The Muckrakers refer to a network of investigative journalists that set out to expose the corruption and abuse of power by state officials around the beginning of the twentieth century. The name ‘muckraker’ became popular after it was cited from a speech delivered by President Theodore Roosevelt in which he agreed with the course of the muckrakers but criticized some of the means that they resorted to in achieving their objective. Muckrakers played a significant role in shaping the attitude of the people towards large American businesses.
It is argued that some muckrakers derived inspiration out of the trust-busting activities of President Theodore Roosevelt who took over office in the year 1901. These activities were written in articles by popular columnists and journalists. The publications made by early muckrakers influenced most of the public policy decisions made in America. This research paper takes a look at the contribution of some of the renowned early muckrakers to public policy in America.
Statement of the Problem
The muckrakers used their investigative abilities to reveal unscrupulous dealings within the government, legislature and the business world. This research paper intends to understand and explain some of the public policy changes that were adopted as a result of the articles published by some of the prominent muckrakers of early periods of the movement.
Objectives of the Study
This research paper intends to achieve the following objectives:
Ida Tarbell (1857–1944)
Ida Tarbell was arguably the first notable muckraker to cause serious controversy pertaining to the operation of large businesses in America. This does not however mean that she was the first muckraker. She wrote a number of articles about the Standard Oil Company. These articles were published by McClure’s Magazine (Wilson, 1970). Tarbell significantly contributed to enlightening the citizens about the management of huge businesses. She was notably recognized for the characteristic objectivity that was portrayed in her writing. Her writing about the case of Standard Oil Company was greatly motivated by personal experience. Her father had lost an oil field in the wake of the consolidation of the oil industry.
The company had initially started out as a business with noble intentions. It aimed at improving efficiency and enhancing organization within the company. This would apparently reduce operation costs and wastage of resources. However, Tarbell also revealed that the company engaged in a series of unscrupulous dealings in order to achieve profitability. These dealings included unfair business practices against competitors, fraud, and bribery and labor injustices. The outcome of Tarbell’s articles was the inspiration of many people who idealized progressive mentalities to rise up against corrupt trusts. Consequently, the monopolies and trusts of many industries were dissolved during the early periods of 1900s.
Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936)
As a muckraker, he wrote articles in the American, McClure's, and Everybody's magazines (Shapiro, 1968). Acting as the managing editor in charge of the McClure’s Magazine between 1902 and 1906, he wrote a series of articles that would later on be republishes in the book ‘The Shame of Cities’. These articles revealed to the public the multiplicity of corrupt deals that were happening in the municipalities of some American cities. These articles evoked immense public outcry for immediate reforms especially given the deplorable state of most of these cities.
Edward Bok (1863-1930)
Another remarkable contribution of muckrakers is related to the food and drug industry. Muckrakers whistle-blew on American businesses which were selling sub-standard products to the uninformed public. Although Dr. Harvey Wiley had earlier on made attempts to sensitize the public about the harmful food and drug products that were being sold to them by the public, muckrakers took time to actively join the course. Eventually, Edward Bok took up the fight.
A series of articles concerning the risks of patent medicines was published by Bok. He based most of his information from the work done by Mark Sullivan who was a young lawman. The articles written by Bok were published in his own magazine, ‘Ladies Home Journal.’ In addition, Bok posted a more legally-informed article with Collier’s Magazine. Both magazines remained actively engaged in advocating for the support of the public and the Congress to push for the passing of laws regarding food safety (Chalmers, 1964).
Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)
Upton Sinclair, in his 1906 published novel ‘The Jungle’ illustrated in a unique way one of the ways in which literary works can be used to stimulate reforms of progressive nature. Sinclair exposed some of the deplorable conditions that urban slum dwellers live and work in. This was mainly intended to inform readers the challenges that immigrants who moved into America encountered. With little or no skills, these immigrants found it impossible to rise up the social ranks. They thus remained socially and economically underdeveloped. Being a socialist, Sinclair wrote his novel in the aim of sensitizing the people to demand for more intense radical changes to the structure of the American government and economy.
Sinclair also exposed the deplorable working conditions in the meat packing industry. Having lived among meatpackers in Chicago, he understood the unhygienic state of the meat packing factories, the poor working tools and machinery that workers were forced to work with and the meager wages that they received for their work. The managers of the meat packing plants were corrupt, ruthless and totally unconcerned about the welfare of their workers. His writing had a direct impact on public policy. In 1906, Congress enacted laws pertaining to the safety of food (Chalmers, 1964). This new legislation was meant to ensure the protection of the public from consumption of unsafe food and drug substances. However, little was done to improve the poor working conditions by many businesses.
William Hard (1878-1962)
Labor relations are one of the most critical areas of concern that muckrakers assisted in the effecting of changes and creation of awareness by the citizens. The working conditions in the early 1990s were indiscriminately poor and improper. Most industrial employees were overworked and inadequately remunerated. William Hard is famous for writing an article entitled ‘Making Steel and Killing Men,’ which was published by Everybody’s Magazine. This article was influential in addressing the inappropriate working conditions faced by employees in American industries. The article revealed how employees working in a steel factory lose their lives due to the existence of poor working conditions. The management of the steel company is depicted as being uncaring about the safety and general wellbeing of their employees. They are only concerned about making money (Weinberg, 1970).
Child labor was not uncommon during this period. However, by this time, the rights of child laborers had immensely been violated by the rise of industrial activity. Hard brought to the public limelight the expanding problem of bad conditions of work and exploitation of child workers (Weinberg, 1970). As a result of intensive muckraking activity under the subject, laws were enacted against trading by companies that continued to employ children for their labor requirements.
David Graham Phillips (1867-1911)
Apart from being a renowned journalist and novelist, Phillips is perhaps also famous for his role as a muckraker. In 1906, in the Cosmopolitan, he published the controversial article, “The Treason of the Senate” (Filler, 1976). This article was acted as a revelation of how members of the Senate House in the United States rewarded the contributors of their campaign after they took office. This article specifically exposed the Senator of Rhode Island, Nelson Aldrich, and marked Phillip’s ascent to national recognition. This was a scheme about how some members of the Senate reward their financiers at the expense of serving the public. This and a series of other articles influenced the passing into law of the Seventeenth Amendment to the American Constitution (Chalmers, 1964). As a result, senate members were elected on a popular vote.
Ray Stannard Baker (1870–1946)
Ray Stannard Baker is a muckraker whose work focused on the social issues that affected the American population. However, most of his work was meant to address the plight of black Americans. Despite the abolition of slave trade by President George Washington who Baker regards very highly, people of color were still discriminated against in the wake of the twentieth century. In one of the articles that he wrote for the McClure’s Magazine, he narrates a story in which he witnesses the public execution of a ‘negro’ while he is in police custody (Wilson, 1970). He sympathizes with the victim and instead condemns the public’s due disregard for the law. He discredits the ‘mob’ mentality, which believes in street justice and disregards the rule of law. According to Shapiro (1968), his articles on social issues were eventually included in his book ‘Following the Color Line.’ He stimulated the increasing concerns of the middle-class for social reforms in all dimensions of national policy.
It is undoubtedly evident that the role played by early muckrakers greatly shaped the contemporary American society. Muckrakers played a significant role in shaping the attitude of the people towards all aspects of people’s lives. This stimulated reforms in the social, economic and political spheres of people’s lives. They made large businesses and politicians accountable and responsible to the public for their actions by revealing some of the unethical actions unknown to the public. However, this was a course that was both rewarding and costly to some. While muckrakers such as Ray Stannard Baker received top government appointments, others such as David Graham Phillips lost their lives.
Early muckrakers set the platform for contemporary muckraking. While the approaches used by the early muckrakers were courageous and effective, they were also almost directly confrontational. Modern muckrakers should handle information of public interest with due diligence and professionalism. This is because information possesses great power of influence over the public.
Chalmers, David M. The Social and Political Ideas of the Muckrakers. New York: Citadel Press, 1964. Print.
Filler, Louis. The Muckrakers. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976. Print.
Shapiro, Herbert. The Muckrakers and American Society. Boston: D.C. Heath, 1968. Print.
Weinberg, Arthur, and Lila S. Weinberg. The Muckrakers: The Era in Journalism That Moved America to Reform, the Most Significant Magazine Articles of 1902-1912. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1961. Print.
Wilson, Harold S. Mcclure's Magazine and the Muckrakers. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1970. Print.