Muckrakers: Journalism for Liberal Reform

The beginning of the 20th century was a time of many social and political changes in America. Throughout this time, we saw the rise of the vast-stretching Progressive movement, a movement which lacked a central focus and really emphasized only one idea-that America was due for some changes and now was the time to change them.

One group of people that came around during the same era and helped to usher in many of the changes that came with Progressivism were journalists nicknamed muckrakers by Teddy Roosevelt, notorious for their ability to arouse the interest of the public and indirectly mobilize them to fight for change. One area that muckrakers influenced significant change to be made was the business world, at the time ripe with a lack of labor rights, and bustling companies that were achieving trust/monopoly status completely dominating whatever industries they were a part of.

The work of the muckrakers began around the turn of the century, but arousing awareness and interest in matters of social concern was not an unprecedented thing. In the second half of the 1800s, the first magazines had been formed that targeted the general public, and newspapers started writing in a “dumbed-down” style and using cartoons and vivid headlines, more accessible by the average American of the day than the more intellectual style of writing that had previously dominated. These moves were being made with the intention that the common man would become interested in political and social issues and take up a side in the debate (Filler, 29-31).

Major newspaper publishers of the time were E.W. Scripps, Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the three listed largely regarded as more liberal and “yellow” than the one before him. Their newspapers stirred controversy among the public, but really took a backseat to magazines in terms of impact because newspapers were published and read locally, and therefore only really stirred local controversy (Filler, 29-30).

At a standard price of 35 cents, magazines of the time (late 1800s) were largely un-affordable by struggling commoners that rarely had the spare change to pick one up. That is, until the Irish-born S. S. McClure, plagued with low sales and finally able to afford to publish a cheap magazine thanks to new technologies, decided to create a magazine for the average American and set his price at 15 cents. His major competitors, John Walker’s Cosmopolitan and Frank Munsey’s Munsey’s Magazine lowered their prices to 12 and 10 cents, respectively, in response. Munsey’s never went on to any real muckraking notoriety, as the owner was more interested in making money than educating the public, but McClure’s and Cosmopolitan both became home to radically-thinking, talented writers the likes of Ida Tarbell and Jack London. In the wake of the success of these “popular magazines,” other publishers and titles arose, and it became clear that these forerunners to the real muckraking era were here to stay (Filler, 35-40)

Muckrakers had a major impact on the public’s attitude toward big business very early on, and some suggest that they were almost inspired in a way by Theodore Roosevelt’s early 1900s trust-busting activities, which were covered by most popular magazines and newspapers. The first muckraker to stir huge controversy with regard to American business was Ida Tarbell, with her series on the history of the Standard Oil Company (published by McClure’s). It is important to note that Tarbell was not necessarily the first muckraker-that title is up for debate, she was undeniably the first to stir such controversy about big business (Filler, 43-55).

Tarbell made a huge impact with her articles, which were intended to teach Americans about the inner-workings of big business. Tarbell was known for her objectivity in her writing. She was born in the Pennsylvania oil region that John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil was operated from and her father had lost his own oil field when the corporation found him (like many others) in the way of it’s consolidation of the industry. Still, she strove to cover all sides of the story, including that of Standard Oil higher-up H. H. Rogers. She told a story of the company’s seemingly good intentions-efficiency and organization and even talked about how their consolidation of the industry had helped to eliminate waste and lower costs, however she did not leave out any of the shady business practices it had been involved in, including bribery, fraud, and violence against labor and other business owners (Filler 104-106).

With Standard Oil being such a huge part of America, the story was impossible to ignore, and made huge waves in the American public, even without Tarbell calling anyone to any action whatsoever. The exposure of this trust and impact of it being brought to public light led to scores of other trusts being exposed before the end of the muckraking period, including Carnegie Steel, also exposed by McClure’s by another muckraker named James Howard Bridge. The result of Tarbell’s article was not then the immediate dissolving of the trust that Standard Oil had acquired, but the inspiration of many progressive-minded people to get up and fight against it (and trusts like it) as lawyers, politicians, business men with a mind for reform, and of course, as muckrakers (Filler, 107-109). As we know from history, eventually the trusts and monopolies of early industrial America were broken up, and while we can’t credit the muckrakers entirely with this, it is obvious that without the rise of popular magazines, progressive-minded publishers and public, and talented dirt-digging journalists, the changes may not have come for a long time, if at all.

Aside from stirring up trust-busting mentality, muckraking affected American business and the government’s regulation of it in other ways, including calling horrors of the food and drug industries to the public’s attention and urging government regulation of the products that businesses were selling to an uneducated public. Magazines were late on picking up the fight for pure food and drugs in America, despite the struggle of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley to get the public to take some kind of notice as to the harmful things they were being sold, such as drugs containing high levels of alcohol, cocaine and morphine. Finally, the struggle was picked up by Edward Bok, editor of Ladies’ Home Journal (Filler, 144-148).

Bok published a series of articles on the dangers of patent medicines using information dug up by a young lawman named Mark Sullivan. Bok’s articles ran in his own magazine, while he sent a more legally-charged article by Sullivan to Collier’s, who ran the article as part of a series of anti-patent medicine articles and cartoons. The Pure Food and Drug Act was being introduced to Congress as both magazines continued to publish articles urging public support and Congress’ passage of the bill. However, drug lobbyists were working hard to make sure the bill would not get through the Congress.

