The History of Muckraking and Why America Needs Them More Than Ever

The History of Muckraking and Why America Needs Them More Than Ever

The History of Muckraking and Why America Needs Them More Than Ever


What America needs right now is a return to the glory days of the muckrakers. Muckrakers became a force to be reckoned with in American because they proved that the pen could be far mightier than the sword or even the dollar. It was Pres. Teddy Roosevelt who gave these rabble-rousing journalists their identifying nickname. Had it not been for these tenacious offspring of the greatest American ever-Thomas Paine-the corrupt politicians and businessmen of the time may well have enjoyed the tremendous freedom from media scrutiny and accountability enjoyed by those in the Bush administration and their masters in the business world.

Muckraking was made possible due to the incredible growth of the newspaper in the late 1800s in America. Circulation figures detonated as the number of newspapers in the US grew from just over five-hundred in 1870 to well over two-thousand by 1910. Those newspapers enjoyed a tenfold expansion of subscriptions. People all across the country were not just interested in the news of the day, but actually able to read and understand; something that hadn’t been possible even half a century earlier. The effects of capitalism on how the news was reported can be illustrated in the manner with which newspapers began to frame and serve the news of the day. It must be remembered that newspapers until this time, especially those in the smaller cities and towns, focused on local news and a part of that coverage involved gossipy revelations of local celebrities. With the increase in circulation and the ability through the inventions of the phones and telegraphs to instantly report on what happened across the country, newspaper publishers and editors at first merely expanded on what had already proved successful. As a result, the new trend in reportage was to place emphasis on the same kind of sensationalism, but on a much larger scope. In addition, the growth in readership allowed the newspapers to actually confront the powerful political parties that had previously controlled America’s media in much the same way that they do today. Newspaper publishers even began to feel confident enough to challenge the political parties by exposing the rampant corruption they produced and protected.

The increased readership and increasing sophistication of those readers also had effects on the actual job of reportage. Many reporters became famous in their own right and so had to live up to the spotlight on them, forcing them to become more ethical. Unknown reporters who wanted a share of the pie began going out in search of sensational stories. The readers ate up the outrageous stories that exposed how the average guy was being screwed by both politicians and fat cats. What started as mere sensationalism eventually began to evolve into something far more serious and meaningful. Part of the reason for that was the influx of college-educated journalists. Previously, the pay and respectability of journalism was such that most of the better writers shied away from it. Now that journalism was being seen as a glamour job, better writers entered the field and raised the bar for everybody.

This had the effect of changing the magazine industry in America as well. Those writers not capable of making a living as a novelist would usually gravitate to magazines. Now the magazines were actually losing top talent and they saw the writing on the wall. The trend moved away from publishing literary works to following the newspaper into the burgeoning field of muckraking. McClure’s was one of the leaders in the field of magazine muckraking and became the iconic figure of the time when the magazine’s most popular reporter, Ida Tarbell, launched an investigation into the business practices of Standard Oil. In fact, Tarbell has intended to write a story that extolled Standard Oil as the standard-bearer for the glory of American big business. Before too long, however, Tarbell realized that the real story was about how the workers of Standard Oil didn’t share the glory of the barons at the top. Tarbell dug deeper and discovered that Standard Oil ran things according to the concept of “primary privileges” that, it turned out, actually served to let company to not only receive special privileges, but run itself without ethics. (About a century later, the same story would be told, only the name had been changed from Standard Oil to Enron.) Once McClure’s printed Tarbell’s story, an official investigation was launched and the era of the muckraker was established.

The king of the muckraker, however, was writer and socialist activist Upton Sinclair. Yes, it was a socialist-not a Republican or Democrat-whose muckraking investigation into unhealthy practices in America’s meat packing industry brought about changes that make it far less fatally risky to eat meat today. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle stands as the iconic example of the muckraking novel. Of course, such a thing could never happen today. If a hero like Upton Sinclair were to appear today and identify himself as a socialist, he is immediately viewed with suspicion. Then the Big Fat Idiot and Rectal Noun and Faux News and Charlie Gibson would run reports that questioned Sinclair’s allegiance to their view of what it means to be a patriotic American. The conservative media that tells Americans who to trust would either ignore his findings or bring in pseudo-scientists to question their validity. And Wolf Blitzer would invite him onto The Situation Room to erode the larger truths he exposed by nitpicking about factual errors that, it would later turn out, had been misquoted by CNN itself.

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