Mark Feldstein. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.
Muckraker is a somewhat pejorative term for an investigative reporter: someone who digs up dirt or rakes muck. It is associated with a period of crusading American journalism—called muckraking—during the first dozen years of the twentieth century, although the phrase can also be used to refer to investigative reporting in general.
Origin of the Term
The word muckraker was first coined by President Theodore Roosevelt in a speech on March 17, 1906. Roosevelt was angered by a recent political exposé published by his enemy William Randolph Hearst in Cosmopolitan magazine. In an address to the Washington Gridiron Club, Roosevelt complained about a dangerous new breed of journalist whose inflammatory writings were sweeping America. “The man with the Muck-rake,” Roosevelt said derisively, “the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands” only wanted “to rake to himself the filth on the floor” and “consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing.” Such a journalist, the President said, “speedily becomes, not a help to society, not an incitement to good, but one of the most potent forces of evil” (Weinberg and Weinberg 2001, 58-59).
Although Roosevelt’s use of the word muckraker was negative, the muckrakers themselves embraced the insult as a badge of honor. The term stuck and would thereafter be used to refer not only to the crusading journalists of Roosevelt’s time but to later investigative reporters as well. In fact, Roosevelt’s denunciation was surprising in some ways because he was personally sympathetic to the muckrakers’ reform agenda and because his political career had been helped tremendously by positive publicity from muckrakers, some of whom he befriended. But the muckrakers’ targets also included some of Roosevelt’s fellow Republican politicians whom the President tried to appease with his attack on these journalists.
Rise of Muckraking Journalism
Prior to 1900, investigative reporting in America was rare and mostly local in nature. By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, muckraking became national in scope and seemed to flower everywhere in the United States almost at once. The decade between 1902 and 1912 is generally regarded as the heyday of muckraking, the “golden age of public service journalism” (Protess 1998, 35). In general, the muckrakers targeted corporate wrongdoing, government misbehavior, and social injustice; they viewed all three as interconnected to each other and to systemic problems spawned by the U.S. industrial revolution of their time.
The muckrakers were a uniquely homegrown American phenomenon, championing optimism, personal responsibility, individualism, and the inherent goodness of man. For the most part, the muckrakers were white, middle class, and Protestant, and their writings bore an unmistakable religious influence. Earnest and righteous, they viewed their work as a moral crusade. They believed in equality of opportunity, certain that truth would prevail if given a fair chance in the marketplace of ideas. They focused on domestic, usually urban, issues, tinged with a hint of American nationalism. Their solution for the many abuses they uncovered was a simple one: the Golden Rule. “Their criticisms of American society were, in their utmost reaches, very searching and radical,” Historian Richard Hofstadter noted, “but they were themselves moderate men who intended to propose no radical remedies. From the beginning, then, they were limited by the disparity between the boldness of their means and the tameness of their ends” (Hofstadter 1955, 196).
Historians have traditionally linked muckraking to the politics of the Progressive Era. “To an extraordinary degree, the work of the Progressive movement rested upon its journalism,” Hofstadter wrote. “The fundamental critical achievement of American Progressivism was the business of exposure, and journalism was the chief occupational source of its creative writers.” The “Progressive mind,” Hofstadter continued, “was characteristically a journalistic mind and … its characteristic contribution was that of the socially responsible reporter-reformer” (Hofstadter 1955, 186).
Supply and demand helped spur muckraking, too. “The historical pendulum swung toward muckraking as two mutually reinforcing phenomena converged,” one researcher observed: “the demand for information about societal ills from an alienated, literate population of consumers; and a fiercely competitive national media that sought to supply it” (Protess 1991, 36).
In particular, the transcontinental railroad began supplying national distribution and marketing channels, which in turn created nationwide advertising and the first mass-circulation national news magazines. Technological improvements—linotype, telegraph, illustrations, and mass production—also increased the supply of this media while decreasing the price of production. McClure’s and other magazines became especially popular because of their unprecedented ability to reproduce arresting photographs. Total circulation climbed into the millions as these new, slick national publications became the primary delivery system for the muckrakers.
