An Outcry Over City Paper's Headline on Marion Barry's Latest Scandal

"This is racially motivated. It's ugly," Tisa Mitchell said before a Barry news conference.
"This is racially motivated. It's ugly," Tisa Mitchell said before a Barry news conference. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 10, 2009

The Washington City Paper had the key ingredients for a scandalous stink bomb of a story: Marion Barry, a sexual fling with an ex-aide and a scoop involving embarrassing voice mails.

But then it pushed the journalistic envelope with a three-word phrase in the cover headline, which was posted online Tuesday.

The phrase -- which can be rendered here only in sterile, Starr report-like language -- is a colloquial term for an act of oral sex performed on a man. The headline sparked a wave of angry calls to the alternative weekly, complaints from a handful of distributors and charges of racism from Barry supporters yesterday.

"Some people are going to find that vulgar -- that's inevitable," Editor Erik Wemple said, taking a break from fielding at least 30 calls from irate readers. "If they find it vulgar, they can complain. It's worth putting it out there, and it's the truth. Sometimes the truth is vulgar."

The headline -- under a picture of Barry with his arm around former girlfriend Donna Watts-Brighthaupt -- said: "You Put Me Out in Denver 'Cause I Wouldn't [insert phrase here]." The line is a quote from a voice mail that she is reported to have left the D.C. Council member, complaining about an incident during the Democratic National Convention in Denver last summer. Watts-Brighthaupt, who was working on Barry's reelection campaign, says she was assigned to his hotel room and then cast out for refusing him sex.

The phrase, said Wemple, "brought the issue very much into focus. It is a matter of public concern how he treats women."

But it is not exactly a new concern. This is, after all, a former mayor who was busted for cocaine possession in 1990 with a woman not his wife -- uttering the immortal phrase "Bitch set me up" -- and two years later was found to have received oral sex from a female visitor at a Virginia prison (a conclusion he disputed). In the current flap, the Ward 8 lawmaker gave Watts-Brighthaupt a $60,000 council contract while they were dating, then was charged last weekend with stalking her after a fight, although charges have since been dropped.

City Paper trumpeted its cover online as a "collector's edition" -- a bit of a joke, since all of its 72,000 copies are free -- and at one point its Web servers crashed from heavy demand.

Before Barry's news conference yesterday, two women approached a group of reporters and demanded to know which one worked for the City Paper. They soon began shouting at City Paper's Jason Cherkis, waving a copy of the newspaper at him.

"This is a disgrace, and I want to know what the media is doing about this," said Tisa Mitchell, 37, of Northeast Washington. "This is racially motivated. It's ugly. . . . You wouldn't do this to a white politician."

As television cameras gathered around them, Mitchell said: "I don't like the graphic nature of the front page. Everyone has relationship issues, but it shouldn't be put on the front page."

Constance Woody, who lives in Ward 7, east of the Anacostia River, added that "if Barry were a white man, he would have never been presented like this. This is an outrage."

Wemple called the accusations of racial bias "complete nonsense."

Barry, who has long accused the local media of hostile coverage, declined to answer a question about the cover. After the news conference, however, he couldn't resist when a reporter asked him again. "Trash-can reporting," he muttered.

Publisher Amy Austin called the negative reaction "much less than I expected," adding that "most of the callers are upset by the possibility of children reading the headlines."

Three of the weekly's more than 1,400 distribution spots called to say they would not display the papers, Austin said. One offered to take the copies across the street to a City Paper vending machine, she said. But another enterprising outlet called to request an extra 100 papers.

Wemple insists he has no second thoughts. "I haven't had any trouble sleeping because of it," he said.

Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.

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