George Seldes was born in Alliance, New Jersey, on 16th November, 1890. When he was nineteen he was employed as a cub reporter by the Pittsburgh Leader. In his autobiography, Witness to a Century (1987) he admitted that as a young man he was influenced by investigative journalists such as Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair and Ray Stannard Baker.
Seldes interviewed William Haywood and Joe Hill in 1912: "When Bill Hayward came to the coal and iron capital of America, Ray Springle and I went to his headquarters, not for news stories, which we knew would never be published, but out of interest in the new labor movement, the Industrial Workers of the World. And so, by chance along with its new leaders we met the ballad-maker of the IWW, Joe Hill." Seldes later recalled: "Joe Hill was a man of great enthusiasm and such easy friendship that in the week or ten days in which we knew him the three of us and another of his friends pledged a lifetime of loyalty to one another. But it was only a few months later that the last member of our foursome... sent me a photograph of Joe Hill sitting upright in his coffin with five bullet holes in his left chest."
In 1914 Seldes was appointed night editor of the Pittsburgh Post. As a young man he was influenced by the investigative journalism of Lincoln Steffens. He later wrote: "Lincoln Steffens was the godfather of us all. He was an older man when I first met him. He was the first of the muckrakers.... He often warned me that I was starting to get a bad reputation for myself. I guess I never worried about that."
In 1916 Seldes moved to London where he worked for the United Press. When the United States joined the First World War in 1917, Seldes was sent to France where he worked as the war correspondent for the Marshall Syndicate. At end of the war he managed to obtain an exclusive interview with Paul von Hindenburg. Unfortunately for Seldes, the article was suppressed and never appeared in the American press.
Seldes spent the next ten years as an international reporter for the Chicago Tribune. In the summer of 1921, Seldes was sent to Russia to report on the new policy of war communism in Russia. Maxim Litvinov was placed in charge of giving permission to the journalists to go into the famine areas. Those who arrived from the United States included Floyd Gibbons and Walter Duranty. Seldes later commented in his autobiography, Witness to a Century (1987): "We had been instructed to proceed to the Hotel Savoy, a small hostelry near the Kremlin, and we were assigned rooms on the second or third floor. But Floyd Gibbons had beaten all of us to Moscow. We heard that he was now in Sumara, the worst-hit city in the famine zone."
According to Sally J. Taylor, the author of Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty (1990): "Floyd Gibbons arrived in Russia in order to report, now a dashing figure with his black eye patch, had chartered a plane and told Litvinov he planned to fly into Red Square in it, giving his paper a big scoop. Appalled at the prospect, Litvinov instead offered Gibbons the chance to go early into the area stricken by famine, exactly what Gibbons had been after all along. Once into the Ukraine, Gibbons sent his dispatches back by messenger and by train to Moscow, where they were cabled directly to the United States." Duranty of the New York Times said that Gibbons "fully deserved his success because he had accomplished the feat of bluffing the redoubtable Litvinov stone-cold... a noble piece of work." Over the next few days Gibbons was the only reporter to document the horrifying prospect of the deaths of as many as fifteen million people from starvation.
After Floyd Gibbons returned to Moscow he issued instructions to Seldes: "Floyd now returned to Moscow, made me officially his Russian correspondent, and sent me off to Samara, instructing me to evade the censorship by every trick known to the profession. By the time I was able to go to Samara - about a month later - there were no longer people lying dead on the streets... and every American was treated as a benefactor. (In Moscow officialdom tried its best to make believe there was no famine, no American aid saving millions of lives.)"
Seldes was a regular visitor to the home of Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow. Seldes later recalled that Duranty was the "kind of man who wouldn't hesitate to attempt sexual conquests with his wife present." They employed a young cook, who Seldes described as "a very pretty peasant girl... pretty and young and vivacious and all of that; and tall, for a Russian." According to Seldes the young woman quickly became Duranty's mistress and Jane did not appear to be terribly upset by the arrangement.
In 1922 Seldes managed to get an interview with the Bolshevik leader, Lenin. "He spoke with a thick, throaty, wet voice. He was in very good humour, always smiling, his face never was hard. All his pictures are hard but he was always twinkling with laughter. Eyes bright, crowsfeet, a real, unserious face... Lenin had the greatness and the human, all-too-human sympathy to be a comrade to all, the group of fellow dictators and the peasants who loved him. In battle with his enemies he was uncompromising and without pity. He hated power, knowing its corruption. His political wisdom was great; he understood mob psychology thoroughly but was a little weak in his grasp of individual psychology; he never made a mistake in dealing with the masses but he frequently did in choosing men to share power."
