John Seigenthaler

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

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 II
VTR: 10/26/95

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND, and my guest today is again the distinguished American journalist John Seigenthaler. Now Chair and Founder of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University, and now , and now 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. Now, my guest is obviously a formidable spokesperson for American journalism and First Amendment causes.

And I want now to continue our discussion about John Milton’s classic question, “Whoever Knew Truth Put to the Worse in a Free and Open Encounter?” John, when we ended the last program I was just about to spring a question upon you and you surprised me in the interval by answering me in a way I didn’t expect. Are you going to support, did you support, are you in favor of a news council, and you said “yes”.

SEIGENTHALER: I felt that a national news council, supported by private funding, free from any connection with the government was a service to journalism. It exposed irresponsible reporting, and it provided a jury to field complains about dishonesty and corruption. And there have been those cases that needed it. So I supported it. It failed for two reasons: One, it failed first of all, because the major news organizations in this country, the networks, The New York Times, The Washington Post, great newspapers, great networks, refused to support it. It failed also because it had no funding. And those two factors were very, very damaging. It functioned less than effectively during its life because it had no means of distributing its findings. The jury would find that this journalist, this journal, this reporter, this editor had failed, and acted in an irresponsible manner. That this story was inaccurate, this story was unbalanced. And there were many of those stories. And the council had found sometimes unanimously, sometimes by divided decisions, council found many examples of just plain bad reporting. But the findings were printed in journals read largely by journalists. Quill, which is the Society of Professional Journalists’ magazine…journalism review, had the findings for a while. But it takes a great deal of space and a great deal of time to prepare those reports, and the media was simply not interested. If the National News Council had a television outlet, like C-Span, it could do immeasurable, immeasurable good. It could hold the feet of American journalism to the fire.

HEFFNER: Even if the New York Times said “no”?

SEIGENTHALER: Even if the New York Times said “no”. I think the New York Times…I heard Tony Lewis say not too long ago, that he would favor a news council, and he quickly added “I’m not speaking…

HEFFNER: …for the times…

SEIGENTHALER: …for the publishers”, but I think we’ve all re-appraised where we’re going and what our problems are in the media. And my guess is that more people would look favorably on it now. I mean, Mike Wallace and Tony Lewis are two who said they’d look more favorably on it than they did back then.

HEFFNER: Well, suggestion: Why doesn’t the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center get into that business?

SEIGENTHALER: In the coming presidential campaign we’re going to make a small effort at not being a news council, but at providing a forum during which there can be criticism leveled at the press. See, I don’t think it has to be the news council to make, to make journalism more responsible. I think there are many editors who are right now struggling with, with problems of credibility that they face. Many of them are worried about the overuse of anonymous sources, for example. USA Today, where I worked for 10 years, won’t use anonymous sources as the basis for a self-generating news story. Many other editors are much more circumspect now, much more discreet, and use much larger discretion now about using anonymous sources than they did 10 years ago because of its credibility. I don’t think you have to have a news council. What you need is some public forum where people can come, make complaints, and have them aired. It doesn’t even take a major investigation into some of these complaints to have a curative effect in my judgment. So I would hope that during this campaign we could provide a forum occasionally where irresponsible journalism can be considered, where editors will have a chance to defend it after critics condemn it, if they choose to. I think that sort of discussion, that sort of analysis would be a major help. Let’s take that first step, and if it works, see if somebody, see if somebody really wants to follow up on it.

HEFFNER: Well, it’s interesting to me, John, that you use the word “jury” in talking about the national news council. And I was going to say “almost all” just to protect myself, but I think I can be safe in saying all journalists at this table, with the exception of my friend John Seigenthaler, have in the first place said “no jury to pass judgment on what we, free operatives, free press, do”. That seems to be, that concept seems to be an…to you newspaper people.

SEIGENTHALER: Well, it wasn’t to me when it came out, and it wasn’t to many other editors in the country who supported the council. They didn’t support it with money they supported it with a willingness to be examined. And you didn’t have to, I mean, if you were against the council you didn’t support the council and you wouldn’t cooperate with the investigation that did not stop the council from going forward in making an examination. I will tell you, if I think there is one problem with American journalism it is that there is no self-criticism or external criticism. I had a great experience some years back with Warren Beatty, who said to the editors gathered “I have not had a single interview in eight years because when I wrote, when I produced ‘Reds’, the first look at communist Russia that was reasonably objective, and submitted to interviews, I was only asked about my sex life. For eight years, I haven’t been…” and Ben Bradlee from the Washington Post and Abe Rosenthal from the New York Times were there, and he said “Abe, why is it that you don’t write about Ben’s mistakes? Ben, why is it that you don’t write about Abe’s mistakes?” And we don’t. Print journalism does not criticize, it does not criticize print journalism. Oh, there are a few ombudsmen around who make self-examinations from time to time. But there is no serious criticism of American journalism outside of the Columbia Journalism Review or the American Journalism Review. There is none.

HEFFNER: How do you explain that, since you’re all so critical of the rest of us?