Demand for muckraking articles was also fueled by the many abuses stemming from the industrial revolution: sweatshop labor, slum tenements, and rapid urbanization, as well as increased immigration. At the same time, rising literacy rates created more readers. Journalistic exposés proved popular with consumers, and aggressive publishers began catering to the new demand for sensational scandal coverage. Moreover, political reform groups discovered that muckrakers could be valuable allies, since reformers had no political machine of their own to spread their message. Ironically, this proliferation of investigative reporting was made possible by the very industrialized capitalism that the muckrakers exposed.
The celebrated golden age of muckraking came to an end by the time the United States entered World War I in 1917. There were many reasons for the demise of muckraking: The reforms they brought about had curbed the worst excesses of the industrial revolution, reducing the need for such journalism. The decline of Progressive politics also hurt muckraking because the two were so closely tied together. In addition, World War I turned the public’s focus abroad and increased public deference to authority at home. Many muckrakers simply grew tired of such confrontational journalism and turned to other careers. For its part, the public seemed to grow weary of the negativity of muckraking, in part because some irresponsible reporting discredited the muckraking movement.
At the same time, some of the muckrakers’ powerful targets exerted pressure on national magazines to get rid of such crusading reporting. The consolidation of corporate-owned media also eliminated some of the magazine outlets that had once published the muckrakers. This proved to be the beginning of a century-long evolution toward media monopolies. In the words of one researcher, “as technology widened the reach of communications, increasing costs of acquiring and starting media enterprises and expanding the potential profits, the news business in the twentieth-century followed some of the same tendencies toward greater consolidation that [could] be seen in other major industries, such as automobile and oil” (Hess 1996, 7). The creation of such media monopolies was an ironic conclusion to an era that began with the muckrakers’ exposés of similarly rapacious monopolies such as John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.
In the century since the muckrakers’ heyday, historians have debated their political and journalistic legacy. The earliest scholarly interpretations were mostly positive, linking the muckrakers to important Progressive-era reforms: the Pure Food and Drug Act, child labor laws, federal income taxes, the direct election of senators, and the antitrust prosecution of Standard Oil, among others. Later historians, writing in the middle of the twentieth century, criticized the muckrakers for racism and viewed them as elitists who wanted to preserve the status quo and their own social position from assault by industrialization and ethnic immigrants. By century’s end, historians reached a position somewhere in the middle, noting the limits of muckraking while praising its “exposure of the underside of American capitalism” (Shapiro 1968, 29-33).
By and large, the muckrakers were reformers, not radicals. Ida Tarbell, for example, focused on how Standard Oil’s ruthless tactics against competitors led to higher prices for the consumer, largely ignoring the corporation’s exploitation of workers or proposals to nationalize the giant company. Although some of the muckrakers became socialists—most famously, Upton Sinclair—most of them believed in reforming capitalism, which they realized had not only spawned the many injustices that they decried but also the reform journalism that made it profitable to document these abuses in the first place.
Noted American Muckrakers
Ray Stannard Baker (1870-1946)
Baker was one of the few muckrakers to write about racism against African Americans. His 1908 book Following the Color Line and subsequent articles made him the first prominent white journalist to expose lynching and Jim Crow segregation in mainstream nationwide publications. In addition, Baker’s exposés of railroad corruption for McClure’s magazine were credited with passage of federal laws to regulate the industry through creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission. Baker’s support for presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson in 1912 led him to join Wilson’s administration as a press secretary. In 1940, Baker won the Pulitzer Prize for his writing on Wilson’s presidency.
Samuel McClure (1857-1949)
Samuel McClure, better known as S. S. McClure, was the founder and publisher of the most important muckraking magazine in the United States, McClure‘s Magazine, which dominated American publishing from 1893 to 1911. McClure hired Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, and other talented journalists, paid them well, and gave them the time and resources to dig up compelling stories of wrongdoing that created a national following. He also published high-quality fiction by Willa Cather, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, and other writers. In addition, in 1884 McClure created the McClure Syndicate, which distributed material to newspapers.
