Buzz Bissinger: A Savior for the City

More than two decades ago, Buzz Bissinger won a Pulitzer writing for the Inquirer, then published his masterpiece, Friday Night Lights. Now he’s rich, and famous. So why is he back at the Inky as a columnist — and why is he so mad?

In person, Buzz vacillates between prickly and pacific. There’s a pattern to how he answers questions; he starts out calm and rational and then shifts into irate gear. “I am opinionated, passionate,” he allows. “I have strong feelings.” And he vents them, in conversation and in his writing. He’s furious at Philadelphia politicians, at patronage, at the proposed soda tax, at his fellow Inquirer columnists, who never tackle local issues and don’t even live in the city, especially Rick Santorum, who so far as Buzz can tell dwells “in a world all his own.” That’s the simple explanation for why he said yes when Inky editor-in-chief Bill Marimow invited him back, 20-plus years after he last set foot in the newsroom. “There was a void, a vacuum,” Buzz says. “Nothing ever changes in this city. I knew all these guys. No one was holding them accountable.” So Buzz has taken on all comers. “I am tired of defense attorneys using loopholes that have nothing to do with guilt or innocence,” he wrote in December, “and I wonder how these suckerfish can sleep at night knowing that all they have done is increase the already unconscionable probability that an innocent citizen will be robbed or even killed.” He skewered ex-mayor John Street: “[N]ever have I seen a human being who went so unfortunately out of his way to be remote, resistant, removed, repulsed by the sight of others.” And he called the mighty out by name; in March, he eviscerated Foxwoods’ Lew Katz, Ed Snider and Ron Rubin, saying they had “the swag and swagger that come with always getting what you want because of who you know.”

“That’s what the assignment is,” says Buzz’s old friend David Cohen. “To be tough and provocative, and advance the civic discussion of the city.” But Buzz’s “Half Empty” column isn’t just a platform from which he can speak — well, scream — truth to power. There’s also the matter of Steve Lopez. Lopez wrote a column for the Inquirer back in the day, and though he moved on to Time Inc. in the ’90s and the L.A. Times the in 2001, “The Inquirer still misses Steve Lopez,” says PR kingpin Larry Ceisler, also a longtime friend of Buzz. Buzz allows that Lopez is one reason he came back, but frames it differently: “I want to prove he isn’t the only columnist the Inquirer ever had. I want to eradicate the memory of Steve Lopez. Because I’m a competitive little shit.”