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John Seigenthaler

john seigenthaler, john seigenthaler pedestrian bridge
John Lawrence Seigenthaler /ˈsiːɡənθɔːlər/; July 27, 1927 – July 11, 2014 was an American journalist, writer, and political figure He was known as a prominent defender of First Amendment rights

Seigenthaler joined the Nashville newspaper The Tennessean in 1949, resigning in 1960 to act as Robert F Kennedy's administrative assistant He rejoined The Tennessean as editor in 1962, publisher in 1973, and chairman in 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 Editors, and from 1988 to 1989 was its president


  • 1 Early life
  • 2 Career
    • 21 Journalism
    • 22 Politics
    • 23 In publishing
    • 24 Later life
      • 241 Wikipedia controversy
  • 3 Death
  • 4 Publications
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links

Early life

Born in Nashville, Tennessee, Seigenthaler was the eldest of eight siblings He attended Father Ryan High School and served in the US Air Force from 1946–49, achieving the rank of sergeant After leaving the service, Seigenthaler was hired at The Tennessean 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 Reporters at Columbia University



Seigenthaler began his career in journalism as a police beat reporter in The Tennessean city room after his uncle encouraged an editor about his talent Seigenthaler gradually established himself on the staff among heavy competition that included future standout journalists David Halberstam and 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 Seigenthaler won a National Headliner Award for 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 Bridge in 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 On April 29, 2014, the bridge was renamed the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge

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 use of intimidation in keeping news of certain union activities quiet During this period, he contacted Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa, both top Teamsters officials, but the two men ignored Seigenthaler's queries His series of articles resulted in the impeachment trial of Chattanooga Criminal Court Judge Ralston Schoolfield

Seigenthaler took a one-year sabbatical from The Tennessean in 1958 to participate in Harvard University's prestigious Nieman Fellowship program Upon returning to The Tennessean, Seigenthaler became an assistant city editor and special assignment reporter


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

During the Freedom Rides of 1961, Seigenthaler was sent in his capacity as assistant to Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights John Doar to be chief negotiator for 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

Seigenthaler was a block away when he rushed to help Susan Wilbur, 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" 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"

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 Nye served 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 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 Goodwin represented the Kennedy family when controversy developed about historian William Manchester's book about the John F Kennedy assassination, The Death of a President Seigenthaler had read an early version of the book, which led to Jacqueline Kennedy threatening 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 has absolute confidence" 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 Durick in 1969 during the latter's contentious fight to end segregation, a stance that outraged many in the community who still believed in the concept

The New Yorker described Seigenthaler as being "well connected in the Democratic Party" He was called a "close family friend" of the Kennedys, a "longtime family friend" of the Gores, and a friend of former Democratic Senator James Sasser In 1976, after having encouraged Al Gore to consider entering public life, he tipped off Gore that a nearby U S House representative was retiring In 1981, Seigenthaler urged Sen Sasser to return to the Democratic party's "liberal tradition": "I keep telling him that Reagan's going to make it respectable to be a liberal" In 1984, Reagan's reelection team vetoed Seigenthaler as a debate panelist for being too liberal

In publishing

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 In February 1976, Seigenthaler contacted Gore at home to tip him off that he had heard that US Representative Joe L Evins was retiring, telling Gore "You know what I think" Seiganthaler previously had been encouraging Gore to consider entering public life 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 informant for 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 follow-up 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 gambling establishments, as well as one on a local business suspected of fraud

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 Prize for "courage in publishing"

In May 1982, Seigenthaler was named the first editorial director of USA Today In announcing the appointment, Gannett president Allen Neuharth said Seigenthaler was "one of the most thoughtful and respected editors in America" During Seigenthaler's tenure at USA Today, he frequently commuted between Nashville and Washington to fulfill his duties at both newspapers

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

Later life

Seigenthaler discussing media coverage of the Nashville sit-ins at a 2010 panel discussion

In 1986, Middle Tennessee State University established the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies, honoring Seigenthaler's "lifelong commitment to free expression values"

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 pleaded 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

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 Center at Vanderbilt University, 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 Laws degree from Colby College

