- John Seigenthaler, Sr.
name = John Seigenthaler, Sr.
image_size = 225px
caption = John Seigenthaler, speaking in Nashville
birth_date = Birth date and age|mf=yes|1927|07|27
John Lawrence Seigenthaler (pronEng|ˈsiːgɛnˌθɔːlɚ; born July 27, 1927) is an American journalist, writer, and political figure. He founded the
Freedom ForumFirst Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.
Seigenthaler joined "
The Tennessean" in 1949, resigning in 1960 to act as Robert F. Kennedy's administrative assistant. He rejoined "The Tennessean" as editor in 1962, publisherin 1973, and chairmanin 1982 before retiring as chairman emeritus in 1991. Seigenthaler was also founding editorial director of " USA Today" from 1982 to 1991. During this period, he served on the board of directors for the American Society of Newspaper Editorsand from 1988 to 1989 was its president.
Early life, family, and education
Nashville, Tennessee, Seigenthaler is the oldest of eight siblings. He attended Father Ryan High Schooland served in the U.S. Air Force from 1946 to 1949. After leaving the service, Seigenthaler was hired at " The Tennessean".
While covering a story in the mid-1950s, Seigenthaler met singer Dolores Watson. Giving up dreams of a musical career, Watson married Seigenthaler in 1955, and later gave birth to the couple's only child,
John Seigenthaler, Jr., formerly an anchor with NBC News. The elder Seigenthaler's brother, Thomas Seigenthaler, was the founder of Seigenthaler Public Relations.
While working at "The Tennessean", Seigenthaler took courses in sociology and literature at
Peabody College, now part of Vanderbilt University. He also attended the American Press Institute for Reportersat Columbia University.
Beginnings as a reporter
Seigenthaler began his career in journalism as a police beat reporter in "The Tennessean" city roomcite news|first=Frank|last=Ritter|title=A Model and Mentor: Seigenthaler Leaves Mark at Newspapers Nationwide|date=December 6, 1991|work=The Tennessean] after his uncle encouraged an editor about his talent.cite news|title=Seigenthaler Named Nieman Fellow|date=June 5, 1958|work=The Tennessean] Those skills weren't immediately evident, (he was lectured by an editor about his first article), but he was able to establish himself on the staff among heavy competition that included future standout journalists
David Halberstamand Tom Wicker. He first gained prominence in November 1953 when he tracked down the former Thomas C. Buntin and his wife. The bizarre case involved the son of a wealthy Nashville business owner who had disappeared in September 1931, followed six weeks later by the disappearance of his secretary. Seigenthaler was sent to Texas by "The Tennessean" after reports surfaced that Buntin (now known as Thomas D. Palmer) was living somewhere in the Lone Star state. After a series of dead-ends, Seigenthaler struck pay dirt in Orange, Texas, where he saw an elderly man step off a bus. Noting the man's distinctive left ear, Seigenthaler followed him home. After three further days of investigation, he went back to the home, where he confirmed the identities of Buntin/Palmer, his wife, the former Betty McCuddy, and their six children.cite news|title=Visitors in Limbo|date=December 7, 1953|publisher=Time Magazine|url=http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,890714,00.html] Seigenthaler won a National Headliner Awardfor the story.
Less than a year later, on October 5, 1954, Seigenthaler once again made national news for his efforts in saving a suicidal man from jumping off the
Shelby Street Bridgein Nashville. Gene Bradford Williams had called "The Tennessean" saying he would jump and for the newspaper to "send a reporter and photographer if you want a story." After talking to Williams at the bridge for 40 minutes, Seigenthaler watched the man begin to attempt his 100-foot plunge off the bridge railing. Grabbing hold of his collar, Seigenthaler and police saved the man from falling into the Cumberland River. Williams muttered "I'll never forgive you" to Seigenthaler.cite news|page=6|title=Reporter Balks Man's Suicide From Bridge|date=October 6, 1954|publisher=Los Angeles Times]
In July 1957, Seigenthaler began a battle to eliminate corruption within the local branch of the
Teamsters, noting the criminal backgrounds of key employees, along with the uses of intimidation in keeping news of certain union activities quiet. During this period, he contacted Dave Beckand Jimmy Hoffa, both top Teamsters officials, but the two men ignored Seigenthaler's queries. His series of articles resulted in the impeachment of Chattanooga Criminal Court Judge Ralston Schoolfield.cite news|title=The Fighting Tennessean|date=September 14, 1962|publisher=Time Magazine|url=http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,874473,00.html]
Seigenthaler took a one-year
sabbaticalfrom "The Tennessean" in 1958 to participate in Harvard University's prestigious Nieman Fellowshipprogram. Upon returning to "The Tennessean", Seigenthaler became an assistant city editor and special assignment reporter.
