Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil: The Story of In fact - Part One

(Adapted from George Seldes' 1968 book ``Never Tire Of Protesting" by Randolph T. Holhut)

Books have changed men's lives. And it is probably true that one line in a book _ a profound truth, one the reader recognizes is meant for him _ may be as effective.

Years before I believed, rightly or wrongly, that newspaper work meant freedom of the individual, as well as escape from the conventional world, I read the sage of Walden's most generally accepted great truism: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." A summing up of the whole human tragedy, la comedie humaine , the human situation. I was determined never to be a member of the silent desperate majority.

The time was long before the "second oldest profession" was led out of the red light district of American free enterprise into the green pastures of guild unionism. Yet there prevailed among newspapermen a feeling of emancipation, and also one of false superiority; we stood high and disdainful above the polloi about whom we wrote so much. This was a feeling we shared with such other individuals we frequently met as pickpockets and gangsters and professional law breakers, successful swindlers and philosophical anarchists as well as all the uprooted, tramps and hobos _ and such other really free men. I encountered the "feeling of superiority" 30 years before Alfred Adler explained his theory to me in Vienna one day.

There were, however, frustrations. Although no one worked on an assembly line, we were still hired hands _ and brains _ directed by an owner, following orders, no one a free agent. And so one could hear the younger and less sophisticated who had not yet surrendered to the world, talking over beer and bourbon about some day owning a small newspaper, or some grass-roots weekly, or being part-owner, or at least a contributor to some sort of publication which would tell the truth.

Everyone spoke of "the chance of a lifetime," but for all but a very few it never came. Age, routine, the pleasures of the press club, a lot of liquor, marriage, and hostages to fortune trapped the vast majority; and a few found satisfaction in contributing _ usually without pay, or perhaps at a cent or two a word _ to the several liberal weeklies, notably The Nation and The New Republic , and even to the more leftward New Masses . And eventually there was The Guild Reporter , organ of the first union of newspaperman, which invited its membership to report on the follied and the corruption of the American press.

At Heywood Broun's invitation, I contributed to the Free Press page anonymously, being then no longer a newspaper writer and therefore not a member of the union. Broun was my friend and colleague from the days of the press section of General John J. Pershing's army in France during World War I. When I first met him he had not the shadow of an idea in his head of a guild or association of newspaper workers. It was his wife, Ruth Hale, a woman with a social conscience and a believer in causes, who was interested in the status of our colleagues.

Almost all newspapermen then working for the Paris editions of the Chicago Tribune and the New York Herald Tribune were paid about $25 a week, not enough for a decent living for Americans. Because Americans wanted to live in Paris _ there was not a single lost generation soul in the group _ the newspaper owners cheated them of about half their pay. (The group included Eugene Jolas, Elliot Paul, William Shirer, Vincent Sheean, Vergil Geddes, James Thurber, Henry Miller, Ford Maddox Ford and James Joyce.)

Years earlier, when I was making up the city edition of the Pittsburgh Post , the composing room foreman taunted me about my low salary: Typographical Union men got twice as much for setting type as reporters who were sweating for and even risking their lives for news stories. "Can I join the Typographical?" I asked him. "Form your own union," he replied, and I never forgot his words.

In Paris in 1918 it was Ruth Hale, and not Heywood Broun, who listened to this recounted episode and who replied with enthusiasm. Then in 1934, when the New Deal made a great many things possible, Heywood organized an independent American Newspaper Guild.

At the time I was contributing little items to the Free Press page and concluding my report on Spain for the New York Post , my literary agent was informed that William Randolph Hearst had somehow come upon a reprint of my book, "World Panorama," and wanted me to do a similar job, in monthly sections, for his Cosmopolitan magazine.

I protested that I could not work for Hearst. The noted historian, Charles A. Beard, had described the Hearst publications as the cesspool of American journalism, and I had repeated this phrase in several books. I was skeptical of advance promises that I would be absolutely free to write as I pleased and about anything I pleased, just as long as it was in the mood and style of "World Panorama," which had caught Mr. Hearst's fancy.

