From `Public Trust' To Private Battleground


By Susan E. Tifft and Alex S. Jones

Summit -- 574pp -- $24.95

They were known as the Kennedys of Kentucky: powerful, glamorous, dogged by personal tragedy. They were the Binghams, and for most of this century they ran a regional media empire headed by The Courier-Journal and The Louisville Times. An era ended when they sold out to the Gannett chain in 1986, ostensibly to make peace among squabbling clan members and shareholders. Theirs is not the first dynasty to self-destruct, nor even the most prominent, yet the Bingham story has inspired four books in the past five years. The Patriarch is the latest and the best, because it does what none of its predecessors has done: make sense of the sale of what the Binghams always regarded as their "public trust."

In 1918, Robert Worth Bingham bought the sister papers with money left him by his second wife--at the time, it was whispered that he had poisoned her for it. Recognizing the end of the last century's "firey" and "one-sided" journalism, he and his son Barry, eventually known as Barry Sr., began strengthening the editorial staff. Because of its extensive coverage of state issues, its crusading for civil rights, and innovations such as Sunday supplements, The Courier-Journal became known as one of the country's top papers. Thanks to some farsighted purchases (Louisville's WHAS radio, which became WHAS-TV, and Standard Gravure printing company), the family grew rich and influential. Its men served in diplomatic posts for Presidents who knew how politically useful a Southern Democratic publisher can be.

The Patriarch's depiction of the Bingham companies serves as a capsule history of the newspaper industry in this century: the transformation of papers from "thundering editorial forums" into more objective news-gathering operations in the `20s and `30s, profitable expansion into TV stations in the `40s and `50s, and the decline wrought by inflation and competing electronic media in the `70s and `80s. Barry Bingham Sr., the patriarch of the title, comes across as the last of the gentleman publishers, a courtly contrast to today's Al Neuharths and Robert Maxwells. Passionate about his papers' editorial stances--often quite liberal for the time and for the South--he was indifferent to finances: He once asked the company treasurer to explain "depreciation" to his children, adding, "I've never figured out what it is myself, and I don't even want to know." The Patriarch suggests that the fate of the Bingham papers reflects the passing of this sort of management.In describing the papers' early history, Susan Tifft, a Time editor, and her husband, Alex Jones of The New York Times, perpetrate some clunky writing: There seem to be two opening chapters, for example--one for each author, perhaps. But when they get to the dynasty's final 15 years, they hit their stride.

It was the destiny of Barry Jr., who became heir apparent after his elder brother died in a freak accident, to take over as editor and publisher at the start of the economically tough 1970s, when ad revenues and circulation began to slip. But Barry Jr., then 37, seems a lousy manager for any era. While his father and grandfather had a gift for finding brilliant employees, insecure Barry Jr. surrounded himself with mediocrities. Overly conscientious and principled, he "tended to elevate his personal judgment to the status of moral imperative"--at times going to absurd lengths. When he established a "no freebies accepted" policy, common at papers and magazines, he even insisted that book editors pay for traditionally free review copies. (I encountered this policy while working at a publishing house, where Courier-Journal checks for $12.95 were the bane of the accounting department.)

Worse, the new boss's "skewed zeal" hurt editorial quality. "The refreshing openness he fostered led to some brave journalism even as it encouraged reporters to publish stories in the name of full disclosure that were uselessly or deliberately cruel," the authors write. When a new managing editor proved too inexperienced, for example, Barry Jr. transferred her--then let the paper's media columnist quote him as saying she was incompetent.

Barry Jr. didn't take it well when, in the late 1970s, his mother and two sisters began criticizing his performance, often in letters to the editor, which--full disclosure again--the paper printed. In 1984, he got his parents to vote them off the board. Sister Sallie then announced she would sell her shares. Barry refused to meet her $42 million price--partly because he feared saddling the company with debt, partly because he never liked Sallie much anyway.

The feud was on. As the authors relate the clan's crumbling relationships and convoluted negotiations, the book takes on a thriller's pace, complete with a dramatic climax in Barry Sr.'s office. Several senior executives threatened to quit if the old man ceded majority control to his son. This heightened Barry Sr.'s fear that the papers would deteriorate while bearing the Bingham name. The "public trust" would become a public humiliation.

So the empire was sold--not out of a wish to restore family peace but for a simpler, harsher reason: Barry Sr. had no confidence in his children. The patriarch died in 1988. His widow and offspring are much richer but are barely on speaking terms. Tifft and Jones don't speculate about whether the dynasty could have been preserved. Rather, they spin a traumatic business story, telling what happens to a family company when family members just don't trust one another.

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