Association with Robert F. Kennedy
Frustrated by the leadership of "Tennessean" publisher
Silliman Evans, Jr., Seigenthaler resigned in 1960 to serve as an administrative assistant to incoming Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. On April 21, 1961, Seigenthaler was the only other Justice Department figure to witness a meeting between Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Freedom Ridesof 1961, Seigenthaler was sent to be chief negotiatorfor the government, in its attempts to work with Alabama Governor John Malcolm Patterson. After several days of refusing to return calls, Patterson finally agreed to protect the Riders, but their state trooper escort disappeared as soon as they arrived in Montgomery on May 20, 1961, leaving them unprotected before the waiting white mob.cite book | last = Gitlin | first = Todd | authorlink = Todd Gitlin | title = | publisher = Bantam Books| year = 1987 | id = ISBN 0-553-05233-0]
Seigenthaler was a block away when he rushed to help Susan Wilbur,cite news|title=Aide Hurt in Riots Returns to Capital|date=May 22, 1961|publisher=United Press International] a Freedom Rider who was being chased by the
angry mob. Seigenthaler shoved her into his car and shouted "Get back! I'm with the Federal government" [ [http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/rfk/filmmore/pt.html "American Experience: RFK"] transcript accessed November 27, 2006] but was hit behind the left ear with a pipe. Knocked unconscious, he was not picked up until police arrived 10 minutes later, with Montgomery Police Commissioner Lester B. Sullivan noting, "We have no intention of standing police guard for a bunch of troublemakers coming into our city."cite news|title=President's Representative Hurt Helping a Girl Escape Violence|date=May 21, 1961|publisher=Associated Press] cite book|last=Branch|first=Taylor|title=Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63|year=1988|publisher=Simon & Schuster|location=New York|id=ISBN 0-671-68742-5|pages=428–452]
Seigenthaler's brief career in government would conclude as a result of Evans' death from a heart attack on July 29, 1961. A brief transition period followed, during which long-time "Tennessean" reporter
John Nyeserved as publisher. On March 20, 1962, the newspaper made the announcement that Evans' brother, Amon Carter Evans, would be the new publisher.
One of the new Evans' first acts would be to bring back Seigenthaler as editor. The two had worked together before at the paper, when Seigenthaler served as assistant city editor and Evans was an aspiring journalist. On one occasion during that era, the two nearly came to blows over Seigenthaler's assignment of Evans to a story.
Evans named Seigenthaler editor of "The Tennessean" on March 21, 1962.cite news|pages=|title=Seigenthaler Editor Of Tennessean|date=March 22, 1962|publisher=Nashville Banner] With this new team in place, "The Tennessean" quickly regained its hard-hitting reputation. One example of the paper's resurgence came following a Democratic primary in August 1962, when "The Tennessean" found documented evidence of voter fraud based on absentee ballots in the city's second ward.
Seigenthaler's friendship with Kennedy became one of the focal points of
Jimmy Hoffa's bid to shift his jury tampering trial from Nashville. Citing "one-sided, defamatory" coverage from the newspaper, Hoffa's lawyers were able to get Seigenthaler to admit he personally wanted Hoffa convicted. However, the journalist noted that he hadn't conveyed those sentiments to his reporters. Hoffa's lawyers gained a minor victory when the trial was moved to Chattanooga in a change of venue, but Hoffa was nonetheless convicted in 1964 after a 45-day trial.
The following year, Seigenthaler led a fight for access to the Tennessee state senate chamber in Nashville after a resolution was passed revoking the floor privileges of "Tennessean" reporter
Bill Kovach. The action came after Kovach had refused to leave a committee hearing following a call for executive session.
In December 1966, Seigenthaler and
Richard Goodwinrepresented the Kennedy family when controversy developed about historian William Manchester's book about the John F. Kennedy assassination, " Death of a President". Seigenthaler had read an early version of the book, which led to Jacqueline Kennedythreatening a lawsuit over inaccurate and private statements in the publication.
Seigenthaler then took a temporary leave from his duties at the newspaper to work on Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. During this period, the journalist was described by the "New York Times" as, "one of a handful of advisers in whom [Kennedy] has absolute confidence."cite news|first=Wallace|last=Turner|title=New Aides Try to Reverse Decline in Kennedy California Drive|date=May 10, 1968|work=The New York Times] Moments after a victory in the California primary, Kennedy was shot by an assassin and died on June 6, 1968. Seigenthaler would serve as one of the
pallbearers at his funeral, and later co-edited the book "An Honorable Profession: A Tribute to Robert F. Kennedy".
Remaining focused on the cause of civil rights, Seigenthaler then supported Tennessee
Bishop Joseph Aloysius Durickin 1969 during the latter's contentious fight to end segregation, a stance that outraged many in the community who still believed in the concept.
