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 (

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 (

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 (

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.


I’d a general studies understanding of muckrakers in the Progressive Era, including Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle.  His novel led to the Pure Food and Drug Act, which in turn made food safer for all Americans to eat.

I’d a small memory of reading about a woman writer in this group, so labeled by President Theodore Roosevelt.  Her work helped bring down Standard Oil Company.

Ida Tarbell.

Born in 1857, Ida grew up in a comfortable home in northwestern Pennsylvania.  Her father developed wooden tanks for storing oil, and then became an independent refiner himself.  When John D. Rockefeller made secret deals with major railroads, most of the competition in the area were forced to sell out to him.

Not Tarbell.  But his business partner committed suicide, and things were rough for the family.  In the meantime Rockefeller repeated his tactics in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York, building up the Standard Oil monopoly.

Ida was the only female in her freshman class at Allegheny College.  After graduation she taught science, quitting after two years (I imagine most teachers entertain the same thought).  She became a writer for a magazine called the Chataquan in her hometown.  Then she left to live in Paris as a freelance writer, where she met Samuel McClure.  He asked her to join his new magazine’s staff in New York.

Something happened next which typifies her career in journalism.  Remembering from childhood the effect of Lincoln’s assassination on her family and community, she wondered if there was more information about his life yet to publish.  His former secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, had used access to his papers and their personal memories to write a well-received, multi-volume biography.  Was there anything left to be found on Abraham Lincoln?  So she went to see Nicolay.

No, he told her.  They’d covered it all.

Well, this is one reason I’d a liked Ida.  No one can say they’ve covered it all, and she knew it.  So she began to look.

She visited Robert Todd Lincoln.  He had the earliest known photograph of his father, a daguerreotype which had not been circulated outside the family, and was pleased to share it with her.  She dug deeper, finding Lincoln’s first published speech, and his and Mary’s marriage license.  Hay and Nicolay had missed both.  She interviewed many others who had known Lincoln, putting together a picture of his early life in Indiana and Illinois which led to different conclusions.  Though his childhood on the frontier had been rough, it was happy, and had encouraged traits that led to his presidency.

Ida’s investigative reporting turned into a Lincoln biography serialized in McClure’s.  It raised the magazine’s circulation substantially and was published in book form.  Then she began a five-year project on something else she could never forget: the business practices of Standard Oil.

Ida interviewed lawyers and employees of the company, including a senior executive.  Methodically, she read public records.  She took a lot of time studying court documents.  “One of Mr. Rockefeller’s most impressive characteristics is patience,” she wrote.  There was “no one who could dare more while he waited…”  She used the same patience while compiling her her massive notes.

When “The History of Standard Oil,” was published in installments in 1902 and 1903, it caused an uproar.  She also published a character sketch of him in 1904, describing him as “the oldest man in the world.”  Rockefeller refused to comment, saying she was misguided.  Ida Tarbell’s writings led to a lawsuit against Standard Oil via the Sherman Antitrust Act, and the eventual breaking up of the company in 1911.  “They had never played fair, and that ruined their greatness for me,” she said.

She had a talent for finding information and presenting it to the public.  “A mind which really lays hold of a subject is not easily detached from it,” was another of her frank observations.

President Roosevelt had coined the term of muckraker with his 1906 speech, “The Man With the Muck Rake.”  It was derived from a character in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, someone who was always looking down and stirring up what the animals had left behind.  The individual he was referring to at the time was David Graham Philips, who wrote for the Hearst magazine Cosmopolitan.

Correspondence survives from 1911 and 1912 between Theodore, a contributor to the Outlook magazine; and Ida, who had become the part owner, editor and writer for the American.  On April 28, 1911, he asked her to share his disappointment with colleagues whose article appeared alongside hers.  Soon after, on May 6, he dispensed with a formal salutation and began with: “Oh!  Miss Tarbell, Miss Tarbell!  How can you take the view you do of the Herald!  You compare it with the Tribune…”  She had criticized his magazine for printing an advertisement that looked like a regular news piece.  But friendly letters from the next year show that the two met occasionally for a business lunch.

She did not agree she had been one of the muckrakers, and wrote in her autobiography (not long before her death at age 86 in 1944), referring to

this classification…which I did not like. All the radical element, and I numbered many friends among them, were begging me to join their movements. I soon found that most of them wanted attacks. They had little interest in balanced findings. Now I was convinced that in the long run the public they were trying to stir would weary of vituperation, that if you were to secure permanent results the mind must be convinced.

I need to take more time with some primary sources to find out why many books and articles still lump her into the same category with them.

Sources: Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris,,,,,  The University of Michigan site offers a fascinating article from a 1998 issue of the Journal of Abraham Lincoln.  For an excellent, well-rounded account of early 20th Century journalists and politicians, see Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit (Simon & Schuster, 2013).