George Seldes

1890-1995

Muckraker, Journalism Critic, Anti-fascist

Seldes Documentary to be Aired on Public TV

Letter from Filmaker Rick Goldsmith

Friends,

After a year-long battle to get the film on television, Tell the Truth
and Run: George Seldes and the American Press is now being
distributed to the nation's public television stations by Boston-
based American Program Service (APS).  In APS's initial offering
of the film, 18 public TV stations signed on to air Tell the Truth and
Run beginning in January, 1998.  Broadcasts are just beginning to be
scheduled, dates on the "Seldes 18" as of this writing are:

WNET- New York - TBA
WGBH - Boston - Tuesday, March 24, 10pm
KCET - Los Angeles - TBA
KQED - San Francisco - TBA
KCTS - Seattle - TBA
KOCE - Huntington Bch, CA - Thursday, January 8, 8pm
KERA - Dallas - Tuesday, March 24, 9pm
KPBS - San Diego - Sunday, February 15, 11pm
KTWU - Topeka - TBA
Maryland Public TV - TBA
WCEU, Daytona Beach - TBA
WGBY - Springfield, MA - TBA
WGVU - Grand Rapids, MI - TBA
Wisconsin Public TV - TBA
WMVS - Milwaukee - Friday, January 16, 10pm
WNEO - Alliance, OH - TBA
WTBU - Indianapolis - TBA
WYBE - Philadelphia - Tuesday, January 27, 9pm

This is only the initial list of stations-- other stations can add on at any time.

We are keeping an updated schedule on the new Seldes web page, which is:

http://www.e-media.com/seldes

so if your local public TV station is on the above list, consult the web page periodically to find out when the broadcast is scheduled.  (There's other neat stuff on the web page.)  If the film is not yet scheduled on your local public tv station, you might encourage them to schedule it soon.

(You can find the name, address, phone, fax and e-mail of your local public television station at www.pbs.org.)

If your local public TV station is NOT on the above list, you can contact the station's program director by phone, fax, letter or e-mail:      *  let him/her know you understand that APS has offered the station the opportunity to broadcast the Academy Award- nominated documentary feature Tell the Truth and Run: George < Seldes and the American Press; and      * ask if they have plans to broadcast it;  if not, urge them to take another look; APS can send screening cassettes to stations upon request.

(March 23 is Academy Awards night, and several stations are carrying Tell the Truth and Run that same week as part of an "Academy Awards week" of programming.  You might suggest this marketing angle to the program director.-- March schedules are generally locked in the last week of January.)

Public television stations expect to hear from their local viewers, so don't be shy about contacting them-- it is, after all "public" television!  If you know others who would enjoy Tell the Truth and Run, please suggest they do the same (numbers count!).

In other developments, two theatrical screenings of Tell the Truth and Run coming up:

Tucson Jewish Film Festival, Tucson Jewish Community Center-- Monday,January 19 (MLK Day)- 1:30 pm.

Columbia, SC, Nickelodeon Theater, February 9-11 (Call for times).

All my best--

Rick Goldsmith

Press Critic and Antifascist George Seldes Dies at 104 in Vermont

by Chip Berlet

Journalist George Seldes died at the age of 104 at his home in Hartland Four Corners, Vermont on July 2, 1995.

Born in 1890 at Vineland, NJ when the town was still named Alliance after the utopian community his father founded, Seldes worked for the Pittsburgh Leader and later the Pittsburgh Post before travelling to Europe where covered WWI for the Army press section. Seldes then freelanced for many years chronicalling the rise of fascism, and covered Central Europe for The Chicago Tribune. He and his wife Helen covered the Spanish Civil War from Madrid for the New York Post starting in 1937. Returning to the US, from 1940 to 1950 he edited the weekly newsletter In Fact which became America's first critical journalism review, and inspired the later I.F. Stone's Weekly.

A major figure in early press criticism, Seldes wrote several influential works including "Lords of the Press," "You Can't Print That," and "Freedom of the Press." In 1949 he wrote "The People Don't Know: The American Press and the Cold War," which contributed to his being blacklisted as soft on communism. Seldes focused on how corporate interests and business advertisers manipulated and censored press coverage critical of coporate practices, including studies of how tobacco companies suppressed information about the health hazards of smoking. Because of his pungent views, Seldes became "the most censored press critic in American history," according to professor Carl Jensen of Project Censored. Seldes became a non-person among most daily newspapers, and Seldes systematic exclusion from the pages of The New York Times was legendary. Because of this press blackout, Seldes role as a first-rank muckraker and early press critic has almost disappeared from the history books and he is unknown even among many investigative journalists and media critics.

Seldes retired in 1950 but was rediscovered in the 1980's after he appeared as one of the voices from the past vignettes in the film "Reds." His autobiography "Witness to a Century" was published in 1987 and became a bestseller. His other more popular works among over a dozen books included "The Great Quotations," and "The Great Thoughts." Seldes wrote a brief forword in 1988 for the PRA/South End Press book "Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party" by Russ Bellant. Up until his death, Seldes served on the board of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and the first book to come from FAIR authors, "Unreliable Sources," by Martin Lee and Norman Solomon, began with an inscription by Seldes noting that "The most sacred cow of the press is the press itself."

Seldes was widely regarded by pro-democracy activists as one of the century's leading anti-fascists. Seldes opposed all forms of authoritarianism and totalitarianism. He wrote the first major biography of Mussolini, "Sawdust Caesar," in 1935, and followed with "Facts and Fascism" in 1943. He authored over a dozen other books. He considered himself a non-conformist, a free-thinker, a dissident, and a progressive.

Seldes work lives on in groups such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Project Censored, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Seldes family hopes that persons who wish to commemorate George's legacy support these groups, and a specific fund in his name will be established this fall by those he influenced.

George combined a crusty intellect with a soft heart, and until recently would entertain visitors to his Vermont hillside home with stories of his exploits punctuated by sips from his trademark martini. Some of us were inspired by these visits, and all of us who continue to read his books and articles are inspired by his example.

He will be remembered. 

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GREAT PRESS CRITIC LEAVES A LEGACY OF COURAGE

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
 

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

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

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

Remembrances presented at the celebration:
 

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

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"THEREFORE PROTEST": A SELDES SAMPLER 

(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. 

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