SEIGENTHALER: There is no explanation. There is absolutely no rational, reasonable explanation of it. And I think that, I really think that part of the reason the press has lost a great deal of credibility is because there is no self-criticism. And there is no self-criticism at a time when there are dramatic changes taking place that moves mainstream contemporary journalism towards gossip tabloid news.

HEFFNER: Do you anticipate further movement in that direction?

SEIGENTHALER: Toward more criticism?

HEFFNER: No, in the direction of…

SEIGENTHALER: In the direction of gossip and tabloid journalism? Well, we’ve gone about as far as we can go. I mean, I see, I’ve seen that the, I mean, I saw the Times use the National Enquirer as a source during the O.J. Simpson trial. I mean, the Times is the greatest newspaper, I think, in the world, the New York Times. But it used The National Enquirer and it reported The National Enquirer story in which Ann Mora relied on anonymous sources. And the Times has a very strict standing on the use of anonymous sources. I don’t know how to explain that one story, and I’m glad it’s not representative of what the Times is about every day and it won’t ever become a standing. But it really indicates how tabloid journalism and gossip are creeping into the mainstream of American journalism.

HEFFNER: Your sense in this area and in every other area in which we’ve discussed is always that volunteerism is the answer to the problems that we face. You just don’t want controls of any kind. You don’t want government, you believe, you have to believe, you have no alternative, in volunteerism. Are you satisfied with that?

SEIGENTHALER: I’m never satisfied with it. I just think it’s better than the alternative. It’s better than turning it over to Bob Dole or Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton. They’re appointees to decide…I think that they’re the heirs of Madison and Jefferson who said that Congress should not make the law. Since that first Congress said that, Congress has done nothing but make laws, and some of them have offended the right of a free press. And so I do not want government into it. I draw a line there. And as I told you once before, I just don’t want to cross that line. I never say “never”, but I don’t want that line crossed.

HEFFNER: When I was down in Nashville at the First Amendment Center and you were kind enough to invite me to participate in a television program that the Center produces, it was about violence in the media. And I asked YOU a question. I didn’t get an answer, but that was…


HEFFNER: …whether you felt there was something akin to the present danger posed to us…this time – we had been talking about violence in the media – you obviously feel that there is a clear and present danger posed to this country by, what you haven’t called the irresponsibility of…

SEIGENTHALER: Well, let me hasten to call it the irresponsibility of the press.

HEFFNER: Okay. Do you think there is a clear and present danger posed to us in terms of the violent content of media?

SEIGENTHALER: I didn’t answer the question because it is a very tough question to answer. I mean, I’ve seen studies that indicate that children are more aggressive after they’re exposed to hour after hour after hour of violence. But to have the government move in and decide what I shall or shall not want to watch or hear simply because parents are irresponsible strikes me as a more extreme step and as a different sort of clear and present danger. I just don’t think it’s possible, if you’re going to deal with violence, and leave it to the political, governmental process to decide, that it’s going to improve our culture or our society. Nor do I believe that it will eliminate violence from the media. In my judgment there are political appointees that would be made that would come into this power who would find…

HEFFNER: You don’t believe that…

SEIGENTHALER: I do, I do. I’ll tell you, I will tell you that there are people, I’ll tell you there are people in this society right now in dominant political positions who would say that the depiction of the crucifiction of Christ was too violent for society to envision. And I don’t know where the radical religious right gets its ideas of what it wants the public to see or hear. But they only want the public to see and hear, only want the public to see and hear what they judge to be right and proper and appropriate. What they want their children to see is not what I want my children to see, and I will tell you that radical religious right wing segment of society is on the ascendancy, and is very close to the heart of a number of presidential candidates right now. And very close to the heart of the American Congress.

HEFFNER: What do you mean by very close to the heart?

SEIGENTHALER: I mean, I mean…

HEFFNER: To the vote.

SEIGENTHALER: Yeah, there are some things, yeah, there are candidates that are part of that movement…if you ask, you see, it doesn’t stop with violence. It stops with the National Endowment of the Arts. Of course, they give eight or ten thousand dollars to some artist whose work is not widely circulated and it offends them. It offends me, too, but not enough to let a government suppress it. And I believe that the culture of the radical religious right would indeed, would indeed draw lines that would be unthinkable to most of America.

HEFFNER: I guess, John, what puzzles me is why we’re not persons of good will, why we’re not saying there is a clear and present danger here as you describe it, and there is a clear and present danger here as I describe it in terms of media contact. And then instead of saying that here we are identified with the First Amendment, we’re going to say that there can’t be anything done about the other danger. And those who see the other danger posed by the media content say the hell, effectively, with the First Amendment. When are we going to reason together and understand that we have two problems here: One, to defend that great tradition of the First Amendment, of free speech – not dangerous speech, but free speech – not dangerous speech but free speech in terms of which someone is crying “fire!” in a crowded theater. And that we make do with some means of reconciling the two interests. That’s not what we’re doing.

