July 11, 2014

Remembering John Seigenthaler

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John Seigenthaler as a young reporter at The Tennessean. (Courtesy John Seigenthaler)

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As an editor, John Seigenthaler guided The Tennessean from a respectable Southern newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize-winning powerhouse. (Courtesy The Associated Press)

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John Seigenthaler with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. (Courtesy John Seigenthaler)

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John Seigenthaler with his wife of 59 years, the former Dolores Watson. (Newseum collection)

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John Seigenthaler at his office at the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. (Courtesy Mark Humphrey/The Associated Press)

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John Seigenthaler hosting a program at the First Amendment Center with his son, John. (Newseum collection)

Related Video

The Freedom Rides

In 1961, John Seigenthaler, then an administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, brokered an agreement with Alabama governor John Malcolm Patterson for the safe passage of the Freedom Riders. As he attempted to aid Freedom Riders in Montgomery, Ala., Seigenthaler was attacked by an angry mob of Klansmen and knocked unconscious from a blow to the head by a lead pipe.

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.

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