Remembering Tom Wicker

Friday, December 9, 2011

Tom Wicker, one of America’s premier journalists, who died Nov. 25, had a special association with the First Amendment Center.

As a resident scholar in 1998, Wicker worked with former NBC News producer Wallace Westfeldt to study how the press reports on crime and justice in America. Their report, “Indictment: The News Media & the Criminal Justice System,” was a generally negative assessment of news coverage of crime and the courts as superficial and sensational. (See video of a 1998 panel discussion about the report.)

Wicker also gave the keynote address at the First Amendment Festival at Penn State University in 2000, which was co-sponsored by the First Amendment Center.

Wicker worked for decades at The New York Times as a reporter, columnist and editor, covering and commenting on some of the nation’s biggest news stories. Among them: the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy, the 1971 prison riot in Attica, N.Y., civil rights, the Vietnam War and the fall of the Soviet Union.

First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler reflected on Wicker and Westfeldt’s work, saying:

“My friend Tom Wicker was my colleague at The Tennessean. I had the great good fortune to entice him, after we both had retired, to spend a year at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University developing a seminal study on the news media and the criminal justice system. During his time in Washington, he was a major force on helping readers of The New York Times feel the pulse of national politicians and the heartbeat of the government. As a journalist, I discovered early on that to know him was to learn from him, and I will always benefit from a friendship that was enduring.”

Wicker died at his home in Rochester, Vt., after an apparent heart attack, his wife, Pamela, said. He was 85.

He grew up in poverty in Hamlet, N.C., and wanted to be a novelist, but pursued journalism when his early books didn’t catch fire. He worked at weekly and daily newspapers in North Carolina before winning a spot as a political correspondent in the Times’ Washington bureau in 1960.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.