I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Social-reforming journalists campaigned through newspapers and magazines for an end to the exploitation of the general public. Their time in the spotlight spans 20 years on each side of 1900.
U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt gave them their ugly title in a speech in 1906 when he said, “The men with the muck-rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.” Roosevelt was drawing his reference from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which a man is described as ignoring heaven to “look no way but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand.”
The First Muckrakers
In 1872, the perfectly sane Julius Chambers faked mental illness and was admitted to New York’s Bloomingdale Asylum. After ten days, his lawyer revealed the plan and Chambers was released to report on the abuse of patients inside the hospital for The New York Tribune. The story led to freedom for a dozen inmates and the firing of some of the facility's staff.
As financial editor of The Chicago Tribune, Henry Demarest Lloyd turned out a series of articles in the early 1880s revealing dirty dealings in politics and business. He wrote that “The evasion of almost all taxes by the New York Central Railroad has thrown upon the people of New York State more than a fair share of the cost of government, and illustrates some of the methods by which the rich are making the poor poorer.”
Chambers and Lloyd are considered to have been America’s first investigative journalists.
Ida B. Wells vs. Lynching
Born into slavery in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, Ida Wells became one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She was also an investigative journalist who campaigned against racial injustice. While teaching in black schools, she also began writing for black newspapers in Memphis.
In 1892, three black men opened a grocery store. Writing for ThoughtCo.com, Jone Johnson Lewis notes that “After increasing harassment, there was an incident where the business owners fired on some people breaking into the store. The three men were jailed, and nine self-appointed deputies took them from the jail and lynched them.”
Ida Wells denounced the lynchings in the Memphis Free Speech and called for blacks to retaliate. A mob trashed the newspaper’s offices and destroyed its presses. Knowing her own life was in danger, Wells departed for New York and described herself as “a journalist in exile.”
Wells moved to Chicago, continued to work tirelessly to condemn racism and lynching, and threw her considerable energies behind women’s suffrage.
In 1895, she published A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States 1892–1893–1894. In it, she demolished the White contention that there was an epidemic of Black men raping white women. She identified the lynchings as a tactic to intimidate Blacks into accepting their oppression and to keep them from making economic progress.
She wrote that following the abolition of slavery, “ten thousand Negroes have been killed in cold blood, [through lynching] without the formality of judicial trial and legal execution.”
Upton Sinclair vs. Meatpacking
The Jungle is the title of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel exposing the horrors of the meatpacking business in Chicago.
Growing up in a poor family in New York, Sinclair developed contempt for the rich elites and gravitated towards socialism. He supported himself and his family by writing for left-leaning journals as he pursued a largely unsuccessful career as a novelist.
In 1904, the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason sent Sinclair to Chicago to look into stories about unsafe practices and the exploitation of immigrants in the city’s meatpacking industry. What he found in Chicago was horrifying and became the background to The Jungle.
Through his fictional character, Jurgis Rudkus, an immigrant from Lithuania, Sinclair exposed the corruption and foul and unsanitary working conditions in the meatpacking factories. He also revealed how animals were treated cruelly.
Here’s an example of his prose: “There are not merely rivers of hot blood and carloads of moist flesh, and rendering—vats and soup cauldrons, glue—factories and fertilizer tanks, that smelt like the craters of hell—there are also tons of garbage festering in the sun, and the greasy laundry of the workers hung out to dry and dining rooms littered with food black with flies, and toilet rooms that are open sewers.”
The book was a sensation and was translated into 17 languages. The general public was sickened to discover how their Sunday dinners got to their tables. In pretty swift order, the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act became law.
Ida Tarbell vs. Standard Oil
Ida Tarbell was just 14 years when she watched John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company crush her father’s business. Known as the Cleveland Massacre of 1872, Standard Oil made secret deals with railroads to ship oil at low prices while charging its competitors high prices. The effect of the collusion was that Standard Oil put almost all of its competitors out of business.
