At the turn of the last century, no magazines were more popular than the general interest monthlies—McClure’s, Everybody’s, Success—magazines that mixed fiction and verse with investigative journalism. And no public figure was more esteemed than Ray Stannard Baker, crusading reporter for McClure’s. Readers—hundreds of thousands of them—waited eagerly each month for the latest Baker exposé. And President Theodore Roosevelt waited, equally eagerly, for consultations with this man whom he considered both friend and adviser.
Nothing pleased the President more than the opportunity to preview Baker’s articles—“ and that not because of any good I can do you, but because I have learned to look to your articles for real help,” Roosevelt gushed. “You have impressed me with your earnest desire to be fair, with your freedom from hysteria, and with your anxiety to tell the truth rather than to write something that will be sensational.”
Roosevelt granted Baker access to restricted government files and entertained his pet journalist at intimate Oyster Bay retreats. On display, or so it seemed, was the happy marriage of press and politics. Roosevelt and Baker—indeed, Roosevelt and the entire McClure’s gang—saw themselves as partners in progressive reform. Only when Roosevelt turned on the reform press in April of 1906, branding them “muckrakers” in a much-publicized speech, did the instability of the partnership come clear.
“Even admitting that some of the so-called ‘exposures’ have been extreme, have they not, as a whole, been honest and useful?” Baker asked, on the eve of the President’s attack. “Would not a speech, backed by all of your great authority, attacking the magazines, tend to give aid and comfort to these very rascals, besides making it more difficult in the future not only to get the truth told but to have it listened to?” Baker trusted that intimacy guaranteed fidelity.
Forwarding proofs of his next McClure’s essay, he begged Roosevelt to “help me with it by telling me frankly whether you think I have overstepped the bounds of decent journalism.”
But TR wasn’t in the mood to listen anymore. William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine was skewering presidential pals in its series on “The Treason of the Senate;” socialists like Upton Sinclair were invading the investigative ranks and “decent journalism,” in Roosevelt’s reckoning, was no longer useful.
In its heyday, between 1903 and 1906, muckraking journalism was ubiquitous, urgent, influential. The “interests” (what we call today “special interests”) threatened the commonweal; the press attacked the interests. Even in the wake of TR’s tongue-lashing, investigative journalism continued to power Progressive reforms. Where have all the muckrakers gone?
Jacob Riis (left), who photographed impoverished social conditions, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Bishop John H. Vincent (right). Photo courtesy of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard College Library.
Where Have All the Muckrakers Gone?
Sure, there are writers doing impassioned investigative work today. But why do systemic defects receive so little sustained attention from the mainstream press?
The magic of Progressive era muckraking was its centrality. Muckrakers such as Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell wrote for mass-market magazines. They turned local issues into national issues, local protests into national crusades. They didn’t preach to the converted; they did the converting, helping transform America from a laissez-faire to a welfare state mentality.
To explain the relative passivity of today’s popular press, critics venture two verdicts: social cooperation and economic cooperation. Investigative reporting, they argue, has been rendered obsolete by inside-the-beltway schmoozing and media conglomerates.
But Are These Really New Phenomena?
As the Baker-Roosevelt relationship demonstrates, intimacy with “sources” was no taboo for the reform journalists of the Progressive era. Nor were the original muckrakers scrappy independents: Many worked for media moguls like Hearst, Pulitzer, Lorimer, or Curtis. Railroad, traction, sugar and steel companies owned stock in publishing enterprises. “Back of the magazines and newspapers are the classes and special interests of society,” fretted one critic in 1910. “[The magazines] do not need to be told what their editorial policy must be if they expect to enjoy the favor and patronage of the trusts and other money interests,” warned another in 1912.
