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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler, December 24 and 26, 1974. Interview A-0330. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Unique nature of southern journalism and the impact of homogenization and corporate control

Seigenthaler discusses his perception of changes in southern journalism, focusing primarily on changes he witnessed during his tenure as the editor of <cite>The Tennessean</cite> after 1962. According to Seigenthaler, the process of national "homogenization" and the growing influence of corporate control over the media negatively impacted the quality of journalism in the South. In addition, Seigenthaler describes what he saw as the unique situation of southern journalism in relationship to regional culture, particular politics of race.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Seigenthaler, December 24 and 26, 1974. Interview A-0330. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

BILL FINGER:
The theme that you are pushing, though, you mentioned the homoginization. It seems that there are two ways that that can affect southern journalism. It can affect individual writers, Barry Bingham, Jr. and yourself and the newspapers they put out, you know, the kind of journalism that gets written. But it can also affect control. Corporate control is seeping into southern papers, just as much as ITT is buying southern farms.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Yeah, I agree with that.
BILL FINGER:
What does that mean?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
That's a problem. I think that it is very tough to have great southern editors if they are part of a national chain. Now there are exceptions to that. I think that Pete McKnight in Charlotte is a fine newspaper editor and he understands the South as well as anybody I know. And there are others. You know, Scripps has some good newspaper editors in individual cities and they are southern. But I do think that you lose something of the character of a community when the paper goes with a chain. It could happen to any paper in the South at any time, if a chain ever bought the St. Petersburg paper, I don't know whether they would keep Gene Patterson or not. But Gene Patterson is a great southern editor. I think that the great southern editors and the great southern journalists and great southern reporters are people who have been free to act and interpret freely as a part of the community, as opposed to a part of a national chain. You know, McGill was writing primarily for Atlanta. What he said just happened to have relevance all over the South.
JIM TRAMEL:
Why do you think that southern journalism's tradition has been better?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
I think the ordeal of racism has been something that we had to live with and worry about and write about. And it's not just journalism. I think that southern letters have been better. The fugitives were products of the South. They were something uniquely southern. The fugitives were basically literary people. Out of their group grew the agrarians, who, I think, were less less literary and more political. They were far out philosophically. But they were clinging to the southern way. And the "southern way" gave us something to rub up against, you know, something to react to. There has always been a challenge in the South. There was always a lynching or a rape or a railroading of some innocent black in some community in every state of the region. There was some injustice every month for six or seven decades. You know, when recession hit the rest of the country, it hit the South harder. The ordeal of reporting on events in the South was more of a challenge, I think, for the southern journalist than for reporters in other parts of the country. Now, I'm not saying that everybody lived up to it, but it seems to me that there was always the possibility that somebody on a paper is going to be up to it, somebody would serve as a continuing conscience for one paper or another. You can't hire these people to come to work on a paper and screen how they think. And periodically, somebody gets on who creates a problem for a newspaper. And some newspaper editors and publishers found out it was better not to fight that. Some of them found that it was just better to stand up and fight injustice. A few of them did that. Not many of them. But you know, the story of Hodding Carter got known because a few other papers were willing to write about his struggles even though they weren't willing to carry them on in their own communities. Then, you get into the 50's and 60's, Martin Luther King starts his peaceful revolution and that's unavoidable. I think that great journalism . . . well, the tradition was there. I think that the southern reporting on that was pretty solid.
JIM TRAMEL:
Let's relate that to corporate control of these newapapers, the chains. Historically, have the newspapers of the South been less dependent on the corporate chains?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
Well, I'm not sure, Scripps was in here pretty heavy pretty early. McGill was a product of the Cox chain, a small chain, but a chain nonetheless. I don't really know how delibitating chain ownership would be on the unique quality that I am talking about, that I see in southern journalism. Overall, I would say that the chain ownership is not good for the business; it's not good for communications; it's not good for the media, it's not good for the Bill of Rights; it's not good for journalism, it's not good for what I do. Whether it's worse in the South, I just don't know. You know, when you link up, from city to city, editorial philosophy and editorial ideas, it just doesn't seem to me that that's a very healthy thing for free thought. Now, I saw an article, I guess in that magazine that is done in Tampa . . . Southern Magazine or the South Magazine, they did something on this . . .
BILL FINGER:
The South.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
The South. That's it, they did something on this a few editions back, whether corporate ownership was . . .
BILL FINGER:
They did a kind of a surface thing.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
And I thought about it some at the time. You know, maybe we are not as . . . maybe we haven't been as good as I think we have been. If I have to point to individual newspapers in the South, I can find some that have not been very good. All I'm saying is that I think I can make a case that there have been more good newspapers and good newspapermen who have developed in the South. And I would go to the New York Times and point to people who have come from the South, to the Times . . .
BILL FINGER:
But for political and economic analysis, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, they all draw on the South the same way that the New York Times and the Post . . .
BILL FINGER:
Have you ever thought about why that might be?
JOHN SEIGENTHALER:
I think the talent has just been developed here. There has not been a fight going on in every other community of the country. Racism in the South has given us for a hundred years something as newspaper people, something to write about, to be concerned about to try to rationalize, to try to live with. And I relate it directly to that. Now, there are other social factors that also make it unique, that have made it unique and different. I see Boston and Pontiac, Michigan and suspect that they are going to start producing good newspaper people. They happen to have some pretty good newspaper people in Boston, anyway. But what I am saying is that I think that those newspaper men who have developed in the South, did so largely because that continuing story was part of what they had to live with on a daily basis.