Ever the appreciator of spunk backed by integrity and always the sharp-minded truant ready to rally behind a fellow loner, I.F. Stone rose to tell the audience of 300 at the George Polk awards luncheon at the Roosevelt Hotel about his friend George Seldes, one of the winners.
Seldes, the 91-year-old reporter who wrote his first story for the Pittsburgh Leader in 1909 and whose latest article appeared recently in The Nation, was seated a few feet from the lectern as Stone began: "I'm very proud to acknowledge that George was the model for my weekly. I followed in his footsteps. And indeed, he advised me in Paris, in the spring of 1951, that when I got home I ought to launch a four-page weekly newsletter. He illustrates the fact that if you live long enough the establishment will take you to its bosom."
The establishment, or at least that part of it represented by the Long Island University prize committee of the Polk awards, had embraced Seldes for a style of fiery independent journalism that goes back to earlier eras of muckraking.
The citation of the Polk committee caught a little of the uniqueness of Seldes: He "was not tethered to any political philosophy. With a gimlet eye ever fixed upon transgressors, he soared above the convention of his time--a lone eagle, unafraid and indestructible. He is still a pretty tough bird."
Walking to the microphone in the warmth of the laughter evoked by Izzy Stone's crack about the establishment's bosom, Seldes looked mildly startled when the audience rose to give him a standing ovation.
About half an hour before the luncheon, Seldes went with the crowd to a reception area outside the dining room. He was dressed nattily in a light brown sports coat, tan slacks, blue shirt and plaid tie. His hair, in good supply, is white. When he talks, he sometimes gestures animatedly with his hands. Occasionally, when he believes a strong point needs to be stronger, his eyebrows rise. Underneath, his eyes are clear, though he said his doctor detects the onset of cataracts in the lower part of his left eye. He adds that the doctor thinks the cataracts won't act up for at least five years, if that soon.
Seldes was in the public eye recently in "Reds": He was one of the witnesses remembering John Reed. He knew Reed in Greenwich Village and Cape Cod in the 1910s. Reed, with his coverage of the Mexican-American war behind him, was better known than Seldes, three years his junior.
Seldes, seated on a sofa in the Roosevelt Hotel lobby, recalled: "They sent an airplane with about nine or 10 or 11 people, I don't know, a full complement of film people. They had gotten Scott Nearing in Maine and stopped at Lebanon, across the river, for me. They sent a car. They took me to the ballroom of the hotel and made it into a studio. They had lights and cameras and everything and people asking questions and making me sing all the dirty songs Jack Reed had written. They said, 'Oh we can use anything. Cosmopolitan uses four-letter words.'
"I talked to them for a solid five hours. From about 1 o'clock to about 6. Then they sent me home in the car. Seven reels they made. They made me repeat the dirty songs twice, because they didn't want to miss them. One of them begins, 'Down in the sewer, digging up manure.' That's the kind of songs Jack Reed wrote. They were funny."
When "Reds" opened at the Nugget theater in Hanover, N.H., Seldes, who lives in nearby Hartland Four Corners, Vt., went to opening night. The theater manager, seeing Vermont's newest film star arriving, gave Seldes a free ticket. He enjoyed the film, though he thought it gave too much time to "the love stuff" and not enough to the revolution. That it didn't give him more than 20 seconds--Seldes sings some of Reed's ditties--was no irritant at all.
The Polk Connection
After Izzy Stone's introduction at the luncheon, Seldes spoke briefly. He mentioned the weekly newsletter "In fact" that he published from May 1940 to September 1950. "In fact" had a connection with Polk, Seldes said. The CBS newsman who was killed--many believe murdered by right-wing assassins--in Greece in 1948 had been one of Seldes' anonymous sources: "I never met George Polk, and I don't know how he found out about me. But in 1948, I suddenly began receiving news items from him from Greece. The last of them said he was going over to interview someone on the other side, and it was a very dangerous mission and somebody is liable to get hurt. That's when he was killed."
The last lines of Polk's final report, which ran in the March 22, 1948, issue of "In fact," bear a dark similarity to current accounts from Central America: The Greek government has created "an offensive designed to discredit a number of American reporters working in Greece" to cover the war. "The reason for the attack on a select group of American correspondents is that they are writing stories from Greece that displease the dominant right-wing government faction and threaten to upset their plans for assuming complete control of the country."
At the time this was printed, "In fact" was 8 years old. At its peak, the four-page, 5,000-word weekly, which sold for two cents for most its 10 years, had a circulation of 176,000. That is more than triple the current circulations of magazines like The Nation and The Progressive, both of which are run by editors proud to be close to the Seldes spirit. Under the masthead of "In fact" was the line, "An Antidote for Falsehood in the Daily Press." Seldes carryed on the muckraking traditions of Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair, except that the muckfields he raked in "In fact" were the press' own. He chose to be a loner in a lonely wing of the trade. He took on as his beat "the handling--or manhandling--of news."
Watching the News
As a cub reporter on the evening Pittsburgh Leader in 1909--one of nine papers in the town at the time, Seldes learned abut the manhandling when he turned in a story about a street accident: "Stanislas Schmidt, aged 32, of 1811 Center Avenue, driver of a Silver Top Brewing Company delivery wagon, was slightly injured this morning at Penn Avenue and Liberty Street when his wagon was struck by a street car." Reading his story in the first edition that night, he read: "Stanislas Schmidt, 32 years old, of 1811 Center Avenue, driver of a beer delivery wagon . . ."
Seldes got the message. He wrote years later that "Silver Top was not mentioned. Silver Top was a large advertiser. My education had begun."
