John Seigenthaler died Friday. He was editor of The Tennessean, and later its publisher and chairman. He worked for Robert Kennedy and was a fierce, longtime advocate of civil rights. He was 86.
“I think journalism was the most important thing I could have done with my life,” The Tennessean’s obituary reports Seigenthaler said. “I just can’t think of anything I could have done with my life that would have been more meaningful.”
Seigenthaler’s journalism career was interrupted by politics — he became Robert Kennedy’s administrative assistant in 1961 and “would have left journalism and gone to work for his dear friend in the White House” had Kennedy not been assassinated, The Tennessean’s obituary says.
He returned to the Tennessean as editor in 1962. He later suggested to one of the paper’s reporters, Al Gore, that he should run for Congress. “He was that central to my life’s trajectory,” Gore told The Tennessean.
“During the years I worked for him, John taught me to see politics and public service through a completely different lens,” Gore writes in a statement on his site. “Some of the things that had earlier caused me to feel disillusioned began to appear in my mind as things that needed to be exposed and fixed.”
When he worked for Kennedy, Seigenthaler followed a busload of “Freedom Riders” from Washington, D.C., to Alabama. In Montgomery someone hit him in the head with a lead pipe as he tried to protect a girl.
“He was one of the most invaluable truth-tellers of our time,” University of South Florida Professor Raymond Arsenault, who wrote a 2011 book about the Freedom Riders, told Poynter in a phone call. “Especially on matters of race, civil rights and free expression. He was a consummate gentleman, but he had a fire in his belly for all the right causes.”
Seigenthaler “carried both a Machiavellian hammer and an Irish poet’s pen,” Bruce Dobie writes in the Nashville Scene. As an editor, Dobie writes, Seigenthaler “exploited his position every day to shape the city’s politics, its social concerns, its literary and intellectual life, its vision of itself.”
Dobie writes that as a young reporter, he had a story that only Seigenthaler could confirm. They met in the Roosevelt Hotel, where the editor read his copy.
“Run it,” he said.
I said, “OK, thanks.”
He said, “But you need to insert a paragraph. You need to say that Seigenthaler was asked to comment, but he declined. And you need to take a shot at me.”
I said, “You want me to be critical of you?”
“Yeah,” he said. It took me a while to figure out what was going on. But it dawned on me. If I described him negatively, nobody would think he had helped me with the story. I thought about how to describe him. He was waiting for me to fill in the blanks.
“How about I call you ‘the aging hack of Nashville journalism?’ ”
Seigenthaler exploded in laughter.
“Oh, that’s good,” he said.
So the story ran. Thus did John Seigenthaler’s influence in the city both appear, and vanish, at the same time.
Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderilt University and created USA Today’s editorial pages. When Gannett bought the Tennessean in 1979, he “glibly quipped that he had ‘been sold into chains,’” The Tennessean reports.
“For many years, he would urge reporters to spend freely when they traveled,” The Tennessean’s obituary reads. “His belief was that, at budget time, it was best to show how much it cost to do things his way, rather than cut corners to make the bean-counters happy.”
Former Poynter President Karen Dunlap grew up in Nashville reading The Tennessean. “This is a first-class journalist to the core,” she said in a phone call. Seigenthaler worked “in the tradition of Gene Patterson and others of that era,” Southern editors who “had to lead the South forward,” Dunlap said.
The first piece Dunlap ever published was in The Tennessean: As a teenager, she wrote a piece for a “Youth Speaks Out” column about Martin Luther King, and what makes a hero.
As a youth in the segregated South, Dunlap recalls, Seigenthaler’s Tennessean “repressented a voice of reason and calmness that said somebody is pushing for you. Somebody is standing up, speaking for what’s right.”
Dunlap interviewed Seigenthaler for Poynter last year in Nashville. She’s in the process of moving back to Nashville from Florida, and said one thing she had been looking forward to was touching base with him more.
In an unexpected postscript to his career as a journalist, Seigenthaler became embroiled in an Internet controversy when he discovered his Wikipedia page had been vandalized. “It could be your story,” Seigenthaler wrote in a piece for USA Today.
Daniel Brandt, a book indexer from Texas, tracked down the culprit: An employee at a Nashville courier company named Brian Chase, who said he changed the Wiki page as a joke. Chase resigned his job and apologized to Seigenthaler. “Mr. Seigenthaler urged Mr. Chase’s boss to rehire him,” Katharine Q. Seelye wrote in The New York Times.
“He was a towering figure who contributed to American freedom on two fronts: as a courageous champion of civil rights for the federal government and as a crusading editor on behalf of the First Amendment,” Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark wrote in an email. “It is hard enough to achieve such greatness in one field. Almost unthinkable in two.”
Poynter’s Al Tompkins was news director at WSMV in Nashville. “His journalists at The Tennessean uncovered voter fraud,” Tompkins writes in an email. “He was a loud advocate for open records and open government.” Even though they were competitors, Tompkins said, “we often worked together trying to convince Tennessee judges to allow cameras in courtrooms.” He continues:
Not long ago we appeared at the University of Tennessee law school to teach lawyers how to interact with journalists. He was always teaching. Always advocating for the free flow of information. He was a gentleman–I would even use the word statesman. He would want us just to use the word “journalist” to describe him today.