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.

March 02, 1997|By NORMAN SOLOMON

GEORGE SELDES would have chuckled at the media silence that greeted last month's Oscar nomination for a movie about him.

Few modern journalists are aware of the greatest press critic in this nation's history. So, it's not surprising that most media outlets have ignored "Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press."

In contrast, another Academy Award finalist for best documentary feature - "When We Were Kings," a film about Muhammad Ali's boxing comeback in 1974 - has gotten lots of publicity. It's owned by Gramercy Pictures, part of the huge Polygram conglomerate.

The documentary about Seldes did not receive any corporate backing. The film's producer and director, Rick Goldsmith, created "Tell the Truth and Run" in much the same way that Seldes lived his life: independently.

When Armistice Day brought World War I to an end, Seldes broke ranks with the obedient press corps and drove behind the lines of retreating German troops. For the rest of his life, Seldes 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 because of 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 gathered firsthand news about many historic figures. Lenin did not appreciate the young American journalist, and neither did Mussolini. The Bolsheviks banished Seldes from the Soviet Union in 1923. Two years later, with Black Shirt thugs on his heels, Seldes caught a train out of Italy.

In 1928, after nearly 10 years as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Seldes quit - fed up with biased editing. The last straw came with the newspaper's selective use of his dispatches from Mexico. Articles presenting the perspective of U.S. oil companies ran in full, but stories about the contrary views of the Mexican government did not appear.

Seldes became a trail-blazing press critic. Starting in 1929, he wrote intrepid books - such as "You Can't Print That!" and "Lords of the Press" - endearing him to readers but infuriating media moguls of the day. Seldes served as a Diogenes whose light led the way for new generations of journalists eager to search for truth wherever it might lead.

Many of his stands, lonely at the time, were prophetic. Beginning in the late 1930s, for example, Seldes excoriated the American press for hiding the known dangers of smoking while making millions from cigarette ads. He was several decades ahead of his time.

An implacable foe of tyranny, Seldes was not content to cast stones at faraway despots. He also took on mighty centers of power - "big money for big business" - close to home.

Like few other journalists, Seldes shined a fierce light on Europe's emerging fascism - and its allies in the United States. Seldes repeatedly attacked press barons such as William Randolph Hearst and groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers for assisting Hitler, Mussolini and Spain's Gen. Francisco Franco.

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 dispatches - until pressure from U.S. supporters of Franco caused the chain to drop their reports.

From 1940 to 1950, Seldes edited America's first periodical of media criticism. The weekly newsletter, In fact, peaked at a circulation of 176,000 copies as it scrutinized the press - "the most powerful force against the general welfare of the majority of the people."

What happened to In fact? The New York Times obituary about Seldes simply stated that it ceased publication in 1950, "when his warnings about fascism seemed out of tune with rising public concern about communism." In fact, 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 harassment was pivotal to the newsletter's demise. Also crucial was the sustained barrage of smears and Red-baiting against In fact in the country's largest newspapers.

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