Draft Chapter 1, The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: the financial crisis and the financial press, unpublished. Under contract with Columbia University Press. Do not circulate
CHAPTER ONE: Ida Tarbell and the Accountability Template
“The story is the thing” – S.S. McClure.
Ida M. Tarbell, a writer for McClure’s, a general-interest monthly, was chatting with her good friend and editor, John S. Phillips, in the magazine’s offices near New York’s Madison Square Park, trying to decide what she should take on next.
Tarbell, then 43 years old, was already one of the most prominent journalists in America, having written popular multi-part historical sketches of Napoleon, Lincoln and a French revolutionary figure known as Madam Roland, a moderate republican guillotined during the Terror. Thanks in part to her work, McClure’s circulation had jumped to about 400,000, making it one of the most popular, and profitable, publications in the country.
Phillips, a founder of the magazine, was its backbone. Presiding over an office of bohemians and intellectuals, this father of five was as calm, and deliberative as the magazine’s namesake, Samuel S. McClure, was manic and extravagant. Considered by many to be a genius, McClure was also just an impossible boss –
forever steaming in from Europe, throwing the office into turmoil with new business plans, story ideas, and editorial changes. “I can’t sit still,” he once said to Lincoln Steffens. “That’s your job and I don’t see how you can do it!” Phillips was the counterweight. "Sam had three hundred ideas a minute, but [Phillips] was the only man around the shop who knew which one was not crazy," one staffer observed. ((http://tarbell.allegheny.edu/mc2.html and Weinberg 171)).
At McClure’s, there was always, as Tarbell would later put it, much “fingering” ((autobiography 202)) of a subject before the magazine decided to launch on a story, and in this case, there was more than usual. The subject being kicked around was nothing less than the great industrial monopolies, known as “trusts,” that had come to dominate the American economy and political life.
It was the summer of 1901.
The editors had struggled for weeks to find an approach, considering and rejecting as targets J.P. Morgan’s Steel Trust, Henry Havemeyer’s Sugar Trust, and Philip Armour’s Beef Trust (Armour dodged his probe by dying in January 1901) ((brady 121)). “Unquestionably, we ought to do something the coming year on the great industrial developments of the country,” an exasperated Tarbell wrote to Ray Stannard Baker, a colleague at McClure’s. “But it seems clear to me that we must … find a new plan of attacking it–something that will…make clear the great principles by which industrial leaders are combining and controlling these resources…What I am struggling with is a new plan of attack.”((lyon p191)).
In the end, the natural choice was oil. Tarbell had grown up in Pennsylvania’s oil country; her father had run a business making oil barrels and a smaller refinery; her brother worked for one of the few remaining competitors in an industry 90-percent dominated by the greatest of all monopolies, the “mother of trusts,” John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. She drew up an outline, and Phillips approved it. But, McClure, recovering from exhaustion, was on a doctor-ordered yearlong rest cure in Switzerland.
“Go over,” Phillips said, “and show the outline to Sam.”
“I want to think it over,” McClure said after she had pitched the idea in Lausanne. He then announced that they would mull over the story while traveling to Greece, where McClure’s family would spend the winter. “We can discuss Standard Oil in Greece as well as here,” he said. So they headed south, stopping along the way for tours of Italy’s Lake District and Milan—then to rest at the famous Salsomaggiore spa, where they took lengthy mud baths and “steam soaks” and contemplated just who and what they were about to take on.
Finally, eager to get started, Tarbell cut the trip short. Approval in hand, she returned to New York to begin reporting on what stands, to this day, as the greatest business story ever written.
Reading the back story to Tarbell’s epic The History of the Standard Oil Company, published as a series in 1902 to 1903 and later in book form in 1904, a modern journalist can only smile, maybe a bit enviously, at the deliberate pace at which journalism was done back then. But then again, consider the stakes: Standard Oil was then one of the most powerful, and secretive, organizations in the world. Tarbell had never written an investigative story in her life. McClure, for that matter, had never published one.
****************** “Say the word ‘muckraker,’” observes the scholar Cecelia Tichi, “and the listener’s mind shuts as quickly as it opens. For muckraking suffers from both too much and too little familiarity. The term floats freely in the popular culture, but the texts themselves lack literary prestige, no matter how skilled their practitioners….”
