In 1901, McClure’s Magazine began publishing a series of articles by Ida Tarbell probing John D. Rockefeller’s oil monopoly. The next year, the magazine published an article by Lincoln Steffens titled “Tweed Days in St. Louis.” The era of the muckrakers had begun in earnest.
Exposés were not new. More than a decade earlier, for example, How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis had described the squalid conditions of New York tenements. But now, magazines such as McClure’s, Everybody’s, Collier’s and Cosmopolitan as well as major newspapers zealously took up a variety of social causes. The reporters soon were given their lasting name.
John Bunyan’s “Man With the Muck-Rake”
In the second part of The Pilgrim’s Progress (first published in 1678), John Bunyan described “a man that could look no way but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand; there stood also one over his head with a celestial crown in his hand, and proffered him that crown for his muck-rake; but the man did neither look up nor regard, but rake to himself the straws, the small sticks, and dust of the floor.”
Theodore Roosevelt, although noted for his reform efforts, worried that some of the emerging journalistic whistleblowers were going too far. He dubbed them muckrakers, likening them to Bunyan’s character who could not bring himself to look up from the dirt.
Roosevelt used the word with a negative connotation, but the new class of reporters accepted it proudly.
Tarbell (1857-1944) and Steffens (1866-1936) were two of the most famous muckrakers. Tarbell had been a magazine editor in the 1880s before beginning her association with McClure’s in 1894. Besides her extensive reports on Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, which were compiled into a book, she is best remembered for her biography of Abraham Lincoln.
Steffens had begun writing about police corruption and city government shenanigans for the New York Evening Post in the 1890s. After 1910, he became skeptical of the value of expositive journalism and shifted his interest to revolutionary politics.
Other early 20th-Century muckrakers included Ray Stannard Baker, who wrote about child labor and other appalling workplace conditions. David Graham Phillips decried politicians who were controlled by business and industry interests. Samuel Hopkins Adams cited false claims of popular patent medicines.
Positive Results of Muckraking
The work of the early muckrakers was instrumental in bringing about laws that began to remedy corrupt, immoral and unsafe conditions. A leading example was Upton Sinclair’s best-seller The Jungle. It described atrocities in the meat-packing industry and was partly responsible for passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.
Exposé journalism has continued ever since. Media watchdogs monitor the fine line between objective, useful, investigative reporting and sensational, protracted dirt digging. The label “muckraker” sometimes is applied with respect, sometimes with contempt.