John Seigenthaler was a leader of free speech, civil rights and journalism

John Seigenthaler spent an inordinate amount of time talking about one of his early reporting stories when he sat down for an interview with Poynter last year. The interview May 3 at his office in Nashville was in line with Poynter’s video series on news leaders and I was prepared to talk about his career.

He rose from reporter to publisher of The Tennessean newspaper where he worked with and nurtured excellent journalists as the newspaper drew national awards and recognition. He was beaten while working for Robert Kennedy during the Civil Rights Movement, and experienced transitions as he editorially led a community through the turbulent 60s to the 90s, served as a senior executive with the Gannett company and raised public understanding of the First Amendment.

So much to cover, but he kept talking about that one blasted story from 1954 when a man threatened to jump from Nashville’s Shelby Street bridge. “He wore a flannel shirt, a heavy neck tie and sweated profusely” on a hot day, Seigenthaler said. As a young reporter assigned to the story he talked with the man about 40 minutes then grabbed him when he looked toward the water and held on as police moved in.

I chastised myself for not moving the interview along, but Seigenthaler’s storytelling, the clear, mellow voice and vividness of details kept me quiet. In listening I heard four points that could help news leaders today.

John Seigenthaler could see individuals, changes, the big picture and he moved to help. He reached out to a depressed man on a bridge and through his journalism to and for others in need including those who faced injustice. A few years after the bridge encounter he met John and Robert Kennedy while assigned as Washington correspondent then a 1959 Nieman Fellow at Harvard. When Bobby Kennedy became Attorney General he invited Seigenthaler to serve in the Justice Department just as the Civil Rights battle heated in the south. His job involved keeping communication channels with those involved.

In the PBS documentary, “Freedom Riders”, Seigenthaler told of warning Diane Nash, a Fisk University student protest leader, of the dangers in leading Freedom Riders to ride an interstate bus through Alabama after others had been beaten in an effort to desegregate public transportation. He recalled his voice rose to a shout as she stood firm.

“Do you understand that you’re going to get somebody killed,” he said. There was a pause, then she said. “Sir, you should know we all signed our last wills and testaments last night.”

“Here I was …representing the President…talking to a student,” he said, “but she, in a firm and strong way lectured me.”

His sense of concern about others melded with his commitment to journalism and characterized his newspaper.

The second quality was that Seigenthaler was a student of journalism.
In talking about that hot day on a bridge he drifted into the art of interviewing, how it takes time to develop confidence with a source even as the clock ticks. Books filled his life and conversations and he urged journalists to find time to be well-read in general, well-prepared for an interview, even on short notice. “I never approached an assignment without…boning up…to cross that information bridge,” he said.

A third quality was that he cared about his city. Seigenthaler was born in Nashville and even though he developed a national reputation, even when he headed the editorial page at USA Today, he and his wife, Dolores, were never far away from Nashville, just as he said he was never far away from journalism. He knew leaders, past leaders and present, explained changes over the years, recalled memorable events. He knew people of various segments of society, hosted activities to assist worthwhile causes and was a steady voice on politics and civic life. He was an editor, invested in a city, who basically spent his career and life in that city.

Fourth, he stood for the First Amendment. In the final chapters of a very busy life, John Seigenthaler focused on the public’s declining confidence in news media.

“As I left the newsroom I saw polls that said people saw us as uncaring arrogant, unreliable,” he said. His answer was to raise the public’s understanding of the First Amendment. In 1991 he founded the First Amendment Center in association with the Newseum in an elegant building named in his honor on the Vanderbilt University campus.

“We think we can’t lose the freedom of the press,” Seigenthaler said, “but Alexander Hamilton said in the Federalist papers, ‘whatever fine declarations may be inserted in any constitution respecting (liberty of the press), must altogether depend on public opinion, and on the general spirit of the people and of the government.’ We can lose this free press.”

In speeches and conferences he promoted an understanding of and appreciation for a free news media.

In April the Nashville Metro Council voted to rename the Shelby Street Bridge in honor of John Seigenthaler.

On July 4th thousands walked across the bridge, a major entry to the city’s huge Independence Day observance.

It was a time to celebrate national freedoms and think about what matters in the nation and it was tied to a man who stood for news media freedom, who worked on things that mattered and helped a community bridge its differences.

John Seigenthaler dies at 86

  • Karen Dunlap

    Karen B. Dunlap is president of The Poynter Institute. She is also the co-author, with Foster Davis, of "The Effective Editor."


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