However, the Soviet government did not like Seldes's reports and in 1923 he was expelled from the country. Seldes later reported that the main problem was the role played by Cheka in the Soviet Union: "Freedom, liberty, justice as we know it, democracy, all the fundamental human rights for which the world has been fighting for civilized centuries, have been abolished in Russia in order that the communist experiment might be made. They have been kept suppressed by the Cheka."
In a series of articles in the Chicago Tribune Seldes described the Soviet Union as a police state of unparalled ruthlessness. In one article Seldes commented "believe me, if Bolshevism ever comes to America nothing would please me more than a nice corner position on a roof overlooking two main streets and a nice large machine gun and unlimited belts of ammunition." Duranty responded by defending the country. He argued that: "freedom of speech and the press in America and England are the slow outcome of a centuries long fight for personal freedom. How can you expect Russia, just emerged from blackest tyranny, to share the attitude of Anglo-Saxons who struck the blow against royal tyrants a thousand years ago at Runnymede?"
The editor of the Chicago Tribune sent him to Italy where he wrote about Benito Mussolini and the rise of fascism. Seldes investigated the murder of Giacomo Matteotti, the head of the Italian Socialist Party. "Everyone had copies of the confessions of the men who killed Giacomo Matteotti (the head of the Italian Socialist Party and Mussolini's chief political rival). The documents clearly implicated Mussolini in the killing, but not one person wanted to write about it. They thought Rome was too nice a posting to give up to risk publishing them. They didn't want to, but I did. The major American newspapers at the time supported fascism as a legitimate political movement. They loved Mussolini because they thought he restored order to Italy and businesses there were doing well. It got more and more difficult to report on what was really happening there." His article implicating Mussolini in the killing, resulted in Seldes being expelled from Italy.
The Chicago Tribune sent Seldes to Mexico in 1927 but his articles criticizing American corporations concerning their use of the country's mineral rights, were not always published by the newspaper. Seldes returned to Europe but found that increasingly his work was being censored to fit the political views of the newspaper's owner, Robert McCormack.
Disillusioned, Seldes left the Chicago Tribune and worked as a freelance writer. In his first two books, You Can't Print That! (1929) and Can These Things Be! (1931), Seldes included material that he had not been allowed to publish in the newspaper. His next book, World Panorama (1933), was a narrative history of the period that followed the First World War.
In 1934 Seldes published a history of the Catholic Church, The Vatican. This was followed by an expose of the world armaments industry, Iron, Blood and Profits (1934), an account of Benito Mussolini, appeared in Sawdust Caesar (1935), and two books on the newspaper industry, Freedom of the Press (1935) and Lords of the Press (1938). During this period he also reported on the Spanish Civil War for the New York Post.
On his return to the United States in 1940 Seldes published Witch Hunt: The Techniques and Profits of Redbaiting, an account of the persecution of people with left-wing political views in America, and The Catholic Crisis, where he attempted to show the close relationship between the Catholic Church and fascist organizations in Europe.
In 1940 Seldes began his own political newsletter called In Fact. A journal that eventually reached a circulation of 176,000. One of the first articles published in the newsletter concerned the link between cigarette smoking and cancer. Seldes later explained that at the time, "The tobacco stories were suppressed by every major newspaper. For ten years we pounded on tobacco as being one of the only legal poisons you could buy in America."
As well as writing his newsletter Seldes continued to publish books. This included Facts and Fascism (1943), 1000 Americans (1947), an account of the people who controlled America and The People Don't Know (1949) on the origins of the Cold War.
In the early 1950s Seldes work came under attack from Joseph McCarthy. Despite his long history of being hostile to all forms of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, he was accused of being a communist. He later recalled how: "Newspaper columnists would write that a Russian agent stopped by my office each week to pay my salary. I didn't have the money to sue them for libel. My lawyer told me it would take years to reach a settlement and even if I won I would never see a dime."
Seles was blacklisted and now found it difficult to get his journalism published. He continued to write books including Tell the Truth and Run (1953), Never Tire of Protesting (1968), Even the Gods Can't Change History (1976) and Witness to a Century (1987).