The bill was helped to be passed when Upton Sinclair published his famous book about the meat-packing industry, The Jungle, in 1904. Sinclair, a socialist, had spent time with meat-packers, studying the industry and the way it operated, as well as its treatment of employees. He had hoped with his book to call attention to the poor treatment of meat workers, but instead people focused on the horrors he described considering the sanitary aspects of the industry. The Jungle, along with many magazine articles on the same topic made people jump up and write letters to the president and congress, urging the passage of a Pure Foods bill and along with it, the drug bill as well. Though not a complete success in terms of medicine, medicine-producing companies were now required to list all of their ingredients and appropriate uses for the medicine in plain sight on the packaging, definitely progress from being allowed to do whatever they wanted (Filler, 162-170). For this progress, of course, we have the muckrakers and Upton Sinclair to thank, for shocking the American public with the truth, and forcing change.

One of the most important areas that muckrakers helped create public awareness in and influence changes to be made in the business world was labor. In the early 1900s, men, women and children were all working in unsafe conditions for ridiculously long hours and being paid low wages to do so. Something needed to be done.

One article that had great influence on turning around unsafe working conditions in American factories was William Hard’s “Making Steel and Killing Men,” published by Everybody’s Magazine. The article told of men dying in accidents caused by blast furnaces, and the general unsafe nature of working in a typical steel factory. It also illustrated management’s lack of care for their employees and emphasis on the bottom line-making money (Weinberg, 340).

The article and articles that came after it pointing out unsafe conditions in specific factories sparked the rise of safety committees within factories, safety rules being created, and inspectors being delegated by the government to make sure workplaces were fit for working in. Within 10 years, 40 states had adopted workmen’s comp laws to assist men and women injured on the job, even in conditions deemed safe (Weinberg, 341).

Child labor had existed forever, but had become a menace with the rise of industrialization because of the hard work and unsafe conditions children were subjected to in crude factories and mines. Articles by Edwin Markham and William Hard called public attention to the growing problem of heinous working conditions and exploitation that child laborers were being subjected to. Cosmopolitan, which had published Markham’s article (a glimpse into the life of a child laborer) urged people to join the Child Labor Federation, which had been attempting to convince lawmakers to pass laws protecting the children (Weinberg, 359-360).

By this time, muckraking had clearly become an effective catalyst for change, and the public responded. Soon, protective legislation was passed with regards to children in 2/3 of the country. Laws were passed restricting trade by companies that used child labor (an attempt to keep them from doing it), however these laws were found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Muckraking had basically fizzled out by the time child labor was completely eradicated, but the influence of the muckrakers with regards to the issue is clear to see (Weinberg, 360).

Muckrakers exercised their influence over the mobilization of the progressive public in areas other than business regulation, and even in other areas within the scope of business, however these are some of their most important. When researching individual muckrakers, one could easily come up with scores and scores of articles relating to business practices in some way, and if the writer had significant distribution and a knack for arousing interest, there would no doubt be a reaction to the issue to be found somewhere within the progressive society of the day. However, I’m pretty bored with talking about the early-1900s and am now going to shift into something that affects us today, that being the lack of mainstream revolutionaries, modern-muckrakers, and progressivism as an accepted and mainstream way of thought in the modern day.

The implications of the progressives and the muckrakers went hand in hand, and were a huge phenomenon, specific to a certain time frame within the first 30 years or less of the 20th century. Today more than ever, there is undoubtedly corruption in the business world, and huge corporations finding ways around rules and engaging in shady practices and no doubt doing damage (whether we notice it or not) to our country by outsourcing jobs, artificially inflating prices, etc. It could even be argued that though there are now minimum wage laws in effect, the minimum wage is still not one that a person can easily get by on. White-collar criminals undoubtedly exist all over the country, and though their crimes deal in much larger monetary numbers than a TV that your average criminal lifted through a broken shop or home window, the latter will probably be prosecuted much harder.

Why are things allowed to go on like this in our country? Why does society stand for it? In my humble opinion, it’s not necessarily that these things are being covered up by anyone or deliberately hidden from us. Mainstream media, thanks to technology and money, now has the power to get its message to more people than ever before, and through more mediums than ever seen before. Regardless, Americans are often uneducated and left in the dark on stories that could directly affect the way they live, while being pumped full of stories about whether or not Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are dating, who won American Idol and Survivor, and how ugly Britney Spears is with no makeup on.

Why does our society function this way? We have become almost programmed to expect nothing more from our media than entertainment, be it from the funny pages or the latest episode of The Amazing Race. We have grown so accustomed to the fact that the mainstream media is now just as much a part of the money hungry corporations that the muckrakers used to expose that we don’t question what they tell us or ask for anything more than a couple murder stories a night and coverage of our favorite sport teams and celebrities.

Long gone are the days of the muckrakers as the voices of the people, and in their place we basically have to find our own news through underground media, or trust that we are getting all the information we need from a news organization that is somehow supposed to remain objective while probably run by a multi-national corporation that also owns theme parks, sports teams, record labels, movie and television production studios, and multiple television, radio, and publishing companies all of which rely heavily on advertisers to keep their pockets fat. Might there be a conflict of interest there that is beyond the publics reach and likely not looking out for them?

Yeah, a far cry from the muckrakers.

Works Cited/Additional Reading

Filler, Louis. The Muckrakers: Crusaders for American Liberalism. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.

Goode, Steven. “Muckrakers Made Mounds of Trouble.” Insight on the News. July 7, 1997. Highbeam Research.

Miller, Mark C. “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” Global Issues. Dubuque: McGraw-Hill/Dushkin. 2005. pgs. 115-117

Weinberg, Arthur and Lila. The Muckrakers: The Era in Journalism That Moved America To Reform. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961.

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