Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Seigenthaler was a giant; newspaper leaders now are so many midgets with no vision but for profit

I got the following response from a reader to my piece on Carpetbagger Tennessean Editor Mark Silverman's testimony to his newspaper's greatness because it is profitable:

Wish you'd been around when John Seigenthaler was running things. There was newspaper excitement back then. Dru

I wish I would have around, too. But I did get to meet the great man on several ocassions, and each time he left me more impressed.

The first was when I wrote a critical column of a forum he hosted with then Nashville First Lady Andrea Conte. Seigenthaler wrote back with such a gracious reply that still let me know how he believed I was wrong.

The second time when he provided me the great honor of bringing the late David Halberstam over to me at a Freedom Forum gathering. It still hurts to think of the incredible loss to my former profession and the craft of writing with the loss of this great man in a car accident a year or so ago.

The third time was when Seigenthaler called me at my home to praise me about columns I was writing about the unfair education of immigrant children in Nashville schools. For me, the call was an overwhelming compliment.

That's because the man when it came to projects and efforts to make a difference -- from my limited knowledge -- was morally and courageously out front for his community, state and region. Jerry Thompson's infiltration of the Klan remains one of the most heroic newspaper projects of our time. And it stopped the spread of the Klan in its tracks.

NewsChannel 5's Phil Williams used to work for The Tennessean. And he produced a Pulitzer Prize-winning finalist project.

There are more examples I can cite. But when you think of the journalists who came through The Tennessean under Seigenthaler's tenure, you realize why the newspaper had such a great reputation.

Seig even had employees at one time standing out in the streets collecting money to keep Fisk University from closing.

It seems the era that produced Seigenthaler and so many great leaders in journalism and politics has never returned. The greatest politician to come from that time was Bobby Kennedy -- not because of his power but due to his compassion.

When you would see the then senator carress the knapes of the necks of poor black children in Watts and poor white children in Appalachia, you knew the guy cared. And when talked tough to crowds like he did at Kansas State University at the start of his presidential campaign, people responded enthusiastically.

We don't have that kind of honesty anymore. No one is really willing to take the chance. There are flashes in President Obama. But great leaders take great chances -- not for profit -- but for progress.

Of course, that era also produced our greatest American, Dr. King, who knew that each time he appeared in public he was targeted for death. He was stabbed once. And then in Memphis, he got to look over into the Promised Land before being assassinated the next day.

Even though we have elected a black president, we still are not to that promised land. I know, because I regularly see the poor, black children of Nashville and Tennessee who are still wandering in the desert. They need a quality education from educators and schools that want them.

That's why the president's call for open enrollment in charter public schools must be followed. We have such a bill before the state Legislature to do so, but it is Republicans who are backing it and Democrats who are blocking it.

How can that be?

Some people look on the late 50s and 60s as a time of great turmoil. I instead see them as a golden era of American leadership in all the four estates, and cross over between the estates by people such as Seigenthaler.

Yes, I do wish I would have worked at or knew The Tennessean under Seigenthaler. His kind is rare. And so are the quality of the difference-making newspapers they produced.

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