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April 4, 2006

A visionary who led by example

Thirty years ago, I was planning the first issue of Louisville Today magazine, my first venture in the publishing business, and I had only one idea for launching it with great fanfare: get Barry Bingham Jr. to sit for an interview. Fat chance, I thought. But I did not know Barry then the way I did later.He did not hesitate to agree, acted as though he was flattered to be asked, and gave me as much time as I needed. The fact that I was a potential, albeit inconsequential, competitor was irrelevant. He taught me a lesson that I have not forgotten: there is a responsibility that accompanies public power, and it supercedes selfish financial considerations.Barry’s 1976 interview was remarkable in many ways, not the least of which was that he predicted that people would one day read newspapers on their computers. He correctly foresaw that computers would represent a much more efficient and environmentally frugal method of news distribution. He refused to be a slave to his birthright. In fact, Barry never stopped thinking ahead. He was always interested in new ideas, but he never stopped believing in the “old-fashioned” values of integrity and principle. One might even say that he devoted his life to the promotion of those qualities.Barry Bingham Jr. not only ran The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times, but also WHAS-TV and radio. In the late 1970s, the federal government moved to eliminate cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in the same market, but they allowed existing media market monopolies like the Binghams’ to remain in place. The producers of WHAS-TV’s public affairs program “News Conference” asked me to help interview Barry about that decision, rightly understanding that it would be suspicious if only his own employees questioned him.During the interview, after we turned to other subjects, I asked Barry about a policy then in place at the family company that there would be no public disclosure of the company’s finances. “You have consistently editorialized for full public disclosure by any institution that deals with the public trust,” I began. “Since news organizations certainly deal with the public trust, how do you reconcile your company’s policy with your editorial position?”He smiled his wonderfully mischievous smile, and said, “I am very embarrassed by that, but my board of directors has directed me not to disclose the company’s finances.”I was content to leave it at that, but news anchor Jim Mitchell, probably the Bingham’s most highly paid employee at the time, immediately followed up. “You mean, you told yourself not to do it.”Barry laughed heartily and said, “I guess you could put it that way.”After the program, I told Jim I was impressed that he would ask such a courageous question.“Oh, they love it!” he said.I did not know at the time whether Jim meant that Barry simply loved being challenged, or whether he appreciated being able to show that he did not consider himself above the scrutiny his properties gave to others. During the last couple years I had the chance to spend more time with Barry. Not too long ago he opened his wallet and displayed a Courier-Journal clipping he had carried since it was published in 1973. It was an article about how Barry Bingham Jr. had been cited for a traffic violation, and it had run on the front page, at the insistence of publisher Barry Bingham Jr. He was not going to let the editors bury it and open the paper to criticism that it gave the owner favorable treatment, so he demanded they go overboard and play it more prominently than they would for any other citizen.Barry’s life was dedicated to the promotion of open, honest communication in every aspect of society, from government to the business world to civic and charitable organizations. No one was a more consistent and persistent advocate for a fair and compassionate society and for true democratic ideals.Barry was not only a friend, but a wise and generous mentor. He taught me, largely by his actions, that in the world of journalism there is no substitute for personal and professional credibility. Journalists everywhere would be well served by recommitting themselves to Barry Bingham Jr.’s example. Contact the writer at jyarmuth@aol.com