Wednesday, April 2, 2003

News family relieved, one of its own is safe

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Photographer Molly Bingham
It was news that meant joy and relief for the Binghams, Kentucky's famed first family of journalism.

One of their own - missing for a week after being detained by Iraqi officials - surfaced safe and sound Tuesday just inside the Jordanian border.

A phone call from photojournalist Molly Bingham came just hours after her father, former Louisville Courier-Journal publisher Barry Bingham Jr., released an open letter beseeching the Iraqi government to free her.

"The call came into the office," her elated father said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. "A member of the staff picked up the phone and we honestly thought it was an April Fools' joke. But it wasn't."

"We were pretty stunned," added Molly Bingham's mother, Edie Bingham. "And completely overjoyed."

The events that sparked a worldwide search for Bingham and three other journalists - involving the International Red Cross, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Vatican office in Baghdad - began in the early morning of March 25.

The 34-year-old Bingham had been working for Esquire through the New York-based photo agency World Picture News. A freelance reporter, Nathan Thayer, witnessed Iraqi authorities taking her from the Hotel Palestine in Baghdad.

Excerpts from Barry Bingham Jr.'s open letter to Iraq:

MY DAUGHTER Molly Bingham is a professional photojournalist who traveled to Iraq on March 17. On March 25, Iraqi authorities took her into custody. In the week following her detention, my wife, Edie, and I have received no information on her whereabouts, condition or the reason she was taken. We are appealing to the government of Iraq to give us that information and to release her to safety. ...

Molly does not work for or represent any government. She was simply trying to do her job as a dedicated, independent journalist who has made international conflict her professional subject. She has traveled extensively to capture images so that others can learn about the world. ...

For Molly, her profession is a matter of both principle and tradition. Four generations of Binghams, beginning with my grandfather, Robert W. Bingham, have been journalists dedicated to truth, independence - and to justice. ...

Her family prays for Molly's safe return. She has no information to offer Iraqi authorities. As a father and a journalist, I ask the government of Iraq to release her. ...

The others, also safe Tuesday at the Jordanian border - writer Matthew McAllester and photographer Moises Saman from Newsday and Johan Spanner, a freelance photographer working for a Danish newspaper - were also staying at the hotel. They reportedly had been last seen at about the same time Bingham was detained.

Bingham family members said Tuesday they do not know the circumstances surrounding her departure from Iraq or details of her detention.

Barry Bingham's conversation with his daughter, who was talking on a borrowed satellite phone and eager to start the five-hour journey to the Jordanian capital of Amman, was so brief that they didn't get a chance to discuss her time in Iraqi custody.

"My main concern was establishing that she wasn't injured or ill," said Bingham.. "She said she had a rough week and sounded tired, but she said she was all right."

"We're waiting for the full story from her," Molly's sister Emily said.

Reports coming out of the country from other journalists and colleagues have enabled the family to at least piece together how the ordeal began.

"The Iraqi officials had come to check the rooms," said Tara Farrell, one of the directors at World Picture News. "There were a number of journalists who came on a tourist visa. Molly did go in on a tourist visa. The borders were closing and she wanted to cover it and go in."

She did, and before she was detained, was able to send images back to the United States.

"She photographed the first night of the first airstrikes," Farrell said.

"Those were the only images she was able to transmit back to us. We are all so happy she's safe and she's fine. It's amazing. I am so relieved.

"She is a tough girl. You know, we all had hopes that she'd be fine. I'd rather not think about what might have been."

Molly Bingham signed with the photo agency in September.

A Harvard graduate, she followed the family journalism legacy, making an international name for herself.

The Bingham family's Kentucky media dynasty began in 1918, when patriarch Robert Worth Bingham, a former mayor of Louisville, purchased the morning Louisville Courier-Journal and the afternoon Louisville Times.

The family later added ownership of WHAS radio and Standard Gravure printing.

Under the Binghams, the Courier-Journal became known nationwide as "The New York Times of the South," influencing public opinion, elections and laws and winning six Pulitzer Prizes in 20 years.

Barry Bingham Sr. was president and publisher of the newspaper until 1971, when Barry Bingham Jr. took the reins. In 1986, after a family dispute over the direction of the paper, the Courier-Journal was sold to Gannett Co. Inc. Gannett also owns The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Molly Bingham has followed her family's famous lead, covering international conflict as a photojournalist since 1994. Her work includes photographs that documented post-genocide conditions in Burundi, Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

From August 1998 to January 2001, she was a documentary photographer to Vice President Al Gore for the National Archives.

Bingham continued her work on Sept. 11, 2001, when she gained access to a burning Pentagon and Capitol under siege. Several months later, she traveled to Afghanistan for U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek and The Boston Globe.

In spring 2002, she spent several weeks in Gaza photographing the Arab-Israeli conflict. She left for Iran in late 2002, photographing a nation preparing for America's invasion of Iraq.

In early March, as U.S. war plans progressed, she traveled to Amman, then by bus to Baghdad, where she hoped to be one of the American journalists to document the U.S. bombing of Iraq.

"Molly is extraordinarily curious about the world," said brother-in-law Stephen Reily. "She has great bravery tempered with common sense and journalistic integrity."

Earlier this year, she received two awards for excellence in the Pictures of the Year International, one of the most prestigious photojournalism contests. She was cited for photographs in Gaza and Afghanistan.

Accolades aside, Bingham extends genuine sensitivity to her subjects, say her bosses.

"She covers stories she feels strongly about," Farrell said.

"She picks and chooses stories she wants to get out to the world. She's a very ambitious go-getter. She will do whatever it takes to get a story off the ground, but she's also kind and sensitive to the people.

"Knowing her fiery soul, she'll probably want to go back."

The Louisville Courier-Journal contributed to this report. E-mail

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