John Seigenthaler

Whoever Knew Truth Put to the Worse in a Free and Open Encounter? Part I

VTR Date: October 26, 1995

Guest: Seigenthaler, John


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: John Seigenthaler
Title: “Whoever Knew Truth Put to the Worse in a Free and Open Encounter? Part I
VTR: 10/26/1995

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, long your host on THE OPEN MIND, which I began in May, 1956, and obviously an even longer time believer in the concepts of open-mindedness for free thought and free speech, which…the best of our American heritage. But free speech at times means different things to different people. And today I particularly welcome the opportunity to parse John Milton’s “Whoever Knew Truth Put to the Worse in a Free and Open Encounter” with my friend, the distinguished American journalist John Seigenthaler, now Chair and Founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, and Chair Emeritus of the Tennessean a national, where he worked 43 years as variously reporter, editor, and publisher. John Seigenthaler was also founding editorial director of USA Today and President of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, later chairing the Society’s First Amendment Committee. So, needless to say, my guest is a formidable spokesperson for American journalism and First Amendment causes. As a friend and close associate of Robert Kennedy, he sometimes backs in, “I don’t think I was a First Amendment absolutist when I was in government, but I am today”. Yet John isn’t, unlike so many others who have sat at this table, a journalist who avoids responsibility by insisting that “there’s no one in here but us chickens”, or refuses to concede media power, or rejects the notion that with press freedom goes press responsibility. And so, I want to ask my guest if ever he would draw a line short of free speech absolutism and how today, in modern America, we can parse Milton’s “Whoever Knew Truth Put to the Worse in a Free and Open Encounter”. John, is ever the line not drawn?

SEIGENTHALER: I learned many years ago never say never, but it’s very difficult, Dick, to think of a situation which I would give to the government the responsibility of what the press should or should not say or write or publish. I think that society is generally better off if government keeps hands off, stays out, and that’s really what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they said Congress should make no law.

HEFFNER: Yet when you say “generally”, you’re kind of hedging your bets there. And that’s indeed the question I was asking.

SEIGENTHALER: I think Milton was an absolutist. I think Areopagitica is a treatise that gives us insight into a person who could not see and at the same time had an absolute open mind. It’s phenomenal that he had the wisdom, the vision, long before the founders did, that “If truth and falsehood grapple”, the society won’t lose. I believe that, and I don’t mean to hedge. I don’t mean to say…where I would stop short of a line…I think that in almost every case, and I say ALMOST because I can’t think of a case, in which I would draw a line. I think that in every case I know about, in every case I’ve been confronted with, society is better off if government stays out.

HEFFNER: But, John, if we say, if we ask “Whoever Knew Truth Put to the Worse in a Free and Open Encounter?” the next question, I would think, would have to be how many free and open encounters are there? Are so many of the encounters we experience in our lives really free and open? And when they are not, doesn’t there have to be some agency that levels the playing field?

SEIGENTHALER: A woman called me shortly after we stared the First Amendment Center and said “When are you people in that Center out there going to do something about getting Rush Limbaugh off the air? And I said that we were looking for more voices, not fewer, and that while I disagree totally with what Rush says, I suggest you do what I do when you want to don’t want to hear Rush: just reach out and twist the dial. She said “I did, and I got G. Gordon Liddy”…

HEFFNER: (Laugher)

SEIGENTHALER: So, you’re absolutely right, there is no balance or argument in any form, I mean, whether it’s a courtroom or a public hearing room, whether it’s in the counselor’s chamber, whether it’s in the judges’ chamber, whether it’s on a street corner, there is no absolute way to assure balance. But when there are as many sources of information in the society as there are today it seems to me that the public is well served by picking up what it wants and rejecting what it doesn’t want. And besides Rush and Liddy, there are many, many stops on that channel spectrum where she could have stopped to get all the information she needed to be as informed as she wanted to be. You know, I think that when the FCC first came into business, clearly scarcity was a problem. I look at electronic media today and I don’t think scarcity of sources of information is any problem at all…

HEFFNER: Would you say sources of differing points of view?

