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John Seigenthaler, Tennessee journalist who helped shape USA Today, was RFK aide, dies at 86

Editor John Seigenthaler is pictured Sept. 17, 1969 in Washington. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Bob Daugherty

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Editor John Seigenthaler is pictured Sept. 17, 1969 in Washington. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Bob Daugherty

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - John Seigenthaler, the journalist who edited The Tennessean newspaper, helped shape USA Today and worked for civil rights during the John F. Kennedy administration, died Friday at his Nashville home at age 86, his son said.

In his wide-ranging career, Seigenthaler also served on Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign and founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

A statement from his son, broadcast journalist John Seigenthaler Jr., said his father died "peacefully at home," where he was recovering after a recent medical treatment.

"We celebrate his life — his devotion to social justice, his advocacy of human rights, and his enduring loyalty to friends and family," the statement said.

Seigenthaler began his journalism career in 1949 as a cub reporter for The Nashville Tennessean. He worked as a reporter and assistant city editor until 1960, when he took a job as administrative assistant to Robert Kennedy, who became attorney general in 1961 during the presidency of his brother.

While working for Kennedy, Seigenthaler served as chief negotiator with the governor of Alabama during the 1961 Freedom Rides organized by civil rights activists seeking to integrate interstate buses. During that crisis, he was attacked and knocked unconscious by a mob of Klansmen in Montgomery, Alabama, as he tried to aid a young protester who was being pursued by the rioters.

"I never saw anything in my life. Never will ever again to compare with the violence on that parking lot at that Greyhound station," Seigenthaler told The Associated Press in an interview in January.

"You don't see human beings acting like that," he added. "There were times when I'd go to a football game or a basketball game and the cheering got to me. It's not something you can live through and just put behind you, as if it didn't happen. It's tough. How can you take your children out to a race riot, and expect them to grow up as decent human beings?"

At a 2007 gathering, he joined others in taking a bus to retrace a Freedom Ride from Montgomery to Birmingham, Alabama.

"I'm going on this trip largely because I'm one of history's accidents. It was their vision and their courage that made the difference," said Seigenthaler. He called himself only "a footnote to the history of the Freedom Riders."

In 1962, Seigenthaler returned to The Tennessean as editor, but took a leave of absence in 1968 to help Robert Kennedy's presidential campaign.

The New York Times said he is "one of a handful of advisers in whom the senator has absolute confidence." After Kennedy was assassinated that June, Seigenthaler was a pallbearer at his funeral.

Back at The Tennessean, he added the title of publisher to his resume in 1973. And in 1989, he became chairman, publisher and chief executive officer.

Also in the 1980s, he became the first editorial director as the Gannett Co. launched USA Today. He held the post for almost a decade. Gannett also owns The Tennessean.

After he retired from The Tennessean in 1991, Seigenthaler founded the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt. The mission of the centre — an independent affiliate of the Arlington, Virginia-based Freedom Forum — is to create national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment issues.

In July 2002, Vanderbilt named the First Amendment Center's building The John Seigenthaler Center. And in August 2001, the university created a scholarship for minority students in Seigenthaler's name after he gave Vanderbilt $2 million.

Seigenthaler said then that the scholarship would stand as a testimony that the cost of education is a worthy endeavour.

"It is expensive, education," he said. "But we've tried ignorance so many ways, and it doesn't work."

A Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies at Middle Tennessee State University was endowed for $3 million in Seigenthaler's name in 1986. MTSU is located in Murfreesboro, about 30 miles southeast of Nashville.

Among his books was "A Search for Justice," a 1971 volume he co-wrote about the trials of people charged in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. He also wrote a book about James K. Polk, the nation's 11th president, for a series titled The American Presidents.

Seigenthaler worked in a variety of roles following his retirement. He served on the advisory boards of schools of journalism and communications at American University, the University of Tennessee and the University of Maryland.

He was among the first to raise questions about the accuracy of Wikipedia, writing an opinion piece about how he was defamed by a hoax biography posted on the site. The controversy led Wikipedia to change its procedures for posting content.

Seigenthaler was a member of the National Commission on Federal Election Reform organized in 2001. He also was a member of the Constitution Project Initiative on Liberty and Security, created after the Sept. 11 attacks.

"A treasure for the nation," said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer at the Newseum Institute in Washington. "John was an extraordinary journalist and a passionate defender of those in need or facing discrimination."

In April 2014, the city of Nashville and a rights group honoured Seigenthaler for his lifelong commitment to victims' causes. The city also renamed a downtown pedestrian bridge in honour of Seigenthaler, who prevented a suicidal man from jumping off the bridge 60 years ago when he was a Tennessean reporter.

"Today we lost an iconic figure in Nashville's history — a man who stood for inclusiveness long before it was synonymous with our city's culture. As a journalist, John did much more than bear witness to political and community affairs; he helped shape Nashville's story," said the city's mayor, Karl Dean.

He is survived by his wife, the former Dolores Watson, a professional singer, and their son, John Jr. The younger Seigenthaler is a former weekend anchor for NBC News in New York and joined Al Jazeera America in 2013.

A funeral is planned for Monday in Nashville.

___

Online:

First Amendment Center: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org

The Freedom Forum: http://www.freedomforum.org

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