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Ethics News; Malone Again

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Ethics News

In 1971, when his father named him publisher of the Louisville Times and the Courier-Journal, Barry Bingham Jr. took note of some improprieties.

"We had an editorial writer, John F. Pierce, writing editorials for the Courier-Journal and speeches for a candidate for governor and editorials on the wonderful speeches. In another case, we had a farm editor who also owned a tractor distributorship, and in his column the name of the distributorship and the, brand he carried cropped up at least occiasionally.

"We started saying, there's something wrong here."

A stickler for seemliness, Bingham made some changes. Pierce, whom he describes as "sort of an old-time newsman" who couldn't see what the problem was, became a Sunday feature writer and actually took to milking the shift in after-dinner speeches. "It made his career," says Bingham. "He has the most recognizable byline of any reporter who works for the Courier-Journal."

The farm editor got out of the distribution business.

We told Bingham those were pretty bald examples of "the tough ethical issues that journalists face every day" to quote some ads he is currently running.

"Very bald," he agreed. But we'd asked about the origins of FineLine, the soon-to-appear monthly newsletter on journalistic ethics that those ads are touting, and here they were. As publisher of those Louisville dailies, Bingham appointed the first readers' ombudsman in the history of American daily journalism. And he and his editors drew up a conflict-of-interest policy that was a model for the industry. His staff asked for one change. If wage slaves like us can't work for candidates, they pointed out, fat cats like you shouldn't be able to give them money. Fair enough, said Bingham.

"When I was publisher," he told us, "I was arrested for dove hunting over a baited field. First thing I did was call the city desk and say, I need a little space for a story on shooting over a baited field."

Publishers often call city desks, but not to order their own embarrassment. "I've got to say, the editors were somewhat surprised. Nobody else caught hunting over a baited field got their name in the paper. I did. I think people feel cynical about the press. If the publisher gets in a crack, you have to treat yourself the way you'd treat anybody else in a somewhat prominent position."

Three years ago, a huge crack all but swallowed the Bingham family alive. Unhappy with her lack of say in the various family corporations, Sister Sallie told Barry to buy her out. But his price insulted her. Another sister also decided to sell. To Barry's horror, the patriarch, Barry Bingham Sr., who controlled 95 percent of the stock through a trust, threw up his hands at the squabbling and liquidated everything. The shattered family then turned to the media, publicly attacking one another in astonishingly bitter terms. When all the properties were sold off, Barry Bingham Jr. was $24 million richer, and purposeless.

A notable book on this debacle was Mary Brenner's House of Dreams. Sallie has just weighed in with her side, Passion and Prejudice: A Family Memoir. "The books have been loaded with errors," Bingham said. "Leaving aside errors of opinion--just plain out-and-out errors of fact."

Not least offensive to Barry Jr. was the book about his grandfather. Robert Worth Bingham, who purchased the Times and the Courier-Journal in 1918, is generally remembered as an honorable publisher-statesman (he was FDR's ambassador to Great Britain in the 1930s). According to David Leon Chandler's The Binghams of Louisville, however, he was was a syphilitic opportunist who married his second wife for her fortune and then poisoned her.

"The book was really a piece of trash," said Barry Bingham Jr. (Sallie Bingham disagrees.) The publisher, Macmillan, halted publication after hearing from Bingham's parents, whose packet of objections was three and a half inches thick. Then Crown brought it out. We asked Barry Jr. if he had joined his parents' protest.

"I was never a party to that and never wanted to be a party to it," he said. "I'm a First Amendment man."

We were wondering if being roughed up personally had made Bingham supersensitive to press encroachments. "I haven't become, if that's the implication, a sort of press sniper," he insisted. "I'm very sympathetic to what editors go through, and reporters, and I think it's amazing how accurate papers are."

Bingham is putting together FineLine in Louisville and hopes to have it out in March. Each issue will run 8 to 12 pages and a subscription will cost $221 a year. It's a corporate purchase, obviously, and Bingham will be happy with a thousand subscribers. Those full-page ads in the trade press invite "reporters, editors, and news directors to write case studies about the situations and questions of ethics they've actually faced on the job."

"We've gotten several hundred," said Robin Hughes, who is FineLine's editor. "We have accepted less than 20. One of the biggest issues is right to privacy. I think with AIDS, editors are facing that more often, where to draw the line between the public's right to know and an individual's right to privacy. . . . We've had quite a few articles submitted exploring the role of journalists in the community. A story we've gotten in quite a few times--a reporter will learn of a plant considering a location in the community and it will mean quite a few jobs. But if he reports on it they will probably lose out.

