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Take Five: John Seigenthaler has experienced the First Amendment from both sides

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 26, 2012 - Talk about your awkward situations. Here was John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center, longtime respected journalist, now the victim of an embarrassing hoax biography posted on Wikipedia, saying he had defected to the Soviet Union and was a suspect in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy.

Could a man whose career had been dedicated to freedom of the press file suit for defamation? Should he?

Seigenthaler, who will be coming to St. Louis Nov. 29 for a fund-raiser for the Gateway Journalism Review, recounted the episode for the Beacon as a good example of what can sometimes be the mixed blessing of the First Amendment. With the rapid technological transformation in how news spreads, the old rules don’t always seem to apply, but new solutions aren’t necessarily palatable either.

Ultimately, Seigenthaler said, he decided not to sue. But spurred on by his son, John Seigenthaler Jr., who reminded him that he was not the only person with that name, he didn’t just sit back and take it either.

As he wrote in 2005 in USA Today, where he had been the first editorial director:

“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.”

(Confession: I first found the quote on Wikipedia, but I confirmed its authenticity with Seigenthaler.)

At age 85, Seigenthaler has had a career that moved from journalism to government and back again. He joined the Tennessean newspaper in his native Nashville in 1949, leaving in 1960 to join the Kennedy administration as an assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.

In that position, he became a key figure in the Freedom Riders movement that erupted in violence when busloads of young blacks tried to challenge segregation in the South. He himself was knocked unconscious as he got caught in a melee between demonstrators and police.

Returning to the Tennessean, Seigenthaler was instrumental in efforts to integrate the newsroom and expand the newspaper’s coverage beyond its traditional scope. He became editor, then publisher, then chairman before retiring. He was the first editorial director at USA Today and founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in 1991.

He spoke by phone with the Beacon about civil rights, journalism and his revered First Amendment. The transcript is edited for clarity and length.

What do young people know today about the civil rights era? What do they need to know?

Seigenthaler: I speak a lot with students, in high school and college, and it may be a blip on their radar screen, if that. It’s hard for them to envision, I think, just how different the country was 50 short years ago. It’s so difficult for them to relate to a time when it was as bloody as it was. After the election this year, there were news media accounts describing racist protests at Hampden-Sydney College and at Ole Miss. I was just reading online a few minutes ago a number of other comments that can only be characterized as racist about the president’s re-election. It’s just hard to believe that those sorts of racist responses show any sense of history 50 years ago.

People were risking their lives and suffering assaults and imprisonment and some of them even dying to get the right to vote, among other rights. It’s virtually impossible for them to understand just how ugly and venomous that culture was. While those protests today are fractional in terms of the number of people who felt the same way that long ago, it is still disturbing to see that those sentiments are alive. Anybody who had a sense of the history will recognize there is no place in society for that sort of reaction 50 years after people suffered like that.

Are students today more tolerant than people were in the days of the Freedom Riders, not only in racial terms but of other minorities?

Seigenthaler: In some ways, student populations today are more tolerant and more aware of realities than are their parents and grandparents. They understand, it seems to me, without understanding the civil rights movement, that there are lines to be drawn with regard to maltreatment of a whole variety of minority groups. Discrimination against homosexuals exists in this country. It’s very real, but it does strike me that the hostility is more intense among adults than their children and grandchildren. I would say the same generally is true of the verbal and occasional physical assaults on Muslims. Hispanics still suffer, and as we learned election night, blacks are not immune to those vicious verbal attacks.

Intolerance is still alive and well in this country. It’s been that way since the beginning. But you would think that 50 years after civil rights, all the time that has passed since Lyndon Johnson in two successive years gave us legislation to try to end that sort of intolerance and discrimination, that we wouldn’t have to relive it. But there are moments that really bring up the past, and you have to wonder whether it wouldn’t be worthwhile to make sure that integrated into every high school curriculum, maybe even every elementary school curriculum, some course of study would put the past in perspective and help kids work their way through the rebirth of intolerance that you find too many pockets of.

I acknowledge that we’re only talking about pockets of intolerance, but it still has the potential to be infectious. In the same way you can educate against bullying, and schools are making a major effort in that direction, now you can educate students and bring home to them just how vicious and violent this society was 50 years ago. Granted, my region was more victimized by the intolerance than other parts of the country. But I’d have to say it existed everywhere. And my guess is pockets of it existed election night.

How did the reporting help civil rights champions achieve their goals?

Seigenthaler: Media coverage ultimately made it easier for Lyndon Johnson to pass those civil rights laws than would have been the case otherwise. So the media played a role in making us understand we had to get beyond that. Part of what made that work was that it was covering a war zone right on our own Southern streets, and it was a war zone where it was sometimes police violence abetting mob violence, and on the other side were protesters committed to nonviolence. You had that contrast between violence and nonviolence that helped us understand gradually that what those young people were saying was give nonviolence a chance, and it will work on your mind. I think it did work, gradually. It profoundly changed us.

