The Forgotten Man of American Journalism: A Brief Biography of George SeldesBy Randolph T. Holhut
There have been three great independent journalists in this century - Lincoln Steffens, I.F. Stone and George Seldes.
Steffens and Stone are the best known of the three. With his magazine articles and books like "The Shame of the Cities," Steffens _ along with fellow muckrakers like Will Irwin, Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair _ helped to invent the art of investigative journalism in the first decade of this century.
Stone, a veteran Washington reporter, published I.F. Stone's Weekly from 1953 to 1971, a newsletter that printed the news that was overlooked in the mainstream press. His work almost single-handedly revived investigative reporting and inspired a new generation of writers on the Left.
The lives and work of Steffens and Stone are well-known to journalists and historians. Unfortunately, Seldes is not. History has overlooked his life and career, but he was the link between Steffens and Stone. His life and work deserve to be reconsidered.
The story of George Seldes is the story of the Twentieth Century. He has written 21 books and is the archetype of the independent and crusading journalist. He was a witness to and occasional participant in some of the most important events of this century.
Seldes was one of a group of four journalists who snuck into Germany at the end of World War I to get an exclusive interview with Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, the supreme commander of the German Army. The interview might have changed the course of history had it not been censored by the Allies.
In 1922, Seldes was in Russia and there he met Lenin, Trotsky and the founders of the Soviet Union. He spent a year reporting from that country was was eventually expelled by the Soviet government for not bowing to its censorship of the news.
He chronicled the rise of Benito Mussolini in Italy in the 1920's and was also expelled from that country country when he refused to write what the Fascisti wanted him to write.
He and his wife Helen Larkin went to Spain in the mid-1930's when General Francisco Franco, aided by Germany and Italy, overthrew the democratically elected government and established a fascist dictatorship. The Seldeses reported on how the dress rehearsal for World War II was being played out on Spanish soil as the world impassively watched.
Disatisfied with censorship and the Right-wing bias of the American media, the Seldeses started In fact, the first publication in America solely devoted to press criticism. It was published from 1940 to 1950 and had a peak circulation of 176,000 before being Red-baited out of existence.
Because of his insistence upon writing the truth, George Seldes has been ignored by the mainstream media and has been denied his rightful place in the history of American journalism. But he harbored no bitterness toward the media establishment. "One of the greatest sources of comfort to me is knowing that I have lived long enough to be vindicated. I've outlived all of my enemies, but I've also outlived all of my friends," Seldes said.
I first met Seldes in the summer of 1992, when I interviewed him for what turned into a series of columns about his life and work for my former newspaper, the Brattleboro (Vt.) Reformer. I came across Seldes' last book, "Witness to a Century," in the Spring of 1992. He completed it when he was 96, a valedictory on his life and the people who populated it. Reading it was like sitting on the front porch, listening to your grandparents tell you stories about the old days, only in this case, the old days are merely the biggest events of the Twentieth Century. As a journalist and amateur historian, I had to meet this man.
Seldes was born in Alliance, New Jersey on November 16, 1890. His rise to the top echelons of journalism was rapid. He started as a cub reporter on the Pittsburgh Leader in 1909; five years later he was the night editor at the Pittsburgh Post. After taking a year off to attend Harvard (at the insistence of his brother Gilbert, who would later write "The Seven Lively Arts" and become a prominent commentator on the American cultural scene), he went to London in 1916 to work as a reporter for the United Press.
Upon America's entry into World War I in 1917, Seldes left United Press and went to Paris. He was selected for G-2-D, General John J. Pershing's press section, as an accredited war correspondent for the Marshall Syndicate. A year later, he became the managing editor of the Army edition of the Chicago Tribune. It was in that role that Seldes got the story that he believes was the most important of his career _ the exclusive interview with Hindenburg.
In the interview, Hindenburg acknowledged the role that America played in defeating Germany. "The American infantry," said Hindenburg, "won the World War in battle in the Argonne." But American newspaper readers never read those words. Seldes and the others were accused of breaking the Armistice and were court martialed. They were also forbidden to write anything about the interview.
Seldes believed that the suppression of the interview proved to be costly to the world. Instead of hearing straight from the mouth of Germany's supreme commander that they were beaten fair and square on the battlefield, another story took hold _ the Dolchstoss, or "stab-in-the-back." This myth held that Germany did not lose in battle, but was betrayed at home by "the socialists, the Communists and the Jews." This was the central lie upon which Nazism was founded.