I did not quixotically go out of my way to offend Mr. Hearst. I am sure that the longest of the four or five components of the sample Panorama dealt with the war in Spain.

This was an event which was a turning point in the lives of many men in all parts of the world: people chose sides and many who had lived aloof from politics and causes found themselves for the first time committed. The evil forces of Hitler's Nazism and Mussolini's fascism and the Spanish corruptions and treason _ it seemed that everything evil in the world was on one side, and all of the opposites on the other.

I could not write about Spain without offending Mr. Hearst, the man who had boasted he paid Mussolini one dollar a word, and had hired Hitler and Goering and Goebbels and fascists and Nazis in America also, and who now was lying about the Loyalist Republic. Nor could I write about Spain without mentioning the Catholic Church which Mr. Hearst supported and to which Mrs. Hearst belonged and into which all the Hearst children had been baptized.

I never again heard from Mr. Hearst.

The telephone rang in my little farmhouse in Woodstock, Vermont; it was Chicago calling, and I was offered the first real chance of a lifetime.

The voice was that of Arnold Gingrich, whom I had met at my brother Gilbert's home. He had told me about a new magazine, "one step left of center," honest, liberal, courageous, free _ and also slick, illustrated, popular, aimed at the millions and reaching all the people: Would I care to write the press section?

Then come at once to Chicago and talk it over with the owner of Esquire , David Smart; the new magazine would be called "Ken , The Insider's World."

I knew this was too good to be true.

"Mr. Smart," I said, playing the devil's advocate, "some of these stories will get you into trouble with the advertisers. I'm an old hand at this game, and I know what happened to Lincoln Steffens and the other great muckrakers, and all the magazines that published great exposes. The advertisers got them. The bankers got them. The paper supply people got them. They were boycotted by big business, pressed financially, they were killed off."

Smart said: "You leave this end to me. We've got nothing to be afraid of. We can run indefinitely on the profits from Esquire . They can't touch Esquire . Look, what have we got in there (for ads)? Mostly men's clothes and liquor. Those people need us as much as we need them. I tell you we are invulnerable, they can't hurt us."

At that moment I was convinced that nothing would stop the success of Ken .

"I'd take this job for nothing," I said de profundis .

Later in my blind enthusiasm I had overlooked several suspicious things _ the first was the big white lie that Smart published throughout America announcing that Ernest Hemingway, Paul de Kruif, Raymond Swing and I were to be the four working editors of Ken . In fact, Gingrich in Chicago was the chief editor and I was the editor in New York _ Hemingway, de Kruif and Swing were contributors.

In my first three months in the New York office, I wrote 83 items; seven long articles on the American Legion, four of similar length (3,000 to 5,000 words) on Falsehoods in Peace and War, dozens of columns for the "Lie Detector" _ a total of between 80,000 and 100,000 words.

Hundreds of members of the Newspaper Guild and other writers besieged me with articles and ideas _ the gossip columnists had spread the word that Ken would be the first popular magazine in American history "left of center," liberal and pro-labor, "to tell the truth and shame the devil," to "defy the foul fiend" of Big Business and Big Money. We could have amazed the country.

Smart thought the Legion articles would "knock them dead," and told me to write them first. I had all the documentary evidence that the Legion promoted repressive legislation in conflict with the Bill of Rights, that it had become the leading strikebreaking agency in the U.S., that it denied free speech and free assembly to those it opposed politically, that it joined with militarists and jingoists in fighting peace movements, that it fostered vigilante movements and had a history of blood and violence, that it was a reactionary organization that had the potential to become the nucleus of a Fascist Party in the U.S.

In the sixth article naming the Legion founders and their financial and economic interests, appeared this paragraph: Franklin D'Olier, first national commander; vice-president, Prudential Insurance Co.; director Chase National Bank, National Biscuit Co., Pennsylvania Railroad.

This mention was fatal: It was a ricocheting bullet which helped to kill the magazine.

Offices all around me filled up with business and advertising men, and several of them became my friends. From the first day I was to hear nothing but reports of failure. It was almost impossible to sign up anyone for a $900 page in the first or any issue.