Time as publisher
On February 8, 1973, Seigenthaler was promoted to publisher of the "Tennessean", after Amon Carter Evans was named president of Tennessean Newspaper, Inc.
As the publisher, Seigenthaler worked with
Al Gore, then a reporter, on investigative stories about Nashville city council corruption in the early 1970s. [cite journal |last=Wood |first=E. Thomas |authorlink=E. Thomas Wood |year=1993 |month=January/February |title=Al Gore's Other Big Week |journal=Columbia Journalism Review |url=http://archives.cjr.org/year/93/1/gore.asp |accessdate=2006-11-03 ] In February 1976, Seigenthaler contacted Gore at home to inform him that U.S. Representative Joe L. Evinswas not running for re-election. Gore decided to resign from the paper and drop out of Vanderbilt University Law School, beginning his political career by entering the race for Tennessee's 4th congressional district, a seat previously held by Albert Gore, Sr., his father.
On May 5, 1976, Seigenthaler dismissed Jacque Srouji, a copy editor at "The Tennessean", after finding that she had served as an
informantfor the Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI) for much of the previous decade. The controversy came to light after Srouji testified before the Energy and Environment Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, which was investigating nuclear safety. Srouji, who was writing a book critical of Karen Silkwood, had perused more than 1000 pages of FBI documents pertaining to the nuclear power critic. In followup testimony, FBI agent Lawrence J. Olson, Sr. acknowledged that the bureau had a "special relationship" with Srouji. "Tennessean" reporters had been suspicious of Srouji's reporting coups, coming just months after she had joined the paper. These included such things as a late-night FBI raid on illegal gamblingestablishments, as well as one on a local business suspected of fraud.cite news|pages=|title=A Special Relationship|date=May 24, 1976|publisher=Time Magazine|url=http://www.time.com/time/archive/preview/0,10987,879750,00.html]
Afterwards the FBI appears to have collected rumors about Seigenthaler. FBI Deputy Assistant Director Homer Boynton told an editor of the "New York Times" to "look into Seigenthaler," whom he called "not entirely pure." After hearing this, Seigenthaler tried for a year to get his own FBI dossier, and finally received some highly expurgated material including these words: "Allegations of Seigenthaler having illicit relations with young girls, which information source obtained from an unnamed source." He had previously promised to publish whatever the FBI gave him, and did so. He flatly stated that the charges were false. The attorney general issued an apology, the allegations were removed from Seigenthaler's file, and he received the 1976
Sidney Hillman Prizefor "courage in publishing".cite news|first=Anthony|last=Lewis|title=Not Entirely Pure|date=August 25, 1977|publisher=New York Times] cite news|title=Letter, The Silkwood Case|date=April 29, 1982|publisher=The New York Review of Books |url=http://www.nybooks.com/articles/6616]
In May 1982, Seigenthaler was named the first editorial director of "USA Today". In announcing the appointment,
Gannettpresident Allen Neuharthsaid Seigenthaler was "one of the most thoughtful and respected editors in America."cite news|first=Charles|last=Fontenay |title=Publisher Heads Editorial Voice For USA TODAY|date=May 14, 1982|work=The Tennessean] During Seigenthaler's tenure at "USA Today", he frequently commuted between Nashville and Washington to fulfill his duties at both newspapers.cite news|title=7 Staffers Taking Up Duties at 'USA Today'|date=September 7, 1982|work=The Tennessean]
The publication of author Peter Maas' 1983 book, "Marie: A True Story", again put Seigenthaler under scrutiny over the investigation of a pardon scandal involving former Tennessee governor
Ray Blanton. Marie Ragghianti was the head of the state's Board of Pardons and Paroles before being fired after refusing to release prisoners who had bribed Blanton's aides. Since the "Tennessean" had supported Blanton, the newspaper's initial reluctance in investigating the charges was called into question. However, editors and reporters had believed that Ragghianti's alleged broken affair with Blanton's chief counsel, T. Edward Sisk, was the motivation for her claims.cite news|first=Jonathan|last=Friendly|title=Debate on Reporting of Nashville Scandal Reopens|date=July 22, 1983|publisher=The New York Times]
Middle Tennessee State Universityestablished the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies, honoring Seigenthaler's "lifelong commitment to free expression values".cite web|url=http://www.mtsu.edu/~rcme/chairs.html|title=Middle Tennessee State University Chairs of Excellence|accessdate=January 11|accessyear=2006]
However, three years later, Seigenthaler again became embroiled in controversy with the FBI when he was tipped off by Circuit Court Judge Gilbert S. Merritt that Nashville-Davidson County Sheriff Lafayette "Fate" Thomas, his friend since childhood, was the target of a FBI government corruption sting. Although Seigenthaler was never charged with any crime, Thomas later pled guilty to mail fraud, theft of government property, and tax conspiracy and was sentenced to five years in prison. Despite the conviction, the FBI claimed that Thomas' knowledge of the plan ruined countless hours of investigative work.cite news|first=James|last=Brosnan|pages=A4|title=Tenn. Judge in High-Court Pool Hampered Sting|date=June 4, 1993|publisher=The Commercial Appeal]
Seigenthaler announced his retirement in December 1991 from "The Tennessean", just months after he made a similar announcement concerning his tenure at "USA Today".