It’s probably fair to say that modern American journalism and journalists, too, have an ambivalent relationship to the muckrakers, the generation of reporters—really only a dozen or two—who emerged right at the turn of the 20th century, produced monumental and innovative journalism, galvanized middle class audiences, and then, with the start of Wall War I, essentially disappeared. Reading some of their work, the language can seem strange, ranging from turgid to wildly overheated. (“The chief schemer in the service of [the] exploiters,” is how one muckraker described a U.S. Senate leader) ((footnote: David Graham Phillips, Treason of the Senate)) We smile at their high dudgeon; their moralism seems alien to us.
And if journalism itself is today not entirely sure what to make to the muckrakers, modern business journalism, that particular subculture, sees itself as having little to do with these quirky and outsized figures: the manic McClure, the path-breaking Tarbell, the bohemian Steffens, future socialist. U.S. business and financial journalism traces its lineage along an entirely separate path, to an entirely different set of journalists, men who saw their mandate through a different lens, wrote from a different perspective, and served a different audience. Business journalism was conceived to serve the interests of shipping and trade, then later stock and bond markets and manufacturers – an important, but ultimately limiting function. Even when early business journalists and the muckrakers were writing about precisely the same subject, they may as well have been describing different worlds.
As we’ll see in Chapter 2, there are good reasons for historians and modern practitioners to trace business news’s ancestry along this narrow line [to founders such as Walter Bagehot, Henry Varnum Poor, Charles Dow, Edward Jones, Clarence Barron, and the like. Early business journalists were pioneers in their own right and brought a degree of transparency to opaque, secretive but increasingly powerful publicly traded corporations, long before there was a Securities and Exchange Commission. It’s true that, as we’ll see, the early business press could be an apologist for, and saw itself as a defender of, Wall Street, even during notorious stock manipulations and devastating market panics. It could also be frankly corrupt. But the development of business news was inextricable from the development of markets themselves. It underpinned the pricing system and, as historian Wayne Parsons provided the free enterprise system with its very language.
And yet, while giving early business journalism its due, it is also true that, as a journalistic form, early 20th century business journalism was inadequate as a means for the broader public to understand the great economic issue of its time: industrial consolidation, the formation of an American oligarchy, and its grip on the political system of the United States. As a form of elite communication, business journalism was not intended for, and not particularly useful to, the general public, which, understandably, stayed away in droves. The circulation of The Wall Street Journal, for instance, hovered around 10,000 in the early 20th century while McClure’s soared to nearly half a million, larger, adjusted for population, than that of The New York Times today.
Despite its high-level sources and expertise in matters economic and financial–or perhaps because of them--business journalism’s narrow view of its own mandate left an information vacuum, a vacuum that would be filled by an extraordinary band of outsiders: non-experts, investigators, and generalists: essentially a group of professional storytellers. Muckrakers would produce journalism that not only endures, but, more importantly, was far more valuable to its own time than conventional business news both to markets and to the public. Certainly, it had more impact.
When Tarbell and McClure first discussed the series at the Salsomaggiore baths in Italy (she kept the hotel stationary she had used to take notes), they had mapped out a series of three stories. But as copies of the first installments flew off newsstands in 1902 and 1903, they quickly expanded the series to six stories, then twelve, and soon realized they had a national sensation on their hands. New installments became news events in themselves, covered, among others, by the fledgling Wall Street Journal. The series finally reached 19 installments, quickly turned into a two-volume book, a best seller. A cartoon in Puck magazine would depict a pantheon of muckrakers with Tarbell as a Joan of Arc figure on horseback. Another contemporary magazine pronounced her “the most popular woman in America.”
Tarbell’s Standard Oil work in particular, and her historic collaboration with Sam McClure, illustrate what made the muckrakers so valuable to their time and what was missing in ours before the crisis. As we try to figure out what works and doesn’t work in journalism today, it’s worth keeping in a mind a few elements that stand out in the work of Tarbell, her publisher, and the best (though by no means all) of the muckrakers. As we’ll see below, their strengths were a certain journalistic purity: They had no political axes to grind; they were after the Great Story. They were, in fact, master storytellers. They were also marked by a journalistic ambition that was sweeping by today’s standards. They combined a Victorian-era faith in science – a scrupulous fidelity to true facts – with its unabashed moralism. As moralists, the muckrakers recognized the importance of human agency and didn’t shrink from holding power to account – by name. And, they crafted what can be called America’s journalism’s only true ideology.
Samuel Sidney McClure (born 1857) was brought to the U.S. at the age of nine by his mother after his father, an Irish shipyard worker, was killed in a work accident. Raised amid severe privation in rural Indiana, he was pass among several relatives and grew into a high-strung, impulsive boy, running away dozens of times ((lyon p. 11)). He worked his way through Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, founded by abolitionists and a center for social reformers, where he met Phillips ((Wilson p 17)) and other friends who would form the core of McClure’s. At Knox, McClure started an inter-collegiate news service, engaged in literary disputes, and, collegiate oratory. In one debate, he made a declaration about the abolitionists that presaged his own journalistic ambitions: “It was when they believed in what seemed impossible that the abolitionists did the most good, that they created the sentiment that finally did accomplish the impossible.” ((Wilson p20)).
McClure’s early career was bent not toward journalism but toward literary and commercial interests. An early job was at a bicycling magazine, The Wheelman, published by Pope Manufacturing Co., the owner of Columbia bicycles ((filler, p. 32, anb)) (where he was again joined by Phillips). The two entrepreneurs left to form a literary syndicate, assembling a stable of writers to write fiction and poetry for sale to magazine editors. When he and Phillips started McClure’s, in 1893, McClure’s interests were not particularly journalistic. He had collected 2,000 unpublished manuscripts, mostly fiction, and figured he could sell the public on a new literary style –Realism -- while undercutting the likes of Harper’s and the Atlantic on price. McClure’s in the early years was a general-interest magazine, an eclectic mix of features, with no particular interest in politics, let alone investigative reporting. The magazine came out of McClure’s crowded head. “I will have History, Politics, Finance, Invention, Education, National Health, Science, etc., etc., treated say one topic a month by great thinkers,” McClure wrote to a friend. Its editorial direction was, as historian Harold S. Wilson puts it, “confused.” (p. 104.)
In the decade before it invented muckraking, McClure’s pages would be filled with fiction writers. An early contributor (and investor) was Arthur Conan Doyle. Later, the magazinewould attract Stephen Crane, Emile Zola, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Jack London, O. Henry, many of whom McClure knew personally. Willa Cather was a contributor and would help write McClure’s autobiography. It was in search of a fulltime writer for his staff that, while traveling in Paris, he called upon a young American woman who had attracted some attention in the U.S. with a piece in Scribner’s called “France Adore’,” about an young American in Paris and her French tutor. When McClure burst into Ida Tarbell’s flat, he told her he only had ten minutes to spare. He stayed for three hours.
Ida Minerva Tarbell (also born in 1857) came from a deeply conventional background. Her father, Franklin, settled the family in Titusville, in Pennsylvania’s booming oil country, and built a business selling oil barrels to local producers, and later started, a small refining operation. Tarbell recalls an idyllic childhood of culture, music, science, and religious instruction, cultivated mostly by her mother, Esther, a former schoolteacher. Raised a Methodist, her family was active in the local church and put up visiting ministers and elders, who in the parlor debated challenges to biblical literalism from the new Theory of Evolution. (Young Tarbell chose science and at first wanted to be a biologist). Tarbell’s small-town idyll, based on a booming oil economy, would be upended when she was a teenager by a monopoly rising out of Cleveland, which began to buy up small refiners or drive them out of business. The town soon became bitterly divided between “Standard men,” who sold out, and “independents,” like her father.
Like McClure and many other muckrakers (and their readers), Tarbell was a product of evangelical Protestant institutions that preached a socially engaged style of Christianity grounded in scientific principles. The muckrakers saw themselves, as Wilson puts it, as “spiritual midwives to a new social order.” McClure would write that he saw his magazine “performing a certain mission,” with God “in our plans.” ((Wilson, p 285.) In an not-untypical musing, Steffens wrote an essay on ethics, carefully categorizing acts as “good,” “bad,” “right,” and “wrong.”
I. Right – conduct which makes for mere survival.
II. Good– conduct which furthers evolutionary process;
III. Wrong–conduct which hinders evolutionary process.
IV. Bad–conduct which hinders survival.
Tarbell attended Allegheny College, founded by the United Methodist Church, in Meadville, Pennsylvania. She arrived in 1876 at the age of eighteen, “without ever having dared to look fully into the face of any boy my own age,” she would write in her autobiography. She was the only woman in her class. After establishing her place at school, she concluded that no woman could be both a wife and pursue a career outside the home. She decided to live as a writer, a goal she called “the Purpose,” always with a capital “P,” ((allin days work p 36)) and pursued with an unusual single-mindedness. Her first journalism job was at the Chautauquan, also in Meadville, affiliated with the adult education movement popular at the time. Her research led her to a piece on a French Revolutionary figure known as Madame Roland, a Republican moderate killed during the Terror, which led her to an interest in France. Not satisfied with the routine of the Chautauquan, Tarbell took the daring and unusual step for a woman of her era and moved to Paris to write freelance and study. She was sharing a Latin Quarter flat with other American women when McClure came calling.
