Breaking Up

The Binghams of Louisville: The Dark History Behind One of America's Great Fortunes

by David Leon Chandler, with Mary Voelz Chandler
Crown, 292 pp., $17.95

The Binghams
The Binghams; drawing by David Levine

The Louisville Courier-Journal was for many years perhaps the most famous provincial newspaper in the United States, partly because it was among the few liberal ones and partly because of its many journalistic awards. Although the Courier-Journal and its sister paper, the Louisville Times, had several legendary editors, like Henry Watterson and Norman Isaacs, there was no doubt that the overriding reason why the papers were special was that they were owned and run by the Bingham family. The local newspaper is one of the few American institutions remaining in which greatness seems to be associated with Victorian social norms; it can’t be an accident that the three best ones, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, are all still essentially family businesses.

Perhaps because an aristocratic act plays better in a small city like Louisville than in a big one like New York, the Binghams even more than their bigger-time confreres seemed to embody enlightened patrician publishing. They lived and constantly entertained in a mansion. They traveled in the highest international political, diplomatic, and cultural circles but also were the prime movers in virtually every local worthy cause. Their principles seemed to spring from a purely disinterested calculation of what was right and what was wrong. They were rich, but everyone understood that they would be even richer if they weren’t so dedicated to journalistic excellence, because, for example, they maintained a much larger editorial staff than was financially rational.

In 1986, as if to prove that their image was too good to be true, the Binghams put the papers up for sale because the three children of the family patriarch, Barry Bingham, Sr., were at odds with one another. The family continued to squabble freely in front of the many out-of-town reporters who descended on Louisville, and much dirty linen was aired. After a few months, the buyer who came forth to take over the Bingham media properties was not one of the most journalistically prestigious communications companies but Gannett, the cost-conscious chain best known for publishing USA Today. So far Gannett has maintained the standards of the Courier-Journal, but it quickly closed down the financially troubled afternoon paper, the Times. The Bingham family is still feuding. They are rich but they have lost their power.

History, as we know, is on the side of corporations, and family businesses have been falling into their clutches for generations. But it would be wrong to say that the fate of the Binghams was therefore inevitable. Too many other families in newspaper publishing—more than in most other businesses—have been able to stay in control. Owning a monopoly newspaper (especially if, as is often the case, there is an early-vintage VHF television station license to go with it) puts a company in such an extraordinarily protected economic position that families aren’t severely penalized for being marginally less efficient…

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