"If the Hindenburg interview had been passed by Pershing's (stupid) censors at the time, it would have been headlined in every country civilized enough to have newspapers and undoubtedly would have made an impression on millions of people and became an important page in history," wrote Seldes in "Witness to a Century.'' "I believe it would have destroyed the main planks on which Hitler rose to power, it would have prevented World War II, the greatest and worst war in all history, and it would have changed the future of all mankind."
The episode also played an important role in Seldes' life. He would spend the next 10 years in Europe reporting for the Chicago Tribune. He would be in on some major events in that tumultuous decade, like his trip to the Soviet Union.
Lenin was already on his way out when Seldes went to Russia, as the power of the secret police and the Communist Party bureaucrats overshadowed that of the leader of the Russian Revolution. Seldes, who was in Russia to cover the American Relief Administration's efforts to aid famine victims, still remembers the day when Lenin had to talk his way past the guards to address the Third International.
"He'd been missing for about a year, and there were all kinds of rumors about his disappearance," said Seldes. "The hall was crowded with people (who were there for the Third International, a select gathering of Communist leaders, orators, debators and parliamentarians in Moscow in 1922 to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Russian Revolution) when we heard a commotion at the entrance. There, we saw a little man arguing with the guards to come in. It was Lenin, and he apparently didn't have the right pass to get in."
Lenin got in and received a thunderous ovation. After he addressed the gathering and the congress adjourned, Seldes and the other American reporters in attendance then crowded in to try and get an interview.
"Someone hollered to ask if Lenin spoke English," Seldes said. "He replied, 'I speak her, ze English, not zo ver goot.' He then started speaking in German, which I did understand." Lenin told Seldes and the other reporters that he occupied "a large portion of my time with American affairs." He added: "Your American newspapers frequently report me dead, Let them fool themselves. Don't take away the last hope of a dying bourgeoisie by saying you spoke to me."
Seldes spent a year in the Soviet Union covering the American Relief Administration's efforts to help famine victims. Every news report that came out was cleared by Soviet censors. But Seldes and other reporters who were interested in reporting the truth found a way around the censorship. "We put our dispatches in the ARA diplomatic courier pouches, where the Russians weren't allowed to look," said Seldes. "We'd write them like letters, start them off with 'Dear so-and-so,' then write our story and close with 'Cordially yours' and mailed them to London."
Eventually, Seldes was found out and was expelled by the Soviet authorities in May 1923. Other reporters, like Walter Duranty of the New York Times, went along with the censorship and stayed on. "Duranty told me that the highest job in America is to be a Times reporter," Seldes said. "Nobody wanted to lose the privileges that came with it."
Seldes told me that he could not believe that the Soviet Union no longer existed. "I never thought I'd see Russia break apart. The things that (Russian president Boris) Yeltsin said and did would have got him executed in Red Square back in the Twenties. I always expected to see a big socialist movement around the world, especially in the United States. It seems to have disappeared entirely."
Seldes was among the first American journalists who dared to write truthfully about fascism. In 1925, the Chicago Tribune assigned him to Italy, where Mussolini had recently come to power. Seldes said that the foreign journalists working in Italy were too timid to print the truth about Il Duce.
"Everyone had copies of the confessions of the men who killed (Giacomo) Matteotti (the head of the Italian Socialist Party and Mussolini's chief political rival). The documents clearly implicated Mussolini in the killing, but not one person wanted to write about it. They thought Rome was too nice a posting to give up to risk publishing them. They didn't want to, but I did."
The story ran on the front page of the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune and it resulted in Seldes' immediate expulsion from Italy, and a narrow escape from a group of Blackshirts who wanted to kill him. The major American newspapers at the time supported fascism as a legitimate political movement. "They loved Mussolini because they thought he restored order to Italy and businesses there were doing well. It got more and more difficult to report on what was really happening there," said Seldes.
Seldes was sent to Mexico in 1927, when the United States came close to invading that country when the Mexican government threatened to take back the mineral rights from the American corporations that stole them from the Mexican people.
He wrote a series of stories for the Tribune that were censored to fit the political views of Colonel Robert McCormack, the reactionary owner and publisher of the paper. While he usually allowed his European reporters freedom to write truthfully, McCormack did not extend this freedom to his domestic editorial staff. This experience convinced Seldes that he would not be able to write freely until he left the Tribune and wrote on his own.
