Passages: George Seldes (1890-1995)

Grandfather of the alternative press


| May-June 1996



George Seldes, the inventor of modern investigative reporting, who died last summer at age 104, led the sort of swashbuckling life that Hollywood might have scripted for a foreign correspondent and rebel reporter. He interviewed Lenin, Trotsky, Freud, Einstein, and Hitler. He filed dispatches from behind the lines during World War I and covered the Spanish Civil War with his wife, Helen. He was booted out of the Soviet Union in 1923 and fled Italy two years later fearing for his life after offending Benito Mussolini. Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and Sinclair Lewis were among his drinking buddies.

Yet the glamour of journalistic success never blinded him to serious shortcomings in the American press. As a cub reporter on the Pittsburgh Leader in 1910 he learned there are things in the news business that matter more than the truth when his scoop about a department store heir raping a salesgirl mysteriously disappeared from the paper. A few days later the department store doubled its advertising space in the paper—at new, higher rates.

Covering World War I for a syndicate of newspapers, including the Detroit Free Press and the Atlanta Constitution, he again ran up against censorship. Just days after the war ended, he interviewed German Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who tearfully admitted that America’s entry into the war was the most important factor in the German defeat. The piece never saw print. Allied military authorities blacked out the story to punish Seldes and three other journalists for defying orders and going behind the lines to reach the retreating Germans. Later, as the Chicago Tribune’s bureau chief in Berlin, Seldes watched the Nazis climb to power by blaming Jews for Germany’s World War I loss. Hindenburg never spoke out publicly to contradict Hitler, so Seldes’ interview would have stood as a powerful refutation of Nazi lies.

Seldes finally called it quits with the mainstream media in 1928, when his dispatches for the Chicago Tribune about the final stages of the Mexican revolution were published only when they concurred with the U.S. State Department’s assessment of the situation. He proceeded to write a series of influential books attacking press barons who twist the news to serve their own economic interests. In 1940 he founded In Fact, a weekly newsletter that pioneered both investigative reporting and press criticism. He uncovered major stories that no other publications would touch, like American corporations’ lucrative deals with Hitler and Mussolini that continued even after the war began, and the links between smoking and cancer. The fact that most Americans never heard about the dangers of smoking until the surgeon general’s report in 1964—decades later—is a testament to the power of tobacco companies and other big advertisers to dictate what appears (and doesn’t appear) in the news.

In Fact ceased publication in 1950, the victim of an FBI red-hunting campaign against its subscribers. Seldes moved to Vermont and slipped out of the public eye for many years. But then, in an ending worthy of a Hollywood movie, Seldes found new acclaim for editing the landmark reference books The Great Quotations and The Great Thoughts as well as for his fascinating 1987 autobiography, Witness to a Century: Encounters with the Noted, the Notorious, and the Three SOBs.