Seigenthaler, John 1927–

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Seigenthaler, John 1927–

(John Lawrence Seigenthaler)

PERSONAL: Born July 27, 1927, in Nashville, TN; son of John and Mary (Brew) Seigenthaler; married Dolores Watson; children: John Michael. Education: Attended Peabody College.

ADDRESSES: Home—28 Whitworth Blvd., Nashville, TN 37205. OfficeFirst Amendment Center, Vanderbilt University, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, TN 37212.

CAREER: Tennessean, Nashville, TN, began as staff correspondent, 1949–60, editor, 1962–72, publisher, 1973–91, president, 1979–91, chairman and chief executive officer, 1989–91; U.S. Justice Department, Washington, DC, administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, 1960–62; USA Today, editorial director, 1982–91. Duke University, Durham, NC, associate professor of communications policy, 1980–82; Freedom Forum, senior advisory trustee, 1991–, founder of First Amendment Center; guest on television program Freedom Speaks; host of weekly book-review television program A Word on Words; chair, John F. Kennedy Center "Profile in Courage Award"; cochair, with Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., of Robert F. Kennedy Book Award; member, National Commission on Federal Election Reform, 2001–02, and Constitution Project on Liberty and Security.

MEMBER: American Society of Newspaper Editors (former president), Kappa Tau Alpha.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Headliner Award for Investigative Reporting, 1953; Neiman fellowship, Harvard University, 1958–59; Sidney Hilman Prize for Courage in Publishing, 1977; Mass Media Award, American Jewish Committee, 1981, for investigative story on Ku Klux Klan; Sigma Delta Chi fellowship, 1984; Allen H. Neuharth Award for Excellence in Journalism, 1999; Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies created in his name at Middle Tennessee State University, 1986; John Seigenthaler Center dedicated at Vanderbilt University, 2002.


(Editor, with others) An Honorable Profession: A Tribute to Robert F. Kennedy, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1968.

(With others) A Search for Justice, Aurora Publishers (Nashville, TN), 1971.

The Year of the Scandal Called Watergate, [Nashville, TN], 1974.

James K. Polk (biography), Times Books (New York, NY), 2004.

SIDELIGHTS: Journalist and publisher John Seigenthaler has established a reputation as a staunch defender of a free press. In his work as reporter, editor, and publisher, he has exposed injustices and called for social reforms. He also worked actively for the cause of civil rights in the 1960s.

From the beginning of his career, Seigenthaler demonstrated his instinct for compelling stories as well as his empathy for those about whom he wrote. Indeed, reporting from the scene of a potential suicide, he attempted to talk the despondent man out of jumping into the Cumberland River. Sensing that his words had failed, Seigenthaler grabbed the man and held him until a rescue team arrived. A story the reporter investigated in 1953, about a man who faked his death and swindled his insurance company, brought Seigenthaler national attention and won him the National Headliner Award.

During the 1960s, Seigenthaler interrupted his journalistic career to work for Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. From 1960 to 1962, he served as an administrative assistant in the Justice Department on issues relating to civil rights, organized crime, and judicial reform. Seigenthaler was the federal government's chief negotiator with the governor of Alabama during the 1961 Freedom Rides. In May of that year, he was beaten unconscious while trying to help two student protestors to escape from a violent crowd. In 1968 Seigenthaler worked on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign and was with the candidate's entourage when Kennedy was assassinated. Seigenthaler later coedited the book An Honorable Profession: A Tribute to Robert F. Kennedy. He also collaborated on A Search for Justice, a book about the trials of those charged with the assassinations of both Kennedys and of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In 1962 Seigenthaler assumed editorship of the Nashville Tennessean. Under his leadership, the newspaper initiated several major undercover investigations, including a 1962 story on corruption between union and management in the coal industry that won the paper a Pulitzer prize. The paper's best-known exposé focused on the secret role of David Duke, a state legislator from Louisiana, in the Ku Klux Klan. For his role in promoting this story, the American Jewish Committee awarded Seigenthaler its Mass Media Award in 1981.

Seigenthaler also fought the government when he felt its rulings compromised freedom of the press. When the Tennessee senate barred reporters from the senate floor during closed legislative meetings, Seigenthaler and reporter Bill Kovach successfully sued. Seigenthaler also advocated access to government records. In 1976, after learning that an employee of his paper was an FBI informant, he fired the worker. He then demanded access to his own FBI file and pledged to print what was in it. He did so, even though the file reported that an unnamed source alleged that he had "illicit relations with young girls." Seigenthaler adamantly denied this charge and blasted the FBI in his story. As a result, the attorney general issued an apology, and the allegations were removed from Seigenthaler's file. The story won him the Sidney Hilman Prize for Courage in Publishing.

After Gannett bought the Tennessean in 1979, Seigenthaler remained at the paper as president and publisher. In 1982 he became the first editorial director of Gannett's new paper, USA Today. Retiring in 1991, Seigenthaler then became a senior advisory trustee of the Freedom Forum, founded in 1991, which has established the Newseum, an interactive news museum in Washington, DC, and the Diversity Institute. One of its programs is the First Amendment Center, which Siegenthaler founded at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. His book James K. Polk, a title in Times Books' "American Presidents" series, was published in 2004.



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 127: American Newspaper Publishers, 1950–1990, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993, pp. 282-285.


Booklist, January 1, 2004, Ray Olson, review of James K. Polk, p. 816.

Human Events, November 22, 2004, Wayne Lutton, review of James K. Polk, p. 30.

Publishers Weekly, October 6, 2003, review of James K. Polk, p. 69.


First Amendment Center Web site, (October 11, 2005), profile of Seigenthaler.