Seldes, George Henry

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Seldes, George Henry

(b. 16 November 1890 in Alliance [now Vineland], New Jersey; d. 2 July 1995 in Windsor, Vermont), crusading journalist and author best known for his untiring press criticism and commitment to a free, unfettered press.

Seldes was one of two sons born to George Sergius Seldes and Anna Verna Saphro. They operated a family farm and ran the post office in Alliance, New Jersey, a Jewish Utopian community. Seldes’s father, a pharmacist, moved to nearby Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to earn more money when the children were young. Seldes’s mother died when Seldes was six, and family members raised the boys.

In 1907 Seldes joined his father and stepmother in Pittsburgh so he could attend a large city high school. He failed his junior year, quit school, and worked briefly in his father’s drugstore. In 1909 he got a job at the Pittsburgh Leader earning $3.50 a week. In 1912, at his brother Gilbert’s urging, he took a leave of absence and enrolled in a nondegree program at Harvard University for a year. Seldes then returned to Pittsburgh and in 1914 became night editor of the Pittsburgh Post. In 1916, during World War I, he went to London to work for the United Press.

In 1917 Seldes operated a one-person bureau office in Paris for the Chicago Tribune Army Edition. With the arrival in France of the American Expeditionary Force, Seldes joined General John Pershing’s Army Press Section, a small group that included some of America’s greatest journalists.

Seldes remained in Europe after the war and began a distinguished career as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. He sought stories involving political change, class conflicts, and ideological leaders, including Leon Trostky, Nikolai Lenin, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler. He was expelled from Russia in 1921 when he attempted to write uncensored stories, and he was expelled from Italy in 1925 when he linked Mussolini to the murder of a political rival.

The Chicago Tribune made Seldes a roving correspondent for eastern Europe, and he traveled extensively from Berlin to Baghdad. He went to Mexico in 1927 to write a series about Mexico—U.S. relations and oil, but the Chicago Tribune publisher Robert McCormick censored the stories.

Seldes quit the paper the following year and remained in France painting and writing books.

Seldes’s first book, You Can’t Print That! The Truth Behind the News (1929), shared details about stories Seldes could not get published as a journalist. He followed with books about the Vatican and the world armament industry and a well-regarded biography of Mussolini, Sawdust Caesar (1935). Two important books on the newspaper industry, then the dominant media, established Seldes’s reputation for press criticism. The books, Freedom of the Press (1935) and Lords of the Press (1938), set out in detail Seldes’s conclusions that American journalism withheld critical information from the public. In 1932 Seldes married Helen Larkin Wiesman, an American living and studying in Paris. Although Wiesman was fifteen years younger than Seldes, they shared similar political views. They had no children.

In 1937 the couple covered the Spanish Civil War for the liberal New York Post. Francisco Franco’s victory left Seldes distraught, in part because he saw the American press as sympathetic to the dictator, who won with military support from Italy and Germany. Seldes’s next three books, though written about the United States, had strong political themes: the attack on civil liberties by the political right, the Catholic Church’s ties to fascist organizations, and redbaiting.

In 1940 Seldes started In Fact, a four-page newsletter devoted to press criticism and investigative reporting. He accepted no advertising. At its peak its 176,000 subscribers exceeded the circulation of other leading liberal journals, such as the Nation and the New Republic. Seldes wrote stories other papers ignored. The tone of the publication was frank, critical, and matter-of-fact. With only a small staff he mined government reports and investigations and found major stories in overlooked scientific reports and professional journals.

In 1941 Seldes began publishing articles about new scientific studies on smoking and health. His first story stated simply, “Smoking shortens life.” Over the next decade In Fact published nearly 100 articles on tobacco and its health hazards and the failure of the mainstream press, because the tobacco industry was a major advertiser, to report on the issue. Seldes, a small wiry man, had stopped smoking in 1931, to which, along with not drinking and matrimonial faithfulness, he later credited his long life.

Seldes came under harsh political attack and public vilification after World War II when Senator Joseph McCarthy accused him of being a communist. The charges were false, but In Fact lost circulation and closed in 1950 after publishing 521 issues. In Fact had carried on an earlier muckraking tradition, attacking big money and big business. The publication spawned greater press criticism and scrutiny, as reflected in A.J. Liebling’s “Wayward Press” column in the New Yorker and the weekly that the journalist I. F. Stone started, with Seldes’s assistance, in 1953.

Seldes ultimately wrote twenty-one books. His later volumes included The Great Quotations (1960) and The Great Thoughts (1985), compilations of ideas that he had collected on thousands of index cards during years of reading, writing, and interviewing. His wife died in 1979, when Seldes was eighty-eight years old. He continued living in his rural Vermont home, relying on the help of his friends and neighbors. He lived to enjoy recognition for his work late in his life. In 1982 he received a George Polk Award for lifetime contributions to journalism. His autobiography, Witness to a Century (1987), published when he was ninety-six, revived his professional reputation, as did the Academy Award–nominated documentary Tell the Truth and Run, completed in 1996, a year after his death.

Seldes died in Mount Ascutney Hospital and Health Center in Windsor. He was cremated, and his ashes were buried in the front yard of his longtime home in Hartland Four Corners, Vermont, next to those of his wife.

Seldes’s untiring press criticism helped reshape modern journalism practices and ethics. He emphasized “telling the truth” by reporting accurately and fairly and not censoring information. Timely and needed, his criticisms came as many cities and towns lost competing newspapers and massive corporate media monopolies replaced earlier press barons.

Papers, manuscripts, and photographs from Seldes’s later career (1940–1971) are in the Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Pennsylvania. Seldes loved to write about himself and his journalistic exploits, but his most thorough effort was his autobiography Witness to a Century: Encounters with the Noted, the Notorious, and the Three SOBs (1987). His significant writings are reprinted in Randolph T. Holhut, The George Seldes Reader (1994). The elderly Seldes is interviewed at length in the Rick Goldsmith documentary Tell the Truth and Run (1996). Obituaries are in the New York Times (3 July 1995) and the Washington Post (4 July 1995).

Brent Schondelmeyer