The McClure/Tarbell collaboration, one of the most important in the history of American journalism, at first had nothing to do with muckraking, or even journalism. Tarbell spent the first part of her career writing about historical figures, multipart series on Napoleon, Roland, and Lincoln that, as it happens, all proved immensely popular and helped propel the magazine’s circulation from 8,000 copies with the first issue, to 30,000 in 1894; 175,000 in 1895; 250,000 in 1896; and 360,000 in 1899.By 1900, McClure’s carried a greater quantity of advertising than any other magazine in the world. ((anb))
McClure was an exasperating boss, but he had an innate sense for popular tastes. In a letter, Tarbell once tried to talk a colleague of out quitting by reminding him that, “genius comes once in a generation and if you ever get in its vicinity thank the Lord & stick…What you’re going through now we’ve all been through steadily ever since I came into the office. If there was nothing in all this but the annoyance and uncertainty & confusion – that if there were not results – then we might rebel, but there are always results – vital ones. The big things which the magazine has done have always come about through these upheavals.”
The letter was written in April 1902. Muckraking – the biggest of the “big things” that McClure’s would accomplish-- hadn’t even been invented yet.
None of McClure’s fabled staff had joined the magazine with investigative reporting in mind ((Hofstadter 193)). Ray Stannard Baker was an aspiring novelist. Lincoln Steffens studied ethics, art history, and psychology in Europe before landing job covering politics and crime for the New York Evening Post; he discovered corruption in Midwestern cities only after McClure ordered him out of the office and sent him on a tour of the country. Besides its literary offerings, McClure’s in the late 1890s, was running a series on what McClure described in his autobiography as the “greatest American business achievements.” Tarbell wrote only about people who were long dead.
McClure considered himself a storyteller first. “The story is the thing,” he often repeated, almost as a mantra.((Wilson 195)). As he wrote in 1906, after McClure’s had become a national sensation (and was on its way to a crackup): “When Mr. Steffens, Mr. Baker, Miss Tarbell write, they must never be conscious of anything else while writing other than telling an absorbing story: the story is the thing.”((Wilson p. 196)). Phillips, too, reinforced McClure’s priority on narrative arts, once writing Baker: “I take it you will make your articles compact with incident and fact. Your strong point is in making things alive, human, with stories of individuals.” ((Wilson 195)). McClure’s articles were closely edited and read as many as thirty times, sometimes by everyone on the staff ((cite needed)). A McClure’s story imitated the short story with quickly initiated action and a climax. McClure aimed to make stories as interesting and exciting on its second or third reading as on the first. Like all Victorian literature, the article needed a moral, one presented unconsciously. ((Wilson p. 195))
Hofstadter places muckraking within the larger tradition of literary Realism of the era and notes that the leading authors of the genre–Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, David Graham Phillips, Jack London–had had training in journalistic observation, or at least, had explored the rough side of life. What the novelists, journalists and social scientists of the period shared in common was a passion for getting the “inside story.” ((p. 197.)) The reliance on storytelling to explain complex subjects to a mass audience would be adopted by mainstream business news only much later, with the coming of another great 20th century editor and foundational journalism figure: Bernard S. Kilgore, about whom more below.
But by 1901, the subject of trusts were almost unavoidable. It dominated the political discussion and was the subject of almost daily newspaper stories and many books. Standard Oil alone had been investigated repeatedly for decades, by Congressional committees in 1872 and 1876, by the New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio legislators in 1879, among others. In 1891, an Ohio judge ordered the trust dismantled, prompting the company to move its headquarters from Cleveland to New Jersey. ((brady 122)) In the spring of 1901, the reformer Jane Addams’s group, the Chicago Civic Convention, held a “Trust Convention” attended by 500 delegates including William Jennings Bryan, who called for national legislation against the trusts. ((Wilson 132)). The new president, Theodore Roosevelt, was also gunning for the great industrialists, whom, as a New York state legislator, he had once dubbed, “the wealthy criminal class.” ((chernow p 432))
In the Age of Reform, Hofstadter argued famously that the popularity of muckraking among middle class Americans was a response to bewildering societal shifts that had transformed a mostly rural and small-town country into an industrialized, urban giant. Where individuals had once gotten their news first-hand and participated personally in the affairs that shaped their economic and personal lives, they now saw all around the rise of big business, big labor, and political machines, “clotting” society into what Hofstadter calls the “big aggregates.” A central theme of Progressivism, the political movement muckraking helped to fuel, was a revolt of the unorganized against the “consequences of organization.” ((P. 214)). Progressivism was a middle-class movement, made up of clerks, lawyers, ministers, teachers, and other professionals deprived of status and power by a new breed of capitalist arrivistes, as well as union and political bosses. This group of the non-organized was well educated, genteel in outlook, religious, and, Hofstadter writes, “almost completely devoid of economic organization.”
