The muck was kicked up and it got on everything that the big leaders of industry of the day were trying to do to make more profit. The muckrakers had arrived.

It was a time, in the early twentieth century, when anything could be done to make a profit, at the expense of the workers and the consumers. Among some of the practices were farmers being charged unfair rates by the railroad industry to move their produce, packing industries that didn’t concern themselves with health and safety issues, and deplorable working conditions were being placed upon the workers at many factories, including the children that were also working as laborers.

At the same time, there were many local, state and federal elected leaders that were profiting by allying themselves with these industries, at the expense of the public.

Listen to Pilgrims Progress at Libri Vox.
Listen to Pilgrims Progress at Libri Vox.

It was writers, photographers and journalists that exposed these practices, and a form of the term muckraker was first used by Theodore Roosevelt, when he delivered his ‘The Man with the Muck-Rake‘ speech on April 15, 1906, in Washington, D.C.:

In Pilgrim’s Progress the Man with the Muck Rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing.

Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed.

While the original meaning of ‘muckrake’ was someone that raked for dung, it has become known today as someone that searches out and publicly exposes real or apparent misconduct of a prominent individual or business, but this kind of reporting has been playing second fiddle to the sensational 24/7 style of reporting being employed by the cable networks today.

In this video, the reasons why we needed these ‘muckrakers’ is all too clear:

Because Upton Sinclair wrote about filth and working conditions in the Chicago Meat-Packing industry, Ida Tarbell highlighted the cutthroat tactics used to eliminate competition by big businesses like John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, Jacob Riis wrote a lifelong account of living in the slums, and Lincoln Steffens, considered by some as the leader of the muckraker movement, exposed the corruption in city governments, many in the public began to demand reforms that helped the lives of millions of people.

Tactics that strive to get the most profit at the expense of everyone else have not disappeared, and with today’s social media and the ability of everyone to be citizen journalists, the need for the muckraker to expose these practices is more important than ever, so that they can be held in check.

1896-11-08 Yellow Kid, Wikimedia Commons
1896-11-08 Yellow Kid, Wikimedia Commons

Although Teddy Roosevelt was an advocate for exposing these practices, he also warned of the ‘yellow journalism‘ tactics being used by the likes of William Randolph Hearst, that were not portraying the truth to the public, for their own gain.

The term was probably shortened from the phrase Yellow Kid journalism, which referred to the ‘Yellow Kid‘, a character in the cartoon ‘Hogan’s Alley‘, started in 1895 in the New York World, a newspaper owned by Joseph Pulitzer, that had a reputation for sensationalism.

William Randolph Hearst emulated Pulitzer’s sensationalist style, and coaxed the artist, R.F. Outcault, to bring over his cartoon character to the New York Journal. In response, Pulitzer commissioned another cartoonist to create another Yellow Kid cartoon to continue the competition that began between the two.

Yellow Journalism is defined as the type of journalism that relies on sensationalism and lurid exaggeration to attract readers, and papers like the New York Journal and the New York World used it to the fullest.

W. Joseph Campbell, a tenured professor in American University’s School of Communication, explains that yellow journalism was a robust, enterprising genre characterized by these practices and features:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading correspondents.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the paper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

It can be strongly argued that these practices in journalism are continuing today, and we are in a dire need for more muckrakers to write, photograph and film all of the injustices that are occurring today.

Teddy Roosevelt portrait Wikimedia Commons
Teddy Roosevelt portrait Wikimedia Commons

Roosevelt continued in his speech:

There are in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man, whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, business, or social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform or in a book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.

The liar is no whit better than the thief, and if his mendacity takes the form of slander he may be worse than most thieves.

As Roosevelt declared, “there should be a relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life,” every American today has the ability, through technology, to achieve this level of awareness needed to make sure that the people have their own advocates in their corner.


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