Henry George Seldes (/ˈsɛldəs/ SEL-dəs;[aa] November 16, 1890 – July 2, 1995) was an American investigative journalist, foreign correspondent, editor, author, and media critic best known for the publication of the newsletter In Fact from 1940 to 1950. He was an investigative reporter of the kind known in early 20th century as a muckraker, using his journalism to fight injustice and justify reform. But by his time the public mood had changed, and reader demand for muckraking was much weaker. According to historian Helen Fordham, Seldes's career demonstrates how those who crusaded too vehemently seemed to violate new standards of impartiality and objectivity. His work was often criticized as too radical.
Influenced by Lincoln Steffens and Walter Lippmann, Seldes's career began when he was hired at the Pittsburgh Leader at the age of 19. In 1914, he was appointed night editor of the Pittsburgh Post.
In 1916, he went to the United Press in London. In 1917, during World War I, he moved to France to work at the Marshall Syndicate. He became a member of the press corps of the American Expeditionary Forces in France, section G-2D, and as such was commissioned as an officer, as were all journalists in that group.
After World War I, Seldes spent ten years as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. In 1922, he interviewed Vladimir Lenin, and in 1923 he was expelled from the Soviet Union, along with three colleagues, for disguising news reports as personal letters; a letter his publisher wrote for the Soviets only facilitated his expulsion. The newspaper then sent him to Italy, where he implicated Benito Mussolini in opposition leader Giacomo Matteotti's murder. He was again expelled.
In 1927, Seldes reported for the Chicago Tribune in Mexico, where he criticized the use of the country's mineral rights by American companies. He battled with the Tribune's owner and publisher, Colonel Robert McCormick, over the paper's altering of his Mexico articles, and soon afterward quit the Tribune over what he considered to be censorship.
In 1929, Seldes became a freelance reporter and author, subsequently writing a series of books and criticism about his years as a foreign correspondent, and the issues of censorship, suppression and distortion in the press. During the late 1930s he had one more stint as a foreign correspondent, with his wife Helen, for the New York Post, in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.
In 1940, Seldes co-founded a weekly newsletter, In Fact, subtitled "an Antidote to Falsehoods in the Daily Press." In it, he attacked corporate malfeasance, often using government documents from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). He exposed the health hazards of cigarettes and attacked the mainstream press for suppressing them, blaming the newspapers' heavy dependence on cigarette advertising. He cited J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI for anti-union campaigns, and brought attention to the National Association of Manufacturers' use of advertising dollars to produce news stories favorable to its members and suppress unfavorable ones.
Having both staunch admirers and strong critics, Seldes influenced some younger journalists. He received an award for professional excellence from the Association for Education in Journalism in 1980 and a George Polk Award for his life's work in 1981. Seldes also served on the board of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).
The writer and critic Gilbert Seldes was George Seldes's younger brother. Actress Marian Seldes was his niece; his nephew was the literary agent Timothy Seldes.
Henry George Seldes, named after economist Henry George, was born on November 16, 1890, to ethnic Jewish émigrés from Russia in Alliance Colony, an agricultural community in rural southern New Jersey. His mother, Anna Saphro, died in 1896 when he and his younger brother, Gilbert, were still young. George's father, George Sergius Seldes, was a pharmacist and a strongly opinionated and radically philosophical man who was a libertarian and corresponded with Leo Tolstoy and Peter Kropotkin, being interested in the latter's ideas on mutual aid. He influenced every aspect of his sons' lives, pushing them to "read books that you will reread—and that you will never outgrow," and refusing to force religion upon children who were "too young to understand it," instilling a free-thinking attitude in his sons.
When he was 19, Seldes went to work at the Pittsburgh Leader. An early scoop of his for this paper was when two-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan expelled Seldes from Bryan's hotel room. He also interviewed a saleswoman who had filed a rape complaint against the son of the owner on a large department store, but the story was not published, and Seldes became outraged when the advertising department of the newspaper blackmailed the owner into buying more advertising. In 1914, he was appointed night editor of the Pittsburgh Post. As a young journalist, he was influenced by the investigative journalism of muckraker Lincoln Steffens, whom he met in 1919.
In 1916, Seldes moved to London where he worked for the United Press. When the United States joined the First World War in 1917, Seldes was sent to France where he worked as the war correspondent for the Marshall Syndicate.