Ida Tarbell never forgot Rockefeller’s ruthless aggression, and 30 years later, she was in a position to have her revenge, a dish best served cold. Tarbell was a journalist with McClure’s Magazine, and she began digging into the activities of Standard Oil. She found internal company documents that revealed nefarious goings-on and interviewed numerous employees.
The result of her diligent research was a 19-part series in 1902 and a book detailing the chicanery of Rockefeller and Standard Oil. She wrote of John D. Rockefeller that “our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner, for the kind of influence he exercises.”
Gilbert King (Smithsonian Magazine) writes that Ida Tarbell’s work is “a masterpiece of journalism and an unrelenting indictment that brought down one of history’s greatest tycoons and effectively broke up Standard Oil’s monopoly.”
Public fury followed the revelations and, eventually, Standard Oil was broken up by the government.
- COVID-19 has exposed how appallingly many institutionalized people are treated (particularly the elderly with dementia). Julius Chambers would probably weep.
- George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Freddie Gray are just three of the more than 1,650 black people killed by U.S. police between 2014 and 2020. Ida B. Wells would be incensed.
- In May 2020, Eric Schlosser wrote in The Atlantic, “Thousands of meatpacking workers had fallen ill, many had died, and local health departments were considering whether to shut down plants operated by the industry giants: Tyson, Cargill, Smithfield Foods, and JBS USA.” Upton Sinclair would be thinking about writing a sequel to The Jungle.
- In July 2020, executives for Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google were brought before the U.S. Congress to face questions about their domination of the technology sector and why they should not be broken up. Ida Tarbell would quietly applaud.
- As the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr commented in 1849, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (The more things change, the more they stay the same).
- Nowadays, investigative journalists often pay for their dedication to unearthing malfeasance with their lives. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that between 1992 and 2020, 879 journalists have been murdered. These include:
Abdul Manan Arghand, Kabul News, Afghanistan: April 2018
Veronica Guerin, Sunday Independent, Ireland: June 1996
Sudip Dutta Bhaumik, Syandan Patrika (Bengali newspaper), India: November 2017
Anna Politkovskaya, Novaya Gazeta, Russia: November 2007
Edgar Daniel Esqueda Castro, Freelance, Mexico: October 2017
Daphne Caruana Galizia, Freelance, Malta: October 2017
- Americans weren’t the only journalists to advocate for social reform. In July 1885, William Stead published a series of sensational articles exposing the evils of child prostitution in Victorian London.
- While working for The New York World in 1887, Nellie Bly faked madness to get into Blackwell’s Island Asylum. Just as Julius Chambers had done 15 years earlier, Bly exposed the abuse of patients.
- “Story of a Great Monopoly.” Henry Demarest Lloyd, March 1881.
- “The Woman Who Took on the Tycoon.” Gilbert King, Smithsonian, July 5, 2012.
- “The ‘Cleveland Massacre’―Standard Oil Makes its First Attack.” American History USA, Dan Bryan, April 15 2012
- “Ida B. Wells-Barnett.” Jone Johnson Lewis, ThoughtCo.com, January 30, 2018.
- “Upton Sinclair.” Biography.com, August 7, 2015.
- “America’s Slaughterhouses Aren’t Just Killing Animals.” Eric Schlosser, The Atlantic, May 12, 2020.
- Committee to Protect Journalists.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
John Coviello from New Jersey on August 26, 2020:
Great write-up about American muckrackers. I always enjoyed reading about them, especially Upton Sinclair. They've played an important role in reforming society and righting wrongs. These days, the corporate media often shuts them out entirely and they get marginalized and ignored. There's still plenty of much to rake out there.
John Hansen from Gondwana Land on August 25, 2020:
What an intriguing read. There were and are still journalists with ethics who will go above and beyond to expose “real“ atrocity, abuse, and bad practice. Thanks for sharing this, Rupert.