Long memory,respect for the power of truth. Journalist/critic Seldes defends today's press
Hartland Four Corners, Vt. — JOURNALIST, press critic, and author George Seldes says people are often amazed at his memory. ``I can still remember how my city editors spelled their names,'' he muses, laughing heartily as he recalls those news room taskmasters of 75 years ago. But it's not just that he remembers, but what he remembers, that sets apart this venerable chronicler of life and events. For nearly eight decades, Mr. Seldes has observed, often firsthand, the people who shape world history, as well as the people who record and analyze what those shapers have done. He has been a sharp-eyed foreign correspondent -- filing stories from 37 countries in Europe and the Mideast -- and an equally penetrating critic of his own journalistic profession.
While he has reservations about the thoroughness of some reporting today -- particularly TV news, which is only good for ``bulletins,'' he says -- Seldes is outspoken in his defense of the current generation of journalists.
He recalls being asked by commentator Bill Moyers why his criticism of the press has softened. He told Mr. Moyers that, when he stops to think about the kind of people who are attacking the press now, ``I want to be in the front rank of the defenders of the press. The press is a . . . lot better than it ever was in my time.''
For the past two decades, home base has been a small brick house tucked in the wooded hills of this Vermont hamlet. Since his wife passed away, his primary companion has been a ``vicious'' but beloved cat. Apart from weekly trips with a neighbor to the library at nearby Dartmouth College, it's a solitary existence -- but a very productive one. Seldes recently completed his 20th book, ``The Great Thoughts,'' an intriguing collection of those concepts, sayings, and observations that, in his view, have helped sculpture our world.
Settling into the comfortable old sofa in a living room shared by rows of obviously well-used books and a little-used black-and-white TV, he took a couple of hours to share some of his own thoughts about the state of journalism, past and present.
He has a strong distaste for such conservative-leaning media critics as the Accuracy in Media organization, springing partly from a life-long commitment to liberalism. But it's also based on the quality of their criticism, he says. They're obsessed with viewpoint and tone, to his mind. He says he used to subscribe to the AIM publication and never once saw it do what his own journal of criticism, In Fact, did through the 1940s: come right out and state, ``This item is absolutely untrue -- in other words, this did not happen.''
And in what ways is today's journalism ``a lot better'' than that of the past?
Seldes spins off an anecdote from his days as a cub reporter for the Pittsburgh Leader. It deals with the nefarious route by which theater reviews found their way into print, beginning with the arrival of a theater's agent carrying $2 to place an ad for a new show:
``The guy would bring in his money for the ads, and he'd come upstairs to the editorial department, and he'd put down on the editor's desk a review -- this would be Saturday or Sunday -- a review of the next week's show, saying `this was the best show in the world' . . . and we'd run it without even editing it.'' Seldes terms that ``prostitution of the press -- $2 for the policy of the paper.''
The same sort of thinking spilled freely into other kinds of coverage, he says, with newspapers unquestioningly printing a given governmental or partisan line. It warms his heart when today's media lunge in if Ronald Reagan slips up. Seldes points, for example, to the President's move to cut social security when he promised he wouldn't. ``Those things weren't happening in those days, and those things are happening today,'' he says.
And what, basically, has changed?
``Look, I think it's the passing of the press lords that has a lot to do with it,'' he asserts. The ``press lords'' -- newspaper magnates like William Randolph Hearst, Frank Gannett, and Col. Robert McCormick, Seldes's one-time boss at the Chicago Tribune -- were the chief targets of his pioneering efforts at media criticism. His memories of them as individuals and of the way they freely bent the news to their political biases are vivid. Colonel McCormick, he says with a mix of humor and disgust, ``was the greatest xenophobic I've ever met in my life -- he hated not only Europe, but he even hated New York and California.''
Seldes's final break with the Tribune, he recalls, came as a result of an assignment given him during one of the mandatory ``Americanizing'' stints in Chicago after some years in Europe. The paper decided to send him to Mexico to cover what McCormick saw as the ``coming war.'' Seldes investigated both sides of the issues causing friction between the United States and Mexico and wrote a series of 10 articles -- five showing the American perspective, he says, and five giving Mexico's side. Toward the end of 1928, meanwhile, he returned to his post in Berlin. As the papers from Chicago started coming in, he quickly realized that ``everything I wrote against Mexico was published, on the front page. The other stuff was totally suppressed.''
Not long after that Seldes began work on his first book, ``You Can't Print That,'' an expos'e of the political hurdles faced by American journalists in Europe. It became a best seller, and with that success under his belt he fired off a letter of resignation to Colonel McCormick.
That first book on the press started him on a new career as critic and author. During the '30s, he wrote his best-known works, ``Freedom of the Press'' and ``Lords of the Press.'' The best sources of material for these books were working newspapermen themselves, he says.
``Luckily, I fell in with a Hearst man in Washington who actually sent me what they called `chief says' -- the teletext orders that Hearst used to send his people. Incredible what that man ordered. I mean he ordered absolute perversion of the news . . . play up the Fascist angle, play up Mussolini.'' The originals of those Hearst memos, along with many of Seldes's other papers, are now at the University of Pennsylvania. ``They sent for my literary remains about 10 years ago,'' says this very lively 95-year-old. ``They thought it was time.''
His books of criticism led toward the establishment, in 1940, of In Fact, a journal of iconoclastic comment and observation ``devoted entirely to exposing the press, to exposing suppressed news, slanted news, crooked news, dirty work,'' says Seldes with a kind of relish. As the '50s and McCarthyism began, In Fact withered. But its groundbreaking role in bringing to light such then-suppressed stories as the health hazards of tobacco and structural defects in cars has had a lasting impact.
``I just got a letter from [Ralph] Nader the other day in which he repeats what he's said before -- that if it wasn't for In Fact, his whole life might have been different,'' says Seldes, smiling.
And what would this longtime practitioner of the journalistic craft tell young people thinking of entering today's news rooms?
He says he just hopes they would keep in mind the ``kind of formula for good journalism'' devised years ago by him and his close friend, editor William Allen White: ``Stick to the facts, and fairly and honestly present them. Truth will take care of itself.''