Many, of course, have noted the parallels between Tarbell’s time and our own. Then, as now, the country had been undergoing bewildering systemic shifts. Individuals felt isolated, disempowered, and, importantly, believed they lacked adequate information to understand what was happening around them. And when they did find out, the middle class recoiled at the shocking corruption of government at all levels as policy and regulation were bent to serve private interests at the expense of the public interest.
For McClure’s middle-class audience, it was an open question as to whether democratic institutions were any longer responsive to the public interest. The investigations of the Pujo Committee (1912) would later confirm what the public had already sensed: industrial America was comprised of a staggering concentration of wealth and power. One interlocking network of J.P. Morgan interests was found to control aggregate assets of $22 billion, three times the assessed value of all real and personal property in New England. ((hofts. 231)).]When the new Roosevelt administration sued in 1902 for the dissolution of Northern Securities, a gigantic railroad forged by a spectacular and damaging merger battle between Morgan and competing interests, the symbolic value of the suit was even greater than its substance: “The government’s suit encouraged everyone to feel at last that the President of the United States was really bigger and more powerful than Morgan and the Morgan interests, that the country was governed from Washington and not from Wall Street,” as Hofstadter puts it ((p 235))
For McClure’s, Rockefeller posed a monumental reporting challenge. His empire was gigantic, controlling 90 per cent of the nation’s oil supply, derricks, refineries, pipelines, and even retail stores. He vied with Andrew Carnegie for the title of world’s richest man. ((chernow p. 3)). For all his power, he was also the most elusive of figures. Independent producers and refiners had for decades claimed Rockefeller operated secret cartels with other oil giants, created an espionage network to steal trade secrets, and, critically, cut secret deals with railroads to gain unfair advantage on shipping rates and to block competitors’ access to markets. Spurred by local oil interests state legislatures in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and elsewhere had pursued the company, as did Congressional committees and even grand juries. Rockefeller himself, while formally retired, was still deeply involved in his company and the object of intense public fascination. As the 20th century dawned, he had inspired more prose than any other private citizen in America, with books about him tumbling out at the rate of nearly one per year. ((Chernow 3))
But through it all, “the Standard” had proved impervious to scrutiny, and Rockefeller remained the most enigmatic of robber barons. His company was deliberately labyrinthine, true to its popular nickname, “the Octopus.” He made a point of separating himself from his underlings’ most disreputable tactics and carefully controlled his public image, confining his public appearances mostly to dispensing dimes in front of newsreel cameras. His private letters were written with odd elliptical phrases and euphemisms, as if they might fall into the hands of a prosecutor ((chernow)) Even after several biographies, including Allan Nevin’s authoritative two-volume work in the 1950s, Ron Chernow begins his own biography, Titan, by remarking: “The life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. was marked to an exceptional degree by silence, mystery, and evasion. Even though he presided over the largest business and philanthropic enterprises of his day, he remains an elusive figure.”
Chernow wrote that in 1998, nearly a century after Tarbell began her work.
As we’ll see, the muckrakers weren’t the first to practice what became known as the “journalism of exposure,” but McClure and Tarbell brought qualities that particularly matched the sensibilities of their well-educated, middle-class, Middle Western audience, which, while religious as a matter of course, was also influenced by the new social sciences, particularly sociology, then coming of age. The audience demanded not polemic but facts. Where Joseph Pulitzer or William Randolph Hearst went in for sensationalism and scandal mongering, McClure wanted to analyze complex issues and explore them with scientific precision ((chernow 439)).
Tarbell’s Standard Oil series is a monument to dogged fact-gathering. Indeed, one of the main attractions of Standard as a subject for Tarbell and McClure was the mass of documentation on the company accumulated over the years by the various probes and lawsuits: government reports, court records, and testimony transcripts, including from Rockefeller himself.
Working beneath framed photographs of McClure and Phillips ((brady 132)), amid heaps of paper, Tarbell at first staggered under the mass of material to be collected and read. Her autobiography describes the fact-gathering challenge in detail:
[blockquote] But the documentary sources were by no means all in print. The Standard Oil Trust and its constituent companies had figured in many civil suits, the testimony of which was in manuscript in the files of the courts where the suits were tried.
