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Public dangerously unsupportive of free press, Seigenthaler warns

Maurice Fliess
World Center

10.08.99

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John Seigenthal...
John Seigenthaler
VERMILLION, S.D. — Public hostility toward the press today is "more pronounced, more profound" than at any time in the past half century, veteran newspaper editor John Seigenthaler said last night in accepting an award for his lifetime of achievement in journalism.

"Freedom of the press today does not have support of the people," Seigenthaler said. "Polls reflect that." By and large, the public views the news media as "abusive and intrusive," he added.

Known as a staunch defender of the First Amendment and of civil rights, Seigenthaler called the current climate the antithesis of that which existed in the nation's formative years.

"When we got a First Amendment in this country, when we got a Bill of Rights, we received it because the public demanded it ... and the politicians responded. Now the public is telling the politicians something entirely different: [The press] doesn't help us, we don't want it, and I think [press freedom] is in danger."

Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean in Nashville and founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, became the 13th recipient of the Allen H. Neuharth Award for Excellence in Journalism. The award is bestowed annually by the University of South Dakota. Neuharth, founder of The Freedom Forum and of USA TODAY, is a graduate of USD.

Neuharth called Seigenthaler "the best champion of the First Amendment" and "a giant in journalism — south of the Magnolia line first, and then nationally and internationally."

John Seigenthal...
John Seigenthaler answers question from son, John Michael Seigenthaler of NBC News.
Before an audience of USD faculty, students and alumni, Seigenthaler was joined on stage by his son, John Michael Seigenthaler, anchor of the weekend "NBC Nightly News," in what was billed as "A Conversation Between Father and Son."

The elder Seigenthaler said personal freedoms were never secure but repeatedly challenged and "always in the process of being made secure." Viewed in that context, "public sentiment hostile to the media is more pronounced, more profound, than it's been in my whole professional career," he said.

"The public needs to be skeptical of the news media, as the news media need to be skeptical of power brokers in private and public life," Seigenthaler said, but the American people "should not be cynical. ... I think they are cynical about all institutions in society, including the media," largely because the news they are getting treats those institutions cynically.

Seigenthaler began his journalism career 50 years ago as a reporter at The Tennessean in his native Nashville and worked his way up to editor, publisher and chief executive officer. He also was founding editorial director of USA TODAY. In both capacities he worked closely with Neuharth, former chairman, president and CEO of Gannett Co. Inc. Gannett bought The Tennessean during Seigenthaler's tenure as publisher.

Retiring from both newspapers in 1991, Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center, one of The Freedom Forum's major operating programs.

"Having lived under the grace of the First Amendment for all those years," he said, he wanted to "create a debate, a dialogue, a discussion to help the public understand what the First Amendment was about, what those 45 words meant to them."

Seigenthaler said he had come to view journalism "as a form of quasi-public service. ... I couldn't think of anything better in life than ... providing information to people who needed it to live their lives, to guide their lives, to govern their lives."

In his last few years in the newspaper business, however, Seigenthaler said he saw that "the public suddenly was becoming disenchanted, disillusioned, disconnected from the newspapers on which they had relied for so long. And not only were they upset about it and tuning the media out, I felt it was reflecting on their willingness to tolerate a free press."

More recently, he noted, public distaste for journalism has been heightened by coverage of sex scandals in the White House and elsewhere.

Seigenthaler took a long view of the press's tendency toward sensationalism, observing that some of the nation's Founding Fathers had been subjected to press scrutiny in sexual matters.

At the same time, he pointed out that reporters covering the presidency of John F. Kennedy did not uncover his alleged marital infidelity. "It was not just that the press didn't know it," he said. "The press wasn't looking for it. The press was not interested in it."

Are the American people better off today in this era of no-holds-barred reporting? "I think they are better off today, knowing more" about public officials, he said, "but I'm not always sure they're better off knowing" about possible sexual misconduct by people such as television sportscasters Marv Albert and Frank Gifford. "So I think there is sensationalism that goes beyond the bounds of what is rational and what should be acceptable," he said.