In 2001, Seigenthaler was appointed to the National Commission on Federal Election Reform that followed the 2000 presidential election He was also a member of the Constitution Project on Liberty and Security

In 2002, when it was discovered that USA Today reporter Jack Kelley had fabricated some of his stories, USA Today turned to Seigenthaler, along with veteran editors Bill Hilliard and Bill Kovach, to monitor the investigation

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 Neuharth called Seigenthaler "the best champion of the First Amendment"

In April 2014, the Shelby Street Bridge was renamed the John Seigenthaler Pedestrian Bridge in his honor

Seigenthaler hosted a book review program on Nashville public television station WNPT, called A Word on Words, and chaired the selection committees for the John F Kennedy Library Foundation's Profiles in Courage Award and the Robert F Kennedy Memorial's Robert F Kennedy Book Award

Wikipedia controversy

Main article: Wikipedia Seigenthaler biography incident

In May 2005, a Wikipedia user created a five-sentence article about Seigenthaler that contained false and defamatory content The false statement in Seigenthaler's Wikipedia article read:

"John Seigenthaler Sr was the assistant to Attorney General Robert Kennedy in the early 1960's For a brief time, he was thought to have been directly involved in the Kennedy assassinations of both John, and his brother, Bobby Nothing was ever proven"

Seigenthaler directly contacted Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales At first, the only thing Wikipedia did was correct the misspelling of the word "early" As Seigenthaler later wrote, "For four months, Wikipedia depicted me as a suspected assassin before Wales erased it from his website's history Oct 5" The erroneous information was on Wikipedia from May 26 through October 5, 2005

Seigenthaler noted that the falsehoods that were written about him on Wikipedia were later posted on Answerscom and Referencecom He later wrote an op-ed on the experience for USA Today in which he wrote, "And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research – but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects Congress has enabled them and protects them", a reference to the protection from liability that internet service providers are given under federal law versus editorially controlled media like newspapers and television


Seigenthaler died of complications from colon cancer on July 11, 2014, at the age of 86, surrounded by his family in his home


  • Seigenthaler, John 2004 James K Polk: 1845–1849: The American Presidents Series New York: Times Books ISBN 0-8050-6942-9 
  • Seigenthaler, John 1974 The Year of the Scandal Called Watergate New York: Times Books ISBN 0-914636-01-4 
  • Seigenthaler, John 1971 A Search for Justice Aurora Publishers ISBN 0-87695-003-9 


