SOME OF THE most of heated arguments over the Marion Barry case have been those among black journalists. Tempers have flared and motives have been questioned: Is there racism in the white media's reporting of the drama? What is the proper function of the black-owned press? What about the role of black journalists employed by the white-owned media?

Such questions suggest the journalistic divisions. They're also a reminder that from the standpoint of many black journalists, a comprehensive view of the case must include not only the mayor's wrongdoing but the pervasiveness of white racism.

Yet few have simultaneously addressed these two realities -- with the result that many of the city's black journalists are divided. The black press gives ever stronger responses to what it perceives to be racist coverage, while many black journalists in the white media feel pressure because of their participation in that coverage.

Recently the relationship between some members of the black and white media has become openly adversarial. "It's almost become a guerrilla war out here," notes Metro Chronicle publisher LaVerne Gill referring to the antagonism. The black press routinely blasts coverage of the case by the white-owned media.

The District's black media establishment has clout because it's among the largest in the country. Apart from print media {see box, Page C4}, there are two black-owned TV outlets: WHMM (Channel 32), the Howard University public television station, and Black Entertainment Television, the national cable channel. There are in addition several popular radio stations, such as WOL-AM, WHUR-FM and WKYS-FM.

An example of this power was displayed in mid-February, when a group of local black journalists and activists successfully pressured the top management of WRC-TV to cancel a proposed "town meeting" to discuss "community reaction" to Barry's arrest. "It would have been a mock trial starring prosecutor Jay Stephens," insists one of the activists, Capital Spotlight columnist Mary Cox, an attorney. (Cox herself has become one of Barry's leading advocates and several black papers have begun reporting on her activities.) Others who lobbied against the broadcast were WPFW program director Tom Porter, WDCU-FM talk show host Ernest White, Capital Spotlight columnist Bill Reed, the Rev. James Bevel, Metro Chronicle's Gill and others.

Since the Barry "sting" at the Vista Hotel on Jan. 18, representatives of the black-owned media have held various public meetings to discuss coverage of the story, usually in critical terms. The most significant such gathering was a June 6 forum at Howard, where the prevailing view was that white press coverage of the mayor has been racist, politically motivated and journalistically shoddy.

According to WPFW's Porter, a panelist, "We were trying to raise some very legitimate issues concerning how the major media covered the situation. When we looked at it we saw a lot of smoke and no fire. After all they {the prosecutors} don't have a thing on the mayor except that he lied about a misdemeanor. Usually they don't even arrest users much less take them to court. But in this case they worked backwards in order to get him on a felony. Once he claimed he didn't take drugs, they then set up a situation to prove he did. This doesn't involve pushing drugs or stealing money. But around the world the news was being covered if he had been caught stealing millions of dollars.

"So therefore," Porter continued, "we said to ourselves that from a journalistic point of view we had a responsibility to report the other side. The news was just not being covered with a lot of integrity in the so-called established media even though there were a lot of black people reporting it." The District's black newspapers, meanwhile, have reported "the other side" largely by focusing on the purported racism of the prosecution and the white press, virtually ignoring the significance of Barry's behavior. Since the mayor's arrest, the Afro-American has run such pro-Barry headlines as: "He's Still the Mayor," over a story that noted continuing community support, and "Barry: Back, Brave, Better."

In mid-March, the Capital Spotlight ran two front-page stories: "Don't Believe the Hype," said one headline over an article in which Barry brushed aside early reports about the Vista sting. The subhead said: "Mayor says videotapes not all they're cracked-up to be." A second story, written by Mary Cox and labeled a "news analysis," was headlined, "Willie Horton and Mayor Barry," and said comparable racist tactics were employed by the Bush presidential campaign and Barry's legal adversaries. On June 7, as jury selection was under way, the Spotlight proclaimed "Bait-Gate: U.S. Government, Jay {Stephens} on trial." When Barry announced he wouldn't run again, Cox ran a passionate open letter to Barry, declaring, "Our hearts are in a coffin."

The Washington Informer, New Observer and American Weekly, which haven't actively supported Barry in print, have generally refrained from discussing the trial or its implications, focusing on other news, such as Nelson Mandela's U.S. visit or the black newspaper publishers' convention. Generally missing from all of these papers is any sense of moral outrage at the mayor's behavior.

The exceptions are few. Some black weeklies carry the nationally syndicated columnist Tony Brown. "Mr. Barry," Brown wrote, "is a tragic figure, attempting to establish a system of gutter justice and blame racism for his betrayal of his own people." But when the Afro-American printed that, the same page carried a piece describing a "U.N. petition" on Barry's behalf, filed by the same Mary Cox who writes for the Capital Spotlight. An editorial in the Afro-American stated, "We are more comfortable with what the human rights activists want to do than with the column by Mr. Brown."