At the end of the war, he obtained an exclusive interview with Paul von Hindenburg, the supreme commander of the German Army, in which Hindenburg supposedly acknowledged the role America had played in defeating Germany. "The American infantry," said Hindenburg, according to Seldes, "won the World War in battle in the Argonne." Seldes and the others were accused of breaking the Armistice and were court martialed. They were also forbidden to write anything about the interview and it never appeared in American news media. Seldes believed that blocking publication of this interview proved tragic. Unaware of Hindenburg's direct testimony of Germany's military defeat, Germans adopted the Dolchstoss or stab-in-the-back myth that Germany had only lost the war because it was betrayed at home by "the socialists, the Communists and the Jews," which served as Nazism's explanation for Germany's defeat. "If the Hindenburg interview had been passed by Pershing's censors at the time, it would have been headlined in every country civilized enough to have newspapers and undoubtedly would have made an impression on millions of people and became an important page in history," wrote Seldes. "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."
However, it was Hindenburg himself, who in a hearing before a committee of the German National Assembly investigating the causes of the World War and Germany's defeat, on November 18, 1919, a year after the war's end, declared, "As an English general has very truly said, the German Army was 'stabbed in the back'," grossly misrepresenting General Frederick Barton Maurice's book, The Last Four Months. It was particularly this testimony of Hindenburg that led to the widespread Dolchstoßlegende in post-World War I Germany.
Seldes claimed that the Battle of Saint-Mihiel never happened. In his account, General Pershing planned to capture the city, but on September 1 the Germans decided to remove their forces from Saint-Mihiel to reinforce other positions. Seldes claimed no shots were fired as the first Americans, he among them, entered the city on September 13 to be greeted as liberators before General Pershing, Pétain, and other high-ranking officers arrived. The thousands of German prisoners captured, he wrote, were taken as they mistakenly arrived at the train station days later to relieve the German troops that had left days earlier.
Seldes spent the next ten years as an international reporter for the Chicago Tribune. He interviewed Lenin in 1922. He and three other reporters were expelled in 1923 when Soviet authorities, who routinely censored foreign reporters' telegraphed dispatches, found articles by the four reporters, disguised as personal letters, being smuggled out in a diplomatic mailpouch to avoid censorship. The expulsion was facilitated, according to Seldes, after his publisher, Colonel Robert McCormick, failed to show sufficient respect when writing to the Soviets to protest censorship.
The Chicago Tribune sent him to Italy where he wrote about Benito Mussolini and the rise of fascism. (Mussolini had served as Seldes's stringer before the former took power.) He investigated the murder of Giacomo Matteotti, the head of the parliamentary section of the Italian Unitary Socialist Party. His article implicated Mussolini in the killing, and Seldes was expelled from Italy. He wrote an account of Italian censorship and intimidation of American reporters for Harper's Magazine.
In 1927, the Chicago Tribune sent Seldes to Mexico, but his articles criticizing American corporations for their use of that country's mineral rights were not well received. Seldes returned to Europe, but found that his work increasingly censored to fit the political views of the newspaper's owner, Robert R. McCormick.
Disillusioned, Seldes left the Tribune and went to work as a freelance writer. In his first two books, You Can't Print That! (1929) and Can These Things Be! (1931), Seldes included material that he had not been allowed to publish in the Tribune. His next book, World Panorama (1933), was a narrative history of the interbellum period. In 1932 he married Helen Larkin Wiesman (later Seldes), who died in the late 1970s.
In 1934, Seldes published a history of the Roman Catholic Church, The Vatican. This was followed by an exposé of the global arms industry, Iron, Blood and Profits (1934) and an account of Benito Mussolini, Sawdust Caesar (1935).
Two books on the newspaper business established his enduring reputation as a critic of the press: Freedom of the Press (1935) and Lords of the Press (1938). He took the title of the latter from a speech by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes: "Our ancestors did not fight for the right of a few Lords of the Press to have almost exclusive control of and censorship over the dissemination of news and ideas." He believed "that advertisers were a far greater threat to journalistic freedom than government censorship." The press and news, he wrote, "are coming more and more under the domination of a handful of corporate publishers who may print such news as they wish to print and omit such news as they do not wish to print." Time (magazine) was initially positive in its response: "A rambling but effective attack on U. S. newspapers, charging coloring, distortion or suppression of vital news, containing some enlightening instances of journalistic malpractices as George Seldes encountered them during his career as correspondent." Later, Time called him a muckraker, meaning a biased and crusading critic, when it called another writer's work "refreshingly fair and accurate (especially in comparison with muckraking books like George Seldes' Lords of the Press)." Seldes told of his pursuit of a tobacco study that he would make public years later, though the author of the study denied his account and claimed his work had been widely cited in the press.
He also reported on the Spanish Civil War on a freelance basis for three years and later said that American reporters too readily accepted what the Franco side wanted them to believe.
On his return to the United States in 1940, Seldes published Witch Hunt, an account of the persecution of people with left-wing political views in America, and The Catholic Crisis, which sought to demonstrate the close relationship between the Catholic Church and fascist organizations in Europe. When Time reviewed the latter, it noted several of Seldes' works and said he "stuck out his tongue at Benito Mussolini ... thumbed his nose at U. S. journalism ... and uttered some hoarse Bronx cheers at the Roman Catholic Church." The review complained that his detailed accounts of church activities were "in part damaging" but "not all germane to the subject."
From 1940 to 1950, Seldes published a political newsletter, In Fact which originally had the full name In Fact: For the millions who want a free press and later In Fact: An Antidote for Falsehood in the Daily Press, "a four-page weekly compendium of news other newspapers wouldn't print." Washington Post editor and later press critic Ben Bagdikian said, "When Seldes was no longer printed by the mainstream press, he was an important conduit to the journalistic community, who knew that there were flaws in the system, but often couldn't get printed in their own newspapers, because the press cannot be a watchdog on itself. So they fed stories critical of the press to Seldes." At the height of its popularity it had a circulation of 176,000.
One of the first articles published in the newsletter concerned the dangers of cigarette smoking. Seldes later explained that at the time, "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." At a time when tobacco companies were major advertisers, Seldes discussed the contents of a study called, "Tobacco Smoking and Longevity", which he said had been suppressed since 1939. Throughout the 10-year run of In Fact, Seldes published more than 50 stories on the health effects of tobacco, and the cigarette industry's attempts and suppressing such news.
Among the favorite targets of In Fact was the National Association of Manufacturers. Defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who subscribed to In Fact while an undergrad at Harvard, said, "I heard about the National Association of Manufacturers first from Seldes and more from Seldes than I ever heard again. If you were to read the mainstream press, you'd hardly become aware that such organizations existed, that businessmen worked together to pursue their own interests." In Fact also attacked Charles Lindbergh for his Nazi sympathies, the American Legion for helping to break strikes, and labeled many captains of industry as "native fascists." Consumer advocate Ralph Nader said, "[Seldes] used the word fascism to reflect an authoritarian state of mind that tended to stifle free speech and dissent and also tended to believe that might was right."
In Fact immediately attracted the attention of government authorities. President Roosevelt ordered an FBI investigation of Seldes and In Fact in 1940. Articles claiming that the FBI was infiltrating unions and monitoring union activities resulted in FBI surveillance of Seldes and his publication. J. Edgar Hoover sent Seldes a 15-page letter denying such FBI activities. The FBI subsequently questioned In Fact subscribers, particularly servicemen and women, and had US postal officials reporting to the FBI on Seldes' mail correspondence. In Fact lost many of its subscribers in the late 1940s. Seldes later claimed that his critical coverage of Yugoslavia got the publication banned from Communist Party bookstores. The political climate discouraged subscriptions on the part of less ideologically committed readers as well. In Fact ceased publication in 1950. I. F. Stone's Weekly, which started publication in 1953, took In Fact as its model.
In addition to writing his newsletter, Seldes continued to publish books. These included Facts and Fascism (1943) and One Thousand Americans (1947), an account of the people who controlled America. Time called One Thousand Americans "a collection of truths, half-truths and untruths about the U.S. press and industry." One Thousand Americans introduced a wide audience to the Business Plot, a supposed plan of America's corporate elite to overthrow the U.S. government in the early 1930s.
Seldes published The People Don't Know on the origins of the Cold War in 1949.
Seldes later wrote that In Fact was founded at the instigation of the U.S. Communist Party leadership, but he wrote that the Party worked through his partner Bruce Minton (also known as Richard Bransten) without his knowledge. Seldes wrote that he was unaware that Minton was a Party member who received the funds to start In Fact from Communist Party.[ab] While his political positions often were similar to those in the Party in 1940, by 1948 Seldes was writing in positive terms of the anti-Soviet communism of Marshal Tito in Yugoslavia, earning him the wrath of many Communist Party loyalists in the United States. As the Cold War took shape at the end of the decade, Seldes lost readership from both the Communists and the anti-liberal-left sentiment that was sweeping the country, including a trade union movement that had contained some of his largest audience. The nationwide atmosphere of McCarthyism and red-baiting further diminished his subscribers' numbers, and he was financially forced to close In Fact, which never accepted advertising, in October 1950.
