Not long after
posting my last editorial, "The Press vs. Judi Bari," I received a call from a vigilant reader. "You're completely wrong," said our critic. "The Times always smears its enemies in their own obituaries."
I was taken aback. As you (might) recall, I'd chided the New York Times for printing false and misleading information in Judi Bari's obit, apparently to discredit and trivialize her and Earth First! -- a final cheap shot that I felt unworthy of the Times. Still defending the fundamental honor of the newspaper, I challenged our reader: "Can you name another recent example?"
"Easy," he answered. "George Seldes."
Ouch. I was expecting a far older case of a high-profile individual -- Che Guevera, maybe. But our subscriber was right: The 1995 Seldes obit was infamous for almost exactly the same flaws that marred Bari's memorial.
Seldes reported on many historic figures firsthand. Lenin did not appreciate the young American journalist, and neither did Mussolini. The Bolsheviks banished Seldes from the Soviet Union in 1923. Two years later, with Black Shirt thugs on his heels, Seldes caught a train out of Italy.Although we can only speculate why the Times' editors appeared to dislike Judi Bari, Seldes was told by the managing editor that it was their policy "never to mention my newsletter or my books or my name" after he testified against the newspaper in a 1934 labor suit. (You can learn more about these events from his autobiography, "Witness to a Century," and in a tribute to Seldes assembled by Chip Berlet, Norman Solomon, and others.)
When he died in 1995, his Times obituary claimed that he "ceased publication in 1950, when his warnings about Fascism seemed out of tune with rising public concern about Communism." But in truth, he stopped writing only after enduring a decade of FBI harassment and after the FBI had intimidated most of his readers into dropping their subscriptions.
Now compare that obscuration with our complaint that Bari's obituary mentioned only her suit against "the Government" and that she thought "Government officials" were possibly responsible for her car bombing. Not true. Bari fingered a particular agency in her lawsuit: the FBI. And like in the Seldes obit, the Times chose to overlook this all-important detail critical of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Why does the New York Times seemingly want to shield the FBI from criticism, even of misdeeds a half-century old? And if someone of the caliber of George Seldes spends most of his long life on the Times' enemies list, what does that tell you about the newspaper's friends?
In fact, I wonder now if I can trust any coverage of the FBI that appears in "the paper of record." Are there other examples of Bureau bias? We're reviewing Times coverage of recent FBI scandals carefully; stay tuned and we'll report back soon.
After the Oscars I contacted Goldsmith and found him stoic about losing. "First of all, it has less to do with Ali than with Gramercy Pictures [the 'When We Were Kings' owner]," explained Goldsmith. "I've talked to Academy members and my film stacked up well."
But Goldsmith adds that production companies like Gramercy pull no punches when there's a $40 million difference at the box office between a film nominated for an Oscar and one with BEST PICTURE (or whatever) on its ads. "If you work for Gramercy Pictures, your job is to wine and dine the people to make sure they vote," Goldsmith says.
Goldsmith certainly isn't implying that Gramercy did anything irregular, and I'm not suggesting that the boxing movie wasn't deserving of its award. (In truth, I've not seen either documentary.) But there are parallels between Seldes' struggle and Goldsmith's own.
Gramercy Pictures is owned by the mammoth entertainment corporation, PolyGram, which has over 10,000 employees worldwide. The original footage shot in 1974 was supposed to be part of an "African Woodstock" movie with a few scenes of the boxing match. Shelved for two decades, a new producer reworked the film to focus on Ali and the fight and shoot even more film.
By contrast, the Seldes film required personal sacrifice. Goldsmith produced and directed the work alone, financing it with contributions from friends after being turned down four times by the National Endowment for the Arts. (Goldsmith isn't the only talented filmmaker with empty pockets; the Los Angeles Times published an interesting article about the money woes faced by all documentary filmmakers nominated this year... except for Gramercy, of course.)
If Goldsmith is a little guy struggling to compete with fat-cat corporations, so was the subject of his film. Probably a million people read each issue of "In fact," but that was nothing compared to the daily readership of the New York Times, the Hearst, Gannett, and Scripps-Howard newspaper chains -- all of which either ignored Seldes or encouraged their columnists to criticize the great press critic.
Seldes also lived on a shoestring budget. When he simply reprinted a true item from a London newspaper -- that Winston Churchill's son was accepting money from the Spanish Fascists -- he was threatened with a libel suit. Unable to raise the $25,000 to defend himself, Seldes had to publish a humiliating apology. An apology for printing the truth.
As Seldes knew well, money also can buy an audience. Gramercy/PolyGram can afford the big TV ads for "When We Were Kings," particularly now that the film will be raking in Oscar winning bucks. It's also in wide distribution for a feature documentary; right now two theatres are showing it here in bucolic Sonoma County. Currently Goldsmith's film has an audience of zero. He says he's in negotiation for theatrical distribution.
But even if we can't see George Seldes in tiny (but artsy) movie houses, we'll surely be able to see him on television. It won't be long before we can rent "Tell the Truth and Run" from our neighborhood video store, or see it on PBS -- right?
Maybe yes, maybe no. And that's the final part of our story.
"'American Experience' wants safe topics -- subjects that won't resonate in 1997, like Harry Truman or Andrew Carnegie. That's not my approach. Seldes talks about the big forces that still dominate journalism today. There are also a couple of frames referring to PBS being bought and paid for by the corporate world, but I don't think that was a factor."
If not public TV, what about A&E's "Biography" series or video rental? "A&E would rather do Carol Channing than George Seldes," Goldsmith says. He adds that video stores aren't a possibility at the moment, and that tapes are only sold for educational purposes by distributor New Day Films.
"It's distressing that there's a lack of interest so far," says Goldsmith. "But I won't stop until it gets out there. I'll stack this film up against anything that's in the theatre."
Like many journalists (including myself), Goldsmith now seems infected with the Seldes Virus. Symptoms include chronic skepticism about the mainstream press, and a messianic zeal to spread the word. Goldsmith invites Monitor readers to contact him at email@example.com; he's also prepared a compilation of Seldes' "In fact" articles about the dangers of cigarettes and how the media suppressed the evidence -- yet another important story that no reporter except Seldes would tell in the 1940's.
But Goldsmith also has considerable reason for pride; because of his film, Seldes is now receiving more attention than he had in the years prior to his death. Besides the column by Norman Solomon excerpted above, another columnist wrote about Seldes in late February:
Of course, the attempt to mislead continues unabated. George Seldes was an early and fearless rider of a horse that is bucking still. Today's deception is more sophisticated than in the first half of the century but no less insidious. Pick your topic: human rights abuses in China and elsewhere, the overwhelming influence of the great corporations on public policy here and abroad, the grotesque abuses that permeate the criminal justice system, racial injustice, the degradation of the environment around the world, the continuing multibillion dollar triumph of big tobacco.That writer was Bob Herbert. His column appeared in the February 24th edition of the New York Times -- the same paper that tried so hard to ignore Seldes for a half-century, and wrote a slim and deceptive obituary not two years ago. Now that he's long and safely dead (and the subject of a major motion picture), perhaps the Times editors decided it was okay to finally give the great man long-overdue acknowledgement. For whatever reason it was nice to see, and particularly satisfying was the column's headline. It was titled simply: "The Truth Teller." And Seldes certainly was.
Jeff Elliott, Editor
All Rights Reserved.