Seldes quit the Tribune in 1929 and continued as an independent journalist and author. His first two books, "You Can't Print That!," in 1929 and "Can These Things Be!," in 1931, attempted to set the historical record straight as Seldes told the stories that he could not tell in the Tribune. His next book, "World Panorama," in 1933, was a narrative history of the post-World War I years.
In 1932, he married Helen Larkin. They met at a party in 1929 in Paris, where Larkin was a student studying physics at the Sorbonne. When the conversation turned to the Soviet Union, where Larkin wanted to go after graduation to work for the physiologist Ivan Pavlov, Seldes told Larkin about his trip to the Soviet Union "and the many difficulties of ordinary daily life. I went on to attack the Soviet Communist dictators and the regime's denial of civil liberties to the masses and Miss Larkin, who obviously was getting angrier and angrier, cut me short with the remark, 'I don't think I ever want to see you again, Mr. Seldes,' " George recalled in "Witness to a Century."
When they unexpectedly met again in Paris three years later, George said "it was without question 'love at second sight.' " After a three-week courtship in Paris, they were married. With a loan of $5,000 from Sinclair Lewis, the Seldeses bought a home in Woodstock, Vermont, where they would spend their summers for the next four decades. Helen would assist George on all of his writing projects until her death in 1979.
After writing an objective history of the Catholic Church, "The Vatican: Yesterday-Today-Tomorrow," and an expose of the world armaments industry, "Iron, Blood and Profits," in 1934; Seldes wrote the most complete account of the life of Mussolini and how he came to power, "Sawdust Caesar," in 1935. He then turned his attention to the transgressions of the American press with "Freedom of the Press" in 1935 and "Lords of the Press" in 1938. In between writing those two books, the Seldeses went to Spain in 1937 to cover the Spanish Civil War for the New York Post.
General Franco's forces were well equipped by Germany and Italy, who used Spain as a proving ground for their weapons and tactics. The Republicans, the people who were fighting to take back their country, were outnumbered and outgunned. "They had no guns, food or medicines and the world press published falsehoods about them, called them 'Reds' and let them die," Seldes said.
The major American newspapers of the time took the side of Franco, who was portrayed as ridding Spain of communism. They similarly lauded Mussolini and Hitler for ridding their countries of "the Red menace." The New York Post was at the time among the few liberal dailies in America which would report the truth about the Spanish War but even they succumbed to the pressure of the American Right and the Catholic Church _ both of whom supported Franco and threatened boycotts and economic ruin to any paper that criticized him.
The whole Spanish experience left Seldes and others on the American Left embittered and angry. Evil had triumphed, no thanks to the press lords who refused or were to afraid to print the truth about fascism. It also inspired three more books by Seldes _ "You Can't Do That!," in 1938 discussed attacks by the Right upon civil liberties in America; "The Catholic Crisis" in 1940 examined the Church's ties to fascist organizations and "Witch Hunt," also in 1940, which looked at Red-baiting in America.
Spain also proved to be the catalyst for Seldes to start his own newsletter that would crusade against against the lies of the times _ In fact. The newsletter's mission was clearly stated on its masthead: "An Antidote for Falsehood in the Daily Press."
"He's about as subtle as a house falling in," wrote fellow press critic A.J. Liebling in his classic 1947 book, "The Wayward Pressman." "He makes too much of the failure of newspapers to print exactly what George Seldes would have printed if he were the managing editor. But he is a useful citizen. (In fact) is a fine little gadfly, representing an enormous effort for one man and his wife."
The first alarms on the link between cigarette smoking and cancer appeared in the pages of In fact. "The tobacco stories were suppressed by every major newspaper," Seldes said. "The Nation, The New Republic, The Progressive...none of those magazines were writing about it. For 10 years, we pounded on tobacco as being one of the only legal poisons you could buy in America."
But what really made Seldes a pariah in the world of journalism was his stories on the frauds and falsehoods in the American media. Reporters who could not get their stories published in the papers they worked for gave their information to Seldes on the sly.
In fact was a success. It proved that there were a lot of people in America who believed, like Seldes, that they were not getting the truth from their newspapers. The "In fact Decade" as Seldes called it, also produced four of Seldes' most pointed books _ "The Facts Are..." in 1942 dissected how and why the American media misleads the people; "Facts and Fascism" in 1943 exposed the big money interests behind fascism in Europe and America; "1000 Americans" in 1947 detailed the people and corporations that control America and "The People Don't Know" in 1949 discussed the origins of the Cold War.