Senator Joseph McCarthy subpoenaed Seldes in 1953, Seldes vehemently denied Communist Party membership and was "cleared" by McCarthy's Senate subcommittee, but Seldes's greatest influence on readers had already passed. Seldes did publish Tell the Truth and Run in 1953, but otherwise found it difficult to publish his work throughout the 1950s. He was approached, however, by an old friend and colleague, I.F. Stone, for advice on how to start a small independent investigative newspaper. I.F. Stone's Weekly premiered in 1953, picking up where Seldes had left off.
Largely dropping his own writing, he developed an anthology called The Great Quotations and received rejections from 20 publishers. It sold more than a million copies when it appeared in 1961.
In a letter to Time magazine in 1974, he appraised the state of American journalism as much improved in his lifetime:
The press deserved the attacks and criticisms of Will Irwin (1910) and Upton Sinclair (1920) and the muckrakers who followed, and it needs today the watchdog and gadfly activities of the new critical weeklies, but all in all it is now a better medium of mass information ... The 1972 Watergate disclosures, it is true, were made by only a score of the members of the mass media, but I remember Teapot Dome when only one of our 1,750 dailies (the Albuquerque Morning Journal) dared to tell the truth about White House corruption. We have come a long way since.
He published Never Tire of Protesting in 1968 and Even the Gods Can't Change History in 1976.
He published his autobiography, Witness to a Century in 1987. He wrote: "And so [my brother] Gilbert and I, brought up without a formal religion, remained throughout our lifetimes just what Father was, freethinkers. And, likewise, doubters and dissenters and perhaps Utopians. Father's rule had been 'Question everything, take nothing for granted,' and I never outlived it, and I would suggest it be made the motto of a world journalists' association."
In 1981, Seldes appeared in Warren Beatty's Reds, a film about the life of journalist John Reed. Seldes appears as one of the film's "witnesses" commenting on the historical events depicted in the film.
Seldes served on the board of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).
Seldes died on July 2, 1995, in Windsor, Vermont. He was 104. A delegation of journalists attended the memorial service at his home in Hartland-4-Corners, Vermont, read from his books and watched an excerpt from Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press, a documentary in progress.
The documentary was produced and directed by Rick Goldsmith and premiered the following year, in 1996. It covered Seldes's life and career, and revived the life and work of a man who for four decades had been largely forgotten. The film looked at Seldes's life and work, especially the theme of censorship and suppression in America's news media. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and received many other accolades, including the John O'Connor Film Award from the American Historical Association.
Seldes had both staunch admirers and strong critics. Some of his contemporaries and later historians have judged much of his work harshly. One critic thought I. F. Stone "was light years beyond Seldes." Others cited his political bias and preconceptions. A study of the Dies Committee said that Seldes's account in Witch Hunt suffered from his view that everything the Committee did was wrong. Another warned that The Catholic Crisis "should be read with great caution in view of the author's latent anti-Catholic and pro-Communist bias." Another cited Seldes as a writer with "an agenda." Still another evaluated Iron, Blood, and Profits as "less sober" than other works on the subject of international arms dealing. Of his biography of Mussolini, another wrote: "many of his sources were unreliable and his book was almost devoid of logical order." A more appreciative assessment said Freedom of the Press was "one-sided, but well deserves careful reading." Summing up Seldes's work, another wrote that "until 1947 [Seldes] followed the Stalinist line so closely that any author must use him with the utmost care."
A. J. Liebling said on him, "[George Seldes is] about as subtle as a house falling in. He makes too much of the failure of newspapers to print exactly what George Seldes would have printed if he were the managing editor. But he is a useful citizen. In fact is a fine little gadfly, representing an enormous effort for one man and his wife".
But a whole generation of journalists and activists were influenced greatly by Seldes. Long-time Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy said, "He was a reporter who didn't worry about being objective. He worried about what he would choose to write. I'm always amused when they call somebody 'one-sided'. Seldes offered one side – the side you weren't getting elsewhere". Nader said of Seldes, "He was like a doctor. He reported about disease in the political economy, and the gross inequities of power, and the abuses and the exploitation. I always wanted to be a crusading lawyer, and he gave me some materials to contemplate crusading about." Journalist Nat Hentoff said, "He took what should be the most honorable term in journalism – muckraking – and made it work again. A lot of journalists of his generation and the generation or two that followed, did more, took risks, because [Seldes] was the model. And the fact that he was there made them feel like whores if they didn't do more."