Obituary by Chip Berlet

Press Critic and Antifascist George Seldes Dies at 104 in Vermont

by Chip Berlet

Journalist George Seldes died at the age of 104 at his home in Hartland Four Corners, Vermont on July 2, 1995.

Born in 1890 at Vineland, NJ when the town was still named Alliance after the utopian community his father founded, Seldes worked for the Pittsburgh Leader and later the Pittsburgh Post before travelling to Europe where covered WWI for the Army press section. Seldes then freelanced for many years chronicalling the rise of fascism, and covered Central Europe for The Chicago Tribune. He and his wife Helen covered the Spanish Civil War from Madrid for the New York Post starting in 1937. Returning to the US, from 1940 to 1950 he edited the weekly newsletter In Fact which became America's first critical journalism review, and inspired the later I.F. Stone's Weekly.

A major figure in early press criticism, Seldes wrote several influential works including "Lords of the Press," "You Can't Print That," and "Freedom of the Press." In 1949 he wrote "The People Don't Know: The American Press and the Cold War," which contributed to his being blacklisted as soft on communism. Seldes focused on how corporate interests and business advertisers manipulated and censored press coverage critical of coporate practices, including studies of how tobacco companies suppressed information about the health hazards of smoking.

Because of his pungent views, Seldes became "the most censored press critic in American history," according to professor Carl Jensen of Project Censored. Seldes became a non-person among most daily newspapers, and Seldes systematic exclusion from the pages of The New York Times was legendary. Because of this press blackout, Seldes role as a first-rank muckraker and early press critic has almost disappeared from the history books and he is unknown even among many investigative journalists and media critics.

Seldes retired in 1950 but was rediscovered in the 1980's after he appeared as one of the voices from the past vignettes in the film "Reds." His autobiography "Witness to a Century" was published in 1987 and became a bestseller. His other more popular works among over a dozen books included "The Great Quotations," and "The Great Thoughts."

Seldes wrote a brief foreword in 1988 for the PRA/South End Press book "Old Nazis, the New Right, and the Republican Party" by Russ Bellant. Up until his death, Seldes served on the board of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and the first book to come from FAIR authors, "Unreliable Sources," by Martin Lee and Norman Solomon, began with an inscription by Seldes noting that "The most sacred cow of the press is the press itself."

Seldes was widely regarded by pro-democracy activists as one of the century's leading anti-fascists. Seldes opposed all forms of authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

He wrote the first major biography of Mussolini, "Sawdust Caesar," in 1935, and followed with "Facts and Fascism" in 1943. He authored over a dozen other books. He considered himself a non-conformist, a free-thinker, a dissident, and a progressive.

Seldes and Berlet
George Seldes being interviewed by Chip Berlet. photo by Marty Lee, FAIR/Extra!

Seldes work lives on in groups such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Project Censored, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Seldes family hopes that persons who wish to commemorate George's legacy support these groups, and a specific fund in his name will be established this fall by those he influenced.

George combined a crusty intellect with a soft heart, and until recently would entertain visitors to his Vermont hillside home with stories of his exploits punctuated by sips from his trademark martini. Some of us were inspired by these visits, and all of us who continue to read his books and articles are inspired by his example.

He will be remembered.