SEIGENTHALER: No. It’s not what we’re doing, Dick, and it’s a tragedy that it’s not what we’re doing because I do believe that this society stands divided on two sides of a chasm. And there’s no effort to bridge it. None. There’s no effort to bridge, there’s no effort to find common ground. There’s no effort to find compromise. Compromise has become a dirty word either for people who follow Mr. Farrakhan or for people who follow Ralph Reed. And I really worry that at the silence. I’m not sure it’s a silent majority any more. I’m afraid that it’s a silent minority because people who have grabbed the microphone on the radical fringe extreme of those two movements are drawing phenomenal numbers. And there is no voice to challenge them much less urge compromise.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, that’s why I focus my attention upon you, because your credentials and the credentials of the First Amendment Center are not to be questioned. So that if you were to devote yourself in part to this question of the clear and present danger posed by media contact one can breath a little more easily. I don’t want that question in the hands of the know-nothings. I don’t want it there. But I do want the competing interests that we both are concerned about to factored in at one time, not separately. Let’s not, let’s you and he fight.

SEIGENTHALER: Oh, I, you and I agree totally on the nature of the problem.

HEFFNER: Then why don’t you do it?


HEFFNER: (Laughter)

SEIGENTHALER: I feel I that I am not as all-seeing, as all-knowing, as all-powerful, but I do agree that there needs to be a voice. Now some of the things that are going on at the Center are aimed in this direction like all of the work that we’re trying to put into practical action. Dr. Charles Ames, who was head of the Liberty Institute, is now working for us trying to find common ground the area of trying to teach about religion in the public schools. Now that’s an area that both people of faith and people of no faith can agree is part of our educational heritage, our history in this country. And when you wipe the study about religion out of the public schools you deny our history. So there are some efforts we are making, but I’m not sure that we can take on this whole load. I’m not sure that any one institution can take on the duty of providing a moral compass for a society that’s lost.

HEFFNER: A society that’s lost?

SEIGENTHALER: I think that society has lost its way right now. I think that, and I felt that way when I saw 400 or 850 or 2 million people on the Mall. I felt that way when I saw I saw television depict what was going on in neighborhoods, in schools, the O.J. Simpson trial. I feel that way when I see what’s happening in the political arena, where people of good will are following people who do not have good will, who want to control the thought processes of this country. I think that, I think we’re lost. And I don’t think the way out of it is to turn over judgments about our children’s morality to Congress, who can’t help us solve the problems of children’s housing or education or food or medical care.

HEFFNER: What do you think John Seigenthaler would be saying now if John Seigenthaler hadn’t gone into the Kennedy Administration as a friend of Bobby’s, hadn’t been there when there was so much going on, and hadn’t been beaten up in the marches in the South? What, I mean do you think you would have been as much concerned about government…


HEFFNER: …government?

SEIGENTHALER: There are people who say I haven’t thought straight since that day in Montgomery, Alabama I got hit in the head. I don’t really know. I do think that experience had an impact on how I feel about government. I’m proud of the time I worked there.

HEFFNER: Would you have trusted the Kennedys?

SEIGENTHALER: I wouldn’t trust them with the power to regulate speech or thought. I disagreed with the President’s effort at times to conduct investigations into leaks. I thought the efforts were…the power of the government is so great in the hands of the BEST presidents that it really is not to be trusted. And Jefferson, who was a great president, and Madison, who was a reasonably good president both didn’t trust themselves with the power, and didn’t trust their heirs with the power.

HEFFNER: And for good reason when Jefferson was president.

SEIGENTHALER: Oh, exactly. I mean, Adams put editors in jail because of what they thought and what they wrote, with the Sedition Act. So I…but it they didn’t trust them, I don’t see why I should.

HEFFNER: That’s fair enough. Where do we go from here, then?


HEFFNER: You say we’re lost…

SEIGENTHALER: We are, and I’m very critical of government. On the other hand I don’t think that this irrational stream of government, from the likes of Mr. Farrakhan to the likes of the religious right make any sense. And I think where we have to go is back to engaging those radical voices, the voices of moderation and common sense.

HEFFNER: But isn’t this anti-government stance, isn’t it to be equated with the militia? I mean, in our times, were government to be the symbol of the worst in us, it seems so strange to me.

SEIGENTHALER: Yeah. I think that’s right, and part of – you haven’t said this, but the next question, I know – part of the responsibility is the work of the media in analyzing government actions. And again, part of that has to do with the tendency to treat all people in public affairs as tabloid media. It’s a very tough time we’re going through. The only hope is that when the society in the past has gone through extremes, been led by radicals, there always has been the final awakening before it was too late. The pendulum swings one way, and suddenly the people in the society are in the middle. They wake up to say “I’ve got to stop this. I’ve got to do something about it”. And they vote and they speak and they write. And they begin to raise hell! Somehow the society rights itself.

HEFFNER: Well, on perhaps on that note of possible optimism is the one place we ought to end. John Seigenthaler, thank you for joining me again.


HEFFNER: HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about our program today, please write THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $4.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Wiener Foundation; The Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and from the corporate world, Ruder-Finn.