On December 15, 1991, Seigenthaler founded the
First Amendment Centerat Vanderbilt University,cite web|url=http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/biography.aspx?name=seigenthaler|title=John Seigenthaler Biography at First Amendment Center|accessdate=May 18|accessyear=2006] saying, "It is my hope that this center at Vanderbilt University... will help promote appreciation and understanding for those values so vital in a democratic society." The center serves as a forum for dialog about First Amendment issues, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion.
In 1996, Seigenthaler received the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award as well as an honorary
Doctor of Lawsdegree from Colby College.
In 2001, Seigenthaler was appointed to the
National Commission on Federal Election Reformthat followed the 2000 presidential election. He is also a member of the Constitution Project on Liberty and Security.
In 2002, when it was discovered that "
USA Today" reporter Jack Kelleyhad fabricated some of his stories, "USA Today" turned to Seigenthaler, along with veteran editors Bill Hilliardand Bill Kovach, to monitor the investigation. [ Associated Press, [http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1000467855 "'USA Today' Probe Finds Kelley Faked Stories"] , " Editor & Publisher", 19 March 2004]
In 2002, Vanderbilt renamed the 57,000-square-foot (5,300 m²) building that houses the
Freedom Forum, First Amendment Center, and Diversity Institute the John Seigenthaler Center. At one point, "USA Today" and Freedom Forum founder Allen Neuharthcalled Seigenthaler "the best champion of the First Amendment."cite web|url=http://www.freedomforum.org/templates/document.asp?documentID=7821| title=Public dangerously unsupportive of free press, Seigenthaler warns|accessdate=May 18|accessyear=2006]
Seigenthaler currently hosts a book review program on Nashville
public televisionstation WNPT, called "A Word on Words", and chairs the selection committees for the John F. Kennedy LibraryFoundation's Profiles in Courage Awardand the RFK Memorial's Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.clear
In May 2005, an anonymous user (later identified as Brian Chase, not to be confused with the musician of the same name)cite news|first=Page|last=Susan|title=Author apologizes for fake Wikipedia biography|date=December 11, 2005|publisher=USA Today|url=http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2005-12-11-wikipedia-apology_x.htm] created a five-sentence
Wikipediaarticle about Seigenthaler which contained false and defamatory content.
Seigenthaler contacted Wikipedia in September, and the content was deleted. He later wrote an
op-edon the experience for " USA Today" on November 29, in which he wrote "Wikipedia is a flawed and irresponsible research tool."cite news|first=John|last=Seigenthaler|title=A false Wikipedia 'biography'|date=November 29, 2005|publisher=USA Today|url=http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2005-11-29-wikipedia-edit_x.htm]
After the incident, Wikipedia took steps to prevent a recurrence, including barring unregistered users from creating new pages.cite news | title=Wikipedia: A work in progress | date=December 14, 2005 | author = Helm, Burt | publisher=BusinessWeek | url=http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/dec2005/tc20051214_441708.htm?chan=db]
*cite book | author= Seigenthaler, John | title=James K. Polk: 1845-1849: The American Presidents Series | location=New York | publisher=Times Books | year=2004 | id=ISBN 0-8050-6942-9
*cite book | author= Seigenthaler, John | title=The Year of the Scandal Called Watergate | location=New York | publisher=Times Books | year=1974 | id=ISBN 0-914636-01-4
*cite book | author= Seigenthaler, John | title=A Search for Justice | publisher=Aurora Publishers | year=1971 | id=ISBN 0-87695-003-9
* [http://www.mtsu.edu/~masscomm/chair.html John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies]
* [http://www.wnpt.net/wow/ A Word on Words] official website
* [http://civilrightsandthepress.syr.edu/panelist.html Civil Rights & the Press]
* [http://www.booknotes.org/Transcript/?ProgramID=1763 Transcript of Brian Lamb interviewing Seigenthaler about Polk biography]
* [http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/A-0330/ Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler Sr.] at [http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp Oral Histories of the American South]
NAME=Seigenthaler, John, Sr.
SHORT DESCRIPTION=American journalist, writer, political figure
DATE OF BIRTH=July 27, 1927
PLACE OF BIRTH=
Nashville, Tennessee, United States
DATE OF DEATH=
PLACE OF DEATH=
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