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George Seldes: Muckraking American Journalist

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

A journalist who called them as he saw them, George Seldes got himself expelled from countries; his articles on corporate misbehaviour were often not published; and, there were a lot of politicians who didn’t like him.

A young George Seldes on a Chicago Tribune file card.

A young George Seldes on a Chicago Tribune file card.

Foreign Correspondent

Henry George Seldes was born in 1890 in Alliance, New Jersey, (it’s now called Vineland). Alliance was a cooperative commune of Jewish farmers founded by his father who was a libertarian who encouraged his children to be free thinkers.

At the age of 19, Seldes landed a job at The Pittsburgh Leader. Five years later, he moved up to be night editor on The Pittsburgh Post. By 1916, he was in London, England working for United Press. When America went to war in 1917, he signed on as a war correspondent.

Early in his career, Seldes learned about the sometimes seamy side of publishing. He wrote a story about a woman and her allegation that the owner of a store in which she worked had raped her. The story was killed but sent to the advertising department, which used the copy to pressure the store owner into buying more space. Many decades later, Seldes was still livid about this.

After the war, he was hired by The Chicago Tribune as a foreign correspondent. In 1922, he interviewed Vladimir Lenin and described the Soviet Union as a ruthless police state. When the Soviet dictator saw what Seldes had written he had the journalist expelled from the country.

The Tribune sent him to Italy where he wrote about the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. When he implicated Mussolini in the murder of a political opponent he was tossed out of Italy. Later, he claimed that many other journalists knew about Il Duce’s involvement but kept quiet about it because a posting to Italy was a favoured assignment.

Next, he turned up in Mexico, writing articles exposing how U.S. mining companies were abusing mineral rights. The Tribune didn’t like the stories and spiked them. Seldes was running afoul of the political views of the Republican owner of the paper Robert R. McCormick. Tired of having his work censored, he quit and turned to freelancing.

The main threat to democracy comes not from the extreme left, but from the extreme right, which is able to buy huge sections of the press and radio and wages a constant campaign to smear and discredit every progressive and humanitarian measure.”

George Seldes

The Hindenburg Interview

Seldes covered World War I for the Marshall Syndicate. When the fighting finally ended in 1918, he and a few colleagues got an interview with Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg, the Supreme Commander of the German forces.

In the interview, Hindenburg said that Germany was defeated by the arrival of large numbers of American soldiers. He said without the U.S. troops the war would have ground to a stalemate and Germany might have been able to secure better terms than the punishing Versailles Treaty.

As The Baltimore Sun reports, the interview “was an enormous scoop. But Allied military censors blocked Hindenburg’s admission, which he never repeated in public.” Seldes believed that Hindenburg’s statement would have undermined Adolf Hitler’s later claim that Germany lost the war because it had been “stabbed in the back” by leftists and Jews. The idea of this betrayal was the foundation on which Nazism was built.

In his 1987 autobiography, Witness to a Century, Seldes wrote that “I believe it would have destroyed the main planks on which Hitler rose to power, it would have prevented World War II, the greatest and worst war in all history, and it would have changed the future of all mankind.”

Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg.

Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg.

Author Seldes

George Seldes started turning out books that contained much of his reporting that had been censored. In You Can’t Print That (1929), he criticized the constraints placed on journalists by newspaper publishers. Can These Things Be! (1931) was an examination of the rise of Fascism in Europe.

There followed books about the history of the Vatican and an exposé of the world’s arms business. Sawdust Caesar (1935) was a take down of Benito Mussolini and he published two attacks on the newspaper publishing industry, Freedom of the Press (1935) and Lords of the Press (1938).

In 1940, a decade before Joseph McCarthy’s deranged crusade against the mostly non-existent Communists he exposed attacks on progressives in America (Witch Hunt: The Techniques and Profits of Red-Baiting). He wrote “This book concerns itself chiefly with the baiting of men, organizations, and ideas; the use of the word red as a weapon; and the bloodshed, terrorism, and profits which may result from name-calling.

“There are very few Communists, that is, real reds in America; but there are millions of Americans who are liberal, democratic, progressive―and it is among these that the reactionary forces often find their victims.”

He rounded out his book-writing with The Catholic Crisis (1945) in which he revealed the cozy relationship between the Vatican and Nazis.

Throughout his long life, George Seldes always told the truth, always made enemies and never cared one bit. By the end of his life he was proven right about the stories he told that had been ignored for years.”

New England Historical Society

In Fact

In 1941, Seldes began publishing his own newsletter. He called it In Fact and it grew to garner 170,000 readers. His favourite target was the way in which the media hushed up corporate misbehaviour to protect the flow of advertising dollars.

Early on, he reported on the evils of tobacco smoking, a subject no other media outlet would touch. Later, he wrote that “The tobacco stories were suppressed by every major newspaper. For ten years we pounded on tobacco as being one of the only legal poisons you could buy in America.”

His investigative journalism was making a lot of enemies, among them FBI director J. Edgar Hoover who decided it was time In Fact was dealt with. According to The New England Historical Society, “The FBI had begun to target its readers in a red baiting campaign. The Bureau ordered the postal service to compile lists of his subscribers so it could interrogate them.”

Seldes was hauled before Joseph McCarthy’s inquisition, found not to be a Communist, but was blacklisted anyway.

The FBI interference killed In Fact, and George Seldes could find nobody to publish his articles. He faded into the background but he wasn’t finished. In 1987, at the age of 97, he published Witness to a Century: Encounters with the Noted, the Notorious, and Three SOBs. It was a bestseller.

The three sons of bitches were actually five:

  • Gabriele D’Annunzio, the man who invented Fascism;
  • Errol Flynn, who he described as a “despicable human being;” and,
  • Fulton Lewis Jr., George E. Sokolsky, and Westbrook Pegler, were journalists who compromised their integrity by becoming cheerleaders for Senator Joseph McCarthy.

He outlived them all and was working on his final book To Hell with the Joys of Old Age! when he died in 1995 at the age of 104.

Bonus Factoids

  • A group of investigative journalists made a pilgrimage to George Seldes’s home in Vermont after his death. They mixed up a bucketful of martinis and read some of his writing. Fortified by the reviving beverage they gave him his favourite Spanish Civil War toast: “Salud, amor, y pesetas, y tiempo para disfrutarlos,” or “Health, love, and money, and time to enjoy them.”
  • At the age of 91, George Seldes appeared as a witness in Warren Beatty’s 1981 film Reds, which chronicled journalist John Reed’s reporting on the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
  • The authors of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press, 2009) reveal that George Seldes was a long time member of the Communist Party USA.

A people that wants to be free must arm itself with a free press.”

George Seldes

Sources

  • “He Told the Truth and Didn’t Run Journalism: Trail-Blazing Press Critic George Seldes Led the Way for Generations of Journalists Eager to Search for Truth Wherever It Might Lead.” Norman Solomon, Baltimore Sun, March 2, 1997.
  • “George Seldes.” Americanswhotellthetruth.com, undated.
  • “George Seldes, the Last Great Muckraker, Never Tired of Protesting Even at 104.” New England Historical Society, undated.
  • “George Seldes.” John Simkin, Spartacus Educational, January 2020.
  • “ ‘Witness’ Exposes a Muckraker’s Zeal.” Ralph Gardner, Chicago Tribune, February 2, 1988.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on September 17, 2020:

Thanks, Rupert for informing the present generation.