In recent days, after it was alleged that the mayor steered city contracts in return for sex and/or drugs, and the Vista tape was broadcast, most black newspapers dealt with the tape. The Afro printed a transcript, and Informer columnists Lil Wiggins and George Wilson discussed its implications. But the lead editorials in the Afro, Spotlight and Informer focused on the exclusion of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan from the courtroom. The Spotlight's editorial, by Mary Cox, ran on page one. For black journalists working for the white press, the situation is especially complicated. Many have experienced racism first hand, both in their treatment and in portrayals of the black community, and few object when the black press attacks what it perceives as the white-owned media's racism. These feelings surface at every National Association of Black Journalists convention and, in fact, almost whenever journalists gather.

Last year, WHMM-TV's Kojo Nnamdi hosted a program featuring black journalists that unleashed a torrent of frustration over the white-owned media. One reporter complained that no matter how talented you are, people assume that a white reporter is better. Black journalists are even more frustrated by their inability to change the unrelentingly negative image of black Americans. Many agree with Patricia Raybon, a black editor, who argued last year in Newsweek that "day after day, week after week, this message that Black America is dysfunctional and unwhole gets transmitted across the American landscape. Sadly as a result, America never learns the truth about what is actually a wonderful, vibrant creative community of people."

This distortion is particularly acute in Washington where a 70-percent black city is overwhelmingly covered by white journalists from out of town. "In a sense," Washington Post columnist William Raspberry observes, "most reporters act like foreign correspondents in a strange country; they have a tendency to notice the things that are most different from them. And in this society the things white people consider different from them are usually rejected as bad or pathological."

But while many black reporters accept the contention that the white media are often biased, many find it much harder to swallow another assertion: that the proper role of the black press -- and by implication all black reporters -- is to protect black leaders rather than criticize them, particularly when they are under attack by whites.

In interviews and public statements, the senior editors or publishers of five of the District's six black weeklies (the Afro-American, the Capital Spotlight, the New Observer, American Weekly and the Metro Chronicle) maintained that the black press had a special obligation to support black leaders. As Afro-American publisher Frances Murphy put it at a March Capital Press Club forum on the Barry case, "Yes, we go out of our way to bend over backwards to give him the benefit of the doubt, because so many others are bending the other way." Gill, Murphy and Capital Spotlight editor Barry Murray have said that they want the white press to give Barry the same break it gave Presidents Kennedy and Roosevelt when news of their personal vices went unreported.

Many black journalists find this idea absurd in the post-Watergate era when politicians like Gary Hart, John Tower and Barney Frank have had every embarrassing detail of their personal lives exposed. Some critics note that the black press used to be much more critical of black leaders.

Haywood Farrar, a black professor at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject of the Baltimore Afro-American. Farrar believes that many black papers are not being true to their own tradition. "At one time the Afro never hesitated to hold black authority figures accountable, so if they got involved in corrupt activities they were called out on it. This is completely different from the Washington Afro-American's treatment of Marion Barry or George Stallings. Now they've turned into cheerleaders for these folks. . . . They no longer speak truth to power."

This failing, The Washington Post's Juan Williams believes, stifles debate and makes black reporters' jobs that much harder. Some in the black press have accused Williams of being insensitive, but Williams's view is shared by black reporters outside The Post -- an institution that has often been the target of black discontent. Isaiah Poole of the Washington Times notes, "The black press has raised some good questions about selective prosecution or whether Barry should be jailed for smoking crack when people who've done far worse are out on the street. But it's unfortunate that when reporters are out making a legitimate effort to examine the man's record, it's painted as an effort to undermine black politicians."

Denise Yourse, editor of the Afro-American, says, "Of course we shouldn't just be public-relations people for black politicians." Bill Reed of the Capital Spotlight believes that "Too often we have a tendency to treat our elected officials like superstars rather than public servants." But writers and editors at black papers must also yield to their editors and publishers. The institutional constraints of corporate cultures apply at both black and white media outlets. Black journalists and commentators who have taken the widest perspective on the affair -- condemning Barry, his legal adversaries and the white media -- seem most often to be found in black-owned radio or TV stations such as WHUR and WHMM, and on nonprofit WPFW-FM, WDCU-FM and National Public Radio. These outlets feature talk shows where a wide range of opinion is expressed, and, unlike small black newspapers, are less likely to reflect the perspective of a single individual. As WPFW news director Tom Pope puts it, "Broadcast does a better job because it's more interactive. If someone calls in and accuses the mayor of being a crack-head you've got to deal with it."

The ultimate strength of these broadcast outlets is an ability to attract black journalists with activist credentials so impeccable that it is difficult to argue that their criticism of blacks is part of a white agenda. Askia Muhammad, often featured on NPR and WHMM-TV, is the former editor of the Nation of Islam's newspaper. He believes that "Our community has a crying need for black truth squads to pursue our politicians, stand outside their offices and say, 'You've betrayed us, don't you ever show your face in this community again.' "

WHMM's Kojo Nnamdi goes even further: "I'm trying to take the Martin Luther King position and judge Barry by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, and I have a lot of problems with his character." Nnamdi also notes that "Of course the white media's criticism of Barry is going to be tinged with racism -- which is exactly why we should have gone out and confronted him ourselves."

Paul Ruffins is a senior editor of Black Networking News.