For much of the 1800s, newspapers and magazines had been relatively expensive and mainly a medium for poems, short stories, and other literary works. Besides the largely entertainment oriented approach of these magazines, the majority of the people that read them were upper class citizens of the cities. However, with innovations in the late 19th century that reduced the cost of printing, the price of the printed communication medium dropped drastically. Instead of upper class city-dwellers being the exclusive audience of newspapers and magazines, the middle and even lower class citizens started to read them on a regular basis.
The content of the magazines and newspapers increased to cover news and editorials, as well as provide entertainment as in previous years. Shortly after, another type of journalism started to show up in the magazines. In addition to the general news, literary works, and other normal features of magazines, there was the introduction of hard-hitting factual stories that screamed about the wrongs of society. This new type of journalism was called muckraking and those journalists that wrote in that style were known as muckrakers. Muckraking was a new type of investigative journalism that had rarely been seen before.
Instead of the soft-spoken commentaries that were so common, the new journalism was filled with hard-hitting, well investigated facts. Muckrakers investigated the corruption of business, politics, and the labor movement and spread it all in front of their readers. They weren t there to make friends or to appease the people who held power in the U. S. ; they were there to make a point. They were there to point out policy and practice in America that needed changed or crushed and during the era, there were many issues to choose from.
In the late 19th century, there was large-scale corruption across the United States. Politics, big business, and labor unions were filled with bribery and crime. The Land of the Free had turned to the Land of the Few. One of the biggest factors in this corruption was the rise of industrialism. Before the Civil War, a large corporation had a few hundred workers and a bank account with thousands of dollars. However, the corporation of the post-Civil War period made the previous companies look like small home-run businesses.
As Ellen F. Fitzpatrick in Muckraking writes: Railroads, with their huge administrative structure, large capital investment, extensive numbers of employees, and complex business activities stood in marked distinction to most American firms in 1861. With thousands of miles of track, hundreds of thousands of employees, and capital accounts reaching into the millions of dollars, large railroad companies foreshadowed new forms of corporate organization that would be the hallmark of the modern American economy. (4)
As these vast companies continued to grow, there was a time known as the great merger movement in which one hundred fifty giant holding companies swallowed close to two thousand other businesses (4). Due to the massive size of these business machines, some of the largest corporations controlled forty percent of the market share and in other areas of business, companies such as Standard Oil were considered monopolies by many. Despite legislation such as the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 which was designed to help control these big businesses, they continued to increase in power and wealth.
Due to the presence of these firms, many people were troubled regarding the roles of individuals, small producers, and local entrepreneurs in a mass industrial society (5). Because of the competition caused by such a growth in industry, all was not smooth in the business world. Strong competition, large capital requirements, an unpredictable consumer market, and the continued drive to increase the bottom line lead to price cutting across the board. Much of the cuts came from the labor costs. Due to the lack of labor laws during the late 1800s, labor conditions were best described as terrible if not heinous.
It was not uncommon for a man, woman, or child to be working twelve hour days, seven days a week. Salaries rose and even more frequently fell at the drop of a pin. Industrial accidents were considered just part of the job with fifteen hundred to two thousand deaths per year in the coal mines of the nation alone. Job security was an unheard of phrase and continual depressions and recessions made unemployment all too common. Due to these horrible conditions, workers organized and formed labor unions.
However, there was little recognition of the right to organize much less the right to have labor unions represent the workers and strikes frequently turned into bloody riots and the innocent bystander all too often became a hapless victim. Industrialism also capitalized on the corruption of the political system. Private firms commonly bribed legislators and officials to secure moneymaking contracts and lucrative terms. Businesses would choose how their employees voted by threatening them with unemployment. Trusts held off regulation by fillings the pockets of judges, jurists, and congressional representatives alike.
As Fitzpatrick wrote, Industrialism increasingly determined the content of late-nineteenth-century politics… (6). Even without the influence of firms on the politics of cities, corruption was everywhere. Political corruption was a common news topic even though few people realized just how much it affected their lives. Bribery and crime was common in the city, state, and national government. Frequently, the police department of a city would not only be turning a blind eye to crime, but helping the criminal elements get away with their illegal actions… ll for a percentage of the rewards of course.
A society besieged with problems such as the industrial society of the U. S. in the late 19th century had one benefit though. Muckrakers had no problem finding things to write about. Three writers who had considerable influence due to their investigative journalism were Lincoln Steffens, Ida M. Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker. These three writers did what many consider the most influential and important muckraking of the era. Lincoln Steffens was a journalist/editor who got started in political journalism by a young circuit attorney, Joseph W. Folk.
Steffens met Folk when he was looking for decent articles for McClure s to publish. Folk had been elected to his office by an unusual combination of political machines and reformers. When he got there however, he quickly discovered that he was expected to follow the commands of the political machine that got him elected. Instead, he started to investigate that very political machine and ended up coming up on a massive bribe involving the city of St. Louis and the Suburban Railway Company.
After hearing Folk s story, Steffens recognized much of this corruption as the same thing he found as a reporter in New York and decided to write a series of articles based on political corruption in cities, one of which was titled The Shame of Minneapolis. In Minneapolis, Steffens started to put together a story of the corrupt government that ran the city. This government from the city mayor down to the police officers had been installed during a recent election and it had been only recently that they had finally been discovered and brought to trial.
Steffens started building the story by going back into the archives of the newspapers and combining all of the small pieces into a single story. He realized thought that his article being solely based on documented facts would not grab the average reader like he wanted. So, he started filling in the juicy details with information acquired from witnesses and participants. Finally, he was able to add a reportorial coup when he gained access to a ledger of payoffs between the criminal elements and the criminal government of the city.
Steffens built his piece on a belief that the average individual citizen no longer has a significant say in the government. He wanted to show that democracy had failed and had been replaced by one of two types of autocracy. These are the organized majority and the adroitly managed minority. In Minneapolis, Steffens found the latter of these two. By fleshing out his story and presenting all of the facts in one article, he was able to convey the depth of the corruption in the political system to the average reader.
This in return helped to fuel the political reforms that started to be implemented in the early 1900s. Ida M. Tarbell was another journalist working for McClure s at the same time a Steffens. There was at the time, a sense of distrust in the large holding companies such as U. S. Steel and Standard Oil. Also, Tarbell s father had fallen on hard times due to the business practices of Standard Oil. So, when choosing a company to write about, Tarbell decided to try and break through the cloud of mystery surrounding Standard Oil and investigate its business practices.
Tarbell spent nearly five years research Standard Oil and her article The Oil War of 1872 was just one of a series of nineteen essays published over a time span of two years. Due to the Standard Oil Company being under investigation by Congress and state legislatures since its organization in 1870, Tarbell was able to do significant research using public records. A wealth of material regarding the company s typical business practices was uncovered by examining court records, the findings of state and federal investigative commissions, newspaper accounts from the oil regions, a large pamphlet literature, and depositions from civil suits (25).
Soon it was obvious that Standard Oil was receiving rebates from railroad companies and generally using methods that discouraged free trade. She then went on to combine the information gleaned from public records with that provided by original testimony from those in the company and those who competed against it. Later on, she was even able to obtain bookkeeping records that showed a concentrated effort by Standard Oil to destroy one of its competitors.
The key to the success of Tarbell s essays was not the information that she presented because nearly all of the information she presented was available for the public to read. However, it was spread across the country in newspaper clippings, court records, and other forms of public records. Tarbell s success came from collecting the information, meshing it together, and presenting the simple facts as they were. She managed to create an incriminating story backed with factual evidence that demonstrated many weaknesses in the policies and laws of the time regarding businesses and business practices.
Partially due to her presentation of these facts in such a complete manner, many more of the American people realized that business law reform was necessary and started to press more heavily for it. Ray Stannard Baker was another writer working for McClure s. He was working on a novel regarding labor when Mr. McClure sent him to cover a United Mine Workers strike. After arriving on the scene, Baker started the usual interviews and asked the usual questions regarding the strike. However, soon he began to visit the individual miners and get their person viewpoints on the strike.
During these interviews, he found an intense bitterness and anger in the striking minors toward those who refused to strike. Shortly afterwards, he started to interview those that didn t strike, also known as the scabs. Slowly, his work started to gravitate toward the side of the minority because the glaring injustices of the coal fields had already been widely publicized. But there was a fresh story to be told in the perspective of the scabs. (34) Baker took these interviews and put them together like a collage.
His essay because a collection of smaller stories all of which had more of an emotional pull than anything else. Inside of each story, the reader would find grave injustices committed toward the scabs, frequently with no government intervention on their behalf. By combining these stories into this collage, Baker was able to convey the feelings of despair and injustice found in the scabs’ minds to the readers. As a result, Baker helped people to realize what corrupt leadership in labor unions could cause and to raise the goal of preventing calamities such as those experienced during the UMW strike.
Perhaps these three muckrakers wouldn t have had as much of an impact if their articles hadn t all been in the same issue of McClure s. However, these three essays greatly enhanced the public s knowledge of how corruption had seeped into government, business, and labor. While we can not attribute all of the reforms that happened in the early 20th century to muckrakers, neither can we claim that their investigative journalism didn t significantly impact the realization of how far corruption had spread.