Seldes, Goldsmith, and Oscar
George Seldes would have chuckled at the media silence that greeted the Oscar nomination for a movie about him.
Few modern journalists are aware of the greatest press critic in this nation's history. So, it's not surprising that media outlets have barely mentioned "Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press."
In contrast, another Academy Award finalist for best documentary feature -- "When We Were Kings," a film about Muhammad Ali's boxing comeback in 1974 -- has gotten lots of publicity. It's owned by Gramercy Pictures, part of the huge Polygram conglomerate.
The documentary about Seldes did not receive any corporate backing. The film's producer and director, Rick Goldsmith, created "Tell the Truth and Run" in much the same way that Seldes lived his life: independently.
Seldes reported on many historic figures firsthand. Lenin did not appreciate the young American journalist, and neither did Mussolini. The Bolsheviks banished Seldes from the Soviet Union in 1923. Two years later, with Black Shirt thugs on his heels, Seldes caught a train out of Italy.
In 1928, after nearly 10 years as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Seldes quit -- fed up with biased editing. The last straw came with the newspaper's selective use of his dispatches from Mexico. Articles presenting the perspective of U.S. oil companies ran in full, but stories about the contrary views of the Mexican government did not appear.
Seldes became a trailblazing press critic. Starting in 1929, wrote intrepid books -- such as "You Can't Print That" and "Lords of the Press" -- endearing him to readers but infuriating media moguls of the day.
An early and implacable foe of fascism, Seldes was not content to cast stones at faraway tyrants. He also took on mighty centers of power -- "big money and big business" -- close to home.
From 1940 to 1950, until the hysteria of the McCarthy era proved overwhelming, Seldes edited the country's first periodical of media criticism. The weekly newsletter, In Fact, peaked at a circulation of 176,000 copies as it scrutinized the press -- "the most powerful force against the general welfare of the majority of the people."
Most reporters, Seldes observed, "know from contact with the great minds of the press lords or from the simple deduction that the bosses are in big business and the news must be slanted accordingly, or from the general intangible atmosphere which prevails everywhere, what they can do and what they must never do."
Thus, Seldes added, "The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism is that of the writer who says, `I have never been given orders; I am free to do as I like.'"
Today, on my desk is a copy of Seldes' sparkling autobiography, "Witness to a Century." On the first page, in the graceful handwriting of a 97-year-old man, is an inscription dated May 9, 1988. I treasure the memory of visiting Seldes. And I vividly remember the warm gleam in his eyes as he stood waving goodbye from his porch.
The death of George Seldes -- on July 2, 1995, at the age of 104 -- underscored the major media's lack of interest in legacies of journalistic courage. Time magazine devoted 40 words to his passing; Newsweek didn't mention it at all.
A few weeks from now, "Tell the Truth and Run" could win an Academy Award. It's a long shot. But filmmaker Rick Goldsmith has already achieved a great deal with a stirring documentary that preserves the voice and spirit of George Seldes.
Eight days after the announcement of Oscar nominees, I went to the tiny office in Berkeley, Calif., where Goldsmith has worked on the Seldes movie project since the start of this decade. "The challenge is to find the venues to get the film out to viewers," he said.
Even now, the national media aren't calling Goldsmith. His film still lacks distribution to theaters. And the key TV network for documentaries -- the PBS system -- has so far rebuffed "Tell the Truth and Run." However, Goldsmith continues to persevere.
Unlike the "independent" movies with piles of money behind them for promotion and distribution, Goldsmith's truly independent documentary remains a celluloid vision on a frayed shoestring. The obstacles have always been formidable. But "Tell the Truth and Run" is a precious film that implores us to think for ourselves -- and to fight against all types of media censorship.
Column courtesy of Media Beat