David Graham Phillips (1867-1911)
Phillips was the journalist whose sensationalistic exposés of Senate corruption in 1906 led to the invention of the word “muckraker” by an angry President Theodore Roosevelt, who was defending Phillips’ target, Senator Chauncy Depew, like Roosevelt a Republican politician from New York. Afterwards, Phillips compiled his collection of congressional exposés into a book, The Treason of the Senate, which was laced with purple prose. “Treason is a strong word,” Phillips declared, “but not too strong, rather too weak, to characterize the situation in which the Senate is the eager, resourceful, indefatigable agent of interests as hostile to the American people as any invading army could be, and vastly more dangerous” (Serrin 2002, 106). Phillips also wrote numerous novels until he was murdered by a man who claimed that Phillips had libeled his family.
Jacob Riis (1849-1914)
Riss pioneered the use of photography to expose the plight of the urban poor. A Danish American immigrant, his 1889 depictions of Manhattan slums in Scribner’s Magazine came to the attention of then-police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, and the two men became lifelong friends. The next year, Riis published his collection of poverty photos in the book for which he would become famous, How the Other Half Lives. Riis was unusual for his time in viewing poverty as caused by social conditions rather than defective character. His work helped spur laws against child labor and create urban playgrounds, settlement houses, and improved public schools.
Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)
Sinclair was probably the most famous of the muckrakers. His 1906 novel, The Jungle, based on Sinclair’s previous undercover reporting, denounced unsanitary conditions in Chicago meat-packing plants. The book became an international bestseller and with the backing of President Theodore Roosevelt helped lead to passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which established federal inspections to protect the public from tainted food and unsafe patent medicines. Sinclair was invited to the White House, where the Republican President solicited his advice and, while disagreeing with the muckraker’s socialist politics, admitted that “radical action” was necessary to combat “arrogant and selfish greed on the part of the capitalist.” Sinclair continued writing provocative novels and turned to politics, repeatedly but unsuccessfully running for public office. In 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, he was nearly elected governor of California on a socialist platform. By the time of his death at the age of 90, he had published nearly 100 books and won the Pulitzer Prize for his fiction.
Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936)
Steffens was the foremost muckraker of the early twentieth century. The affluent son of a California businessman, he began his career as a crime reporter for the New York Post, where he befriended an up-and-coming police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt. But it was at McClure’s magazine that Steffens truly blossomed, uncovering municipal corruption in cities throughout America: Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, and New York City. “[B]ribery is no ordinary felony,” he declared in his 1904 book The Shame of the Cities, “but treason,” so widespread as “to change the form of our government from one that is representative of the people to an oligarchy, representative of special interests” (Steffens 1957, 17). Two years later, his exposés of corrupt state governments were published as a book in The Struggle for Self-Government. In 1906, Steffens and other muckrakers founded their own short-lived muckraking periodical called American Magazine. But he soon despaired that reform journalism was not enough and that more radical steps were necessary to stop the excesses of capitalism. He moved further to the left politically after covering the 1910 Mexican Revolution, which he supported. In 1921, Steffens traveled to the Soviet Union and proclaimed of the new Communist government there: “I have seen the future and it works.” But he grew disillusioned with Communism as well, as recounted in his 1931 autobiography, and died five years later.
Ida Tarbell (1857-1944)
Tarbell was the leading female muckraker of her day whose detailed exposés of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil helped lead to the passage of antitrust legislation and the break-up of Rockefeller’s powerful oil monopoly in 1911. Tarbell grew up in western Pennsylvania when oil fields were first developed there by Standard Oil; her father was one of the many early victims of Rockefeller’s ruthless rise. In 1902, Tarbell began a series of 19 crusading articles in McClure’s magazine documenting the predatory practices of Rockefeller’s empire and two years later combined her findings into a devastating book-length indictment, The History of Standard Oil. So tarnished was Rockefeller by Tarbell’s exposé that he hired one of the first public relations consultants in American history and began handing out dimes to schoolchildren in a largely unsuccessful effort to improve his image. Tarbell continued writing and lecturing on other subjects in subsequent decades but she disliked being held up as a female role model and rejected women’s suffrage out of the belief that early feminists belittled the role of homemakers.