One of the solicitors told me confidentially: "The agencies will not support any publication in America which is democratic or liberal, and certainly one which says it is even one step left of center. All they are asking of us is that we change our policy and become anti-labor and anti-liberal."

The Esquire business office moved into New York. Mr. David Smart burst into my office white with fury. "Who told you to write those Legion articles?" he shouted.

"You did."

"Well, damn it, I've been trying to sign up Prudential Life for three years; they keep saying Esquire isn't their type. So I'm about to land him for Ken when I read your piece about a bunch of bankers forming the Legion and controlling it, and Franklin D'Olier of Prudential being one of its Royal Family. We haven't got a chance to get this ad if we run your Legion series."

Gingrich wrote me: "The advertising men not only put me up against the wall, they pushed me through the wall." Later he wrote me: "The financial winds seem to be blowing the daylights out of that apparently fair-weather form of liberalism that was one of the major tenets of Ken as you and I first planned it."

One of my friends in the advertising department told me that an agency which he identified only as "representing the Morgan interests" _ it could have been J. Walter Thompson _ had told Smart that it would withdraw eight color pages worth $64,000 from Esquire "if as much as one line pro-labor appeared in Ken ."

Another solicitor told me confidentially that Smart has promised there would be a change in policy: Ken would become an anti-communist publication.

Before he left for Chicago, Smart told me that he wanted none of the articles that I had written or planned _ only a series on "the love-life of the dictators," notably Mussolini and Hitler.

The only hope of saving the magazine, I thought, would be protests by Hemingway and de Kruif, who by now were known throughout America as the editors, although neither of them did any editing. I sent all of the documentation with a long letter to both.

De Kruif wrote me: "Gingrich got me into this thing on the idea that it was going to be more than liberal, really progressive. And if your various charges are true, I will certainly stop writing for the magazine. Meanwhile, I shall place your letter before Gingrich and watch him answer it." Shortly afterwards, the gossip columns reported that de Kruif had resigned.

Hemingway protested _ but he was not an editor, merely a contributor. Ken appeared with a color cover of a Moor and featured "The Coming Revolt in Morocco." It had little advertising money and it eventually died. Even Red-baiting couldn't save it.

The dream of editing any kind of publication reaching at least one million readers and therefore having some influence on American affairs now seemed a lost one. But one day a mutual friend, an officer of the New York Newspaper Guild, brought to my apartment a very young man named Dan Gillmor, who said he needed my advice and had a proposal that would interest me. He wanted to establish a national daily newspaper in Washington or New York.

"How much would it take to start a metropolitan daily?" young Mr. Gillmor asked. (This conversation antedated the famous remark by Henry Morgan that "any man with ambition, integrity _ and $10 million _ can start a daily newspaper in America.")

I guessed at $5 million, perhaps $10 million. I told him that Roy Howard had spent more than $5 million on the New York Evening Telegram and it did not succeed until he combined it with the Evening World in 1931.

He seemed disappointed. What could he do?

"A magazine, a weekly of some sort," I suggested, "like The Nation or The New Republic , perhaps, but not a literary or political publication. An honest news weekly. But that would take at least $1 million."

At which point young Mr. Gillmor reached into his jacket pocket and took out a long envelope containing the proof he had at least $1 million.

Well! This was not a dream. Here was a million and a rather naive but idealistic young man willing to risk every cent on a noble purpose. We began to talk practically. Even a million was not too much. "You must start modestly, say with only four pages _ unless you are going to accept advertising; you ought to publish all the suppressed news." And I repeated many of the ideas I had offered Mr. Smart.

At this point, I expected Mr. Gillmor to make his modest proposal. But he merely absorbed everything and left without an offer. I did not see him again that year. When his slick weekly, Friday , was launched he asked me to do an item or two. I wrote them. The publication, like its owner, was idealistic. It meant well, but it had a muddled policy and no sense of direction. When it was suspended, for lack of advertising, the columnists reported Dan Gillmor's loss to have been between $800,000 and $1 million.

