George Seldes - 1890-1995

Obituary Articles



by Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

(This syndicated column appeared in July, and was adapted for the Sept/Oct '95 EXTRA!, the magazine of FAIR.)

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 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. "The Chicago Tribune," Seldes' former employer, used his obituary to redbait him: "Mr. Seldes never publicly declared Communist Party membership," the "Tribune" wrote in a baseless innuendo.

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.


Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon are syndicated columnists and associates of the media watch group FAIR. Their new book is "Through the Media Looking Glass: Decoding Bias and Blather in the News" (Common Courage Press).



Seldes Remembrance Committee

A celebration of the life of the late George Seldes held September 16, 1995 at his home in Hartland Four Corners, Vermont.

Seldes Remembrance Committee

o Chip Berlet - Investigative Journalist, Political Research Associates
o Russ Bellant - Author & Researcher
o Carl Jensen - Media Critic, Project Censored
o Marty Lee - Author, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting
o Sarah Pollock - Journalist & Editor, Mother Jones
o Loretta Ross - Author, Center for Democratic Renewal
o Sheila O'Donnell - Journalist & Investigator, The Public Eye network

Reading excerpts from Selde's work and presenting remembrances at the celebration:

o Chip Berlet, PRA
o Jeff Cohen, FAIR
o Randy Holhut, Editor, "The George Seldes Reader"
o Steve Rendall, FAIR

Remembrances presented at the celebration:

o Center for Democratic Renewal
o Center for Investigative Reporting
o Coalition for Human Dignity
o Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Extra!
o In These Times
o Institute for Alternative Journalism
o Investigative Reporters and Editors
o Mother Jones magazine
o The Nation magazine
o National Writers Union
o Political Research Associates, The Public Eye
o The Progressive magazine
o Project Censored
o Z Magazine

In addition to coordinating the journalist tributes, the Seldes Remembrance Committee sponsored a large vat of very dry martini's for the group to consume when giving George's favorite toast from the Spanish Civil War. The committee wishes to thank Tim Seldes for inviting them to send a delegation to the celebration.


(as published in the Sept/Oct '95 EXTRA!)

The failure of a free press in most countries is usually blamed on the readers. Every nation gets the government--and the press--it deserves. This is too facile a remark. The people deserve better in most governments and press. Readers, in millions of cases, have no way of finding out whether their newspapers are fair or not, honest or distorted, truthful or colored....

There are less than a dozen independent newspapers in the whole country, and even that small number is dependent on advertisers and other things, and all these other things which revolve around money and profit make real independence impossible. No newspaper which is supporting one class of society is independent.

--Lords of the Press (1938)

One of the biggest pieces of bunkum shoved down the American throat was the story of the 1929 Italian election. For this I cannot blame my colleagues.

Forbidden to write anything critical of the Fascist regime, they could only report what the hierarchy wanted them to report. The clever and honest American and British journalists, however, did insinuate startling facts in their stories; these insinuations, unfortunately, were between the lines and not for those who read as they run, and the American public is mostly a running reading public.

--Can These Things Be! (1931)

Of course there are boob and bad reporters who bring in boob and bad items which are printed, and which make so many papers what they are. But there are more intelligent men who try to bring in intelligent items, only to see them changed into imbecile items, with the result that they may easily give up trying, and accustom themselves instead to the spirit of the office....

We scent the air of the office. We realize that certain things are wanted, certain things unwanted. There is an atmosphere favorable to Fascism. We find that out when some little pro-Mussolini item is played up, some big item, not so pleasant to the hero of our era, played down, or left out. In the future we send pro-Mussolini stuff only. We get a cable of congratulations.

--Can These Things Be!

I am merely trying to illustrate one of the fundamental facts about American journalism today, the fact that the servants of the press lords are slaves very much as they have always been, and that any attempt at revolt is immediately punished with the economic weapon.

But much more vicious than these cases is the majority of

foreign correspondents who never have to be placed against the wall, who are never told what to write and how to write it, but who 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. 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."

--Lords of the Press

Only in democratic countries is there the beginning of a suspicion that the old axioms about the press being the bulwark of liberty is something that affects the daily life of the people--that it is a living warning rather than an ancient wisecrack. A people that wants to be free must arm itself with a free press.

--Lords of the Press

Never grow weary of protesting. In this sensitive business of dealing with the public which depends on faith and good will, protest is a most effective weapon. Therefore protest.

--Lords of the Press.

George Seldes page

Index of Website

Home Page