The supreme iconoclast among 20th century American journalists, George Seldes , receives a well-earned, enthusiastic tribute in this useful documentary, even if the portrait feels somewhat incomplete. Currently on the fest and benefit circuit, pic is viable for short theatrical stints in situations open to political, historical and, tangentially, Jewish-themed fare, but will have a much longer life on public TV, cable and video.
As expressed by the title of his last book, Seldes was a witness to virtually the whole century, having died just last year at the age of 104. He was still entirely lucid and full of precise memories when San Francisco-based docu helmer Rick Goldsmith interviewed him in Vermont in 1989, when the subject was 98.
Although far from being a household name, Seldes is arguably better known today than he was 20 or 30 years ago, when he languished in between retirement and rediscovery. In any event, he quickly proves his worth as a subject for extended documentary inquiry, for his career was repeatedly marked by controversy and being at the right place at the right time.
The son of Russian Jewish immigrants who lived in a utopian community in New Jersey, Seldes was a newspaperman from 18 and experienced his first run-in with authority when Gen. John Pershing threatened him with court-martial for crossing behind enemy lines after the World War I Armistice to interview German soldiers.
Already aware that, no matter what the subject, there would always be those opposed to the full story being printed, Seldes then put in a decade as a foreign corespondent for the Chicago Tribune, working for editor Floyd Gibbons, who came up with advice to reporters to “tell the truth and run.” Although left-leaning by background and instinct. Seldes managed to get kicked out of the Soviet Union in 1923 after trying to circumvent the heavy press censorship, which he subsequently decried in print.
But his greatest moment in the limelight came, during the early days of Italian fascism, when he publicly fingered Mussolini as having been behind the assassination of Socialist leader Giacomo Matteotti. The accusation created an international scandal but, with powerful interests aligned behind him, II Duce finally expelled Seldes in 1925.
A free-thinking muckraker who had been taught by his father to “question everything,” Seldes shortly quit daily journalism, spent some time as a bon vivant in Paris but was roused again by the Spanish Civil War, which he accurately prophesied as a prologue to a much greater conflagration.
But as tyrants, political winds and wars came and went, Seldes’ overriding obsession remained the corruption and compromising gentlemen’s agreements within the press. This was the principal subject of the newsletter, In fact, that he published through the ’40s. His first big story concerned the dangers of smoking and how the tobacco industry was able to squelch negative articles through their enormous ad buys in newspapers and magazines.
Seldes spent most of his later decades traveling and writing books, and the public was alerted to his privileged historical perspective by his appearance as a witness in Warren Beatty’s “Reds.” His legacy is also established through his having guided his spiritual comrade in the formation of I.F. Stone’s Weekly, as well as in the personal testimony here of such establishment gadflies as Ralph Nader, Daniel Ellsberg and Victor Navasky.
But certain questions remain unanswered or fudged in Goldsmith’s picture. The filmmaker takes pains to insist that Seldes was an equal opportunity critic, giving him major points for having nailed the Bolsheviks for their press restrictions and having broken with Bruce Minton, his Communist co-founder of In fact. At the same time, Seldes is cited for having complained that the press unfairly painted the Spanish Loyalists with a Red brush and for having been essentially stopped in his tracks professionally by McCarthyism. A clearer elucidation of the journalist’s positions on East-West matters would have been helpful, as would a more plainspoken account of why his reporting career ended.
Early on, Goldsmith offers an tantalizing snapshot of Seldes’ more glamorous brother Gilbert, lionized as the erudite editor of the Dial, but never mentions him again. Not many working journalists could afford to quit to join Paris cafe society at the beginning of the Depression, and it is never stated if Seldes had independent means that allowed him to do so. Except for sporadic references to his journalist wife, his private life is not mentioned.
Nonetheless, this is a lively, if somewhat workmanlike, account of a bold, expansive, admirable life, enlivened by the fresh footage of the subject himself and shot through with momentous history. It also serves to illustrate the unfortunate absence of comparable figures today, public commentators dedicated to the “aggressive pursuit of truth,” regardless of where the political chips may fall.