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From AJR,   October 1999  issue

A Tale of Two Massacres   

When day trader Mark Barton went on a rampage in Atlanta, it was major national news. When Cyrano Marks killed his girlfriend and five others in their Atlanta home as an 11-year-old watched, it received little attention beyond the city limits. Why?

Related reading:   Facing the Truth

By Judith Sheppard
Judith Sheppard teaches journalism at Auburn University.     

FOR MORE THAN two weeks, the kicker running over the story in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution was accurate. "The Atlanta Mass Slaying"--singular--it read, and below it were the awful details of a family's massacre early July 12.

With no warning, Cyrano Marks, whom his baffled sister would later describe as "a gentle giant," pulled his girlfriend, her sister and five of his girlfriend's children out of bed, assembled them in the master bedroom of their small house on Adamsville Road and announced he was going to kill them all. He did, with the exception of 11-year-old Santonio Lucas, whom Marks pushed before him like a shield as he shot the scattering, screaming family. Wounded, Santonio played dead until Marks shot himself. Then the boy huddled in a fetal position in a closet for hours before going for help.

It was a searing story--the city's "bloodiest massacre in this century," the AJC called it. But it was little told outside Atlanta, ending up elsewhere as briefs in even nearby papers and as a sentence or two on a few evening newscasts. It got hundreds of inches in the AJC, which sent a reporter and photographer to the multiple funerals in the high school auditorium in LaFayette, Alabama, two hours' drive away, and a crime reporter to Oakland, California, to cover Marks' funeral and to explore his life.

Then things changed. On July 29, Mark Barton opened fire in two business offices in Atlanta. By the time the afternoon was over, 12 people, including Barton's two children and wife, were dead; a frantic citywide manhunt ended only when Barton killed himself that night. The story unfolded on television, and the next day, the Constitution's entire front page was devoted to the story. The new kicker above the banner headline was: "OUR 'TERRIBLE TRAGEDY.' "

For a while after that, even Atlanta columnists, reporters and graphic artists would refer in print to the Marks murders, if at all, as a prelude to July's final bloodbath. Yet the two stories are not that different. Both killers were men who felt like failures. Marks, 34, injured in a car wreck two years ago, had just begun working again. The cooking school dropout was cutting meat in a chain restaurant. Barton, 44, had shown early promise as a business owner but was a big-time loser in risky day trading of stocks online.

Police believed both had killed earlier: Marks was charged with the 1989 bludgeoning death of a Delta Air Lines employee and alleged drug dealer, but a judge dismissed the case because of insufficient evidence. Authorities in Georgia and Alabama say they've believed since 1993 that Barton hacked to death his first wife and mother-in-law at a riverside camp in Alabama but never had enough evidence to charge him. Both men were known for their love of children, and both killed the children they lived with. Both killed their partners and themselves.

There were important differences. Barton killed twice the number of victims Marks claimed. More important, Marks' murders were behind closed doors, that sad sort of crime we call "domestic" and shake our heads over but rarely fear, and it was all over hours before anyone knew. Barton's siege played out in front of us like a made-for-TV thriller, complete with a massive manhunt, a public suicide and anguished letters to the world--good video, good copy. It also had that most fundamental hook: This awful thing can happen to you, too. An August 9 story in Time elevated Barton to archetype: "At a time of increased public anxiety over such shooting sprees, he is a severed Gorgon's head," it said, "freezing onlookers with horrific astonishment."

Few will argue that the Barton story--which dominated TV news and the front pages of virtually all the nation's daily newspapers, pushing even the July 16 death of John F. Kennedy Jr. off the screen--didn't deserve wide coverage. But why did the Marks story rate so little? "Because Cyrano Marks was black," says Sylvester Monroe, Time's bureau chief in Atlanta and himself African American. He never bothered pitching the Marks story to his national editors, he says, because "I knew it wouldn't make it." A mention of Marks in the bureau's August 9 stories about Barton was cut, apparently for space, although a cutline did refer to Barton's spree as "the third set of shootings in Atlanta." (On July 23, Atlantan Greg Smith wounded a cop and killed two SWAT officers before he was shot to death.)

