Early Encounters with Censorship

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While a freelance war correspondent in Europe at the end of World War I, Seldes and three other journalists drove into Germany on Armistice Day, in violation of the armistice regulations. They got an exclusive interview with German field marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who tearfully confessed that the Germans had lost the war to the American infantry on the battlefield. This story was censored by the U.S. Army under pressure from a group of journalists, including Edwin L. James of The New York Times, who did not want their papers to know that they had been scooped. Seldes always believed that if Hindenburg’s statement had been widely publicized, Hitler would not have been able to appeal to the masses with false claim that Germany lost World War I, not on the battlefield but because it had been “stabbed in the back” by socialists, communists, and Jews. Years later, Seldes wrote that James, who had risen to the position of managing editor at The New York Times, had ordered his staff “never to mention” Seldes’ books or name.

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In 1927 Seldes was sent to Mexico by The Chicago Tribune to report on the unrest in the country. Seldes recalled that while the Associated Press frightened the public with reports of a possible communist revolution in Central America, he found that the real news story concerned representatives of American oil interests, who wanted to topple the government so they could appropriate Mexico’s oil reserves. After winning a promise from The Tribune’s managing editor to publish both sides of the issue, Seldes wrote a series of ten articles describing what he found in Mexico—five reporting the official U.S. State Department version, and five reporting the other side of the issue, based on what he had observed or verified himself. The Tribune ran the first five, supporting American business interests, but never ran the second five. Seldes quit the paper in disgust and became a pioneering freelance journalist, launching his career with the aptly titled book, You Can’t Print That (1929). It was the first of twenty-one books.

In 1937 Seldes and his wife went to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War for The New York Post. Seldes later claimed that if the world’s free press had printed the truth about what was happening in Europe and particularly in Spain, the democratic nations of the world would have rallied to support the Spanish Republic rather than abandoning it to be destroyed by Germany and Italy. After the Post bowed to pressure from Franco supporters and dropped his reports, Seldes quit newspaper reporting permanently and launched his own newsletter, In fact.

The In fact Newsletter

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In fact, a weekly newsletter first published in 1940, was described as being published “for the millions who want a free press” and, later, as “an Antidote for falsehood in the daily press.” It was the nation’s first periodical of press criticism. Seldes was the first media watchdog to criticize the press for not reporting the connection between smoking and cancer. It started in 1938 when he tried, without success, to get the press to report the results of a five-year study involving nearly seven thousand persons at The Johns Hopkins University. The study revealed that smoking decreased life expectancy. In 1940 In fact launched a ten-year crusade against tobacco, publishing some one hundred items on the subject. Few of his exposés ever appeared in the mainstream media.

Week after week, In fact castigated the mainstream media for failing to cover important issues. It reached a circulation peak of 176,000 and was the inspiration for I. F. Stone’s Weekly. I. F. Stone originally wanted to restart In fact but Seldes warned him about the pressure it received from the government and the media. He urged Stone instead to start his own newspaper and gave him his subscription list to help him get started.

Ironically, despite Seldes’ many years of outstanding journalism and media criticism, his most popular acclaim came from a brief appearance in a Hollywood movie and from a book that was not about the media. Seldes made a cameo appearance in Warren Beatty’s film, Reds, in 1981, which brought him immediate national recognition. His best-known book, titled The Great Quotations, was originally rejected by twenty publishers but after publication in 1961 it sold more than a million copies worldwide.

A hallmark of Seldes’ professionalism as a journalist was that he always went directly to the best sources for his stories, instead of depending on tips, rumors, or anonymous sources. Seldes’ sources included William Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt, John Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, Albert Einstein, Woodrow Wilson, Sigmund Freud, Benito Mussolini, Leon Trotsky, J. Edgar Hoover, and Harry S Truman.

Although The New York Times and much of the other major media censored Seldes for more than half a century, they could not censor his unparalleled contribution to the press in America. Perhaps Seldes’ most important tip for aspiring journalists first came from his father, who cautioned him to “question everything; take nothing for granted.” Seldes also said that it was sometimes best to “tell the truth and run.”

Following the death of his wife in 1979, Seldes lived alone with his cat in rural Vermont. One of his late books was entitled Never Tire of Protesting (1968). George Seldes never did.

Bibliography

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The most comprehensive resource about George Seldes is his autobiography, published when he was ninety-six years old, Witness to a Century: Encounters with the Noted, the Notorious, and the Three SOBs (New York: Ballantine Books, 1987). Other books by Seldes dealing with major historic events and the media include You Can’t Print That (New York: Payson & Clarke Ltd., 1929), Freedom of the Press (New York: Bobbs Merrill, 1935), You Can’t Do That (New York: Modern Age Books, 1938), Tell the Truth and Run (New York: Greenberg, 1953), Never Tire of Protesting (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1968), and Even the Gods Can’t Change History (Secaucus, N.J.: Lyle Stuart, 1976). Randolph T. Holhut has compiled a comprehensive sample of Seldes’ books and newsletters in The George Seldes Reader (New York: Barricade Books, 1994).

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