"It's going to be a forum. We're not setting ourselves up as the experts. We're not going to say this person handled it correctly, that person did not."

To Bingham, FineLine is an emblem of the future of journalism, which lies in filling "smaller and smaller niches of information. . . . In ten years, this information will be available to computer data bases. An editor with a problem--say, moonlighting--can access our data base for anything we've published on the subject.

"Part of my scenario," he explained, "is that the postal service will get worse and worse and you'll almost have to deliver [information] electronically. If the postal service is the only way to deliver a product like this, some day we'll be out of business."

We asked Bingham what other irons are in the fire. "I was offered the job of publisher of a newspaper in your city. It's been about three weeks," he remarked.

The Sun-Times? we guessed.

No, he said, a new paper that hasn't appeared yet.

John Malone! We told Bingham that Malone has been trying to launch a new afternoon paper since the Daily News went under in '78. He's journalism's Don Quixote.

"He's very serious," said Bingham. "I think PM papers are headed for extinction. His philosophy is totally different."

Malone Again

"This is too big a community to be mediated by two newspapers," says John Malone. "Toronto has three very vigorous newspapers. If they have three papers we ought to have six."

Malone doesn't count the Reader, or the Defender, or the suburban Herald or the New York Times or the Wall Street journal. He means real Chicago daily papers like the Chicago Evening Post, which unfortunately does not exist.

"We are a badly informed city," says John Malone. "I mean it, a badly informed city in relation to the rest of the world. We spend all our time worrying about the City Council and mayor, which is a tiny thing in the world." Meanwhile, he says, "the Tokyo market is a full 24 hours late getting into print in Chicago," and such excellent press services as Agence France Presse are unavailable.

"The Economist says Chicago is the epicenter of the Western Hemisphere. We have 79 foreign banks in this city, and it sounds like we're a cow town from the Tribune columns and not even that from the Sun-Times columns.

Which columns? we asked him.

"Every column in it! Every column of type!"

A few years ago there was a flurry of activity in the Evening Post office. Some sort of staff had been assembled, writers were being talked to, and it looked as if the Post might actually get off the ground. But the upshot was only a 64-page prototype "that wasn't quite what we wanted. The people we had were not quite what we wanted." The office closed.

But here's the thing about John Malone: he's got the theory of a lifetime and all the time in the world to see it through. A semiretired newspaper consultant old enough to have preceded Kup at the old Chicago Times by three months back in 1935, Malone has nothing else to do now and nothing he wants to do next. He can tinker with the Post until it actually comes out or he dies.

One reason Malone's moved slowly, he says, is to let technology catch up to his ambitions. The Post would be a full-bore exercise in desktop publishing. Circulation would be modest but elite. There'll be no need, says Malone, to run an editorial, on, say, how the minimum-wage law is ruining America, because "the intelligent community already realizes the situation we're in."

Malone told us one of his advisers is Roy Fisher, former editor of the Daily News. Fisher now runs the University of Missouri's graduate journalism program in Washington. We called him.

"I think he has a very good idea," said Fisher. "He's using production techniques that are not very common yet in the industry and would be able to produce the paper at a fraction of the cost of conventional Metropolitan papers."

When Fisher ran the Daily News in the early 70s, "in order to legitimize an advertising rate sufficient to keep the paper in business, we had to sell 500,000 copies." Circulation dropped below 400,000 and the Daily News went under.

"John Malone's prospectus, and I think it's a sound one . . . the rates he could charge with a circulation of 200,000 would easily meet his budget. So the situation comes down to whether he can sell 200,000 papers in the afternoon in Chicago."

Even going under, the Daily News sold almost twice that many. "If he can raise the money," said Fisher, "it would be a good risk."

How much money does he need? Five million could do it, says Malone, pointing out that the hugely successful Toronto Sun started up in the mid-70s with $600,000. But Malone can't put his hands on that much money, even though three years ago Leonard Shaykin was able to find $145 million to buy the Sun-Times.

"All the papers in the United States were started by oddballs back a hundred years ago," says Malone. "Now everybody's too committed to being a nice, socially secure yuppie. We are no longer, I think, a country of venturers."

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