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Dec. 5, 1998


Seldes on Clinton Scandals

By Rick Goldsmith

Rick Goldsmith is the producer and director of “Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press,” an account of Seldes’s life and career. The documentary was nominated for the 1996 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The 111-minute film is available, for home viewing only, on VHS videotape by check or money order for $44.95 (includes shipping and handling) from Kovno Communications, 2600 Tenth St. #104F, Berkeley, CA 94710. (Requests for educational or institutional sale or rental of the videotape should contact New Day Films, 888-367-9154 or see www.newday.com.)

Over the past year, I've been asked several times, "What do you think George Seldes would have written about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair?"

Taking the question literally, the answer is, of course, elusive, unknowable. But pondering the answer, i.e. examining the onslaught of media coverage and its effect on America's politics from what I can surmise would be Seldes's perspective, says volumes about the timeliness -- and timelessness -- of Seldes's journalism.

George Seldes was America's most prolific and undoubtedly its most important press critic. He was preceded in this century by muckrakers Will Irwin and Upton Sinclair, and The Nation's Oswald Villard, among others. But each of those writers wrote a book, or an extended article on press criticism, then moved on to other journalistic endeavors.

In the late 1920s, Seldes -- already a noted foreign correspondent who had borne more than his share of censorship -- set his sights on the press, sunk in his teeth, and never so much as loosened his jaw for more than two decades.

His books included You Can't Print That! (1929), Freedom of the Press (1935), and his controversial Lords of the Press (1938), which profiled the publisher or head of every major American news organization, from the tabloids to the chains to The Associated Press, from the Jewish Daily Forward to The New York Times.

In 1940, Seldes founded the newsletter In fact, a combination of press criticism and investigative journalism, which he published each week for a decade, and which served as a model for I.F. Stone's Weekly.

What was so flawed -- and so important -- about the press that Seldes should make its scrutiny his life's work? The answer lies, at least in part, in Seldes's early journalistic career.

Seldes became a reporter at age 18 in 1909, at the tail end of the progressive/muckraker era. He was exposed as a young man to a journalism of moral righteousness, and to a dedicated group of writers who exposed abuse of power in general and specifically the sins or consequences of monopoly capitalism.

Nine years later, Seldes was reporting from the battlefields of France, essentially selling the Great War to the home front. Only after the Armistice did Seldes realize, or let himself realize, that he and his colleagues (American and European) had helped to enable, by falsifying the facts and glorifying war, the greatest orgy of slaughter in the history of mankind.

But the Great War was also Seldes's entree, as a reporter, to the great stage of Europe. As Berlin bureau chief for Colonel Robert McCormick's Chicago Tribune, Seldes traveled to every capital on the continent, including, in 1922, to Moscow of the newly formed Soviet Union.

Sympathetic to the Soviet socialist experiment by upbringing -- Seldes's father had been a spokesperson for the U.S.-based Friends of Russian Freedom during the Russian revolution of 1905 -- Seldes discovered in short order that the Soviet government had no use for a free press.

The Soviet press officer proudly proclaimed, "censorship is a brother" of the revolution. Seldes was not-so-politely "asked to leave" after he and three other reporters were discovered smuggling stories out of the country in the diplomatic mailbag.

Seldes judged the Soviet Union's form of communism the worst political system he could imagine -- until he reached Italy less than two years later.

In late 1924, Italian fascism was two years old. Capitalists the world over, especially in the United States, were impressed with the Corporate State -- an orderly place where might and money united to create the "ultimate business climate."

Europe was in terrific upheaval and disarray from the World War I, and fascism's brutal underbelly had not yet been exposed, so the seeming "order" that had been restored in Italy impressed many a foreigner. American muckrakers Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, for example, were early supporters of Italian fascism.

And with the death in 1924 of both Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, the charismatic Benito Mussolini, the father of fascism, became the most prominent leader on the world stage.

Into this setting stepped George Seldes. He quickly learned of the involvement of Mussolini in the assassination earlier that year of Giacomo Matteotti, a socialist member of parliament and Mussolini's chief political rival.

Under the headline "Link Mussolini with Murder," Seldes laid out the facts that no reporter, Italian or foreign, had dared to write. Seldes was summarily attacked in the fascist press as a "liar, a communist, and a grosso porco, a big swine."

The American embassy was pressured by the Italian government to rein Seldes in, but Seldes did not relent. Into 1925, Seldes's Tribune articles continued, under such heads as "Mussolini Is Again Linked With Murder" and "Italy Ends Last Bit of Democracy."

When Seldes wrote about a fascist mob's fatal beating of yet another Mussolini political rival, the axe finally came down. Seldes was officially expelled, then chased out of Italy by fascist thugs. It was to be the only expulsion of a foreign journalist by Mussolini in his first 13 years of rule, until after Italy's invasion of Abyssinia in 1935.

What few people knew at the time of Seldes's expulsion in mid-1925 was that fascist Italy was a financial house of cards. Fascist officials were pleading with American bankers and government officials for desperately-needed help. The kind of publicity Mussolini had been getting from Seldes jeopardized the very future of the fascist state.

Once Seldes was expelled, the American reporters that remained in Italy were either so intimidated, or else proto-fascist themselves (the AP man, Italian-born, doubled as Mussolini's press agent),only positive news of fascism appeared in American newspapers for the next six months.

In early 1926, with the press leading the way, the U.S. Senate forgave the Italian war debt, and the House of Morgan loaned the fascist government the then-unheard-of sum of $100 million, ensuring fascism's survival well into the future.