A combination of incessant Red-baiting and the apathy of the liberal-left forced Seldes to close down In fact in October 1950. "The word got around that I was a communist," Seldes said. "I never, never, never was a communist, even though Earl Browder (then the head of the Communist Party of the United States of America) kept asking me to join." J. Edgar Hoover's FBI compiled lists of people who subscribed to In fact as well as other liberal publications. Many of Seldes' subscribers cancelled their subscriptions for fear of being branded "subversives."
Three newspaper columnists in particular _ Westbrook Pegler, George Sokolsky and Fulton Lewis Jr. _ frequently slandered Seldes. "They were bastards," Seldes said. "They would write that a Russian agent stopped by my office each week to pay my salary. I didn't have the money to sue them for libel. My lawyer told me it would take years to reach a settlement and I even if I won I would never see a dime. There was no way I could fight them."
Seldes devoted the post-In fact years to summing up his life, his career and his views on the American media in four different books _ "Tell the Truth and Run" in 1953, "Never Tire of Protesting" in 1968, "Even The Gods Can't Change History" in 1976 and "Witness to a Century" in 1987. He also compiled the best ideas and quotations of the world's great thinkers in two books _ "The Great Quotations" in 1960 and "The Great Thoughts" in 1985.
When I first met Seldes in 1992, a stroke a couple of years earlier slowed him somewhat. He couldn't remember much of the present but his memory of the past was marvelous. He was under round-the-clock care and couldn't walk without assistance. His eyesight was still pretty good, but his hearing was about gone. He tired easily and he spent much of each day sleeping. But people still found their way to his home in Hartland-Four-Corners, Vermont to visit a man who has seen so much history. He was always ready to talk.
"A lot of people call here and say 'I didn't know you were still alive,' " he said. "For the longest time, my name never appeared in the papers. People thought 'this guy is a troublemaker, the hell with him.' I never had it easy, but I never missed a meal and I've never been broke."
Seldes' place in the history of journalism is secure, as the crucial link between Steffens and Stone. "Lincoln Steffens was the godfather of us all," said Seldes. "He was an older man when I first met him (in 1919). He was the first of the muckrakers. As he once said, 'where there's muck, I'll rake it.' He often warned me that I was starting to get a bad reputation for myself. I guess I never worried about that."
Steffens inspired Seldes to become an crusading journalist. In turn, Seldes inspired Stone to start his own newspaper. "He wanted to restart In fact after I stopped publishing it," Seldes said. "I warned him about how badly I was Red-baited and suggested he start up his own paper. I gave him my subscription list, the 'Five Dollar Liberals' we called them, and he got his paper going."
For someone who saw and been involved in so much history, Seldes was a modest man. He wasn't nostalgic for the good old days for he knew that they were not always good, especially in his chosen profession.
"It's hard to understand how lousy newspapers were in my time," he said. "There is no comparison, the quality of the press today is much better. Things were pretty crude in my time, but it's a new world now."
Many of the the dragons that Seldes battled are still with us, under different aliases. Instead of Father Charles Coughlin, we have Reverend Pat Robertson and the Christian Coalition to represent religious reaction. Pegler, Sokolsky and Lewis no longer walk the earth, but people like Rush Limbaugh and Pat Buchanan carry on their tradition. Are Ross Perot and Steve Forbes nothing more than Huey Long with bigger bank accounts? The children and grandchildren of the "1000 Americans" that Seldes said control America still rule today. The press lords like William Randolph Hearst, Colonel Robert McCormack, Roy Howard and Frank Gannett have been dead for years, but the media empires they created have grown more immense and still control what America reads, hears and views. Advertising has become even more pervasive and powerful.
This is not to say that Seldes labored in vain. He was one of the first to write about the dangers of tobacco, now there are few if any Americans who do not know that cigarette smoking is harmful. Seldes was an early booster of consumer reporting. Consumers Union, once Red-baited, is now an American institution and more media outlets do objective reporting that benefits the consumer. In fact pioneered press criticism, now it has become a staple in publications of all political stripes. The Liberal media is still is the minority in America, but the stalwarts like The Nation and The Progressive have been joined by vibrant voices like Mother Jones, Tikkun, Utne Reader, In These Times, Z, the Village Voice and others.
