Achieving Reform By Muckraking

During the Progressive Era, the American economy saw an unequaled level of expansion catapulted by new inventions, increased foreign exports, the sprouting of new and efficient factories, and laissez-faire economics.

Railroads were being built and mines were being dug, but the industrial power came at a cost. The principles the country was founded upon were blurred, and politics/business was heavily influenced by large corporations and wealthy robber barons. The common man (mostly immigrants) was largely left out of the good fortune brought on by this unprecedented growth.

Luckily, in this grand time of reform the media was reforming as well. Journalists began to write boldly, and “accused the nation of auctioning off its birth-right for private gain.” (pg.77) Brave writers reported on the scandals of politicians, industrialists, businessmen, and anyone who succumbed to the corrupt nature of power and money. They exposed crime and revealed the many fallacies of big business.

Because of the affordability of the papers readers flocked to these stories, boosting magazines as America’s first national medium. They evoked real change and brought to light the truths of the industry that common people never thought were possible.

lincoln stevens.jpg

Because of people like Lincoln Steffens, real change was possible. After exposing the governments of dozens of cities and states across the country, some elections were regulated better and candidates were forced to undergo standardized tests and credential checks. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

ida tarbell

Ida Tarbell became known as “The Terror of Trusts” for her series “History of the Standard Oil Company” which exposed the trust and its head John D. Rockefeller for its distasteful business practices with railroad companies. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Published works like Steffens’ and Tarbell’s had a major impact on American policy changes. The first result coming from this change was when Congress passed the Hepburn Act, making the penalties for preferential deals by railroad companies so harsh that it stopped altogether. The Standard Oil Company was even found in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and was forced to dissolve.

A popular area of concern for muckrakers was the quality of food and medicine available in America. Products with obscure names (then borax) were being sold as miracle drugs for millions of dollars. Young journalist Upton Sinclair was one of the first to go into the fire and get his answers at the source: by living with and talking to meatpacking workers in Chicago for seven weeks.

Because of the outrageous findings and striking detail of Sinclair’s words, people paid attention and believed everything he wrote. Even President Roosevelt was invested, as he sent workers to the same plant to investigate until they came back with similar findings.

Magazines like Collier’s and Ladies’ Home Journal took to the pen and paper to see reform in the drug business, even refusing ads from drug companies, diminishing their power and influence over the people.

Muckraking hit almost all imaginable aspects of business and politics. The senate was often a target, and a favorite of American Journalist William Randolph Hearst, owner of Cosmopolitan.

Politicians were exposed for their unlawful political favors, drug administrations were labeled as the dangerous and hazardous businesses they are, and the American people were becoming, in a sense, “woke” to the realities of business. This aggressive form of protest and social justice served to awaken a nation of little red riding hoods to the harsh reality that their rich and powerful grandma was in fact, a big bad wolf.

Progressive Era: The period of social activism and widespread reform from the late 1800s to the early 1900s characterized by the country’s growth in industry, population, and corruption.

Muckraking: The journalistic approach to writing for publications by calling attention to crime or scandal surrounding prominent societal figures (Celebrities, wealthy, criminals).

President Theodore Roosevelt: The 26th President of the United States who had a large part in the reform movement through agencies and regulations. First to call out journalists for focusing on negative aspects of society and digging up wrongdoings-like raking muck.

Lincoln Steffens: Acknowledged as the first iconic muckraker, focused on Wall Street and police, wrote “Tweed Days in St. Louis” that exposed dozens of city officials.

McClure’s Magazine: Credited as being the first magazine to start the tradition of muckraking and directing people towards a moral compass.

Ida Tarbell: Muckraker who wrote the expose that brought to light the corrupt truth of the Standard Oil Company and its business dealings with railroad companies, known for her anecdotes

Upton Sinclair: went undercover among Chicago meatpacking workers to expose the unsanitary practices of the food administration, wrote “The Jungle”.

Questions to think about:

In what ways does the media evoke change today? Social, political, etc.

What are some modern day examples of Muckraking in journalism and news reporting?

How is today’s investigative journalism different than muckraking in the Progressive Era?

How would we form our own judgments without the media’s influence today?

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