  • Because it was a domestic case, say many journalists and media critics. "We thought it was important enough to cover twice," says the New York Times' Atlanta bureau chief, Kevin Sack, though he concedes that space and time factors shrank both stories to 4 or 5 inches. "I'm reluctant to speak for anyone but our own bureau, but, in general, less attention is paid to domestic murders than others.… In most newsrooms, the feeling is domestic killings are not as interesting, do not make the sociological statement that a random killing or a shooting spree does. They happen within the enclosure of a home, and most people do not read about a domestic killing and think, 'Gosh, that could be me.' "
  • Because in an age when television captures events and recycles them constantly during the day, they tend to dominate the print media, too, says Bob Giles, executive director of the Freedom Forum's Media Studies Center. "One of the things that drives these kinds of stories is 7/24 television coverage," says Giles. "If they [the 24-hour cable news broadcasts] grab onto it, and it breaks during the day, and there's not much else going on to start with, you start seeing extensive coverage. These programs are on in every newspaper newsroom; they repeat the story, and it begins to get some attention."

    For that reason, the Barton case was overdone, and that contributed to how little play the Marks case got, says Louis Hodges, the Knight professor of ethics in journalism at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. "The [Barton] coverage was for commercial reasons, no doubt about it," he says. "The business these days is to put on a show. The more dramatic you can make that show, the more poignant it can become, the larger the audience. People like to wallow in emotion, and because people like that, even though they don't need it, the business side of news organizations dictates that it be aired.

    "Frankly, I'm convinced the racial viewpoint has nothing to do with this story," Hodges adds. "You have two men with fundamentally the same psychological problems, and they expressed them in the same way, except one never got outside his house and one did. The murder of the family was not as dramatic because it didn't include outsiders, and it did not have video."

    Even given other possible case-by-case reasons--other compelling news to put in the newspaper that day, including the imminent arrest in El Paso, Texas, of accused serial murderer Maturino Resendez and a deadly heat wave--the paucity of national attention to Marks' record-breaking crime is striking. It surprised AJC reporter Lyda Longa--"four children died, after all"--but the fact that her newspaper sent her to Oakland to profile Marks "speaks volumes" about its interest, she says. Still, "even the police don't cover a domestic murder [committed at the victims' home] the same way they do others."

    Its neglect also puzzled Richard Lezin Jones, a national correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer based in Atlanta, whose fairly extensive piece on Marks was published July 14 on A2. He and his editors decided to use the wire for coverage of Resendez's arrest.

    Was he surprised when so few other major organizations picked up on the Marks murders? "Yeah, a little bit," he says. "It just seemed to be a huge story. I had to think, 'Am I crazy? This many people die, it seems like a story to me'.… It was incredible, no matter how you look at it, with all the elements you look for as a journalist. Here you have this terrible tragedy, and a young boy who sees it all and makes it out.… [My editors] were just amazed. We agreed folks need to know about this."

    Y ET THE MARKS story remained chiefly a local one. In fact, a Lexis-Nexis search of daily newspapers published between July 11 and August 11 shows only about 40 "hits" under the keyword Cyrano Marks (22 of which were pieces in the AJC). Most mentions outside Atlanta were small--300 words or less--like the Washington Post's A6 piece July 14 or the brief inside Raleigh's News & Observer the same day. A Lexis-Nexis search from July 28 to August 11 for references to Mark Barton reaped more than 500 hits. And stories about JFK Jr.'s death were in the thousands.

    Of the three network evening news broadcasts archived at Vanderbilt University, only CBS gave the Marks story a minute of airtime on July 12, following with 20 seconds on July 13. It was a 10-second story on NBC on July 12.

    Barton's murders led ABC, NBC and CBS on July 29 with between three and five minutes of airtime on each, continuing to receive more than two minutes and as many as nine on broadcasts over the next three days.

    Even the hometown Journal-Constitution had featured only two A1 stories on Marks, on July 13 and 14, by early September. The other stories stayed inside on the local news section front. "We don't do a lot of crime coverage on the front," explains Donna Lorenz, the deputy Metro editor who coordinated the Marks and the Barton coverage. Both crimes were "horrendous," but the public threat first posed while Barton was at large and that lingered psychologically in the spree's wake moved his story onto another plane, she says. The Journal-Constitution had splashed the Barton story onto the front page 14 times as of August 22, a Lexis-Nexis search showed.

    Newsweek never mentioned Marks. When National Affairs Editor Steve Strasser was asked about the lack of Marks coverage, he said he'd never heard of the murders until Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell referred to the Barton slayings on television as another "trauma." Strasser said he couldn't explain why the story never made it into Newsweek. (At press time, Newsweek Atlanta Bureau Chief Dan Pederson was on vacation, and writer Vern Smith declined to comment.) "But at the national magazine level, you want to do stories that have caught the wave, or we think will catch the wave, of national attention," says Strasser. "To make it [into Newsweek], a murder would have to be connected to a larger theme," like the hate crimes inflicted on the dragging death victim in Texas and the gay student in Wyoming.

