John Seigenthaler's latest assignment had troubled him deeply. He'd been part of the formal and intense inquiry into a scandal surrounding USA Today, a paper he had helped found.
He recalled a very young man jumping up from a tiny carrel in those formative days, introducing himself and exclaiming how he wanted to be a journalist. Now, he was the focus of the inquiry: Jack Kelley.
USA Today viewed Kelley as its "golden boy" when it came to its modest foreign reporting corps. Kelley's dispatches were newsmakers for the paper, and showed a reporter able to get to sources no one else seemed to find. He had grown into a reporter who was respected and read.
Sadly, for him, and eventually for the newspaper, his sources were manufactured in his mind, not in reality. Artful, intelligent, Kelly had breached the most sacred totem in journalism: honesty. Seigenthaler was told a story mixed with denial, lies, and more denials, as Kelly tried to justify his work. The paper committed full financial support as veteran staffers spread out to find "the sources" of Kelly's work only to report back the sad news: they are fabricated.
The hearings went on, often with direct confrontation of Kelly that bordered on anger. The findings were printed by USA Today as part of a policy of full disclosure. It was bitter medicine, but required, because a newspaper's credibility is its soul.
After his experience with Kelley, Seigenthaler continued his search, composing a brilliant mosaic of journalism's litany of self-inflicted wounds, wounds so serious that major, and powerful, institutions such as The New York Times and CBS News were in credibility crises caused by errant reporters and editors.
His personal experience, and discussions with his circle of national journalists, created a symposium in April 2006 at Middle Tennessee State University. This symposium, "Self-Inflicted Wounds: Journalism's Lost Credibility," marked the 20th anniversary of the John Seigenthaler Chair of Excellence in First Amendment Studies.
The inaugural speaker was former Vice President Albert Gore, followed by Seigenthaler's introductory address--which is printed in the adjoining columns of Media Ethics. For three days, national figures in journalism, law, and universities spoke before packed houses discussing confidential sources, Rathergate, news fabrication, The New York Times and Jason Blair, USA Today and Kelley, and the invaluable worth of confidential sources to informing the nation as Carl Bernstein made a passionate defense of their use.
The conference was ended with a revisiting of the reporting, and even writing, of In Cold Blood as University of Nebraska journalism students spoke of their eight-part series which had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
The issues, fears, and concerns lifted by the conference remain but to hundreds of students and faculty drawn from many universities, it was a worthy testimony to the life and brilliance of Seigenthaler, the tireless, enduring advocate of press freedom and the First Amendment, on the Chair's 20th year of service in his name.
* Dr. Edward M. Kimbrell served as the Interim Director of the Seigenthaler Chair 2005-2006. He is the founder of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University, and is now serving as Distinguished Professor of Journalism in the School of Journalism.
The above article was published in Media Ethics, Fall 2006 (18:1), pp.3,21-23.