The Guild Reporter page, the Cosmopolitan affair, the Ken debacle and the Friday episode were followed by still one more, and perhaps the only real "chance of a lifetime."

Years earlier, in either his letters to me or in his review of "Freedom of the Press" or "Lords of the Press," Frederick E. Lumley, professor of sociology at Ohio State University, first suggested a newsletter devoted to the press, as a sort of weekly supplement to one of these books.

The idea was excellent but needed financing, so I forgot all about it until early in 1940 when Bruce Minton, a friend and neighbor, revived it. He would solve the money problem in this way: He and I, and two or three others he could interest, would each put up about $600, no more, and with about $3,000 we would produce several issues of a four-page newsletter. If I wrote a prospectus, one of his friends, who would also be a partner, would take it to each of hundreds of AFL and CIO union locals in New York, asking subscriptions in advance, 25 cents for 22 fortnightly issues. When Vol. I, No. 1 appeared May 20, 1940, we had 6,000 subscribers and money in the bank.

My prospectus called In fact "a fortnightly publication of facts, news and exposes" and the first issue was subheaded "For the millions who want a free press." The appeal said in part:

"In fact , a fortnightly news letter that I am launching, has as its purpose to supply news for that part of the American people, estimated at 30 million, which has in several public-opinion polls expressed its doubt as to the honesty of the American press....

"In fact will not only give the news that is suppressed, but it will point a worse crime of the commercial press: the bias, distortion, coloration of news and headlines _ the unfair handling of news that makes unfair public opinion....

"In fact intends to give news, not "dope." It will publish the real inside news, the kind newspapers frequently get but dare not print...It will not accept advertising, which is still the most corrupting influence in journalism.

"In fact... will be free of corrupting influences. For myself, I must say that I belong to no party, no organization, no group, society or faction. I believe (with Euripides) in letting the facts speak for themselves. Since I owe nothing to anyone I am in a position to publish facts and to write an editorial opinion which is not directly or unconsciously dictated by other forces....

"The viewpoint of In fact is simple: it is in favor of every idea, movement and organization that is for what we carelessly call liberalism, democracy, believes in the "general welfare" as written in the Constitution, and challenges any publication feeding out of the hand of big business to prove by acts its policy is the same."

There were also references to labor union support, and a concluding promise that if successful we would become a weekly "and someday publish the only really free daily in America."

Mr. Minton approved of every word in my statement.

The first item, column 1, headed "Sworn to Secrecy" was a worldwide scoop. It began:

"Eighteen prominent figures met secretly on April 29th in downtown New York and decided to do their utmost to abrogate existing neutrality legislation. America, they resolved, must be in a position to give whatever aid _ even armies _ is required of the Allies.

"The gathering was apparently called by Frederic R. Coudert, legal adviser to the British Embassy in 1915-20. Attending were a number of leaders from church and peace organizations and:

"Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of State under Hoover.

"Wendell Wilkie (sic), utility magnate and Republican dark horse.

"Thomas W. Lamont, Morgan partner"

Among the other participants named were Lewis W. Douglas, onetime director of the budget; Frank Polk, onetime counselor of the State Department; and Phillip M. Brown, onetime professor of international relations at Harvard and Princeton.

A memorandum, written by Professor Brown, expressed the unanimous feeling that "some effort should be made to prevent the Republican presidential candidates from taking a peace position." America should arm totally and give full aid to Britain and France. The last paragraph stated that "some days later, Wendell Wilkie made a speech attacking peace forces in the U.S."

This was the first report published anywhere, I believe, of the meeting, which grew into a relationship of Thomas W. Lamont of the firm of J.P. Morgan and Wendell Willkie, whom Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, one of my friends and correspondents, was later to call "the barefoot boy from Wall Street."

In almost every one of the succeeding issues of In fact that year there was either a new item detailing the connection between Willkie, the House of Morgan, and the Big Business interests supporting Willkie, or his past and shady record as a corruptor of the free press, all officially documented in congressional investigations _ whose reports, naturally, had been suppressed by nearly all of the newspapers and magazines in the country.