    Here's what caught the wave on three major newsmagazines' covers after Marks' massacre: On July 19, both Time and Newsweek covers were given to the U.S. women's soccer team, while U.S. News & World Report featured "America's Best Hospitals." On July 26 and August 2, the death of JFK Jr., his wife and sister-in-law dominated all the newsmagazines. The "Atlanta Massacre"--Barton's story--made the cover of Time on August 9, but it was only teased on Newsweek's cover, which was devoted to "The New Age of Cosmetic Surgery." U.S. News & World Report also teased "The Atlanta Rampage" on its August 9 cover, which featured "Inside The Teen Brain: The Reason for Your Kid's Quirky Behavior Is In His Head." The last paragraph of that magazine's two-page story on Barton mentioned Atlanta's two other shootings.

    Newsweek decided not to devote a cover to Barton because he was, after all, one man with a history of violence and instability, "just another guy who cracked," Strasser says. "We have to ask, 'Does this have resonance?' " The magazine did devote seven pages to the Barton slayings, followed by two pages on day trading. The August shootings at a Jewish day care center in Los Angeles prompted a cover story and 35-page special report on August 23 on two themes--the gun control issue and the need to protect children, Strasser says. Domestic killings rarely have wide meaning, he adds: "They just don't speak to that many people. Now, if [Marks] had been a black serial killer, that would have been a big story."

    B UT THE "RESONANCE" factor is just what some media observers think makes the scant attention the Marks story got a racially charged issue. Keith Woods, who teaches ethics, diversity and coverage of race relations at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, says the average journalist has a harder time recognizing the resonance of a story--the larger truths or "wave" Strasser mentioned--when the people involved are poor or members of a minority. "The Barton murders' relevance to us is immediately clear. These are middle-class people like us journalists. [Most victims] were white, like most journalists. They were professional people," says Woods. "It goes right down to a connection to the stock market.… We're all invested in some way there. We don't have to work hard to understand why that's a 'good' story.…

    "But with the Marks story, it doesn't become as immediately obvious to us middle-class, predominantly white professionals that there is a universal connection to that family. Sometimes we have to work hard at it. Maybe there was some pathos, some news value…had we assumed there was and gone after it that way," he adds.

    Francis Ward, associate professor of journalism at Syracuse University and a longtime newspaperman, says he suspects many legitimate factors affected the murder coverage, including the "domestic" quality of the Marks murders. He also believes in a widespread, albeit unconscious, assumption that violence among blacks is not news. "Fundamentally, race plays an unconscious but significant factor in news selection," he contends. "It's futile to argue it doesn't play a factor at all in news selection like this.… News executives tend to identify with stories when those who are involved in them are most like them. Predominantly, news executives are still white males."

    Even those who say the poverty and minority status of Marks and his victims account for some of this story's dismissal don't think editors or producers believe blacks or poor people don't "deserve" coverage; there's just a sense that their tragedies are less unusual and less interesting to their audiences. "It's the same way as in the school shootings," says Time's Monroe, who's covered a number of them. "I lived in L.A. for 10 years, and there were drive-by shootings of black school kids all the time. It was never news, except as local news."

    But recent school shootings--some of which he's covered--in mostly white schools became huge stories. "In every one of these things, the victims' families always say, 'I never thought it could happen here.' But people are not surprised if there is violence in the inner-city black schools. In some ways, people are not surprised if a black person kills seven people. And unfortunately, the media continue to perpetuate these myths about race and class that the larger society has," Monroe says.

    In fact, as Monroe and Paul Delaney, director of Howard University's Center for the Study of Race and Media, point out, black mass murder is rare. "A black school shooting still hasn't happened," notes Delaney. "I always wonder what the coverage would have been like if Columbine had been a black school. It would have been different, and it would have been a lot less."

    Delaney says the treatment given the Marks case "isn't a trend. It's old news. It happens all the time, and it's based on race and perhaps to some extent economics." On the same night the Central Park jogger, a white woman, was nearly beaten to death by six men--five black and one Hispanic--a black woman was thrown off a building in Brooklyn. Yet that received nothing like the notice given the jogger, Delaney notes. "You just can't escape race in this country, and, unfortunately, the media [are] a part of it. The people who make news decisions cover people like them and focus on people like them."

