.”
The problem for me, however was the difference in the content of the articles about Heath Ledger and Marion Barry. I get that headlines sell news, but once they grabbed the reader’s attention, there was no effort to talk about all the wonderful things that Barry did, like his masters degree in chemistry, his 1967, Barry co-founding of Pride, Inc., a jobs program for unemployed black men. It didn’t discuss his establishment of the Summer Youth Employment Program and his push to revitalize parts of the city devastated by the King riots. Had TMZ taken the time, after catching the reader’s attention, to report even a modicum of Barry’s successes, I may be able to buy what Harvey Levin is selling.