He was not to run out of teachers. In World War I, Seldes was one of the war reporters sought out by Gen. John J. Pershing and others in the military with a line to peddle. Of himself and his colleagues, Seldes remembers, "we all more or less lied about the war. On Armistice Day, four of us took an oath on the battlefield that we would tell the truth the rest of our lives, that we would begin telling the truth in time of preparation for war, that we would do what was humanly possible to prevent the recurrence of another such vast and useless horror. Then we all went back home to prosaic reporting in America."
For a while, at least. His newsletter ran expose's on newspapers and magazines that would not offend tobacco advertisers by printing the bad news about one of the emerging health stories of the 1940s: cigarettes and lung cancer. He attacked columnists who were paid by special interests. He reported press campaigns against unions. He editorialized against press corruption: "As in all other matters in which profits from ads conflict with the general welfare of the people, (with about one percent exception) the press is on the side of the free enterprise profits-at-public-expense policy."
The paying subscribers to "In fact" included: Eleanor Roosevelt, Sen. Harry Truman, Justice Sherman Minton and approximately 20 senators. When Seldes, in the hotel lobby, remembered his enemies--the reactionaries in the media who red-baited him--he threw his hands to the ceiling and said, "you have no idea" what they were like. "Do you realize that Fulton Lewis Jr., on 640 Mutual radio stations, devoted three 15-minute broadcasts calling me an agent of Moscow? George Sokolsky, whom I had exposed as being secretly in the pay of the National Association of Manufacturers--they used him for strike-breaking purposes--he had a syndicated column that attacked the workers . Pegler too . . . These were old pals of mine. They all turned against me."
The Confederate Yankee
Before the luncheon, as Seldes sat in the lobby of the Roosevelt, one story had induced another: being the head of the Berlin bureau of the Chicago Tribune in 1924 and helping find work for Herman Mankiewicz as Isadora Duncan's agent; his friendships with Damon Runyon, Irwin Cobb, Ruth Hale, Heywood Broun; his father's taking in Emma Goldman in Pittsburgh because no hotel would give a room to a "revolutionary anarchist." Hardly a one of the younger journalists on hand to receive their awards recognized Seldes. When Izzy Stone walked in, he was the Link With The Past.
Seldes lives quietly and alone; his wife of 47 years died in 1979. His daily visitor is the person from the Meals on Wheels program who comes by with lunch. Many of his Yankee neighbors, who go back to the Green Mountain Boys and beyond, look on him as an outlander and newcomer. Seldes, born in New Jersey, settled in Vermont 50 years ago.
He enjoys the humor of being seen by Vermonters as an outsider. Ever the reporter, he relishes twists in the plot. About his days of being called a communist--Seldes was thrown out of Russia in 1922 by Leon Trotsky--he turned halfway around in his seat to exclaim that "the only man during this period that I ever got a square deal from was named McCarthy. Joe McCarthy!" At the witch-hunt hearings in the Senate, Seldes recalled, McCarthy said, " 'Do you swear on the Bible . . . that you are not now or ever have been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?' I said, no, never. He said, 'Well!, the Dies committee lists you. Do you say that Rep. Dies is a liar?' I answered : I would say that anyone who said I was a member of the party or even a fellow traveler of the party is a liar. At that time, Sen. Stuart Symington popped up and said, 'Mr. Seldes, do you mind saying what party you do belong to!' I said, well, I'm Vermonter and I'm an Aiken Democrat. He said, 'What do you mean, you have a belly ache?' I said, no, it's Sen. George Aiken. I vote for Sen. Aiken who is the greatest man in Vermont. He's a Republican. I vote for him every time. I also voted for FDR every time. So McCarthy says, 'Well, I guess that sort of blows it!' "
As a one-man Freedom of Information Act--long before the public's right to know became a matter of law--Seldes had more facts and ideas than he could put into his weekly. He wrote books. The titles of a few of the 19 suggest the spirit of his noncapitulation: "Tell the Truth and Run," "Never Tire of Protesting," "Lords of the Press," "The People Don't Know," "Iron, Blood and Profit." The most recent was "Even the Gods Can't Change History: The Facts Speak for Themselves." The thickest Seldes work is "The Great Quotations," published by Lyle Stuart in 1960, a reference book deeper with intellectual substance than Bartlett's. On his trip to New York for his Polk award, Seldes brought along a manuscript of several hundred pages that he was delivering in person to Ballantine Books the next day. It was "The Great Thoughts," intended as a companion to his, "The Great Quotations."
As a reporter who specialized in press criticism in an era when the press truly did believe it was above criticism, Seldes argues that the left has had the instinct for the kind of journalism that he, Stone and others have advanced. "All muckraking, crusading, debunking, reforming and investigative reporting aimed at exposing corruption and enlightening the public has been the work of liberals," he wrote in "Even the Gods Can't Change History." "There has never been exposure of corruption, crookedness, falsification of history, robbery of the public, or propaganda to manipulate the public mind originating or engaged in by the right."
What about the press today? Seldes believes "the honor roll of good newspapers has increased impressively . . . there is an almost revolutionary change that has resulted in the nation's having a fairer and more honest press than ever before."
The Glow of the Firebrand
In the reception room, as the bosom of the establishment warmed itself in the embrace of the 91-year-old firebrand from Vermont, someone asked Victor Navasky of The Nation who among today's journalists is writing like George Seldes. Navasky, referring to the recent Seldes article in his magazine that debunked Dewitt Wallace of Reader's Digest, said the only contemporary writing like George Seldes is George Seldes.