Great Press Critic Leaves A Legacy Of Courage
America's greatest press critic died this month. He lived to a ripe old age, 104, before his last breath on July 2. Yet we're still in mourning for George Seldes. "The most sacred cow of the press is the press itself," Seldes said. And he knew just how harmful media self-worship could be. Born in 1890, George Seldes was a young reporter in Europe at the close of World War I. When Armistice Day came, he broke ranks with the obedient press corps and drove behind the lines of retreating German troops. For the rest of his life, he remained haunted by what took place next. Seldes and three colleagues secured an interview with Paul von Hindenburg, the German field marshal. Seldes asked what had ended the war. "The American infantry in the Argonne won the war," Hindenburg responded, and elaborated before breaking into sobs. It was an enormous scoop. But allied military censors blocked Hindenburg's admission, which he never repeated in public. The story could have seriously undermined later Nazi claims that Germany had lost the war due to a "stab in the back" by Jews and leftists. Seldes came to believe that the interview, if published, "would have destroyed the main planks of the platform on which Hitler rose to power." But the reporters involved "did not think it worthwhile to give up our number-one positions in journalism" by disobeying military censors "in order to be free to publish." Seldes went on to cover many historic figures firsthand, from Lenin and Trotsky to Mussolini. When Seldes wrote about them, he pulled no punches. As a result, in 1923, Bolshevik leaders banished him from the fledgling Soviet Union. Two years later, he barely made it out of Italy alive; Mussolini sent Black Shirt thugs to murder the diminutive Seldes, small in stature but towering with clarity. Decade after decade, Seldes offended tyrants and demagogues, press moguls and industrialists and politicians. His career began in the mainstream press. During the 1920s, he served as the Chicago Tribune's bureau chief in Berlin, and spent years in Russia and Italy. But after 10 years, Seldes quit the Tribune in 1928. The last straw came with the newspaper's selective publication of his dispatches from Mexico: Articles presenting the outlooks of U.S. oil companies ran in full, but reports about the contrary views of the Mexican government did not appear. Seldes went independent, and became a trailblazing press critic. Starting in 1929, he wrote a torrent of books -- including You Can't Print That, Lords of the Press and Freedom of the Press -- warning of threats to the free flow of information in the United States and around the world. The press lords, he showed, were slanting and censoring the news to suit those with economic power and political clout. Like few other journalists in the 1930s, Seldes shined a fierce light on fascism in Europe -- and its allies in the United States. Seldes repeatedly attacked press barons such as William Randolph Hearst and groups like the National Association of Manufacturers for assisting Hitler, Mussolini and Spain's Gen. Francisco Franco. George Seldes and his wife, Helen, covered the war between Franco's fascists and the coalition of loyalists supporting the elected Spanish government. A chain of East Coast daily newspapers carried the pair's front-line news dispatches -- until pressure from U.S. supporters of Franco caused the chain to drop their reports. After three years in war-torn Spain, with fascism spreading across much of Europe, Seldes returned to the United States nearly blind due to extreme malnutrition. (His eyesight gradually returned.) From 1940 to 1950, he edited the nation's first periodical of media criticism -- called In Fact -- a weekly which reached a circulation of 176,000 copies. Many of his stands, lonely at the time, were prophetic. Beginning in the late 1930s, for example, Seldes excoriated the American press for covering up the known dangers of smoking while making millions from cigarette ads. He was several decades ahead of his time. What happened to In Fact? The New York Times obituary about Seldes simply reported that it "ceased publication in 1950, when his warnings about Fascism seemed out of tune with rising public concern about Communism." In fact, however, In Fact fell victim to an official vendetta. One FBI tactic was to intimidate readers by having agents in numerous post offices compile the names of In Fact subscribers. Such tactics were pivotal to the newsletter's demise. Also crucial was the sustained barrage of smears against In Fact in the country's most powerful newspapers. Somehow it's appropriate that The New York Times would get it wrong in the obituary about In Fact's extraordinary editor. For a long time, as Seldes recalled in his autobiography "Witness to a Century," it was Times policy -- ordered by managing editor Edwin L. James -- "never to mention my newsletter or my books or my name." In 1934, Seldes had testified for the Newspaper Guild in a labor-relations suit against the Times, "and James frankly told me on leaving the hearing that he would revenge himself in this way." Five decades later -- during a delightful spring afternoon with George Seldes at his modest house in a small Vermont town in 1988 -- we discussed that Times embargo on publishing his name. When we quipped, "Hell hath no fury like a paper-of-record scorned," he laughed heartily, his eyes twinkling as they did often during a six-hour discussion. We asked how he'd found the emotional strength to persevere. Seldes replied, matter-of-factly, that uphill battles come with the territory of trying to do good journalistic work. This month, the death of George Seldes underscored major-media disinterest in legacies of journalistic courage. Time magazine devoted 40 words to his passing; Newsweek didn't mention it at all. As a press critic, George Seldes picked up where Upton Sinclair left off. From the 1930s onward, Seldes was the Diogenes whose light led the way for new generations of journalists eager to search for truth wherever it might lead. The muckraker I.F. Stone aptly called Seldes "the dean and `granddaddy' of us investigative reporters." We will always be indebted to George Seldes. The best way to repay him is to live up to the standards he set for himself.