I had supposed it would be easy to locate the records of the important investigations and cases, but I soon found I had been too trustful.[blockquote]((pg. 208))
She hired full-time assistant, John M. Siddall, who had worked for the Chatutaquan and impressed Tarbell with his energy (at the interview, she later wrote, he reminded her of Teddy Roosevelt and seemed ready to “burst out of his clothes”). He became a close collaborator, working from Cleveland.
The search for a single, albeit key, document, gives a taste of their diligence. A pamphlet called The Rise and Fall of South Improvement Company, compiled in 1873, exposed the workings of an early attempt at cartel of railroads and the biggest oil refiners, including Rockefeller. No charge was as damaging to Standard as the accusation that it had out of what is now universally acknowledged as a predatory cartel ((Brady 124)), and Rockefeller at the time of Tarbell’s writing disavowed any significant role in the cartel. Tarbell’s sources had insisted this 30-year-old document would prove Standard had, in fact, risen from the South Improvement Company, but Tarbell had been told that Standard had bought and destroyed every copy. “More than one cynic said, ‘you’ll never find one – they have all been destroyed,’ ” she later wrote. Three copies of the document still existed, she learned. She tracked down two, in private collections, but the owners refused access.
Tarbell found one remaining copy in a not-so-secret place, the New York Public Library ((brady 124)). The document showed that Rockefeller had in fact bought the charter for the company from an estate in 1871 and asked other founding officers to sign a pledge of secrecy. It also included testimony from a refiner, John Alexander, who was asked by Congressional investigator whether he had sold his company to South Improvement. He replied:
[blockquote]To one of the members, as I suppose, of the South Improvement Company, Mr. Rockefeller; he is a director in that company; it was sold in the name to the Standard Oil Company, of Cleveland, but the arrangement was, as I understand it, that they were to put it into the South Improvement Company.[blockquote]
Tarbell’s extensive interviewing started with old neighbors in Titusville, who were at first fearful and suspicious, ((Brady 123)) and included surprisingly well-placed sources, including Henry H. Rogers, a top Standard executive and a member of Rockefeller’s inner circle. She was introduced to him, as it happens, through celebrity author Samuel Clemens–Mark Twain–who had received financial support from Rogers and was friendly with McClure. Tarbell met Rogers frequently, and secretly, at the company’s headquarters at 26 Broadway, in New York. They spoke off-the-record, with Rogers confirming or denying Tarbell’s findings.
Tarbell’s reporting was so thorough that one could even argue that she overdid it. She tracked down old ledgers from Rockefeller’s childhood containing religious instruction and found the first public record to mention him: the 1858 Cleveland city directory, recorded his first job at age nineteen: “Rockefeller, John D., bookkeeper. h 35 Cedar.” She reported for a year before her first piece ran.
It was only a reporting coup that spurred McClure to press for the series to begin, in November 1902: Tarbell had come across evidence that Standard was, as suspected, operating an network of company spies who bribed competitors’ employees for shipping and pricing information and other trade secrets. ((Weinberg p. 217))) A teenage clerk working in a Standard office came across documents with the name of his Sunday school teacher, who happened to be an independent oil refiner. The boy turned the documents over to the refiner, who, knowing of Tarbell’s reputation, turned them over to her. The documents, on railroad stationery, were the refiner’s shipping records, taken from a local railroad office. Soon after, McClure published an announcement in the magazine of the coming expose, promising, “The story of the conflict of two great commercial principles of the day –competition and combination…(told) without partisan passion and entirely from documents.” ((Weinberg. 218)) The epic series was about to run.
When President Theodore Roosevelt, the muckrakers’ erstwhile ally, coined the new term in a 1906 speech comparing journalists to “The Man with the Muckrake,” a character in Pilgrim’s Progress, he in a single stroke identified a new form of journalism and began its marginalization. In referring to John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, which was commonly read at the time, Roosevelt was criticizing the new breed of journalists in an area of strength, their moralism and religiosity.