In short, there are been victories, stalemates and defeats for the Left in America in this century. George Seldes was involved in many of the battles. He did not conform to any rigid ideology other than that of finding the truth and letting the facts speak for themselves. More often than not, that put him on the Left, but he disdained the Left's political orthodoxy and sectarianism. His writing was open-minded and fair, but it also took a stand.
"The middle of the road is a crowded place (and many on it are crushed by the cars of Juggernaut, radicalism and reaction, pushing inevitably to the Right and the Left)," wrote Seldes in "Tell the Truth and Run." "During all these years of work and talk I had had a fine contempt for the frightened majority which traveled the middle road. I had thought of myself as one of the non-conformists along the less-traveled and rather lonely individual path of my choosing."
Seldes said that "tell the truth and run" was an old Yugoslav proverb. "People didn't like that as a book title," he told me. "They said I should've called that book, 'Tell the Truth and Stay.' Stay and get killed! Sometimes its better to run and get another chance to tell to the truth."
When asked the inevitable question of how he made it past the century mark, Seldes credits three things. "I never got drunk, I was married and stayed faithful to one woman for almost 50 years and I stopped smoking in 1931.
"I'm the only person in my family who has lived past 100, and I really don't know why. All I feel like doing now is laying in bed all day. I like to say that I'm the biggest lie-r in America. I miss getting out, because the doctors don't want me outside without accompaniment. I've thought about writing a book. I'd call it 'To Hell with the Joys of Old Age.' My publisher said I'd sell 20,000 copies just on the title alone. But I don't think I've got that much time left."
After that first meeting, I visited him regularly thereafter, stopping by his house in Hartland-Four-Corners, Vt., for lunches that were usually topped off by a big bowl of chocolate ice cream with Oreo cookies crumbled on top. He would have lived on chocolate ice cream if he had the choice. After lunch, I would talk to him for as long as he could stay awake and just let his stories wash over me. Even when he started to repeat himself, I still loved listening to his storytelling.
I was amazed that a person who had seen so much had been virtually ignored by the journalism establishment. In the course of writing the columns, I sought out as many of Seldes' books as I could find. I discovered his work was very readable and held up well over the decades since it was written. I searched the used book stores to try and find Seldes' 20 other books, a search that took over a year to complete.
I learned that his nephew, Timothy, was a literary agent in New York. I wrote Timothy a letter suggesting that an anthology of George's work would be a good opportunity to expose a new generation of readers to his writing. The idea was to make a book that would collect George's writing into a combination autobiography/revisionist history of the Twentieth Century/press critique/adventure story.
The idea became reality and almost a year after sitting in George's living room for the first time, I was there with George signing a contract for what became "The George Seldes Reader," published by his long time friend, Lyle Stuart, on his Barricade Books imprint.
"I'm probably not going to live long enough to see the royalties," George said that day. He had hung up his typewriter and didn't plan on writing another book. He was more than happy that someone else was going to do the heavy lifting for him. But he did see the royalties, and it was a pleasure to give him a bit more attention while he was still alive to enjoy it.
When Seldes died on July 2, 1995 at the age of 104, he didn't get a lot of press coverage about his passing. The New York Times did give him a short obit, but most of the major media ignored the story. Time Magazine gave him 40 words and Newsweek didn't mention his death at all. Aside from The Nation, In These Times and Extra!, the Left press didn't do much more.
He deserved better. Seldes had lived so long and had done so much, you took for granted that he was always going to be there. I felt cheated, since I had only known him for three years and had hoped for more time with him. With his death, we lost a national treasure. Every honest journalist in America owes Seldes a great debt. The abuse he endured to write the truth has made it easier for his progeny to do the same.
Seldes believed in the words that Abraham Lincoln said during the Civil War, words that guided Seldes throughout his career. "I am a firm believer in the people," said Lincoln. "If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts."
One of Seldes' mentors, William Allen White, once said that "newspapers cannot be free, absolutely free in the highest and best sense, until the whole social and economic structure of American life is open to the free interplay of democratic processes."
A key part of the democratic process is a free, fair and responsible press. That's what George spent a lifetime fighting for. He felt the best formula for the press was "the facts fairly and honestly presented; truth will take care of itself."
That ideal has rarely been achieved in the American media. It is still a worthy goal to aim for, and to me, would be the best way to honor the memory of a great man who was never afraid of the word "truth."
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