Media Beat, July 12, 1995
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Press Critic George Seldes Leaves a Legacy of Courage

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 dictators and demagogues, press moguls and industrialists.

His career began in the mainstream press. During the 1920s, he reported from Europe for the Chicago Tribune.

But Seldes went independent in 1929 and proceeded to write a torrent of books -- including ''You Can't Print That'' and ''Lords of the Press'' -- warning of threats to the free flow of information. 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 extreme malnutrition. (His eyesight gradually returned.) From 1940 to 1950, he edited the nation's first periodical of media criticism -- named In Fact -- a weekly that 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.

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. As Seldes explained in his autobiography, ''Witness to a Century,'' 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.

Seven years ago, during a delightful spring afternoon with George Seldes at his modest house in a small Vermont town, we asked how he'd found the emotional strength to persevere despite so many setbacks. Seldes replied, matter-of-factly, that uphill battles were intrinsic to doing good journalistic work.

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.

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