    T HE FREEDOM FORUM'S Giles doesn't think race played a role in the obscurity of the Marks murders. He believes a domestic slaughter, horrifying as it may be, just doesn't offer the opportunity for today's easy-answers journalism. "There's been a tendency, particularly on television news, to want to give viewers the quick analysis," he says. For instance, the Jonesboro, Arkansas, school shootings last year were "summed up as a product of the Southern rural community, where there's a tradition of guns. [The media] tied it up in a little bow, and that was that," he notes ruefully. With Marks' case--with no obvious themes to explore and with only one anonymous family affected--"where there are...undefined issues, you get a lower level of interest." In fact, family murders are pretty standard fare in USA Today, says Managing Editor Hal Ritter. Just look at the state-by-state roundup that paper publishes. "You'd be surprised how many days of the year there's an item where someone killed two or three or four members of the family before putting a gun in his or her mouth," he notes. "It's just not that uncommon." USA Today ran a story about the Marks incident on A3 on July 13 and referred to it in a story about Barton.

    Many journalists say there's just no getting around the fact that for many readers, Barton's rampage hits closer to home, psychologically, than the Marks incident. "It's a conversation we've actually had," says David Gibson, an assistant Metro editor at the Journal-Constitution. "Part of [the newsworthiness of the Barton slayings] has to do with the general randomness of it all. In the one case everybody knew each other, and it couldn't have happened to you unless you were in the house. In the other case, there were people who just happened to be in this office."

    Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor of the paper, addressed the difference in an August 1 column after Barton's siege. "Marks, at least, left us room to distance ourselves; his massacre was a case of 'family violence,' " she wrote. "[Greg] Smith, too, gave us a psychic hiding place...

    "But Barton shattered our illusions of safety and routine, coming out of nowhere to launch his grim attack in a crowded office building in Buckhead, Atlanta's glitziest neighborhood and one of its safest. We cannot hide from his kind. They could be at the mall, in the park, at the movies where we go to escape the heat."

    J OURNAL-CONSTITUTION editor Lorenz notes that sometimes geography matters: "One of the things you consider when you're reacting to a killing and any kind of crime is the incidence of crime in the area where it occurs." The Adamsville Road neighborhood where Marks lived was close to a relatively high-crime area, so its news value is less than if a killing happens "in an affluent neighborhood where crime is lower."

    Neither geography nor race factored into the St. Petersburg Times' decision, rare among newspapers, to play the Marks story across the bottom of A1 on July 13, says National Editor Sebastian Dortch. Other "pretty extraordinary" factors influenced the paper's decision, he says. "You have this 11-year-old hiding out, and everybody in the house is killed."

    Dortch adds he "would hope in 1999 we're beyond" making decisions about news play based on a victim's race. "I know, as an African American and an editor, I'm looking at traditional triggers," he says. "Does a story have that 'Hey, it could happen to me' feeling?"

    On the same day that paper ran the Marks story out front, it published above the fold a story on one of the area's most sensational unsolved murders: the November 7, 1997, death of Sheila Bellush.

    Bellush had quadruplets, 23 months old at the time of her death, who were found naked, in life vests, in the house with her bloody body. She also had two teenage daughters by a flamboyant millionaire ex-husband in Texas from whom she'd gotten a spectacularly nasty divorce and who, her widower has alleged in a civil lawsuit, paid two hit men to kill her. Bellush lived in an upscale suburb of Sarasota, Florida. She was a pretty, blond, white woman, 34 years old.

    But the Poynter Institute's Woods remembers hearing of another violent incident a month later, another unsolved murder of another woman in her home--this one black. While Bellush's murder continued to receive dramatic play--the St. Petersburg paper had nearly 30 stories archived online and ran a major update August 15--neither Woods nor those contacted at the St. Petersburg Times could recall the name of that other woman.

    Later, Woods dug through his files and found the woman's name and other details: Erica Richardson, 33, a pharmacist, was stabbed to death December 8, 1997. A search of the St. Petersburg Times' online archives pulled three references to Richardson, including her obituary.

    "I don't think there's a conscious discounting of black life as opposed to white life," Woods says. "But I do think a community's sense of loss, its sense of outrage and its ultimate connection to the people involved in a story is formed in many ways by the media's response.... We have to acknowledge the very real and unambiguous message it sends."

    It's not that Bellush deserved less coverage, Woods says. It's that the now-forgotten woman deserved more: "We say 'horrible,' 'big,' 'important,' 'significant,' by where we place the story and how long it is. And we have to recognize the impact of these decisions."

    Jones, the Inquirer's Atlanta-based national correspondent, agrees. "I think that's something we need to think about and look at, to be honest. People tell you that how we cover black death and black life is different, that we give black coverage short shrift while we fall over other things," he says. "You know, I went to Columbine. And the thing you hear is, 'It's not supposed to happen here.' So where is it supposed to happen?

    "I don't know if that played a part" in the lack of coverage on the Marks shooting, "if [the reaction] was 'Oh, just another shooting in Adamsville,' " Jones says. "If it did, that's sad, and we all need to do a lot of self-examination."