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Almost every time the name Cora Masters Barry shows up in the pages of the Washington Post these days, you will find a Roxanne Roberts byline above it. In the past year or so, Roberts has been granted an extraordinary degree of access to the notoriously unaccommodating first lady. Earlier this month, she traveled to Las Vegas with Barry for the Riddick Bowe-Evander Holyfield fight, tagging along as Barry power-shopped and shouted advice from her ringside seat. And when Barry stepped out in a massive Style profile before Marion Barry took office, it was Roberts again who served as her biographer. As feature writers go, Roberts is better than average, writing intimate, well-turned stories that fit nicely with Style’s magaziney conceits. But that probably isn’t why Cora likes working with her.
Consciously or not, Roberts has shown a willingness to fudge on some of the less savory chapters of Barry’s history. As almost everyone in the city knows, in 1987 Mrs. Barry—then Cora Wilds—was caught double-billing the city for travel expenses while serving as the city’s boxing commissioner. In 1988, she pleaded guilty to second-degree theft, was given a one-year suspended sentence and placed on supervised probation, and was ordered to pay $2,680 in restitution. In fact, the Post broke the original story, but the way Roberts writes it, the whole case was merely an “allegation.” The incident was characterized thusly in Roberts’ Nov. 6 Style piece:
A vocal advocate of stricter regulations, [Barry] was forced to resign in 1987 after allegations that she double-billed the city for $2,680 in travel expenses, a situation, she maintains, that was caused by sloppy bookkeeping, sexism and an attempt to embarrass the Barry administration.
Two months earlier, in a Metro story about Barry’s career move back into boxing as executive director of the Riddick Bowe Better Life Foundation, Roberts engaged in the same sort of revisionism:
In 1987, she resigned after allegations that she double-billed the city for $2,680 in travel expenses—which she attributed to a case of sloppy bookkeeping and an attempt to embarrass Marion Barry, who was then mayor.
Notice how Barry elaborates on her excuse in the more recent story. In addition to blaming sloppy bookkeeping and politics as usual, Barry now claims gender played a role in the “allegations.” You could credit Barry’s substantial spinning skills for the errors, but Roberts previously managed to get the story right. In a Style profile published Halloween 1994, Roberts wrote:
Whatever the case, Masters repaid the money, pleaded guilty to second-degree theft, a misdemeanor, and resigned in 1987.
Other Post reporters have not had the same trouble recalling the guilty plea. Did Roberts forget what she once knew, or did she allow Barry to hedge in order to build a relationship with a valuable source?
“I regret that it wasn’t more explicit. By saying that she was forced to resign, I don’t think the readers were confused by what happened here. But I really regret what was a hasty choice of words,” Roberts says of the Vegas article.
Roberts does not, however, apologize for her rapport with Barry.
“For reasons that I am not entirely clear about, and which can be subject to any number of interpretations, Cora and I have the ability to sit down and talk about a lot of things.”
David Von Drehle, Style’s new editor, says the use of “allegations” in the Vegas travelogue was “clearly poor phrasing that did not adequately convey the facts. A number of people here spotted the weakness of it, and we immediately wrote a correction.”
Barry is obviously eager to rid herself of the tin can she picked up from her days on the boxing commission. But it is what it is, and you can’t write a story about Barry and boxing without mentioning that she caught a criminal case the last time she was near a ring. Is Barry granting Roberts access others are denied because she is willing to gloss over a criminal conviction? “From a journalistic standpoint, what she is doing today is a lot more important than something that happened 10 years ago,” Roberts says. “It goes back to whether the reporter has to have an adversarial relationship with her source, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. The Barrys both believe that the local reporters have an agenda, and I don’t think she believes that I am out to get her.”
Von Drehle says Cora Barry will not be allowed to shop at Style.
“We do not allow our subjects to choose who writes about them. I wouldn’t expect that the Barrys would have any more control than any other people,” he says, suggesting that future assignments will bear him out.
“Mrs. Barry is not the only public figure who would rather talk to some reporters than others,” Von Drehle says. “When we sent Rox to Las Vegas, we thought that having her go would allow us to show our readers a scene that they would want to see, that they ought to see. Whether another reporter could have gotten that story is not a question that came up at the time.”
The coverage of Barry suggests the Post compromised in an effort to maintain access to the mayor’s wife. Barry is openly disdainful of most reporters and has a specific resentment toward Metro reporter Yolanda Woodlee—which may be why when Cora Barry decided to leave teaching to administer Bowe’s foundation, Roberts got the Metro story as well. By refusing to talk to Woodlee and other people from the Metro desk, Barry has effectively managed to pre-empt Post editors and decide who covers her.
Reporters everywhere face the dilemma: Tell the truth and burn a bridge, or skate past it and stay on the A-list. But the history between Roberts and Barry suggests there is an implicit contract: Roberts will get the story as long as Barry gets her way.