April 4, 2006

A legacy of progressive good works and ethics

BY BOB SCHULMAN The name Bingham was linked for 90-plus years with progressive advances in Louisville and Kentucky government, politics, health, culture and the arts.The death of Barry Bingham Jr. brought a wrenching end to that legacy, achieved through print and broadcast journalism and the community good works that the journalism financed.But there was something special that Barry Jr. brought to the operation. To call it stubborn dedication or devotion to ethics would be like describing a rose as a thorny posy.The slender man with a fancy waxed mustache was never slated to succeed his father Barry Bingham Sr. as leader of the family newspapers. His role was to run the broadcast side.Yet after the accidental death of his brother, Worth, Barry Jr. pulled up his dyslexic reading problems and manfully tackled the newspaper role.More fiercely than his remarkable father, he brought such private scorn for what he considered the tilt of other newspaper and broadcast bosses toward personal bias and advertiser interests that only once in his 15-year publishing career did he emulate the others in attending an American Newspaper Publishers Association (ANPA) convention. For him, once was enough.In my 15 years of involvement with the Binghams’ newspapers and radio-TV operation, and in  the later years of a friendship made amiably testy by his firm ideas, I had unforgettable views of these Barry Jr. characteristics.In the early 1970s, he refused WHAS-TV News Director Bob Morse’s proposal to start station editorializing, believing it would feed critical outcries about a Bingham press “monopoly.” But he approved the launching on the WHAS radio-TV news of my daily “One Man’s Opinion” commentary. In four years of sometimes scathingly satirical mouthings that occasionally included the Bingham newspapers, I never once heard anything critical from the top boss.After four years, in the same vein, Barry Jr. created in the Louisville Times, and later in The Courier-Journal, a regular column for news media criticism that was one of the nation’s first. It was to expand for readers the up-and-down nature of news-play decisions already monitored by the Times-C-J complaint-bird-dogging ombudsman.Again, in eight years of writing the “In All Fairness” column, Barry Jr., to whom I only reported, rode unflinchingly through columns that, when I found it appropriate, rapped Bingham reporters and editors. Occasionally they hit so hard that Bingham critics concluded I really had the freedom to bite the hand that fed me.It was typical of Barry Jr. that when sometimes-justifyingly resentful editors penned bitching, private memos to him, he routinely shared them with me for my rebuttal (I recall the occasion when sports scribe Billy Reed, whose work I admired, wondered if I intended to “destroy” his career).Many were the early mornings when I dropped into Barry Jr.’s third floor office to find him finishing his preview of the day’s paper at a standing-height desk, made necessary by his dyslexia.It was during that period that, with then-Sports Editor Earl Cox and with support from Executive Editor Norman Isaacs, Barry Jr. backed a toughened ethics code for the nation’s sports editors.But it reflected his passionate dedication to news that was free from special interests that, for an upsetting sports department time, he banned the mention of commercial sponsors when  the news involved the  “Marlboro Cup” or the “Buick Classic.” His notion of keeping book reviews free from dishonest tilt by insisting that his papers pay for books sent by publishers for review also didn’t last; publishers complained that this loused up their bookkeeping.All of this is what prompted The Wall Street Journal’s front-page proclamation that Barry Jr. was the “Mister Clean” of American journalism.Obituary mentions of an event during Louisville’s “forced busing” school desegregation period missed the irony that showed Barry Jr.’s ethical determination didn’t always earn honor. He had insisted that a federal judge’s ruling against downtown massed protests was a free speech violation; a resulting crowd smashed The C–J and T front windows.In the first years after the dismantling of the Bingham media empire, which Barry Jr. felt was for him a “betrayal,” his continuing devotion to fair-play ethics led him to put money into a “Fine Line” press ethics bulletin whose upper-level nobility doomed it to a short life.The same independent purity of motive was what led him in more recent years to assail what he counted improper management in some of metro Louisville’s performing arts, even as he and his wife, Edie, continued to put money and effort into it all.No doubt his widow and his sisters Eleanor and Sallie, together with Barry Jr. and Edie’s children, will continue their devotion to arts and a better environment. But Barry Bingham’s stubborn, sometimes troublesome devotion to uncontrolled fairness will be hard to replace. Bob Schulman was media critic for The Louisville Times and WHAS radio-TV.