“The man who could look no way but downward, with a muckrake in this hands; who was offered a celestial crown for his muckrake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.” ((Weinberg p58))
Scholar Cecelia Tichi calls Roosevelt’s speech a “baleful presidential baptism” for the new journalism((p. 3, photocopy)), and so it was. The speech hit home, and provoked a national debate about a wildly popular new form of journalism that had been attracting new entrants that were not as scrupulous as McClure’s and was tilting into excess. In the ensuing hubbub, Roosevelt privately reassured Steffens and Baker that he didn’t mean them. ((Kaplan p. 150)). Steffens was not appeased. He later called the term “a name of odium,” ((augur printout, p. 5)), would throw it back at Roosevelt in lectures, implying that the name would better suit the politicians who created muck, not the journalists who uncovered it: “If muck were mere muck then I, for one, would be for leaving the makers of muck to our official muckrakers, the men we elect to represent us and protect us from crime… [But] they do not protect us from crime; they protect crime.” ((Kaplan 153))
The association with filth and negativity has in some ways ever since tainted journalism’s most potent weapon, the investigative narrative, which, at its best, set new standards for ambition, diligence, and storytelling. To be sure, muckraking became its own worst enemy as the commercial success of McClure’s and others brought out of the woodwork hacks, hustlers, and careerists, those hardy journalism perennials, and opportunists like William Randolph Hearst, who bought Cosmopolitan magazine in 1905. As Tarbell herself would later write: “The public is not as stupid as it sometimes seems. The truth of the matter is that the muckraking school was stupid. It had lost the passion for facts in a passion for subscriptions.” ((allin a days work p. 226)).
Tarbell’s criticism of muckraking didn’t mean that she agreed with Roosevelt’s characterization, however. As she would tartly put it: “Roosevelt had of course misread his Bunyan.” She even once argued with Roosevelt at the While House, telling him that McClure’s writers “were concerned only with facts, not with stirring up a revolt.” Roosevelt replied: “I don’t object to facts. But you and Baker are not practical!” ((allinadayswork 242)
Roosevelt may have coined a deft phrase but he was wrong in an important respect. The original muckrakers didn’t search through muck to find stories. It was driven by no agenda other than journalistic one. The original muckrakers searched for great stories and found them in the actual corruption that had overrun political and corporate institutions. One could just as easily argue that the muckrakers didn’t look up or down, just around.
Muckraking is in fact one of journalism history’s great accidents. And nothing was more accidental than McClure’s January 1903 issue, considered the inauguration (and perhaps the high watermark) of the muckraking era. In one remarkable edition, it contained the second installment of Tarbell’s “History,” series;Steffens’s “Shame of Minneapolis,” and a piece by Baker, “The Right to Work,” all classics of the form.
Steffens’s piece excoriated the administration of Albert Alonzo “Doc” Ames, the notoriously corrupt turn-of-the-century Minneapolis mayor, who opened the city to grafters and gamblers and was an all-around cad, even to his own wife and children. Steffens interviewed politicians, cops, crooks, editors, and reformers. With an ironic tone that overlay outrage, Steffens described the kleptocracy that Minneapolis had become under its political machine (as he later would later do for St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and other cities). Opium dens, houses of prostitution, and slot machines were set up across the city, all monitored and shaken down by Ames’s men. Prostitutes in particular were a major income source for the machine: they were hauled to city court every month to pay monthly “fines” and were made to buy such things as “illustrated biographies” of city officials and tickets to the policemen’s baseball team. Police went beyond shaking down criminals and formed their own burglary squads, once knocking off the Pabst Brewery by “persuading” an employee to open the safe while two officers stood guard outside. Steffens recounted how this mess had been swept clean, not by local prosecutors, but a non-professional grand jury led by a defiant local businessman. The installment was part of a series, published as Shame of the Cities in 1904, that exposed urban corruption as a systemic problem nationally.
Baker’s piece described union violence and terror against non-union workers in Pennsylvania and the degree to which strikes tore apart communities. Baker profiled a defiant English-born engineer who refused to join a union and went to work armed with a pistol, only to have a chunk of coal dropped on his head by unionists, who had laid in wait for him on top of a railroad car, then beat him and left him for dead. Baker tracked down the engineer’s mother, who disavows her son: “He deserved all he got,” Baker quotes the mother. “He wasn’t raised a scab.“ Baker adds a final wrenching detail. The mother admits to him that she had called the hospital where her son lay to see if he was alive or dead. “But I didn’t give my name,” she told Baker. “So he didn’t know about it.”
What’s notable about all three pieces is that McClure’s hadn’t planned to veer into investigative reporting. McClure himself realized only at the last minute that the issue represented something new. Reading the articles before publication, he took a fresh look at what it was he and his writers had found and saw the common theme: a general disrespect for law on the part of capitalists, workingmen, and politicians. The issue represented, as Hofstadter puts it, “a striking and completely unplanned convergence upon a central fact in American life. “((200)) McClure hurriedly wrote an editorial to drive home the point. It stands as a muckraker’s manifesto:
“We did not plan it so,” he wrote. “[I]t is a coincidence that the January McClure’s is such an arraignment of American as should make everyone one of us stop and think… Capitalists, workingmen, politicians, citizens–all breaking the law or letting it be broken. Who is left to uphold it?”