SEIGENTHALER: I think so. I think so. I think there are many answers to the two people who get the most…right now, Limbaugh and Liddy. Granted, they have a dedicated, passionate, at times irrational following, and granted, they are all of those things themselves at times. But in my community, and in most communities I know about, if you turn the dial far enough to the left or the right, you’ll find somebody, even to the left or the right of those two. I don’t think the Founders envisioned a society in which there would be a perfect balance in the debate. I think they wanted robust, lusty exchanges. It was a remarkable thing when the media was so irresponsible. The time they gave us that unbridled power – those 45 words in the first amendment – it was a lying, cheating, gossiping, irresponsible press in those days and they said, as it is, better we should keep our hands off of it. As I said, when I was in the government, I didn’t feel that way. I feel that way. I have come to feel that way since.

HEFFNER: How are we going to reconcile those two stages in your life? When you were in the government you were not a different John Seigenthaler. What was it that you saw? What was it that you understood then?

SEIGENTHALER: I think I was in an administration, I was in the Kennedy administration, and the President was seen as an intellectual champion of the media. His press conferences were wrestling matches, intellectual wrestling matches, and he came out on top, almost always. He was seen as a president who had many, many friends inside the media. And they ranged from Ben Bradlee, whose book is now on the New York Times Bestseller List, to Joe Alsop, who many people saw during the Vietnam War as the conservative voice of the military industrial complex. But there was, in that administration, a siege mentality, and it’s true in any administration, in every administration, it transcends politics…there is in government an attitude of “us” and “them” when it comes to the free flow of information. And I was part of that siege mentality. At times I was uncomfortable with it because I had come from the media, the press, into that administration. I found when I came out, that I was much more comfortable on the other side, where I suppose, I belonged all the time. I mean, I gained immeasurably from my time in the government. It was a wonderful experience, a great time to be there. But one of the things I think I learned is that that siege mentality in government does not help. It’s not only not in the interest of free press it’s not in the interest of free people. And so, I came to the conclusion after leaving that society is healthier if the government, given that mental state that affects any administration, every administration from Washington to Clinton, the country is better off if government is guided by the wisdom of the Founders, who wanted to stay out.

HEFFNER: How healthy is it for American life if the press has what you’ve characterized as a siege mentality?

SEIGENTHALER: It’s not healthy. We go through periods in this country of political and emotional unreality. The McCarthy Era is the best example. But I think in some ways we are going through a period of divisiveness right now, that in my lifetime, is second only to the McCarthy Era. This whole idea of racial separatism, almost in some cases racial warfare, is tearing at the vitals of this country, I think in the same way that McCarthy and his followers did. And I’m not sure…we head in this direction at a time when politicians and the media, and church and education all seem unwilling to engage in debate and dialogue and discussion, candor in all of those ways, in all of those ways of communicating. I don’t see as absent, some people with courage and in candor speaking up and speaking out. I don’t see that we’re going to come out of this period of divisiveness soon. There are two voices in this society right now that I don’t understand. I think I don’t understand them because they’re not being answered. One represents the Farrakhan voice and the other is the voice of the radical religious right. And those two forces right now have attracted such a great following that it frightens me. And what frightens me most about it is that politicians and the media, the church and educators are staying away from the debate. They’re afraid they’re going to offend somebody on one side or the other, and they are taking to the neutral ground as if it were the high ground.

HEFFNER: And what does that phenomenon do to your own faith in democracy?

SEIGENTHALER: Well, it shakes it. It shakes it, it shakes it. I mean, I went through, as the country did, of the last national election where we had an earth quake, and I heard members of Congress with records that are certifiable, repudiate their own positions, their own philosophies, their own dearest ideas, in an effort to try to cater to the radical religious right.

HEFFNER: And they were successful.

SEIGENTHALER: Many of them lost. Many of them…

HEFFNER: Many lost?

SEIGENTHALER: Many, many, many good democrats, who fled the lists of debate…

HEFFNER: But isn’t that only because on the other side of the aisle there were those who embraced the points of view that you deplore?

SEIGENTHALER: I think that, I think that’s right. But I think that the country would have been better off, society would have been better off, if those politicians had come to grips with the reality of their own history and their own heritage. I mean, I think they failed, those who did, and you’re right, there were some who went through the ledger domain and got away with it. Those who failed, they failed because I think, they repudiated what they stood for. And it was counterfeit, it was phony.

HEFFNER: Yah, but John, the thing that bothers me about what you’re saying is they failed. But they didn’t fail because they constituent said “We want you to stick by your guns because those are the guns we want fired”.

SEIGENTHALER: No, but if we engage in politics or media by public opinion polls, then there is no debate. There is no effort on the part of politicians to educate. I mean, Ronald Reagan is not somebody I voted for, but I must say, he was a masterful communicator. And I think he expressed a point of view and led a cause, and was successful at it because he stood for something. And what he stood for was understood by people who agreed with him and disagreed with him. There was a chance for honest debate when Ronald Reagan was President of the United States, because he took a position and stood by his position, and everybody who disagreed with him could take shots at him. And sometimes he’s respond, and sometimes he would not, but there was a dialogue at least going on at that time. There is no dialogue going on today. There isn’t. Where is the voice of liberal or moderate dissent? I mean, I see candidates for the presidency whose records I have known for years, republicans who are moderate who won’t dare admit they’re moderates. Because it’s not just unfashionable, it’s unthinkable that they can say that. And the nomination of the party, they seek to serve.

HEFFNER: Now how do you respond to those who say that this, to a considerable extent, is because of the way the media has treated them, and because of the climate that the media has created?

SEIGENTHALER: I would not challenge that. I think that the media has made a great contribution to the divisiveness and the failure of giving politicians the opportunity to engage in…

HEFFNER: Now are you separating the media out into the, the beady red eye of the television camera and then…


HEFFNER: …the print people?


HEFFNER: Okay, so you’re…

SEIGENTHALER: I mean, I, I think that a number of things are happening with the media, but one of the things that’s happening is that tabloid journalism, print and electronic, is merging with traditional, mainstream journalism in ways that are disturbing. Editors are losing the ability to say “No, I won’t write this. I won’t publish this. Or I will write this, or I will publish this.” Because it was or was not on the tube that day or that night.

HEFFNER: Wait a minute, let me understand. You say editors are losing the ability…


HEFFNER: How do you account for that?

SEIGENTHALER: I think, I don’t want to blame the media on television, but I think we are mesmerized by that media eye. I think we’re hypnotized. And when I say “we”, I mean those of us who are in print media. I think that in every newsroom that I know about today, there’s a bank of television sets up there. Now if you see Connie Chung every night, out there on the West Coast, in the Great Northwest, standing beside that ring, counting how many times Tanya is going to fall on her tail that day…There is a tendency to say that if CBS thinks it’s that important, I really need to get into the paper tomorrow how many times she fell.

HEFFNER: John, this is a failure of the editor who is saying that.

SEIGENTHALER: It is. I acknowledge that. And that’s exactly, that’s exactly the point I would make. If the editor sits there and watches television, and O.J. is on every hour, every day, the editor, even though there is nothing going on in court, that day is worth more than three paragraphs. And there were many days where that was the case. That editor too many times says “Gosh, we’ve got to have a story on the front page, or big inside the newspaper on O.J. today”. And I think that…I use those two examples simply to make a point that I think editors are losing the ability, surrendering the ability to say “no”.

HEFFNER: And why? Don’t say again, “because of television”, because we agree that they themselves are surrendering. Are you saying that in competition, in the kind of competition that we find now between the print media and the electronic media, there’s no question that you go along with what seems to be the winning vote?

SEIGENTHALER: It’s more than that. It’s sort of a, it’s sort of a pack mentality. Journalists agree on the agenda-setting mandate that they traditionally have inherited. The problem, I think, with many print editors today is that they are no longer the agenda-setters. It used to be that television followed the news, the print publications in terms, in deciding on what the story of the day was, or what the stories of the day were. I find today, that editors of print and journalism have lost the ability to set the agenda.

HEFFNER: Now, if they did, would they lose? If they did, would they lose financially? Would they lose in terms of the standing of their newspapers in particular communities?

SEIGENTHALER: No, I think they would not lose circulation. I think they would not lose money. I think they are losing credibility and I think they would gain credibility if they asserted that in some cases “We will simply say no. This story doesn’t deserve to be printed”. I mean, go back to the confrontation between George Bush and Mary Tillotson of CNN…comes out during the campaign because the New York Post says so, comes out that George Bush, according to a former ambassador, now dead, who wrote a book and included in a footnote that George Bush and Joan Fitzgerald had a romantic encounter. I know dozens of editors who had been fed that book and fed that footnote and said “no”. The New York Post puts it on the front page. At Noon Mary Tillotson, during a photo-opportunity, asks the President: ”The New York Post, a great tabloid newspaper said this morning…” He said “I won’t dignify it with an answer, except to say that it never happened”. Every paper has it in the morning, either the charge or the denial, or both. Editors who had refused to consider it because it was not a story worth considering, was not a story you could check out…the man’s dead, it was a vague reference at best. Editors who had refused that story swallowed it because television asked him a question, and they decided they couldn’t ignore it.

HEFFNER: I don’t know why John, you’ll forgive me, but that, that rings not untrue, but sounds strange to me. Because again, it’s as if there were some outer force, some force from outer space that did this to these editors. You’ve got to help me out of that…

SEIGENTHALER: Well, I think, I think there is, there is, there may be this: There may be this feeling that “Yes, it was not worth it yesterday when only I knew about it, but now the whole world knows about it and if I’m going to serve my readers I must report what Mary Tillotson asked the President about something yesterday I would not report”…

HEFFNER: Well, that…

SEIGENTHALER: …”and I’ll worry about my credibility if I don’t do that”. And I’ll worry about their credibility if they continue to do that.

HEFFNER: So what do we do?

SEIGENTHALER: I think that editors are struggling with that every day. I think they know better than anybody else. Newspaper editors know that they’re losing power to dictate the agenda. For better or for worse, they’re losing the ability to do that and they’re losing it because they have given up their ability to say “yes” or “no”.

HEFFNER: Now, you say they’re losing more and more by continuing to surrender that ability. They must be parsing this, again to use my favorite word lately, in coming to a very different conclusion.

SEIGENTHALER: I think they’re not coming to any conclusion as yet, Dick. I think the struggle, the struggle for, that’s going on in American newsrooms is really solely for fair and accurate reporting. And the struggle is how, how do we separate ourselves from tabloid journalism? How do we draw a line between what’s responsible, what we KNOW is responsible and what we know is irresponsible? You know, when Jennifer Flowers called a press conference, paid for the tabloid, as the story she was given was paid for by the tabloid, I don’t know an editor who sent a reporter down, including me, who didn’t feel guilty about going down there and…keyhole peeping on that woman’s story. But I couldn’t say “no”. And given what she said, I don’t think I should have said “no”. I have a different feeling in the Bush case. I mean, I have plenty of room there to say “Hell, no, I won’t go” on this story. And what has happened is that too many editors, too many journalists, print and electronic, are simply part of a pack. They’re on to a story, they pursue the story, and…Jack Nelson once said “The privacy genie is out of the bottle and we can’t get it back”. But we’re not even trying to get it back. I think the reality of that is dawning on the editors and they are struggling with the question of how we free ourselves from the shackles of tabloid journalism.

HEFFNER: You know, there’s so much that comes out of that. There are so many questions. I’m just getting the sign that I ought to end this program. I trust that you will stay where you are and we will be able to go on and next week our viewers will be here. And you will answer my next question which will be “Well, John Seigenthaler, do we need a national news council?” And it’s at that point I think you for joining me today…


HEFFNER: …and stay where you are and we’ll come back.


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