We have heard a lot lately concerning the term ‘Fake News’, and this is not a new concept. In the beginning of the twentieth century, yellow journalism was being employed at full steam in an attempt to reach more readers, no matter the truth.
This is also when the ‘muckraker‘ began informing the public about the practices that were hurting the common working man, which led to labor improvements such as the eight-hour workday, the end of deplorable working conditions and the end of child labor.
At this time in the early twentieth century, 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.
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 mud and 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, and when a modern-day muckraker shares it with the public today, many times it lacks the facts to expose the truth or contains outright falsehoods to push a narrative that coincides with a particular political party or ideology.
Roosevelt continued in his Man with the Muck-Rake 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.
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.
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 ‘Yellow Journalism’ 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.
Roosevelt cautioned against those spreading misinformation in his Man with the Muck-Rake speech:
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. It puts a premium upon knavery untruthfully to attack an honest man, or even with hysterical exaggeration to assail a bad man with untruth.
Even though Roosevelt thought that it was important to expose injustices, he believed we should conduct ourselves with sanity and resolution, for the good of the country:
“At the risk of repetition let me say again that my plea is not for immunity to, but for the most unsparing exposure of, the politician who betrays his trust, of the big business man who makes or spends his fortune in illegitimate or corrupt ways. There should be a resolute effort to hunt every such man out of the position he has disgraced. Expose the crime, and hunt down the criminal; but remember that even in the case of crime, if it is attacked in sensational, lurid, and untruthful fashion, the attack may do more damage to the public mind than the crime itself.
It is because I feel that there should be no rest in the endless war against the forces of evil that I ask the war be conducted with sanity as well as with resolution. The men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck, and to look upward to the celestial crown above them, to the crown of worthy endeavor. There are beautiful things above and round about them; and if they gradually grow to feel that the whole world is nothing but muck, their power of usefulness is gone.”
“In other words, they neither believe in the truth of the attack, nor in the honesty of the man who is attacked; they grow as suspicious of the accusation as of the offense; it becomes well nigh hopeless to stir them either to wrath against wrongdoing or to enthusiasm for what is right; and such a mental attitude in the public gives hope to every knave, and is the despair of honest men. To assail the great and admitted evils of our political and industrial life with such crude and sweeping generalizations as to include decent men in the general condemnation means the searing of the public conscience. There results a general attitude either of cynical belief in and indifference to public corruption or else of a distrustful inability to discriminate between the good and the bad. Either attitude is fraught with untold damage to the country as a whole.”
In today’s political arena, it is hard to tell the difference between what is ‘fake news’ and stories of the muckrakers that are exposing the real truth, but it is all too important to distinguish the difference between the two to be able to learn what is real and what is fake. This is not new and has been a part of our American history for a long time, but with stories being so readily available on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, the spreading of false and misleading information has become all too common, to the detriment of American society. The trick is figuring out which is which, without picking the story that coincides with ones political party or ideology.
Read the Full Man with the Muck-Rake Speech: