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Wednesday, July 13, 2022

July 13, 2022: Investigative Journalists: Ida Tarbell and Muckraking

[This coming weekend we’ll celebrate the 160th birthday of one of my favorite Americans, Ida B. Wells. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of fellow investigative journalists, leading up to a special tribute to the inimitable Wells!]

On why muckraking exemplifies investigative journalism at its best.

First, a paragraph from Chapter Five of Of Thee I Sing: “Another prominent and influential muckraking effort was the investigative journalism of Ida Tarbell (1857–1944). Tarbell was an iconoclastic activ­ist who took part in many of the era’s social and political debates, from the women’s suffrage movement to America’s entry into World War I. But she was best known for her investigative research into and writing about John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, which took shape across multiple serialized articles between 1902 and 1903 in McClure’s Magazine (for which Tarbell worked as an editor for many years) and was published in book form as The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904). Tarbell was careful to ground that project in detailed work with a voluminous collection of primary documents, as well as extended interviews with Standard Oil executives among many other groups. But she came nonetheless to an impassioned and convincing perspective on the negative effects of both Rockefeller and a mo­nopoly like Standard Oil on American society, writing in her book’s conclu­sion that ‘our national life is on every side distinctly poorer, uglier, meaner, for the kind of influence he exercises.’ And her work contributed directly to a significant shift in those national conversations: the breaking up of Standard Oil under the auspices of the Sherman Antitrust Act.”

Such impassioned perspectives on their subjects might seem to put muckrakers like Tarbell at odds with definitions as journalism overall as the objective reporting of facts and investigative journalism specifically as an in-depth uncovering of such truths in order to then report them. It’s certainly important to be clear on such distinctions, particularly when it comes to different settings for journalistic work—that is, that a news story on the front page of a newspaper should indeed maintain a more objective tone and presentation of its reporting. But when it comes to investigative journalism, I believe  that a perspective, a subjective angle, is in fact a prerequisite for producing the genre—that in order to commence the investigations at all, that is, and certainly to do the often exhaustive work that they entail, the journalist has to believe that there are stories not being told, truths being ignored or even actively suppressed, and that their role is to do the work necessary to uncover and then share those stories. And moreover, that their purpose in doing so is quite overtly and centrally to change the conversations and narratives around those issues.

All of which would make Tarbell’s investigations into and journalistic writing about Standard Oil an exemplary form not just of investigative journalism, but also of journalism overall. Even the name “muckraker” reflects a begrudging understanding of the necessity and value of this work—based on a character from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the term was applied to American journalists by President Theodore Roosevelt; in a 1906 speech Roosevelt admitted that “the men with the muck-rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck, and to look upward to the celestial crown above them, to the crown of worthy endeavor.” His own experiences and eventual frustrations with muckraking journalist Upton Sinclair might well have prompted Roosevelt’s attempt to separate muckraking from “worthy endeavor” here—whereas to me, such impassioned investigative journalism like Sinclair’s and Tarbell’s is indeed indispensable to society, and thus as worthy as any form of journalism and writing can be.

Next journalist tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other investigative journalists you’d highlight?

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