The Muckrakers: a history
Time line illustration and cartoons by Ben Garrison
Muckraker (noun) — An investigative journalist who seeks to expose corruption or scandal, especially in politics or public affairs.
It is said the pen is mightier than the sword, and for journalists at the turn of the 19th century this was taken to heart with the birth of the “Muckrakers.”
While muckraking articles began appearing in the late 1800s, the January 1903 issue of McClure’s Magazine is generally credited with the launch of muckraking journalism. The term “muckraker” actually appeared later, initially in comments by President Teddy Roosevelt in a 1906 speech about journalism, when Roosevelt referred to a character in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress as “the Man with the Muck-Rake.” Originally used as a pejorative, the public came to embrace the term, as well as the work provided by these intrepid writers.
Although Roosevelt agreed with many of the charges made by muckrakers, he was also concerned that some of their methods might be irresponsible, especially when employed to criticize some of his policies. His sentiments on their tactics might be summed up best by this excerpt from that 1906 address: “There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or businessman, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.”
The names of the original muckrakers are iconic today in American journalism. Lincoln Stiffens, Nellie Bly, Ida M. Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, Jacob Riis . . . and the list goes on. Ray Stannard Baker published “The Right To Work” in a 1903 McClure’s Magazine article, an exposè on the lives of non-striking mine workers, and mining conditions in general, focusing on the coal industry right here in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
By 1910 the muckraking movement was waning in America. This can be attributed to the leveling off of competitive daily newspapers between the years of 1910 and 1920, and the peaking of magazine publication in 1910. Many of the magazines had also been purchased by corporate interests, including McClure’s, that wished to soften the content that they were printing.
Muckraker journalists also became splintered along political lines during the 1912 presidential campaign, some supporting Wilson, some supporting Roosevelt, and others backing Socialist candidate Eugene V. Debs. The movement turned from investigating causes, social justice, corruption, and wrongdoings to political activism.
By the time the United States entered World War I in 1917, the era of muckraking had virtually come to a close in print, and the muckraking journalism and writings of Stiffens — typified by his description of Chicago and corruption in state politics in a 1903 article — and others had come to an end. “The police graft, the traffic of authority with criminals, gamblers, prostitutes, liquor dealers, all sorts of thieves, and some sort of murderers. The evil in Chicago was obvious, general, bold,” wrote Stiffens in his stinging indictment.
In the years to follow, true investigative journalism continued to decline, dropping to an all-time low in the 1950s. It had become easier for the press to report on the investigative work of others instead of investigating matters themselves. During the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal, it was widely reported that everyone involved was crooked, including the press. What eventually came to light was that the publisher of The Denver Post had accepted a $1 million bribe to suppress information.
With the advent of McCarthyism and the Cold War, Edward R. Murrow began to breathe life into real muckraking, investigative journalism in the early 1960s. It did not reach its peak again until the late 1960s and early 1970s. His television documentary Harvest of Shame , about the tribulations of migrant farm workers, was a prime example of muckraking.
Ralph Nader, Seymour Hersh, Woodward and Bernstein. They all helped lead the way in the early 1970s. Time magazine was prompted to call 1974 the “Year of the Muckrakers” after no fewer than four Pulitzer prizes were awarded that year for investigative journalism.
So what has happened to real investigative journalism, muckraking, since its most recent heyday of the 1970s? Is it merely a cycle that journalism and investigative reporting goes through? Has the influence of the corporate dollar repressed how the news is reported? Is the rise of muckrakers once again imminent? We here at the Independent Gazette believe that the time has indeed arrived, and are proud to be known as a “Muckraker Publication.”
Seymour Hersh, one of those Pulitzer Prize winners in the 1970s for his reporting on the Mỹ Lai Massacre, has called the current American press pathetic . “I’ll tell you the solution, get rid of 90% of the editors that now exist and start promoting editors that you can’t control. . . . I saw it in the New York Times. . . . The republic’s in trouble, we lie about everything, lying has become the staple,” said Hersh in an interview with UK media outlet The Guardian.
Journalist and Constitutional attorney Glenn Greenwald, outspoken critic of mainstream media, has accused his reporting colleagues of failing to challenge those in political power and of discrediting anyone who dares to do so. In covering the recent leaks concerning the NSA, Greenwald had this to say: “We knew in particular that one of our most formidable adversaries was not simply going to be the intelligence agencies on which we were reporting and who we were trying to expose, but also their most loyal, devoted servants, who call themselves the United States and British media.”
Recent polls have certainly suggested (if they’re to be trusted) that the public’s faith in accurate news reporting is at an all-time low. The inability of mainstream media to gain the trust of the public is more apparent than ever. Perhaps the American people believe that the central role of a free and independent press — in a supposedly free society — is that of a government watchdog.
We at the Gazette have taken that sentiment to heart. We have been at the forefront of investigating local corruption, nepotism, and cronyism. We were one of the first to report on the LAG Towing scandal. We exposed nepotism in our “Kings and Queens of Wilkes-Barre” article in our third issue. Covering GasGate, BaloneyGate, a local credit union debacle, and the plight of Christians in Syria (as conveyed by Syrian immigrants in Allentown) are other accomplishments we could champion. We have been a watchdog, not just of our politicians, but the media itself. We brought to light that a widely-reported Associated Press poll on economic policy was nothing more than a survey of their business writers, and we are leading the way on exposing the corruption taking place in our courts with exclusive coverage in our Custody for Cash series.
We will not bend to corporate advertising pressures. We do not regurgitate the news. Our stories and investigations are original.
We have come a long way since we started over two years ago and yet still have a long journey to make. We have ventured where other media have refused to go, and reported on stories that others have spurned. In many ways, we have become a voice for the forgotten, a watchdog for the community, an independent press for an independent people. We are the “Muckrakers.” Please consider becoming a Muckraker with us.
We want to thank all those who have supported and encouraged us to date. Without the help of so many who have given of their time, treasure, and talent we could not have come as far as we have.
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