Seigenthaler viewed the Kennedy administration as an insider. He left journalism to work as administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. In that capacity he was sent to assist "freedom riders" who were taking buses to southern cities to demonstrate for civil rights for blacks. In Montgomery, Ala., Seigenthaler was beaten as he tried to rescue a woman from a mob of angry whites.

Seigenthaler recounted a humorous story of what happened when news of the beating reached his neighbors in Nashville. They rushed to his home, where John Michael, then 5 years old, informed them that his father had been "chasing a girl down the street and got hit in the head."

On a serious note, the younger Seigenthaler told the USD audience that he recently visited the civil rights museum in Memphis, Tenn. "One of the times I was most proud of my father was walking into that museum, seeing the display on the 'freedom riders' and reading his name."

For his part, the elder Seigenthaler said the "real heroes" of the era were the young people who followed Martin Luther King Jr. or went by themselves into the "jaws of hell, risking their own lives in order to change the corrupt mores of Southern society."

After a year and a half in government, Seigenthaler returned to journalism when he was offered the editorship of The Tennessean. He crusaded for civil rights, as did other liberal editors including Barry Bingham in Louisville, Ralph McGill in Atlanta, Harry Ashmore in Little Rock and Hodding Carter Sr. in Greenville, Miss.

"I think we helped change the mind of the South," Seigenthaler said of newspaper editors. "But I would have to say the actions of the civil rights demonstrators, as reported in the media, really helped change the mind of the South."

Both Seigenthalers said they remembered threatening phone calls in the night. The elder Seigenthaler commented: "It was a dangerous time, more for the civil rights demonstrators than for us. But, you know, people who would blow up a school — and they did in our town — or blow up the home of a civil rights attorney, and they did in our town, are deranged, and they were maddened by this change that they saw the newspapers trying to bring about, and the lawyers trying to bring about, and by the educators trying to bring about." The intimidation only increased the newspapers' resolve "to cover the news as comprehensively as they could," he said.

Ranging beyond free-press and civil rights issues, Seigenthaler was asked whether his reputation as "a First Amendment absolutist" extended to the controversial "Sensation" exhibit that opened this month at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. He said it did.

"There is in this society, and in every society, within the government a fear of what they don't understand and what they don't like. And there is too often a knee-jerk inclination on the part of all levels of government to suppress, to cover up, and my sense of it is that in this case and in cases like it, society is better off if people in government who are against it exercised their First Amendment right to speak out against it" — as opposed to trying to close it.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's comments about the exhibit were "perfectly appropriate," he added, "but when he begins to ban it or seek to have it suppressed, it seems to me he makes his decision for me and others in the society."

As an aside, Seigenthaler said he "wouldn't walk around the block or cross the street to go to see that exhibit. I mean, I'd rather go see NewsCapade," The Freedom Forum's traveling museum of news that is on the University of South Dakota campus this weekend.

But it was clear from their strong reactions that many people in the USD audience objected to the use of taxpayers' money to support art that many people deem offensive.

The award Seigenthaler received is one of several programs supported by the USD's Allen H. Neuharth Fund for Excellence in Journalism, which was endowed by $1.25 million in grants from The Freedom Forum.

Neuharth read portions of a congratulatory letter from one of the people Seigenthaler hired as a Tennessean cub reporter, Al Gore. The vice president called Seigenthaler a "mentor" and The Tennessean "a progressive, anti-establishment newspaper." Seigenthaler responded by thanking Neuharth for reading only portions of Gore's letter, "because he still writes long."

The evening conversation capped a busy day on the South Dakota campus for the two Seigenthalers, who also held a press conference and were part of a taping of an hourlong public-affairs program for South Dakota Public Broadcasting.

Previous recipients of the Neuharth Award include broadcasters Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw and Cokie Roberts, columnist Carl T. Rowan and White House correspondent Helen Thomas.

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