Watching the Watchdog

The quintessential muckraker, George Seldes published In Fact: An Antidote for Falsehood in the Daily Press, from 1940 until 1950. Despite only publishing his weekly newsletter for ten years, Seldes influence was substantial, urging his readers to question and hold their elected officials accountable, while inspiring future muckrakers to take on the established business interests of the United States of America. 

Seldes willingness to spurn advertisers was groundbreaking, relying solely on circulation and premiums to preserve the newspaper. These premiums came in the form of books by Seldes, publications by other authors and bound volumes of the newspaper itself.   

With no advertisers to appease, Seldes was able to cover issues as he pleased, avoiding the corporate interests prominent newspapers proved unable to separate themselves from.  Most notably, Seldes published an unprecedented amount of stories on the issue of cigarette’s deadly side-effects; a topic the contemporary mainstream media would not dare touch during the mid-20th century.   

In an edition of In Fact from July 28, 1947, Seldes describes the reasons behind his newspaper in an editorial postscript on the back page. “It doesn’t matter what the subject is, you cannot get the facts in the American newspaper or magazine press,” said Seldes.   

This unfortunate scenario behooved Seldes to print In Fact, and to the best of his ability, reveal pertinent issues the mainstream media would not cover due to the immense sway advertisers held over the revenue models of large newspaper and magazine corporations. In his obituary, in the British newspaper The IndependentSeldes’ paper was described as, “a four-page weekly compendium of news other newspapers wouldn’t print.”   

Stories other newspapers wouldn’t print included a wide variety of issues that directly affected the general well-being of the nation’s citizens. These issues included, the aforementioned detrimental health effects of cigarette smoking, the immense influence of prominent lobbying groups such as, the National Association of Manufacturers, the electric light interests, and the obscene influence of Wall Street on Congress. 

Seldes willingness to cover issues avoided by the largest dailies gave his readership, 176,000, at its peak, insight into matters they were unable to access, creating a public dialogue around overt threats to civil liberties and the sanctity of the Republic.

Additionally, Seldes’ model provided the basis for I.F. Stone to launch his own influential self-published newspaper, I.F. Stone’s Weekly. In the mold of Seldes, Stone pursued issues major American magazines and newspapers would not cover, combing through public records with extreme thoroughness to find the truth behind the smoke and mirrors of elected officials and bureaucrats. 

Beyond influencing Stone, Seldes had a profound influence on Daniel Ellsberg, who as a freshman at Harvard, subscribed to Seldes’ weekly. Years later as a professional at RAND Corporation, Ellsberg decided to release the damning Pentagon Papers on the corrupt history of United States-South Vietnamese relations. It is impossible to draw a direct correlation, but one has to question whether the muckraking journalism Ellsberg took in as an undergraduate at Cambridge, Massachusetts encouraged him to act as a whistleblower against the Department of Defense.            

Far from being the first muckraker, George Seldes was nevertheless a very influential one. The former United Press writer spent a decade watching the fourth-estate, the element of society responsible for protecting the rights of citizens. When corporate interests infringed on the willingness of the fourth-estate to cover pertinent social issues, Seldes was there, fighting to ensure the American Republic did not devolve into an oligarchy of technocrats. Even when In Fact, went out of print in 1950, Seldes continued to be influential by passing the flame of independent media to I.F. Stone and preserving it for modern outlets of independent journalism, including the conservative Drudge Report and the progressive Talking Points Memo.   

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