CPB Office of the Ombudsman

A Word on Words

Joel Kaplan

July 17, 2014

Those who follow journalism and history mourned the passage of John L. Seigenthaler last week at the age of 86.

Mr. Seigenthaler was many things: the progressive Southern journalist who became the youngest editor in the country when he took charge of The (Nashville) Tennessean in 1962; the close aide and friend of Robert F. Kennedy when he was Attorney General and later when he ran for President; the first editorial director of USA Today; and the founder of the First Amendment Center in Nashville.

He was also a mentor and colleague to scores of the top journalists in the country, including me, who came to Nashville this past week to memorialize his passing and honor his legacy. More than 150 former Tennessean journalists gathered at the First Amendment Center and later at a nearby restaurant to tell Seigenthaler stories.

Mr. Seigenthaler also had a direct connection to public broadcasting. A lover of books and all things connected to books, Mr. Seigenthaler had his own weekly show, A Word on Words, which was broadcast over Nashville Public Television.

As Mr. Seigenthaler’s obituary in The Tennessean noted:

Along with being a newspaper writer and editor, Mr. Seigenthaler also authored four books: "A Search for Justice" (1971), with former Chicago Tribune editor Jim Squires, Frank Ritter and John Hemphill of The New York Times; "An Honorable Profession," co-edited with others; "The Year Called Watergate"; and, in 2003, "James K. Polk."

He had a deep and abiding relationship with other writers that led to a weekly public television show for Nashville Public Television called "A Word on Words."

It began in 1972, when "A Search for Justice" was released. The book, about the trials of three assassins including Sirhan Sirhan, who shot Bobby Kennedy, was the subject of a public television interview. After Mr. Seigenthaler's appearance, he was asked if he would like to do a weekly show interviewing local and nationally known authors.

He jumped at the chance. Mr. Seigenthaler interviewed the famous and not-so-famous: (David) Halberstam, John Lewis, Will Campbell, Marshall Chapman, Carol Higgins Clark and John Updike, to name a few.

He read every book. That's why, wife Dolores said, their bed sheets were stained with ink marks — he brought a book to bed almost every night, making notes about his upcoming interview.

During a remembrance at Mr. Seigenthaler’s memorial service, John M. Seigenthaler, his son and the evening anchor for Al Jazeera America, recalled that one time he actually found ink on his dog during one of his father’s visits.

A Word on Words was quite a popular show in Nashville and many believed it was the key reason why the number of books sold in that city by far exceeded the number of books sold in comparable sized cities across the country.

Mr. Seigenthaler was a master story-teller and perhaps the most influential journalist of his generation. He will be greatly missed.

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