Seldes wrote about the Italian incident in a 1927 Harper's Magazine article, "The Truth About Fascist Censorship." He recognized the vital role the press played in political affairs, and how those in power -- for reasons political and economic -- suppressed and colored the news.

From that point on, Seldes concentrated his attentions on the press -- how and why it censored, suppressed, colored and omitted news.

As the 1930s evolved, Seldes saw that democracy and a free press were interdependent -- that the loss of one meant the loss of the other. His focus on the press was no academic exercise. The political future of western civilization was up for grabs. Dictatorship endangered democracy everywhere, including, many felt, in the United States.

In his 1935 book, Freedom of the Press, Seldes laid out the essential question:

Is the press meeting its responsibilities today in telling us the truth, keeping us intelligently informed on important issues, the great and minor problems of the world?

He goes on to list these "great and minor problems," as he saw them in 1935:

"--War and Peace. Is the press leading us into another war or working for international accord?

“--Bolshevism and Fascism. Has the press told us and is it telling us the truth about new systems of government which we may have to choose some day?

“--The great labor unrest....

“--Child Labor....

“--Pure Food and Drugs....

“--The Economic System. Has capitalism broken down or merely suffered an eclipse? ... Can it enslave or deliver us?"

Seldes goes on to document the many ways the press indeed failed to "meet its responsibilities" and the reasons for the failure: the economic interests of the publishers, their political leanings (especially during the politically-polarized New Deal era), their own labor relations issues, etc.

In Lords of the Press, he writes,

"The press needs free men with free minds intellectually open; but its leadership consists of moral slaves whose minds are paralyzed by the specter of profits. The publishers are not leading the American people forward. They are not facing the social issues."

Seldes began publishing In fact in May of 1940. The four-page weekly newsletter was a combination of investigative reporting and press criticism.

To Seldes, the big stories of the day, almost by definition, involved abuse of power -- by right-wing politicians, by anti-labor corporate bosses, by racist and anti-Semitic members of Congress, by newspaper publishers across the board.

Seldes was decades ahead of his colleagues in documenting the health hazards of cigarettes (as early as 1938), the deceptive promotional practices of the tobacco companies, and the lack of coverage of these issues in the pages of the mainstream press -- which accepted millions every year in cigarette advertising.

In the pages of In fact, Seldes went after J. Edgar Hoover for spying on unions, infiltrating political organizations and keeping dossiers on American citizens; the National Association of Manufacturers, then a collection of the most right wing of business leaders, which wrote the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act of 1947; the American Medical Association, which opposed and eventually killed President Truman's national health insurance proposals by branding them "socialized medicine"; and Senator Joe McCarthy. And Seldes never consulted with libel lawyers before publishing.

His criteria for choosing stories, and for analyzing press coverage: Does it affect the average working (or unemployed) person or family? Is it an assault on civil liberties? Does it adversely affect the democratic process? Is it an abuse of power? Is it a policy issue that ought to be in the public debate? Is it an issue that has been omitted or under-reported, or distorted, in the mainstream press?

Because Seldes's criteria differed from that of the mainstream press (whose criteria included, among other considerations: Will it sell newspapers? Will it offend advertisers? Will it affect profits?), Seldes's stories in In fact usually were stories that his readers were reading for the first time, or at least for the first time in depth, with facts and figures often culled by Seldes from government reports and documents.

Always the stories were geared towards refocusing his readers to what was important, in terms of public policy and the lives of citizens.

Getting back to the Lewinsky affair of 1998, three things are clear on how Seldes might have responded, journalistically, that should be instructive to today's reporters.

1) He would not be writing about the affair itself for the simple reason that Seldes specifically focused on information that you couldn't get elsewhere.

2) To the extent that he saw the Starr investigation as an unjustified and unethical attack on the president, AND an impediment to the public debate of important policy issues, Seldes would probably be digging up and exposing the contradictions in Starr's own background: his association with the most right-wing organizations and politicians, the conflict-of-interest issues of his law firm, etc.

3) Seldes would be trying to re-focus public attention on what he judged to be the most important public policy issues of the day, AND the ones that most deserved genuine, spirited public debate. He would do that by citing or reprinting articles on such issues that did appear in the mainstream press, and by researching and writing his own articles.

Seldes would surely have used his own guidelines set out by the "essential question" above, regarding the press meeting its responsibilities. His 1998 version of the "great and minor problems" might be framed, "How has the blizzard of media coverage on the President's private sexual life affected -- and how will it continue to affect -- public debate and public policy." More specific issues might be:

--The consequences of "welfare reform", including child care for welfare-to-work mothers?

--National and world economic policy?

--Campaign finance reform?

--American governmental response to "terrorist acts"?

--HMO Reform?

--Tobacco control?

Seldes, whose style was moral outrage mixed with righteous indignation, might have concluded, "America's news media has served as Kenneth Starr's lapdog. By headlining his selective leaks and carefully timed published reports, the media has allowed him to control the front pages and news broadcasts across the nation for a year.

“If this trend continues, Starr and America's news media will have effectively conspired to keep important public policy debate out of the news, dis-informing and alienating the electorate, thereby subverting the democratic process no less than President Nixon and his cronies did in 1972."

George Seldes never lost his belief in the possibilities of journalism and of a free press. He spent 80 years in journalism, the last half century of which was dedicated largely to press criticism, specifically because he recognized the critical impact -- for better or worse -- that the media has on free-flowing public debate, the most necessary ingredient in a healthy democracy.


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