Muckraking was a powerful journalistic force, whose supporters made it become so. Muckraking was the practice of writers and critics exposing corrupt politicians and business practices. President Theodore Roosevelt made the term “muck-raker” popular. He once said
The man with the muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; who was offered a celestial crown for his muckrake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake himself the filth of the floor.
Some, like Roosevelt viewed methods of muckrakers such as Ida Tarbell, Ray S. Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and Upton Sinclair as these types of people. Others saw these muckraking methods as perfectly acceptable for fighting against the industrial powerhouses. Either way, these muckrakers worked hard to arouse sentiment in the hearts of the public (Reiger 1).
Muckraking actually began long before the years of 1900-1902, when the muckraking movement is credited to have begun. Jesus was probably the first muckraker. Years later, Martin Luther exposed the corruptness of the Catholic Church. Also, early Abolitionist works–Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Helper’s The Impending Crisis used muckraking to get a point across. However, events during the 1890s most directly paved the way for the critiques and exposures of existing conditions. This period was able to reach a limited upper class and the muckrakers were able to expand appeal to the average middle class citizen (Reiger 49-50).
One reason for the outspread of muckraking was the explosion of journalism. From 1870-1909 the number of daily newspapers circulated boomed from 574 to 2,600 and the number of subscribers from 2,800,000 to 24,800,000. With this increase, newspaper owners and editors needed new bait to reel in its subscribers. The newspaper editors wanted to replace ordinary town gossip with gossip about the latest events of the city. Therefore, in newspapers they placed the most shocking events and kept the rural mind drooling for more. As newspaper circulation grew, the large newspaper depended much less on political parties and could now even challenge them. Newspapers played on the new human interest, the concern of the wealthy with the affairs of those below them, status-wise. This “story of the poor” became the basic outline for muckraking (Hofstadter 185-188).
This new concern of the public demanded more from reporters. Reporters had to dig up exposs and human-interest stories. However, reporters received more and more notice from the public eye. A reporter’s job was becoming more and more glamorous and held the aspirations of a growing number of young. As this occurred, those of education and those of culture sought out the reporter’s field (Hofstadter 189-190).
As newspapers saw a radical change, magazines observed one as well. Previous magazines received limited audiences and were run by literary men. The new magazines, emerging in 1900 were run by business promoters and reached audiences ranging from 400,000 to 1,000,000. They took a turn away from literature and began writing what greatly resembled news. These magazines, many of which by accident, began producing muckraking articles. One of the most significant of these muckraking magazines was McClure’s. Others included Hampton’s and Pearson’s. Magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Collier’s produced some muckraking articles, but were not muckraking magazines in themselves (Hofstadter 190-191).
McClure’s magazine had already built a very reasonably sized circulation through popular fiction and historical representation. Ida Tarbell, the most popular reporter of the magazine, investigated Standard Oil originally as a way of honoring this great American business. However, Tarbell started to discover the unhappiness of the workers. She decided to research more deeply into the Standard Oil Company. Her research provided her with the story of a company whose ideas were based on “primary privileges.” These primary privileges allowed the company to operate under special permission, but more importantly operate immorally. This investigation was eventually printed in 1902 and is now considered the work that started the muckraking era (Reiger 121-125).
Besides writing her “History of the Standard Oil Company,” Ida Tarbell wrote many other muckraking works. She followed the Standard Oil Company saga to write two articles on how the company affected Kansas and two articles on Rockefeller himself. Tarbell eventually left McClure’s magazine because of a disagreement in business policy and formed the American with other former members of the McClure’s staff. During her career at the American, Tarbell published many articles including “How Chicago is Finding Herself;” “Hunt for a Money Trust;” “Roosevelt vs. Rockefeller” and “The Mysteries and Cruelties of the Tariff.” In this tariff article, from 1910 to 1911, Tarbell challenged the tariff legislation. In a series of seven articles she wrote of the strong connection between the tariff legislation and big business. She also showed that the tariff legislation gave no protection to the laborer and hinted that it had no concern for the laborer at all (Reiger 125, 144-145,155-156).
Another notable muckraker was Ray S. Baker. Like Tarbell, Baker started out his muckraking career writing for McClure’s magazine. Between the years of 1903 and 1906, Baker wrote articles including “How Railroads Make Public Opinion,” “The Railroad Rate,” and “Railroads on Trial.” These articles discussed the use of rebates, the treatment of private cars, favoritism in rate making, creating of public opinion and the destruction of industries by railway consolidation and rate discrimination. Again like Tarbell, Baker left the McClure’s staff and joined the American magazine company. During his employment at the American, Baker focused on the discrimination of the “Negro” and his problem with religion. Some articles between 1907 and 1909 were “Following the Color Line” and “The Negro’s Struggle for Survival in the North,” and “The Godlessness of New York” and “The Spiritual Unrest.” Baker in his writings was not primarily critical of American life.
He described both the good and the bad as he saw them, fully confident that in the end the good would prevail. It is his opinion that the muckraking movement was, for the most part, merely a special development of journalism in response to a special need, and he believes that the movement derived its strength from the fact that the muckrakers did not attempt to prescribe remedies for the evils they depicted (Reiger 156-157).
An equally notable muckraker was Lincoln Steffens. Steffens, like the other two previously mentioned, worked at McClure’s and then left for the American. Steffens, from 1903 to 1905 at McClure’s, published articles discussing the shameless cities and the corruption in state politics. His articles included “Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented,” “Rhode Island: A State for Sale,” “New Jersey: A Traitor State,” “Enemies of the Republic” and many more. His articles portrayed a vast variety of corrupt and immoral acts including prostitution, bribery, voting fraud and numerous others. For the American, between 1906 and 1907, he wrote “Breaking into San Francisco,” “The Mote and the Beam” and “Hearst, the Man of Mystery.” In his Hearst article, Steffens wrote about newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst and blamed the times rather than the man for yellow journalism evils (Hearst was often singled out for attack.) After about three years, Steffens joined the magazine known as Everybody’s. Between 1908 and 1910, he wrote “It: An Exposition of the Sovereign Political Power of Organized Business” and “RooseveltTaftLaFollette” and spoke against the federal government. One article of Steffens included his findings that in some instances, the President “bribed” congressmen with appointments to vote for the people’s measures (Reiger 59-60, 83, 108-109, 174-175).
Probably one of the most famous of all muckrakers was Upton Sinclair.
The power of the kings of animal food was supreme, gradiose and feudal, and sad to relate, like many earlier dynasts they abused itIt remained for Mr. Upton Sinclair to arouse all the country and galvanize a Presidentby his pathetic account of the stockyard laborer, who fell into a vat and involuntarily became preserved calf’s foot jelly or potted beef. This was undoubtedly one of those splendid poetic exaggerations which become immortal and stir men’s minds forever. Such things did not happen often, of course yet the tale, told in Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, published in 1904, seemed to be the first blow which actually shook the thrones of the monarchs of meat (Josephson 287).
Sinclair submitted articles to many different magazines between 1903 and 1908, including the Independent, Collier’s, Everybody’s, Cosmopolitan and passages from his novel, The Metropolis to the American. Many of his articles like “Is Chicago Meat Clean?” and his two popular novels, dealt with the animal food industry. He wrote of the gravely mistreated animals, workers and food production. Also, he conveyed to the public the idea of the corrupt boss who had almost unlimited power by having his connections with government.
Many other muckrakers existed besides the ones mentioned so far. Thomas Lawson, who wrote for Everybody’s magazine from 1905 to 1908, his most famous article being “Frenzied Finance” showed a bitter contempt for popular democracy. David Graham Philips, who wrote for the Cosmopolitan from 1905 to 1906 produced the article “The Treason of the Senate” which was basically a series of attacks on different Senators. Charles Edward Russel, who wrote for the Cosmopolitan, Hampton’s, and Pearson’s commented on the innumerable accidents of the railroad and the fact of churches taking money from tenements that were a disgrace to the city in articles like “The Railroad Revolution” and “Where Did You Get It, Gentlemen?” These as well as many others were titled muckrakers (Hofstadter 193).
Although the muckraking era is considered to span from about 1902 to 1912, some muckraking magazines and muckrakers worked on. Despite losing interest because of war events and change of values, Pearson’s magazine continued to write on. Also, Upton Sinclair continued muckraking at least until the mid-1930s. In 1924, he produced an essay entitled “The Consequences of Land Speculation are Tenantry and Debt on the Farms, and Slums and Luxury in the Cities.” Here, Sinclair spoke of his problems with land speculation. He noticed the land speculator becoming a parasite. The speculator invested money in the land’s potential value instead of investing money to improve it. Also, as the value of the land increased, farmers could not afford to pay their mortgage interests and the farmers became “serfs” to pay off the interest (Sinclair).
Although muckraking attacked every corner and left no corrupt businessman or politician feeling completely safe, it did not enjoy too much direct success. However, indirectly, it was one of the most powerful journalistic movements of our history. The total circulation of the ten muckraking magazines reached over three million. Also, Upton Siclair’s novels The Brass Check and The Jungle went over the hundred thousand mark by 1932. A new political movement of reformed capitalism was undergone as the muckraking era pounded out its grievances. Most importantly though, people, partly because of the information which muckrakers revealed, partly because of the visions of better things which reformers brought forth, and partly because of horrid personal experiences, began to regard big business as an enemy rather than a friend (Reiger 194-196).
Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.
Josephson, Matthew. The Robber Barons. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1962.
Reiger, C. C. The Era of the Muckrakers. Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1957.
Sinclair, Upton. “The Consequences of Land Speculation are Tenantry and Debt on the Farms, and Slums and Luxury in the Cities.” Upton Sinclair. 1924. (17 Dec. 1999)