Journalism icon John Seigenthaler, a First Amendment champion, civil rights advocate and devoted friend of Middle Tennessee State University, died July 11 at the age of 86.
Seigenthaler, who lent his name and his prodigious talents to the Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies at MTSU, passed away at his Nashville home with his family at his side, according to his son, fellow journalist John Michael Seigenthaler.
In 1986, MTSU established the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies to honor Seigenthaler’s lifelong commitment to free expression.
The Seigenthaler Chair, housed in the College of Mass Communication, supports a variety of activities related to free speech, free press rights and other topics of concern for contemporary journalism, including distinguished visiting professors and visiting lecturers at MTSU, research related to free expression, and seminars and meetings dedicated to expressive freedom.
MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee, who is in China on an international educational excursion with a group of Rutherford County youngsters, their parents and MTSU representatives, expressed his grief at Seigenthaler’s death and his gratitude for Seigenthaler’s service to the university, the state and the nation.
“John Seigenthaler’s impact upon our university was profound, meaningful and enduring,” said McPhee. “His friendship and counsel has been invaluable to me as president, both professionally and personally, and I know I speak for the entire university community in expressing our deep sorrow on his passing.
“John’s unparalleled leadership as a journalist and an advocate of the First Amendment was an inspiration to our students and faculty. His deep and prolonged involvement at our university helped build and propel our College of Mass Communication in scholarship and service. He was a fixture on our campus.
“Elizabeth (McPhee) and I are heartbroken by this loss and send our deepest condolences to John’s wife, Dolores, and the entire family. John was a dear friend and will be missed.”
Seigenthaler was a reporter, editor, publisher and CEO of The Tennessean as well as an administrative assistant for then-U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. After serving as founding editorial director for USA Today, he established the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in 1991.
Ken Paulson, dean of the College of Mass Communication and a longtime friend of Seigenthaler’s through their work together at USA Today and the First Amendment Center, called the elder journalist a “truly special man.”
“John was one of those rare people who was even better than his great reputation,” said Paulson, who also serves as president of the First Amendment Center.
“A man of great integrity, passion and compassion, his commitment to the First Amendment and journalism was unflagging. He loved this university and its students and would do anything he could to help. We’ve lost a very good man.”
Seigenthaler and his family created and supported the MTSU journalism scholarship that bears his name in the College of Mass Communication, and he has served since 2005 as the chair of the college’s Board of Professional Advisors.
The School of Journalism at MTSU launched the Seigenthaler News Service in 2012, a unique program for outstanding young journalists that lets them work full-time as reporters covering activities in U.S. District Courts and other federal law enforcement operations at the Federal Court House in Nashville.
Seigenthaler also was inducted in April 2013 as a member of the inaugural class of the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame is housed at MTSU’s John Bragg Mass Communication Building inside the Center for Innovation in Media.
The list of people who served as chairholder for the Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence at MTSU reads like a Who’s Who of media and includes Wallace Westfeldt, former producer for NBC and ABC News; Bill Kovach, former editor of The New York Times and curator of the Nieman Fellowships at Harvard; Tom Wicker, former columnist for The New York Times; John Henry Faulk, humorist and popular CBS radio personality blacklisted during the Red Scare and a hero of free expression rights; Jim Squires, former editor of The Chicago Tribune; author and journalist Wallace Terry; television journalist Sander Vanocur; former U.S. News & World Report Washington bureau chief John Mashek; and Seigenthaler himself.
Three current MTSU professors also have helmed the Seigenthaler Chair: Chris Clark, one of the longest-tenured TV anchors in American history with 41 years at WTVF-TV, whose advocacy for public information access led the Tennessee Supreme Court to allow TV cameras in the state’s courtrooms; Beverly Keel, entertainment journalist and music industry executive who now leads MTSU’s Department of Recording Industry; and Wendell “Sonny” Rawls, Pulitzer Prize winner for investigative reporting at the Philadelphia Inquirer and a former director of the Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Seigenthaler was part of an April 17 Windham Lecture Series event at MTSU that featured one of his former reporters at the Tennessean, MTSU alumnus Keel Hunt, along with Tennessee’s senior U.S. senator, Lamar Alexander, and former U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin for an in-depth discussion of the unprecedented 1979 bipartisan ouster of a corrupt governor.
Hunt interviewed the trio for his book “Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal.”
“The days and weeks prior to this, all of the media in Tennessee was telling the story, either in print or in broadcast, the story of the scandal,” said Seigenthaler that night. He wrote the forward to Hunt’s book and was editor in chief of The Tennessean at the time of Gov. Ray Blanton’s ouster.
“There were very few people in the state at the time who didn’t understand that this scandal, this crisis, was on us,” said Seigenthaler.
You can read The Tennessean’s more extensive story on Seigenthaler’s career and contributions here. The cover story of the Nashville Scene also offers a personal perspective from a former competitor. Paulson also provided a commentary for USA Today, which you can read here.
You can watch a video of John and John Michael Seigenthaler, a former weekend anchor for NBC News in New York who now anchors Al Jazeera America’s prime-time news program, from their September 2011 “Living the First Amendment” conversation at MTSU below.
A video from the Windham Lecture Series event in April is available below.
Visitation with John Seigenthaler’s family and friends is set from 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday at the First Amendment Center on the Vanderbilt University campus, located at 1207 18th Ave. S. in Nashville. Funeral services will be conducted at 10 a.m. Monday at the Cathedral of the Incarnation, 2015 West End Ave.
Learn more about MTSU’s John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies at www.mtsu.edu/masscomm/chair_mc.php.
— Gina E. Fann (firstname.lastname@example.org)