The Dirt

We are so tired of negative news. That blanket statement, I believe, is based on the experience of most of us.

But do you remember the term “muckrakers” from high school or college history class? I always paralleled them with writers who liked to dig up dirt on other people, more specifically really bad dirt that you’d find in an animal’s stall on a farm.

President Theodore Roosevelt assigned that word, which he found in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, to certain journalists. Historical accounts say that he was talking about an unusual reporter, Ida Tarbell, and her colleagues at McClure’s Magazine in the early 1900s. But not so fast.

Ida Tarbell: Muckraker, Journalist, Monopoly Critic

Ida Minerva Tarbell (thoughtco.com)

Tarbell was different, for one thing, because she was a female professional writer. Most women of the day married and took care of their families for the rest of their lives. But Ida loved science as a high school student, going on to study at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. She was one of five female students on campus and the only one in her freshman class.

She worked as a teacher for a time, and then as an editor for a regional publication. Then she sailed to France to see more of the world. Sharing a small flat with friends, eking out a living as a freelance writer, she produced remarkable work, including biographical sketches of Madame Roland and Napoleon. Samuel McClure convinced to to move back to New York to write for the magazine named for himself.

McClure was not an ordinary publisher. He gave his writers two very important things to carry out their assignments to the best level they could: time and money. To Tarbell fell the job of to investigating John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil Company, a story which grew into 23 installments, a book, and ultimately anti-trust legislation in America.

Ray Stannard Baker (thoughtco.com)

Ray Baker, another prolific member of the McClure’s team, wrote a series about the manipulation of union members. He was described as a good listener whom “you could not ruffle or antagonize.”

Lincoln Steffens, more outspoken, was fascinated by the relationships between the police and politicians, the law and city officials, and business and the church. Readers were drawn to his stories, which included the corruption of politicians in Minneapolis and Cleveland.

File:Photo of Lincoln Steffens.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Lincoln Austin Steffens (wikimedia.org)

In two separate 1906 speeches, Theodore Roosevelt lambasted “muckrakers.” He later said he was talking about employees of William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “Hearst edited a large number of the very worst type of sensational, scandal-mongering newspapers…he preaches the gospel of hatred, envy and unrest…cares nothing for the nation, nor any citizen in it.”

As a point of reference, one of Hearst’s writers, David Graham Phillips, wrote a scathing story called “Treason of the Senate.” Author William Harbaugh later said that TR was just plain afraid that the reform movement was getting out of hand.

Of course newspapers were defensive in general. Public sentiment was leveraged toward the institutions and corporations being attacked. Baker lost respect in many ways for TR, later becoming an advisor to Woodrow Wilson. Steffens ended his career sympathetic with communism.

In a simple analysis, the muckraker speech backfired on President Roosevelt. He didn’t mention it in his autobiography but he did say a lot about “practical politics,” which means the philosophy of giving consideration to both corporations and individuals.

And Ida Tarbell, in her memoirs, chided TR, whom she felt “had misread his Bunyan.” The man with the muck rake was an allegory for someone who “would only peer down at the debris and dust” — rather than looking up to his purpose in life.

Tarbell, Baker and Steffens left McClure’s soon after TR’s speech, a move probably not directly caused by it. Their boss was scheming for a large, multi-faceted corporation with which they could not agree. The three writers bought another magazine in New York for which they wrote and edited several more years.

Today scandals in government and big business seem more common and dirty than ever. Most writers of a century ago would be indignant, even embarrassed, of what now appears in print and on the the nightly news. Twenty-four hour a day cable channels and social media have desensitized many readers so that the bad stuff becomes larger and more visible. But least for Tarbell and others like her, the old word “muckraker” did not do justice. She said she should instead be called an historian. And there are still a few investigative journalists around who would agree.

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