Back in January, I wrote a column criticizing the local media -- including myself -- for overly negative portrayals of black people in this city. There were so many success stories here that surely we could find more to print and broadcast than, say, black guys getting arrested for drugs.
The same day my "open letter" was published, D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was busted for smoking crack at the Vista Hotel.
"Nice try," one of my white colleagues said about the letter. "Bad timing, though, huh?"
That was an understatement. A battalion of international journalists was now descending on the nation's capital. The steps outside the U.S. District Courthouse would soon be renamed "Barry Beach," with cameras trained like rocket launchers on the embattled mayor.
And, as we now know, the worst was yet to come. The worldwide broadcast of the FBI sting videotape last week made for riveting television viewing and compelling news copy.
But if the worst is over, at least for a while, the issue of media treatment of black people is certainly as hot as ever. The extraordinary coverage of the Barry sting has caused many to wonder whether Barry would have been treated the same had he been white.
I think so. But that doesn't mean that the media treats black politicians the same as whites. Indeed, it does not, as an article in the July issue of American Enterprise magazine makes clear.
"News reports invaribly will give minority legislators ample coverage when the subject is a so-called minority issue," author William J. Drummond quoted one state legislator as saying. "But when minority legislators become involved in the mainstream of economic, political, government and social matters, their contributions, quotes, and work are either ignored or very lightly reported."
Drummond, a professor in the graduate school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, also notes that black elected officials who "tend to be players in mainstream politics, either in campaigns in which they have sought white as well as black votes or through their dealings with the business establishment," get better treatment in the press.
He cites two other studies that show "significant positive associations" between minority status and news coverage for politicians who have achieved a certain level of power.
Politicians such as Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and Rep. William Gray (D-Pa.) were cited as examples of that. But only time will tell how the media will treat persistent rumors that Wilder is dating a white woman. The media certainly showed no reluctance to bite at erroneous Justice Department rumors about Gray's personal finances last year.
Most interesting to me are two recent surveys cited by Drummond, one of 247 black mayors and the other of 342 black state legislators, which found overwhelmingly negative views of local newspaper coverage.
"From their vantage point, black mayors see a local press that does a poor job covering the black community; does not recognize important black-oriented stories; does not understand black issues; is led by publishers who don't care about black issues," Drummond quotes the authors of the study.
"What is surprising is the strength of the agreement among legislators on the inadequacy of press coverage in their communities and affirmation that coverage of a number of fields, professions, and endeavors -- and not just crime -- involving blacks is seen as unfair and unbalanced," the study states.
It is important to note that those are not just the views of black politicans such as Mayor Barry and Rep. Gus Savage (D-Ill.), who as Drummond points out "have criticized the media after their own actions got them into hot water."
Those conclusions come from scores of prominent black elected officials who represent mainstream black America. Their skepticism, sense of abandonment and even feelings of betrayal by the media ought to be cause for great concern.