Remembering John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler

John Seigenthaler

The Freedom Forum and Newseum mourn the loss of John L. Seigenthaler, veteran newspaper editor and publisher, author, and founder of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center. Seigenthaler died July 11, 2014, in his hometown of Nashville, Tenn. He was 86.

“John Seigenthaler was a gift to our country,” said Jim Duff, chief executive officer of the Newseum and president and CEO of the Freedom Forum. “He devoted his life to making certain that liberty and justice for all applied to all. His passing is an enormous loss to his many, many friends and country.”

For 43 years, Seigenthaler was an award-winning journalist and publisher of The Tennessean, a Gannett-owned newspaper located in Nashville. In 1982, he became founding editorial director of Gannett’s new national newspaper, USA Today, based in Northern Virginia. He traveled between the two cities for nearly a decade until he retired from both newspapers in 1991.

Seigenthaler was a passionate champion of the First Amendment and traveled extensively to teach and promote its ideals. After his retirement from news, he founded the First Amendment Center in Nashville with the mission of creating national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment rights and values. Located at Vanderbilt University, the center was renamed the John Seigenthaler Center in 2002 on the recommendation of the Freedom Forum board of trustees in honor of Seigenthaler’s 75th birthday.

“The citizen who reads news regularly participates, perhaps without realizing it, in a constant civic engagement of ideas — the very stuff of self-governance,” he said.

Seigenthaler was a generous patron of the Newseum and a founding member of the Friends of the First Amendment Society.

Seigenthaler left journalism briefly in the early 1960s to serve in the U.S. Department of Justice as administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. His work in the field of civil rights led to his service as chief negotiator with the governor of Alabama during the Freedom Rides in 1961, in which black and white activists rode interstate buses to defy Jim Crow laws that enforced segregated travel. During that crisis, while attempting to aid Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala., he was viciously attacked by an angry mob of Klansmen and knocked unconscious from a blow to the head by a lead pipe.

In 2004, Seigenthaler chaired the three-member panel that investigated former USA Today reporter Jack Kelley for plagiarism and for writing false stories. The panel’s 28-page report led to the resignations and reassignment of three newsroom executives, including the newspaper’s editor, and prompted strict policies at the paper regarding the use of anonymous sources.

That same year, Seigenthaler’s critically acclaimed biography of President James K. Polk, a former Tennessee congressman and governor, was published by Times Books.

In 2005, Seigenthaler was embroiled in a controversy with Wikipedia, which published an unedited, unchecked and inaccurate biography of him that had been written by an anonymous prankster. In an op-ed column published in USA Today, Seigenthaler called Wikipedia a “flawed and irresponsible research tool.” As a result of the public outcry, Wikipedia instituted new policies to safeguard against future hoaxes and inaccuracies.

Gene Policinski, who worked closely with Seigenthaler as senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, called him “a national treasure.”

“John was an extraordinary journalist and a passionate defender of those in need or facing discrimination. He was a true citizen patriot who saw the core freedoms of the First Amendment as essential to what it means to be an American. His legacy is a call to the rest of us to study, defend and advance the ideals embodied in the First Amendment.”

Seigenthaler is survived by his wife of 59 years, Dolores; son John Michael Seigenthaler, a news anchor for Al Jazeera America; daughter-in-law Kerry Brock; and grandson, Jack.

One thought on “Remembering John Seigenthaler

  1. On a cold October day in 2013, John Seigenthaler weak and ill, came to the Maury County Court House in Columbia, TN, to serve as Honorary Chairman of a dedication. The dedication was the inclusion of names of men who had died in service during the Civil War as members of the US Colored Troops on the Memorial War Monument on the Court House lawn. The monument was known locally as the Confederate Memorial. Honoring the former slaves who in the short time they were freemen had served and died for their country during the Civil War has never been done in the South.

    To honor John, the Board of the African American Historical Society of Maury County is to have a luncheon yearly to honor someone or some persons who have been locally important in the Civil Rights Movement. I am asking if your organization can provide us with some kind of tribute to John we can feature at the event. This event has the approval of both Dolores and John Jr.

    Elizabeth Queener, Board Member AAHSMC

    P.S. Maury County was the scene of the Columbia Race Riot in 1943 which is considered by some the first salvo of the Civil Rights movement. One result of the race riot was it was the first Civil Rights case Thurgood Marshall served as attorney. Marshall was almost captured and lynched by a mob.

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