Muckraker Journalist, Press Critic, Author: 1890 – 1995
George Seldes was that rare, true “muckraker journalist,” an investigative reporter unafraid to find the truth in a story and disclose it. Muckrake is defined as “to search out and expose publicly real or apparent misconduct of prominent individuals.” He was an open critic of corporate-owned media, believing, “A people that wants to be free must arm itself with a free press.” Though he himself was censored and blacklisted, his commitment to writing and speaking his mind never waned.
George Seldes was born in Alliance (now Vineland), NJ, at the time a utopian community founded by his father. At 19, he began his journalism career with The Pittsburgh Leader, later moving to London with the United Press. In 1917, when the US entered into World War I, Seldes went to France to be a war correspondent for the Marshall Syndicate. Once the war ended, Seldes and a few colleagues managed to interview Paul von Hindenburg, commander of the German Army. Seldes believed it to be one of his most important interviews; however, the public never knew about it until Seldes wrote about it in his 1929 book, You Can’t Print That.
In the book, Seldes recalls Hindenburg discussing the last months of WWI, believing that the war could have ended in a stalemate, a balance of sorts. Seldes quoted Hindenburg as saying, “But the balance was broken by the American troops. The Argonne battle was slow and difficult. But it was strategic….The day came when the American command sent new divisions into the battle and when I had not even a broken division to plug up the gaps. There was nothing left to do but ask terms.” This article was so important, Seldes wrote in his 1987 autobiography Witness to a Century, that “If the Hindenburg interview had been passed by Pershing’s (stupid) 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 become an important page in history. 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.” Instead, the article quoting the German commander was suppressed, and a story rose in its place that the socialists, communists, and Jews had betrayed Germany, a betrayal Germany claimed caused the loss of the war. This idea formed the foundation of Nazism.
Still, George Seldes did not give up his passion for investigative reporting, and continued work for The Chicago Tribune overseas. In the Soviet Union, his reports included an interview with Lenin, but the government did not approve of his stories and expelled him. He moved to Italy, covering the rise of fascism. However, in an investigation into the murder of the leader of the Italian Socialist Party, Seldes implicated Benito Mussolini and was expelled again. Later stationed in Mexico, his critical reports on how American corporations were using Mexico’s mineral rights were not always published. The continued censorship of him in the mainstream newspaper caused George Seldes to leave the Tribune and begin a freelance career.
He wrote several books, histories, and exposés over the next decade on various topics like the post-WWII era, the Catholic Church, and Benito Mussolini. In these writings Seldes included the material which was previously unpublished. From 1940-50 Seldes published a newsletter called In Fact. It was a political newsletter with critical articles on the media, and featured many pieces on the connection between smoking and cancer. He said that in those days, “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 can buy in America.” Seldes published still more books during this time as well as the newsletter. The McCarthy era of the fifties brought much of his muckraking journalism to a halt; although Seldes was strongly against authoritarianism and totalitarianism, he was attacked and blacklisted by McCarthy as being sympathetic to Communism. He kept on writing, but over the years became less and less known.
Seldes reappeared on the scene in the 1980s in the film Reds and through his autobiography Witness to a Century. He also worked with the group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and said, regarding the newspaper industry, in a 1995 interview in FAIR’s magazine EXTRA!, “The failure of a free press in most countries is usually blamed on the readers….The people deserve better in most governments and press. Readers, in millions of cases, have no way of finding out whether their newspapers are fair or not, honest or distorted, truthful or colored….There are less than a dozen independent newspapers in the whole country, and even that small number is dependent on advertisers and other things, and all these other things which revolve around money and profit make real independence impossible. No newspaper which is supporting one class of society is independent.”
George Seldes was one of the first muckrakers, and remained so until his death in 1995. He was described in an obituary as the man “whose light led the way for new generations of journalists eager to search for truth wherever it might lead.”