Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Commentary: Peter Binzen, the ultimate class act

By Rem Rieder He was the ultimate class act. Peter Binzen, a Philadelphia journalist and author who died Wednesday at 94, was old school at its finest, a beacon of gentility and civility in an age of reality TV, social media frenzy, and LOL.

By Rem Rieder

He was the ultimate class act.

Peter Binzen, a Philadelphia journalist and author who died Wednesday at 94, was old school at its finest, a beacon of gentility and civility in an age of reality TV, social media frenzy, and LOL.

Relentlessly upbeat, Peter enjoyed a lifetime - a long lifetime - filled with accomplishment. His last book, on the great Philadelphia mayor Richardson Dilworth, came out when Peter was 91.

You wouldn't say that Peter was cool. But he was so distinctive, so totally himself, so completely at home in his own skin, that there was something very cool about that.

It was my honor to get to know Peter quite well when we were colleagues at the Philadelphia Bulletin. In the mid and late 1970s, Peter was the paper's metro editor and I was his deputy.

This was a challenging time for the Bulletin. Once a dominant Philadelphia institution with a massive circulation, the Bulletin, like afternoon papers across the county, was in decline. Meanwhile, the rival Inquirer, under the inspired leadership of Peter's friend and Nieman classmate Gene Roberts, was on the upswing, taking its place among the nation's very best newspapers.

It was a situation rife with frustrations. But Peter's positive spirit and unflagging decency made a huge difference. He gave his much-younger deputy plenty of running room, but was always there to provide needed wisdom and perspective.

One day we took a talented reporter to lunch to tell him we were moving him into an editing position. The reporter, though, was quite understandably livid about the fact that the wrong version of his story had somehow ended up in the paper that day. We were having trouble getting him focused on his imminent promotion.

Finally, Peter said softly but firmly, "Newspapering is a very inexact science."

True that.

One of Peter's many strengths as a journalist was his belief that the story often isn't at the meetings or in the public pronouncements but in the streets. He knew there is no substitute for first-hand observation.

And so Peter, who had an impressive stint as the Bulletin's education reporter, spent a couple of days working as a substitute teacher. He wrote about the experience in his book Whitetown USA, an in-depth look at the then-white, working-class Kensington neighborhood. Similar ground-level reporting would have helped the media better understand the Donald Trump phenomenon during the recent presidential campaign.

In that vein, one of our favorite moves when running the metro desk was creating a four-member urban team. We divided the city into four quadrants, and each reporter was assigned to cover the neighborhoods in them. No City Council meetings, no zoning board meetings - the mandate was hit the pavement and bring home the fabric and the texture of the city.

I always loved Peter's delight when a reporter would fill us in on an upcoming big story. "Make it sing," he would say, "and put the facts in the sidebar." He was only half kidding.

While Peter wasn't a Philadelphia native, he certainly became an honorary Philly guy. During his many years at the Bulletin and, after it folded in 1982, the Inquirer, he developed a deep love for, and a deep knowledge of, the city.

During our time together, I introduced him to one of the city's vital rituals at the time, the Big Five doubleheader. After work on Wednesdays, a bunch of us, Peter included, would head for the sacred Palestra. Peter would even share the cans of Schmidt's we invariably smuggled in.

On our last election night together before the end of Peter's reign, we Binzen acolytes planned to work all night, then toast Peter at Pete Richards' bar across the street from the Bulletin. But we were too efficient: We finished well before Pete's opened at 7 a.m. So, instead, we somehow ended up downing a pre-dawn case of beer at the Pen and Pencil Club.

Peter and I didn't work together after 1980. But we never lost touch. During my many years editing American Journalism Review, he would send me handwritten letters - letters! - packed with his observations on the latest issue. I devoured each one, He kept up the practice when I was writing columns for USA Today.

During the past few years we would occasionally get together for lunch. Each time was a delight. Peter was the same Peter with the curiosity, the love of life, the innate decency, and the giggle always at the ready.

I'll miss the hell out of that giggle.

Rem Rieder, whose career began as a reporter at the Inquirer, has worked for seven newspapers, one magazine and one wire service.