But when you returned to journalism, you realized you had another kind of racial battle to fight, right?

Seigenthaler: I can remember coming back to the Tennessean after being in the Kennedy administration. I came back to a newsroom that was lily white, and virtually all male. There were no full-time black reporters. Part of that is if you have been denied opportunities for months and years and decades, you don’t even bother to knock on the door and say, is there a place for me? At least I had some sense of that when I came back.

But the real shock to me was a day I spoke at Fisk University, when I made my first appearance there after being editor, and this beautiful young woman stood up and said, that’s all very good, Mr. Seigenthaler, but can you tell me why my mother can’t get my wedding announcement in your paper. I was tongue-tied. I said to myself, look in your own shop. There are things right in front of your nose you don’t see that you have to address and you have to correct.

You’re never too old to learn. I learned a very good lesson that day. I learned what was ingrained in the culture and was not easy to change. I told her of course your mother will get your picture in the paper. That’s one commitment to make. It’s another to go back and make the change. People don’t just bow down and do it. You’ve got to help other people understand how they have to change their attitudes. No matter how adept you are in making changes, everybody is not just like you. It’s a real challenge.

I think about my hometown and hometowns like mine all through the South. For blacks, anywhere you wanted to go and needed to go, there were statutes that said you can’t go there. There were those damnable signs that said you must go this way, you can’t go that way. You’re barred from a restaurant, a hotel, a motel, a city park, a city water fountain, a bathroom. Just to say it to young people today, it’s difficult for them to understand or even for some of them to believe it. Was it really that bad? Yes, it was really that bad, and at least 40 people gave up their lives for it.

Talk about the fake biography on Wikipedia. That must have been a difficult situation to handle.

Seigenthaler: I went through a very tough and trying experience. My reaction when I first read this five or six sentence biography was to chuckle and say to myself, who the hell would ever believe anything like that. No one is going to pay any attention to that. Then I had a couple of phone calls.

One came from my son, who said by the way, you’re not the only John Seigenthaler. I’m John Seigenthaler, and your grandson Jack is John Seigenthaler. You’re going to have get that thing down from Wikipedia. It’s nothing to chuckle about.

The second call was from a young woman who had interned with us at the First Amendment Center and was a student at the University of Hawaii. She was not chuckling at all. She was on the verge of tears. She had spoken to her colleagues about interning with us here at the center, and I’m sure she had said nice things about me. Then she went online to find out I was a suspected assassin who had defected to the Soviet Union for 12 years. She was really upset. Those two calls led me to call (Wikipedia co-founder) Jimmy Wales and complain, to delve into that world where anonymity prevails and to be frustrated by an effort to change it.

I said, who did it? He said he had no idea, it was anonymous. If you want to find out who did it, you have to file a libel lawsuit. The founder of the First Amendment Center file a lawsuit because someone said something bad about him? Not me. But then my son said it was on 24 mirror sites. It’s everywhere. I was not able to discover who did it on my own. So I wrote the column for USA Today.

A whole body of law has developed in which courts, relying on federal law, have not provided any recourse for people. I had to consider very deeply for a matter of weeks what I thought the remedy had to be. I concluded that the remedy ultimately has to rest not with Congress but with citizens who want to end this. In every medium, everybody looks for viewers and listeners and readers, and if they dry up, the people who are responsible for defamation have to rethink their position. I don’t think Congress is the answer here. I just think if enough people understand the damage being done to themselves and other people, there will be a different response to it.

I went through a period in which I checked on attacks made on members of Congress. There will come a time when enough of them have been victimized by these anonymous defamations when Congress is going to want to move. The question is whether they should move. I generally find, going all the way back to Gutenberg, that when regulators delve into the world of free expression, inevitably they go too far. That is my greatest concern. I think as punishing as it can be, and I understand that, and as frustrated and as helpless as this anonymous defamation can feel, we really have to weigh very, very carefully before we just turn it over to the regulators. We really have to worry about what happens when regulators begin to move in on that.

I think the founders had the wisdom to know that if they regulated a press that was irresponsible, error-prone, rumor-ridden, then there would be no independent monitor or critic. Even though they knew they were going to be criticized and damned falsely, they still wrote those 45 words that said better an independent institution, free and loose, to be wrong than to have power in our hands. If we regulate it, it will be the monarchy all over again.

I had to go through that. It took me a few days to get my head on straight and get the anger out of my system. Some of it was painful. I don’t know if I was brought to tears, but I certainly felt the sting of defamation. Then I found out hundreds of other people, and I know thousands of other people, were wronged in the same way. I don’t have a remedy except that when I was an editor, I said we make mistakes. Every reader should be discriminating in the sources they rely on. I try to be a credible source, and I think most journalists do. It’s a tough problem the society faces. More and more, people are getting most of their news online. That’s particularly true of young people, and that’s going to grow. At some point, people who get most of their news online are going to have to be more and more discriminating and more and more aware of what they are reading and watching. I much prefer the power to be in their hands than in the hands of government regulators. You can’t pass a law and solve this.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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