The Suspicions of Laymen Have Never Been Answered by the Press – George Seldes

The suspicions of laymen have never been answered by the press. Newspapers, upholding the right of criticism as a road to freedom, oppose all criticism of themselves….like kings, [they] pretend they can do no wrong. I wish they were right. – Journalist and George Seldes, writing in Freedom of the Press in early 1935.

George Seldes, Vanity Fair, 1934

By the time legendary American journalist George Seldes wrote the passage above the press’s reputation had been badly damaged by its widespread use for several decades to spread capitalist, anti-labor, and pro-war propaganda which turned out to bear little resemblance to the facts.

This led to a critique popular by the mid 1930s that many newspaper owners were profiting from preparations for war and leading the world’s descent into fascism, which had a growing following in the United States and across Europe. In Freedom of the Press, Seldes made a similar critique based upon his observations as a result of several decades in the newspaper business. He went on to note the changes brought about by the growing popularity of radio amongst the American public and the opportunities that new medium had opened up for greater analysis of the American press as a whole.

Approaching a century later, the reputation of the U.S. press is similarly challenged and I fear the answers to Seldes’s questions, such as “Is the press leading us into another war or working for international accord?” and “Is it capable of being impartial in labor disputes?” will find no better answers in 2018 than in 1935. Given the vast differences in media ecosystems between then and now, it is truly remarkable that many of the insights Seldes provides in Freedom of the Press continue to be so relevant today.

Seldes’s foreword from Freedom of the Press is included below in its entirety, so please disregard references to the remainder of the book. It is not included here, though we may feature some its contents on propaganda in the future. – RR

 

Foreword: Reporter to Reader

From Freedom of the Press, published 1935 by The Bobbs-Merrill Company.

 

There is a growing suspicion that the press is no longer what it claims to be, the “Tribune of the

People,” the “Voice of the Public,” the “Upholder of the Truth,” the “Defender of Public Liberty,” as thousands of newspaper mastheads daily proclaim it.

In the 1920’s millions undergoing disillusion vaguely realized that they had been deceived by newspaper war propaganda. In the 1930’s the myths of cyclical depressions and prosperity-around-the-corner again shook the confidence of the public.

“You can’t believe a thing you read in the paper nowadays” has become a commonplace.

In the early days of 1935 mass meetings and conventions attended by thousands of persons have applauded general attacks on the press and specific charges against certain newspaper owners as agents of Fascism and breeders of war. There has been popular resentment against certain editors in the past but never to my knowledge as general an indictment against the press of the nation as we have today.

Meanwhile the radio is being deployed more and more to reach the public mind and emotions. Censored as the radio remains, it permits, perhaps as retaliation to press antagonism, a considerable amount of criticism of the newspapers. The immunity of the press is over.

That there has always been a mixture of curiosity and suspicion in the layman’s mind is known to every newspaper worker. For twenty-five years I have been asked for the “inside” story, the “lowdown,” the “true facts,” the “suppressed feature” of world events and dramatic local episodes. Laymen suspect all newspaper men have good stories  to tell which have never appeared in print and they are rarely disappointed.

A part of a reporter’s life is made up of adventures. These may appear romantic not only to the layman but to journalists who write plays and books about the trade. But a large part of it is made up of writing about unromantic people and events, from divorce suits to a world war, and the forces which shape our lives and civilization. To get the facts, to present them as truthfully as human frailty permits, becomes a newspaper man’s problem as deep and as wide as the world.

George Seldes Chicago Tribune press card image, early 1920s.

Unfortunately, there are powerful forces which do not want the facts, from a millionaire’s divorce to a war scare, presented truthfully. There are corrupting influences. Many newspaper men are subject to them without ever realizing it. And although laymen keep on repeating great phrases which have become platitudes – that the bulwark of our liberties is the free press; that freedom springs from uncensored printing; that war and peace and a new deal for all men depend largely on public opinion and information; that our daily lives and the future of international relations are ordered by the new estate, the Fourth, which has become more important than State and Church and armed forces, – they remain ignorant or indifferent to the power which shapes their destiny.

In the first chapter of this book I have done little more than tell a few  adventures’ from a reporter’s life. But I have chosen the adventures that have a meaning, the clues upon which the explanatory and critical chapters are hung. As a reporter, for instance, I turned in the story of Andrew Mellon’s divorce, stories of strikes, interviews with politicians and statesmen and news items concerning large corporations; eighteen months in the American Army and ten years among the dictators of Europe made the newspaper game for me something like the thrilling thing it is in fiction. But from the first day to the last there was censorship, there was suppression of news, there was distortion, and there was coloring of news, there was always an attempt by someone to mislead the public, and these things I should like to explain.

I do not say that the integrity of the world press has broken down completely: I do insist that attacks upon it are stronger than ever in the history of newspaper printing, and although this statement becomes self-evident when it is known that ten large nations, the dictatorships of Continental Europe, no longer have a free press, I want to go further and show the attack upon its integrity in the free nations, France, Britain, and the United States especially, where, Deo volente, dictatorship may be avoided but where, unfortunately, another oligarchy, dictatorial big money and big business of the public utilities and the Teapot Dome kind, is always trying to destroy the foundations upon which free government is built.

Throughout this book I have tried to show the way in which forces are working against our free press. The most important, I think, are:

Financial.

Political.

Social.

Advertising.

 

I have also tried to show the human elements which are in conflict. I think that the objectives of the editors and publishers in the non-dictatorial countries can be summed up as follows:

Idealism.

Profits.

Power or influence on public opinion:

1. personal power.

2. power in group or organization or political party.

3. power in super-patriotic or dictator movements.

 

I have tried to show the operation of outside forces on the press. I agree with Walter Lippmann who a decade ago wrote that the crisis of democracy is a crisis in journalism, and again I agree that “those who think the sole cause is corruption” are wrong. “There is plenty of corruption to be sure,” continued Mr. Lippmann in his New Republic days, “moneyed control, caste pressure, financial and social bribery, ribbons, dinner parties, clubs, petty politics.” Truer today. In the decade which has passed, this crisis of democracy has been followed by decadence instead of recovery. Notably in the new dictatorships. The free press has died there and freedom with it. As for France, read the list of newspapers controlled by the munitions makers and the war fomenters of the Comite des Forges. And in the United States, for example, the fifty-two-volume report of the Federal inquiry into public utilities, completed in December, 1934, tells a miserable story. When a propaganda agent in Missouri can boast and prove that he has corrupted not one but hundreds of papers, in fact the entire press of the state with one or two exceptions, and when twenty more propagandists report similarly in other states, a more dangerous situation can result than most crises in our peacetime history as a republic.

Notable events and crises in my quarter-century of experiences have been:

The era of political corruption of the first decade of the century, the “shame of the cities,” the Chicago Stockyards Jungle, Frenzied Finance, the pure food and drug investigation, etc.

War propaganda while America was neutral.

The Mexican war scares.

The World War.

The rise of Bolshevism and Fascism.

The Red scare, strikes and unrest in the United States.

Wars, Revolutions, Dictatorships in Europe.

Teapot Dome.

The Prosperity Boom.

The wrecking of the peace conference of 1927 by the munitions interests, agent Shearer claiming the “credit.”

The Depression and the Panic.

The Insull Plan, or public utility propaganda system.

The NRA, the New Deal, the new labor unrest, the new danger of dictatorship.

Several chapters will be devoted to certain aforementioned subjects. The writer asks readers to approach them by posing this question: Did the press play fair with us on any or all of the above matters?

Before attempting an answer, read the canons of journalism which the American Society of Newspaper Editors adopted in 1923 and use it as a yardstick to measure the integrity of the press. Compare it with the code of ethics of the American Newspaper Guild. No criticism in the following pages goes beyond that legitimately based on the editors’ code and there are no strictures more severe than those written by the organized newspaper men of America.

Whether or not I have succeeded in my intentions to remain objective I cannot judge. To keep error out I have asked for and receive the co-operation of at least a hundred fellow newspaper men and women.

Throughout the book, which tells of the suppression of news by business organizations and dictators, political factions, department stores, drug manufacturers, oil, steel, coal, other ruling groups as well as occasional friends of small editors, I have also stressed the magnificent service of the press in exposing and defeating those very same corrupting powers. It has been my aim to emphasize the fight for a free press which I still consider the most important fight in the world today. If the impression is given in the early part of this book that the situation is quite hopeless, I suggest that the reader turn to the chapter called “Roll of Honor” which lists some of the great and little papers that are still successfully waging the war, not to employ child labor or to pay mean wages, but for the real freedom of the press as Milton and Mill, Jefferson and Paine and the true patriots who made America, defined it.

Whether or not the press in the free countries is a free press cannot be answered yes or no. Nor can I predict victory for that part of the press which is represented on the honor roll. I have asked, as I hope the reader will, the following questions:

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, such as:

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 someday?

The great labor unrest. Does the press report labor troubles, strikes and violence honestly? Is it capable of being impartial in labor disputes?

Child Labor. Why is the American press in favor of this relic of uncivilized days?

Pure Food and Drugs. Why did the press fail the public in the first fight, 1906, and help kill the Tugwell Bill, 1934?

The Economic System. Has capitalism broken down or merely suffered an eclipse? Around which corner is what sort of prosperity? Is the machine age to affect our daily lives? Can it enslave or deliver us?

I cannot answer all these questions, but using the experience of hundreds of newspaper men, I can offer an opinion as to the part the press plays in forming public reactions to vital questions.

I do know this, that years late, tragically late sometimes, we can say truthfully that certain things were propaganda and certain things were intended lies; that, for instance, the wartime “atrocities” were both propaganda and lies, that neither the elder Lindbergh nor LaFollette was a traitor or a Bolshevik, that the nationalization of women in Russia was a newspaper lie, that the Mussolini march on Rome remains a newspaper myth, that despite denials from most upright newspapers, there really was a Teapot Dome scandal and that the prosperity-around-the-corner campaign, while partly propaganda and wholly untrue, was merely the wish fulfillment of politicians and editors. And so on, indefinitely.

In discussing newspaper truth and untruth the point to make, it seems to me, concerns integrity, and intentions, and human frailty. One man makes an honest mistake but another may repeat the falsehood either because a propagandist pays him or because the propaganda fits the views or prejudices to which he is pledged. Newspaper truth is not a question of how many angels can stand on the head of a needle, or how many are dead in a wreck or a battle, but it remains a question of the intentions of all the men and women who have to do with the presentation of news.

The suspicions of laymen have never been answered by the press. Newspapers, upholding the right of criticism as a road to freedom, oppose all criticism of themselves. Almost universally they suppress mention of libel suits, which are of course a sort of layman’s criticism. Newspapers, like kings, pretend they can do no wrong. I wish they were right.

***

Einstein to Tagore: I cannot prove that scientific truth must be conceived as a truth that is valid independent of humanity; but I believe it firmly …. We attribute to truth a superhuman objectivity; it is indispensable to us, this reality that is independent of our existence and our experience and our mind, though we cannot say what it means…

 

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