  1. ^ Dalby, Andrew 2009 The World and Wikipedia: How we are editing reality Somerset: Siduri p 60 ISBN 978-0-9562052-0-9 
  2. ^ a b Fliess, Maurice October 8, 1999 "Public dangerously unsupportive of free press, Seigenthaler warns" freedomforumorg Archived from the original on January 3, 2002 Retrieved May 18, 2006 
  3. ^ a b Schwartz, John July 11, 2014 "John Seigenthaler, Editor and Aide to Politicians, Dies at 86" The New York Times 
  4. ^ a b c "Seigenthaler Named Nieman Fellow" The Tennessean June 5, 1958 
  5. ^ a b c Ritter, Frank December 6, 1991 "A Model and Mentor: Seigenthaler Leaves Mark at Newspapers Nationwide" The Tennessean 
  6. ^ "Visitors in Limbo" Time Magazine December 7, 1953 Archived from the original on January 3, 2012 
  7. ^ "Reporter Balks Man's Suicide From Bridge" Los Angeles Times October 6, 1954 p 6 
  8. ^ "John Seigenthaler honored with renaming of bridge" Retrieved 2014-07-12 
  9. ^ a b "The Fighting Tennessean" Time Magazine September 14, 1962 Archived from the original on January 3, 2012 
  10. ^ Jimmy Breslin March 26, 1965 "Changing the South" New York Herald-Tribune  reprinted in Clayborne Carson; et al, eds 2003 Reporting Civil Rights: American journalism, 1963–1973 Library of America pp 361–366 Retrieved July 20, 2012 
  11. ^ Gitlin, Todd 1987 The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage Bantam Books ISBN 0-553-05233-0 
  12. ^ "Aide Hurt in Riots Returns to Capital" United Press International May 22, 1961 
  13. ^ "American Experience: RFK" Archived from the original on January 3, 2012 Retrieved November 27, 2006 
  14. ^ "President's Representative Hurt Helping a Girl Escape Violence" Associated Press May 21, 1961 
  15. ^ Branch, Taylor 1988 Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954–63 New York: Simon & Schuster pp 428–452 ISBN 0-671-68742-5 
  16. ^ "Seigenthaler Editor of Tennessean" Nashville Banner March 22, 1962 
  17. ^ Turner, Wallace May 10, 1968 "New Aides Try to Reverse Decline in Kennedy California Drive" The New York Times 
  18. ^ a b Lemann, Nicholas July 31, 2000 "Gore Without a Script; What would happen if we saw the man he really is" The New Yorker 
  19. ^ Ayres, B Drummond April 27, 1984 "A Troubled Kennedy Makes Last Trip Home" The New York Times 
  20. ^ Turque, Bill December 6, 1999 "Al Gore's Patriotic Chore" Newsweek 
  21. ^ a b Tolchin, Martin February 1, 1981 "Tennessee Senator Campaigns For 1982" The New York Times 
  22. ^ a b Henneberger, Melinda August 11, 2000 "The 2000 Campaign: The First Race; Birth of a Candidate: Al Gore Goes Into the Family Business" The New York Times 
  23. ^ a b Maraniss, David January 4, 1998 "As a Reporter, Gore Found A Reason to Be in Politics; Losing Verdict in 'Sting' Trial Motivated Him to Enter Law School" The Washington Post 
  24. ^ Alter, Jonathan October 22, 1984 "The Media in the Dock" Newsweek 
  25. ^ Wood, E Thomas January–February 1993 "Al Gore's Other Big Week" Columbia Journalism Review Archived from the original on March 9, 2007 Retrieved 2006-11-03 
  26. ^ "A Special Relationship" Time Magazine May 24, 1976 Archived from the original on January 3, 2012 
  27. ^ Lewis, Anthony August 25, 1977 "Not Entirely Pure" New York Times 
  28. ^ "Letter, The Silkwood Case" The New York Review of Books April 29, 1982 Archived from the original on January 3, 2012 
  29. ^ Fontenay, Charles May 14, 1982 "Publisher Heads Editorial Voice For USA TODAY" The Tennessean 
  30. ^ "7 Staffers Taking Up Duties at 'USA Today'" The Tennessean September 7, 1982 
  31. ^ Friendly, Jonathan July 22, 1983 "Debate on Reporting of Nashville Scandal Reopens" The New York Times 
  32. ^ "Middle Tennessee State University Chairs of Excellence" Retrieved June 18, 2014 
  33. ^ Brosnan, James June 4, 1993 "Tenn Judge in High-Court Pool Hampered Sting" The Commercial Appeal pp A4 
  34. ^ "John Seigenthaler Biography at First Amendment Center" Archived from the original on April 23, 2010 Retrieved May 18, 2006 
  35. ^ "'USA Today' Probe Finds Kelley Faked Stories" Editor & Publisher Associated Press March 19, 2004 Archived from the original on April 4, 2004 
  36. ^ Cass, Michael April 29, 2014 "John Seigenthaler honored with renaming of bridge" The Tennessean Retrieved July 11, 2014 
  37. ^ Page, Susan December 11, 2005 "Author apologizes for fake Wikipedia biography" USA Today Archived from the original on December 3, 2012 
  38. ^ http://usatoday30usatodaycom/news/opinion/editorials/2005-11-29-wikipedia-edit_xhtm
  39. ^ http://usatoday30usatodaycom/news/opinion/editorials/2005-11-29-wikipedia-edit_xhtm
  40. ^ Seigenthaler, John November 29, 2005 "A false Wikipedia 'biography'" USA Today Archived from the original on January 3, 2012 
  41. ^ The Tennessean July 11, 2014 "Prominent editor, activist John Seigenthaler dies at 86" USA Today Retrieved July 11, 2014 

External links

  • John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies
  • A Word on Words official website
  • Civil Rights & the Press
  • Appearances on C-SPAN
    • Booknotes interview with Seigenthaler on James K Polk, January 18, 2004
  • Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler Sr at Oral Histories of the American South

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