By the time I was writing the fifth issue we were already overwhelmed with news items sent in by volunteers, reporters, editors, foreign correspondents, Washington correspondents and free lancers. Throughout the decade we had as many as 200 fellow journalists helping us. To my delight and surprise these included several Hearst employees, one of whom had access to the White House.

Almost immediately before the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Willkie made an off-the-record speech at the National Press Club in Washington which was fairly decisive in getting him the nomination.

The club was almost 90 percent lawyers and lobbyists, but 10 percent working correspondents and, although all were pledged to secrecy, the news got out that Willkie had proclaimed himself for an industrial dictatorship in the United States _ a rule by Big Business without government interference, check or controls. I still do not think I was exaggerating when I prepared the text and wrote the subhead: "Willkie's Anti-Labor, Pro-Fascist Plan."

The entire issue was devoted to "The Truth About Wendell Willkie," the main part being the off-the-record speech as written down by a member of the club. I added additional facts about the Morgan-Willkie relationship.

Vol. I, No. 1 of In fact also included several small items to which we were to add throughout the decade. For example, one item was headlined "C.U. Challenges The Press."

I had been one of the original sponsors of Consumers Union, an organization formed for testing products and protecting the public. When it became a success, the Union found that the daily newspapers would not take its money for advertising. The great New York Times said that rating products was unfair to its other advertisers. When C.U. presented new advertisements not naming products but merely stating its function, the Times and other newspapers continued their boycott.

"We shall have something to say about the press vs. consumers in every issue," our report stated, and we did.

There were other items dealing with minorities, the color line, anti-Semitism, discrimination, group attacks which included Catholic-baiting by remnants of old organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan _ activities which, we, not the Dies Committee, considered un-American.

For 10 years In fact carried on a cold war with the New York Times , the most important newspaper in America. Its then managing editor, Edwin L. James, had been my colleague in G-2-D, the press section of Pershing's army in France. When I accused him of burying the great story of tobacco and cancer, or the daily suppression of government fraud orders against advertisers, Mr. James would write indignant letters. He also gave orders that In fact and my name were never to be mentioned in the Times _ he boasted of this in a letter to me _ and that none of my books were ever to be reviewed.

Immediately following the Wendell Wilkie story in the first issue was an item which some readers thought trivial _ even silly _ but it was of great importance to me because I intended to (and did) follow it up for 10 years with a series of documentary proofs that from the cradle to the grave the American people are being fooled, robbed and sometimes poisoned by men who sell food and drugs and utensils and cosmetics and tobacco, and who are aided and protected by the press because of their billions of advertising money.

My opening gun in what became a field campaign for the publication of fraud orders, stipulations, press releases and occasional hearings of the Federal Trade Commission (although involving a minor matter) seemed to me of more than ordinary newsworthiness.

"Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt signed a contract to broadcast under the auspices of Sweetheart Soap.

"Obviously Mrs. Roosevelt was not aware that at the time negotiations were in progress with the Manhattan Soap Co., a U.S. agency accused the soap maker of fooling the American people through fake advertising.

"The Manhattan Soap Co. agreed to cease representing 'that beauty experts endorse the use of Sweetheart Toilet Soap; or that doctors prescribe its use; that use of the soap with cause the skin to become healthy, or that the use will cause one to become or stay young; that Sweetheart Soap contains anything that will nourish or feed the skin.'

"The press suppressed the government's case against a big advertiser. We have searched in find mention of the case."

The foregoing was based on a FTC release marked "Stipulation 02516" There is no reason to believe that more than five or six , if that many, newspapers published the Sweetheart fraud order. In other words, there was 99 percent suppression.

Of course, many of the 400 or more advertisers named each year by the FTC are small fish, and some of their violations may be trivial, but the reader must remember that were it not for this policeman the manufacturers and their agent, the press, would, for example, still be poisoning infants with opium drops they called soothing syrups _ just as they still kill off annually via lung cancer and other diseases scores of thousands of Americans who are lured and brainwashed by cigarette advertising. The Sweetheart Soap item served its purpose of inaugurating the FTC series of reports for the coming years.


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