The death of Marion Barry this past weekend have many reflecting on his legacy and positive actions during the civil rights movement, as well as his tenure as mayor of Washington, D.C. However, one incident that was caught on video has tainted the life and death of this great leader. In 1990, Barry was seen on video smoking crack cocaine in an FBI undercover sting operation. He was convicted of drug possession and sentenced to six months in prison, as well as drug rehabilitation. Barry completed his sentence and rehabilitation with flying colors. He went on to reenter politics and was elected to a fourth term as mayor of D.C., which cemented his unofficial title of “Mayor for life.”
But the tabloid news outlet, TMZ decided to run the headline “MARION BARRY CRACK MAYOR DEAD AT 78.” In addition, the outlet posted the video of Barry smoking crack. There was no mention of his positive role in the black community or his work as mayor. The decision by TMZ to use this description of Barry smacks of bias and racism. Marion Barry was not using crack when he died, his death was related to a long string of health issues including diabetes. But when a white public figure junkie dies of a drug overdose, TMZ coverage did not include their drug use in the headline. In 2008 when actor Heath Ledger died, there were prescription pills by his body and evidence that he had an addiction problem. When Philip Seymour Hoffman died early this year of a heroin overdose, with a needle in his arm and packets of the drug near his body; the headlines stated that his death was due to an overdose. Many outlets then wrote tributes is to his talent as an actor and focused on his body of work.
This biased coverage has not been lost in the world of social media. There has been a Change.org online petition started demanding TMZ take down the offensive headline about Barry. In the 48 hours since Barry’s death, the petition has garnered 15,000 signatures. There is no word from TMZ if they will remove the headline.