The muckrakers, meanwhile, defended their right to exert influence (“to become part of the event,” in Baker’s words), but they remained curiously unconcerned that they themselves might be “influenced” by others. In the spring of 1906, several McClure’s reporters purchased their own journal, The American Magazine. Editor John Siddall sent Ida Tarbell to Boston to “hustle for money.” “I suggested that she might tackle Douglas, Whitney and that whole Massachusetts tariff bunch. Just put it right up to them that she is going to work in our new magazine on the tariff. They have got to help,” Siddall said. By 1911, the Crowell Company, a publishing conglomerate that featured one of J.P. Morgan’s sidekicks, Thomas Lamont, on its board of directors, had absorbed the American. By 1912 the American was jumping text to the back pages “in the hope of catching the reader who might otherwise ignore” advertising matter.
Progressive era muckraking was hardly a crusade of virtuous outsiders against entrenched and corrupt interests. But it was, nonetheless, a powerful force for reform. So, again: Where have all the muckrakers gone?
Explaining the Absence of Muckrakers
Three hypotheses may help explain the demise of muckraking.
Americans haven’t always hated journalists. Nor have American Presidents.
Pacing. Most of the investigative work immortalized as muckraking first surfaced in monthly magazines. Groundbreaking exposés like Tarbell’s “History of the Standard Oil Company” and Baker’s “Following the Color Line” were rationed out, month by month, like serial fiction. Who, today, is willing to wait a month for breaking news? We want our news now. And so do publishers and producers. As a result, the copy we get lacks the gravitas—not to mention the literary flair—of the best muckraking. S.S. McClure gave his reporters months, even years, to research stories. When Steffens chafed at office duties, McClure told him to “[g]et out of here, travel, go—somewhere…. Buy a railroad ticket, get on a train, and there, where it lands you, there you will learn to edit a magazine.” Steffens hopped the Lackawanna (McClure’s had plenty of free passes, thanks to advertising swaps) and spent two years exposing “The Shame of the Cities.” Since then, the pace of news production, and consumption, has sped up considerably.
Power. “Here is the thing you must bear in mind,” Roosevelt explained to Baker. “I do not represent public opinion: I represent the public. There is a wide difference between the two, between the real interests of the public, and the public’s opinion of those interests. I must represent not the excited opinion of the most but the real interests of the whole people.” The press, TR argued, may lead public opinion, and lead it astray, but only elected representatives may properly lead the people. To this day, it is the rare journalist who dares play at leadership. Editorial charisma is equated with subjectivity at best, sensationalism at worst. And no “responsible” journalist wants to slip into the sensationalist camp. The press remains its own best censor. What is public journalism, for instance, if not a self-imposed stifling mechanism: an effort to avoid the assertion of journalistic personality, the expression of journalistic expertise?
Characterization. Progressive era muckraking was story-oriented, narrative-based. Exposés had their heroes and—more vital—their villains. Bullying businessmen, spineless senators, corrupt judges: Bad guys doing bad things made the stories tick. Muckraking journalism explained systemic problems in human-interest terms. Writers showed readers who, exactly, was screwing whom. The more powerful the villain, the more powerful the exposé. In Ida Tarbell’s telling, John D. Rockefeller was “no ordinary man”: he had “the powerful imagination to see what might be done with the oil business if it could be centered in his hands, the intelligence to analyze the problem into its elements, and to find the key to control.” The fact that there was “no more faithful Baptist in Cleveland than he” made Rockefeller all the more intimidating—and compelling—an adversary.
Who are today’s villains? Super-geeks in Silicon Valley? Computer hackers? Luddites? And even if we could identify the villains, are journalists willing to go after them? Compared with journalists a century ago, the answer would seem to be no.
At the turn of this century, stories about indiscretions of public figures roused Americans to anger because journalists framed personal narratives in relentlessly public terms. Were government inspectors safeguarding the nation’s meat supply? Were police fighting or feeding municipal corruption? Were railroad officials placing profits above public safety?
Americans like to direct their righteous indignation at people, not systems. The moment Bill Gates emerges, in print, as Rockefeller’s equal in knavery, a man whose corporate interests work against the grain of the public good, the nation’s story hour will have resumed.
Jessica Dorman, a former president of The Harvard Crimson, is an assistant professor of American Studies at Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg.