Significance: With federal controls on greedy, corrupt, and unlawful business practices ineffectual at best and nonexistent at worst, a wave of muckraking journalism arose during the late nineteenth century. Spearheaded by a new brand of “slick” magazines, it sought to correct the laissez-faire practices of robber barons, corporations, and the often complicit government bureaucracies.
The turn of the twentieth century brought about the rise of the so-called quality, or “slick,” magazines: Collier’s Weekly, Cosmopolitan, McCall’s Magazine, McClure’s Magazine, Munsey’s Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and others. Combining popular appeal with serious purpose, these magazines printed news and commentary side by side with fiction. More often than not, these features were the product of investigative journalism. The new generation of magazines sold for a dime a copy—less than the cost of printing—making their profits from advertising. McClure’s Magazine, in a typical example, began with a circulation of eight thousand in 1892; two years later, it boasted more than one-quarter million subscribers. By 1906, in the heyday of the muckraking era, the combined sales of the top ten muckraking magazines ran in the millions.
The term “muckraking” was coined disparagingly by President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1906 New York Tribune article, “The Man with the Muck-Rake.” It became a phenomenon of the early twentieth century, driving the unheard-of sales of the new magazines. The articles evinced a hard edge and topical realism, reflecting the fact that crime in America was no longer seen in terms of isolated pockets of brutality perpetrated by society’s dregs. Rather, it had come to seem endemic to a corrupt sociopolitical system requiring urgent and active response.
With the approval of magazine and newspaper owners and editors, muckraking journalists carried the reformist banner by attacking social injustice, exposing business abuses, and drawing the general public’s attention to political complicity in both. Even President Roosevelt embraced the muckraker’s progressivist agenda, until Cosmopolitan ran a series of articles entitled Treason in the Senate that involved a censure of some of Roosevelt’s political allies. Incensed, he gave the speech that was later printed in the New York Tribune, implicitly tarring the crusading journalists by comparing them to the muckraker in John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678-1684), establishing the name but ultimately turning the tide of public support against the pen-wielding crusaders.
In the 1932 study The Era of the Muckrakers, C. C. Regier documented the staggering number of social, political, and business reforms that flowed from muckraking exposés in the first decade and a half of the twentieth century. Among numerous other accomplishments, the muckrakers helped bring about the dismantling of the convict and peonage systems in some states; substantial prison reforms; the passage of a federal pure food act and a federal employers’ liability act; the setting aside of forest reserves and the passing of the Newlands Reclamation Act (1902), which made possible reclamation of millions of acres of land; and the preservation of Niagara Falls and even Alaska from the greed of corporate interests. Even more important, the muckrakers were responsible for adoption of partial child labor laws in some states, passage of eight-hour workday laws for women and mothers’ pension acts in some states, passage of worker’s compensation laws by roughly half of the states, adoption of the income tax amendment to the Constitution; dissolution of monopolies such as Standard Oil and the tobacco companies, and passage of better insurance laws and packing-house laws. Far from being a mere historical curiosity, in modern-day America— where business and political interests are often hard to distinguish—muckraking journalism and the muckraking spirit are enjoying a renaissance.
Center for Public Integrity. Citizen Muckraking: Stories and Tools for Defeating the Goliaths of Our Day. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2000. This collection of accounts of average Americans who fought corruption also serves as a user friendly instruction manual from a nonpartisan, nonprofit nongovernmental organization (NGO). It is aimed at arming reformist-minded citizens with practical strategies to combat corporate and bureaucratic abuse.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform. New York: Vintage, 1960. Classic account of the populist and progressivist reform movements between 1890 and 1940 that attempts to synthesize their historical roots.
Miraldi, Robert. Muckraking and Objectivity: Journalism’s Colliding Traditions. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1990. Scholarly investigation of the classic and the modern eras of muckraking journalism that aims to redefine the role and purpose of journalism in American democracy in terms of reformist activism, ideologically driven partisanship, and professional neutrality.
_______, ed. Muckrakers: Evangelical Crusaders. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000. Collection of essays aiming at a comprehensive picture of the muckraking period; takes a fresh look at the ideology behind America’s first generation of investigative reporters with a view to reaffirming journalism as a moralistic and crusading enterprise.
Serrin, William, and Judith Serrin, eds. Muckraking! The Journalism That Changed America. New York: New Press, 2002. Organized chronologically and topically, this inclusive and varied collection reprints more than one hundred seminal muckraking articles selected from daily newspapers, magazines, books, and even broadcasts from the past 250 years.
Tichi, Cecelia. Exposés and Excess: Muckraking in America, 1900-2000. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Focusing on the laissez-faire practices of the gilded ages at both ends of the twentieth century, this lively book examines the classic muckraking publications, the rise of the contemporary generation of muckraking journalists, and the relationship between journalism and literature.
Weinberg, Arthur, and Lila Weinberg, eds. The Muckrakers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. Anthology of twenty-nine muckraking articles from the first decade of the twentieth century by such luminaries of the genre as Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, Ray Stannard Baker, Samuel Hopkins Adams, Thomas W. Lawson, Charles Edward Russell, and Mark Sullivan, accompanied by concise commentaries from the editors on the socio historical background and political reverberations of each piece.
See also: antitrust legislation; Food and Drug Administration; Health care industry; The Jungle; labor history; Literary works with business themes; Magazine industry; newspaper industry; John D. Rockefeller; Standard Oil Company.