Appreciation: A Class Act  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2005

Appreciation: A Class Act   

Celebrating a distinguished career and doing journalism the right way

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


My wife, Ellen, likes to point out that I have 100 songs in my all-time top 10.

Former AJR senior writer Lisa Shepard used to complain that I liked too many people.

But even I know the difference between merely wonderful and very special.

Which brings us to Peter Binzen.

Until recently, Peter was a longtime local business columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Then the Inquirer dropped a number of columns, including Peter's. (He had been writing it on a contract basis since his retirement 18 years ago.)

I got to know Peter well in the 1970s, when he was the metro editor of the late Philadelphia Bulletin and I was his deputy. It was not an easy time or place to be running a metro desk. Once the dominant daily in Philly, the Bulletin was caught in the death spiral that took out so many afternoon papers. It had--how to say this charitably?--less than brilliant top management. Meanwhile, the rival Inquirer was in the midst of its transformation from awful to superb under the direction of Gene Roberts.

There were many things about Peter that impressed me: his intellect, his talent, his rigorous ethical standards. But what really stood out was his grace under pressure, his absolute decency. In a very tough situation, Peter almost never lost his cool. He is one of the most relentlessly upbeat people I've ever met.

Peter is 82, but there seems to be widespread agreement that he hasn't lost a step. So why would the Inquirer ax his column?

Newspapers across the nation are losing readers, and the Inquirer is no exception. One of the ways they are trying to halt the exodus is to become more "connected" to their communities.

Peter was connected. His columns, which put a human face on business in Philadelphia, elicited a great deal of reader response. Few people know more about Philadelphia or understand it better than Peter, which is remarkable given that he's not a native.

Philly is a very tribal place, one that can be difficult for outsiders to penetrate. Yet Peter penetrated it so well that at one point a Binzen lecture on the city and its mores was part of the training for new Inky recruits.

I asked Inquirer Editor Amanda Bennett why she had pulled the plug. "Peter had a wonderful, long and energetic career," she replied. "But we're moving in a different direction in the way we cover entrepreneurism. We're going to cover it much more throughout the [business] section."

She added, "I'm sorry to see him go, but we have changing priorities."

The unceremonious end to one of Philadelphia's legendary journalism careers did not go over well with his fans and colleagues. So they threw a party in mid-May to commemorate all the years of distinguished work.

Gene Roberts, Peter's Nieman classmate who was first his competitor in Philly, then his boss, had planned to be there, but a knee injury kept him away. However, former Inky editors Jim Naughton (retired head of the Poynter Institute) and Hank Klibanoff (managing editor for news at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) were on hand to sing his praises, as were a large collection of other journalists. Among them was Joe Daughen, who teamed up with Peter to write excellent books on fabled Philly cop and pol Frank Rizzo and the collapse of the Penn Central railroad.

It was a moving tribute to one wonderful journalist, but it was also a celebration of journalism itself, journalism done the right way. And it couldn't have come at a better time. Because this has been a brutal time for the field.

Almost daily, it seems, another episode of journalistic wrongdoing comes to light. One day a columnist, media personality and best-selling author is describing in great detail an event that hasn't yet taken place. Another day a Pentagon reporter is lifting quotes. A Los Angeles Times piece is riddled with errors. Sources quoted by a Sacramento Bee columnist can't be found.

The litany of bad news is unrelenting.

All politics may be local, but in the world of Romenesko where we now reside, no media malfeasance is. That's what makes the endless epidemic so puzzling. With so much scrutiny, with so many people getting caught, why would big-time journalists take a chance and cut corners, knowing what the repercussions can be?

Despite all of the agonizing, the emphasis on "transparency," the reworked ethics codes, the hits just keep on coming.

The career of Peter Binzen is a vivid reminder that it just doesn't have to be this way.

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