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John L. Seigenthaler, an inspiration


John L. Seigenthaler, left, and son John, attending a musical peformance at Weston High School featuring grandson Jack. —Patricia Gay photo, all rights reserved.

John L. Seigenthaler, left, and son John, attending a musical performance at Weston High School featuring grandson Jack. —Patricia Gay photo, all rights reserved.

Newspaperman and activist John L. Seigenthaler died on Friday at the age of 86. He is being remembered as a crusader, civil rights advocate, and leader of free speech. He was all those things. I’ll also add that he was an inspiration.

Mr. Seigenthaler worked his way up as a cub reporter in the 1950’s to become the editor, and then publisher, of The Tennessean newspaper, based in Nashville his hometown. He was also the founding editorial director of USA Today.

In its obituary, The Tennessean recalled some of Mr. Seigenthaler’s career highlights:

He saved a suicidal man’s life on a bridge over the Cumberland River — a bridge eventually named after Mr. Seigenthaler.

He exposed corruption in the Teamsters union, grave deficiencies in the state’s mental health system, and illicit activities of the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee.

He led coverage of the civil rights movement when most Southern newspapers ignored the growing resistance to racial segregation in the South.

He was a close confidant and advisor to Robert Kennedy, and was doing campaign work for him in California when Kennedy was shot and killed.

He was the founder of The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

My involvement with Mr. Seigenthaler was on a much more personal basis.

As a newspaper journalist, I went through a great deal of stress when I discovered that a reporter from an online media source was plagiarizing my stories.

He was crafty, winnowing the essence of my stories down and deleting direct quotes. But I recognized my words, and when I saw my stories published with his byline, I felt raped. Journalistically raped. It hit me hard.

I confronted the reporter and he admitted what he had done, and said his company encouraged their reporters to copy the stories of others in order to make their daily quotas. Ethics be damned.

I started writing a book about my plagiarism experience, but hit a roadblock. I wasn’t sure which way to go with it, and needed advice. As luck would have it, John Seigenthaler was visiting Weston, the town I cover for my paper, and he agreed to meet with me.

He told me the story about Jack Kelley, a star foreign correspondent with USA Today, who in 2004 was accused of plagiarism and fabricating stories. Mr. Seigenthaler was part of a three-member panel assigned to investigate the claims against Kelley.

The investigation concluded that Kelley made up and plagiarized stories throughout his 21-year career at USA Today, including one about an an eyewitness account of a suicide bombing that earned him a Pulitzer prize nomination.

The investigation wasn’t easy, Kelley went to great lengths to deceive the panel. But caught in one too many lies, Kelley ultimately resigned in disgrace.

Mr. Seigenthaler gave me a lot of insight into that investigation. The moral ethics at work, and how so many “smart” people could be fooled for so long.

I was comforted to know there was a strong belief in a journalism code of ethics, and that plagiarism was not acceptable, despite what other news services believed.

Mr. Seigenthaler encouraged me to write my story from a new perspective and angle. “You must write that story, Patty, you must,” he said.

I had stopped writing the book for some time, and put it on the backburner. But now I’m back on it. I need to carry out my promise to Mr. Seigenthaler, and to myself.

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