US President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 admonished writers who exposed the wrongdoings by business, industry, and government. Borrowing a phrase from John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress, he called them “muckrakers,” who only rake the muck of life and never see the stars. Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw later put another spin on the term, making it synonymous with investigative reporting, saying journalists see the stars and want to cleanse the muck so others can see as well.
Associated with American journalism, muckraking flourished during the Progressive Era, roughly 1902 to 1912. At the time, nine-tenths of US wealth was owned by one-tenth of the population, some of whom became known as “robber barons,” with controlling interests in railroads, steel, banking and finance, and meat-packing. They were also able to gain control of some state legislators, who succeeded in erecting high protective tariff walls. Freed from foreign competition, American manufacturers could make large profits and force higher prices on the consumer. They also benefited from immigration policies providing cheap labor. Unskilled western Europeans, some of whom faced poverty, lack of education, and political persecution, became workers in the US manufacturing mills. Immigrants filled the great manufacturing cities; families crowded into cellars or tenements without windows, light, or ventilation. Drunkenness, vice, and crime flourished, leading to a new power-structure America (Cook 1972): the political machine with an all-powerful boss. New York boss William Marcy Tweed, for example, set an unsurpassed record for public thievery. Politics became increasingly depraved.
The muckraking writers focused on three issues: corruption in government, irresponsible trusts, and exploitation of women and children. These “reformer-reporters” included professionals and amateurs, stylists and tyros, who shared concern for the physical and moral well-being of a nation dominated by laissez-faire thinking, dedicated to the status quo, and paying homage to the dollar as a symbol of success. They felt urgency to alert fellow citizens to what went wrong and the need to put things right. Reporter-reformers were unique because, for the first time, a group of writers and a concentration of magazines hammered away at the ills of American society. No comparable, relentless drive for exposure has emerged in US periodical literature before or since. Muckrakers exposed crooked politicians; criminal police; child labor exploitation in mills, mines, and factories; malefactions by capitalists; food adulteration; fraudulent patent claims; interstate prostitution; and unscrupulous businesses.
Thirty years later, muckrakers had more reach through national magazines and daily newspapers. Unlike earlier writers of exposure, Progressive-Era muckrakers reached broad circulations and had large research resources (Hofstadter 1955). The great muckrakers included Ida Tarbell, whose 17-part series on the Standard Oil Company resulted in the breaking up of the oil giant (Tarbell 1904); Lincoln Steffens, whose investigations saw corrupt politicians removed from office in several cities (Steffens 1904); David Graham Phillips, whose The treason of the Senate brought about a constitutional amendment giving voters the direct election of US senators (Phillips 1964); and Upton Sinclair, whose The jungle, about horrible conditions in meatpacking, ushered in Congressional passage of the Meat Inspection Act, protecting the public from poisoned meat (Sinclair 1906).
Many factors contributed to the decline of muckraking. Some, particularly Phillips, went too far, and readers tired of confronting the ills of society. Since then, US literature of exposure has faced vast public apathy and an unwillingness to think about the unpleasant, especially anything attacking establishment values. Few want to interfere with the pursuit of money or pleasure. Newspapers as bearers of bad news face attack, and, ironically, magazine and book writers who substitute facts for fiction have more credibility.
During World War I, Americans turned their attention from national to international issues. Meanwhile, President Woodrow Wilson worked to resolve the problems the reformer-reporters exposed. US newspapers considered themselves in a better position in Washington once the new president came out in favor of pitiless publicity for public business. He backed this conviction by instituting the first formal, regular White House press conferences.
However, muckrakers retreated in the face of counterattacks from business, organized through advertising and public relations. Ad revenue became too important for magazines to continue their activism. Everybody’s magazine, for example, when running a series on the beef trust, lost seven ad pages for ham, preserved meats, soap, patent cleaners, fertilizers, and a railroad (Fellow 2005).
Muckraking did not die out entirely but spread internationally in other forms. Washington Post investigations helped topple US President Richard Nixon and put other corrupt political and business practices under scrutiny. More recent English and Italian investigations decried the antics of their prime ministers. However, no literature exists from other parts of the world on the muckraking movement itself, which was an American phenomenon.
- Cook, F. (1972). The muckrakers: Crusading journalists who changed America. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
- Fellow, A. R. (2005). American media history. Belmont, CA: Thomson and Wadsworth.
- Filler, L. (1939). Crusaders for American liberalism. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
- Hofstadter, R. (1955). The age of reform: From Bryan to F. D. R. New York: Knopf.
- Jensen, C. (2000). Stories that changed America: Muckrakers of the 20th century. New York: Seven Stories Press.
- Leonard, T. C. (1986). The power of the press: The birth of American political reporting. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Phillips, D. G. (1964). The treason of the Senate (eds G. E. Mowry & J. Grenier). Chicago: Quadrangle Books.
- Serrin, J., & Serrin, J. (2002). Muckraking: The journalism that changed America. New York: New Press.
- Sinclair, U. (1906). The jungle. New York: Doubleday, Page.
- Steffens, L. (1904). The shame of the cities. New York: McClure, Phillips.
- Tarbell, I. M. (1904). The history of the Standard Oil Company. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith.
- Weinberg, A., & Weinberg, L. (eds.) (1961). The muckrakers. New York: Simon and Schuster.