In an appeal to what was then a developing idea of a public interest, he answered his own question: “There is no one left. None but all of us.”
Thus, a good-faith journalistic search for Great Stories – untainted by political agenda -- turned up exposes of systemic corruption, and riveting ones at that. And an eclectic literary magazine became the avatar of a powerful new journalistic form.
The McClure’s editorial, even with its soaring Victorian prose, resonates faintly even today. And it certainly did then. It expressed the helplessness and despair of McClure’s middle-class audiences, who saw economic and political events were slipping not just beyond their control, but beyond their understanding. American elites, meanwhile, weren’t simply failing to live up to their responsibilities; they were themselves the problem.
The 400,000 copies of the January 1903 edition of McClure’s sold out quickly. The spike contribute to a near doubling of the circulation to what it had been prior to the magazine’s foray into muckraking. ((CHECK)) ((http://www.depauw.edu/library/archives/ijhof/inductees/mcclure.htm ))
The series provided readers with a monthly torrent of damning facts about Rockefeller, Standard Oil, and the extra-legal means it had used to gain a monopoly over the emerging nation’s oil industry. It included court testimony, official company documents, statistics, and charts, presented in Tarbell’s dry, sober writing style made that made the facts all the more convincing. The series included, for instance, the testimony of a bookkeeper of a competitor who told investigators that “Standard men” had tried to bribe him to steal secrets from his employer and send them to a anonymous Post Office box(vol 2 p. 38)). It quote letters from retailers to their independent suppliers complaining that “Standard men” had ordered them to stop selling competitors’ oil or face a price war from neighboring stores (“They have put their oil … next door and offer it as six cents a gallon, at retail,” one retailer wrote his supplier, an independent refiner. “Shall we turn tail or show them fight?”). Tarbell provided evidence that members of Congress had ties to Standard (e.g. “J.N. Camden of West Virginia, head of the Camden Consolidated Oil Company, now one of the constituent companies of the Standard Oil Trust”) and had used their official power to impede regulators’ efforts to police shipping rates((p 113)). Readers weren’t just presented facts; they were bombarded with them. There were excerpts of hearing testimony, court opinions, trust agreements, corporate ledgers, Articles of Incorporation, railroad contracts, indictments, and graphs showing oil-price fluctuations as far back as the mid-1860s. McClure’s series included a string of photographs of Rockefeller and other top Standard executives that look, as one biographer puts it, like “mug shots.”
The Tarbell series is credited with sparking the antitrust suit, filed two years after the series, which ended with the landmark 1911 Supreme Court decision to break up the Trust. But its significance goes far beyond that. In accounting for muckrakers’ popularity, Hofstadter argues that it grew from their ability (emphasis in the original), “not merely to name the malpractices in American business and politics, but to name the malpractitioners and their specific misdeeds and to proclaim the fact to the entire country.”
Hofstadter puts his finger on a key point: Thanks to the muckrakers, he says, “It now became possible for any literate citizen to know what barkeepers, district, attorneys, ward heelers, prostitutes, police court magistrates, reporters and corporation lawyers had always come to know in the course of their business.” ((p. 186))
The new journalism of that era offered readers a hope, at least, of understanding the tectonic shifts reshaping society beneath their feet, and to learn the identities of the institutions and actors involved and their methods laid out in detail. Muckrakers targeted specific institutions and the individuals who ran them.
The McClure editorial contains the seeds of what might be called the muckraker’s only real “ideology,” if that’s the right word. I call it an ideology of anti-corruption; McClure might call it, “ant-lawlessness.”
Corruption is a strong word, so strong it is sometimes unhelpful. Dictionaries variously describe it, as “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery”; or “inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means (as bribery)” ((Webster)), or, “impairment of integrity, virtue, or moral principle: depravity.”((Webster)). The Oxford English Dictionary defines corrupt, as “changed from the naturally sound condition….” ((p. 1023))
Still, it’s real enough, and has a corrosive logic all its own. Inherently unfair, it punishes the best actors and rewards the worst. An oil refiner who might have had the prescience to locate a factory in a strategic location will always lose to the competitor with the clout to force the railroad into offering favorable rates for the cheater and higher rates for the competitor. (Just as, during the mortgage era, lenders with high underwriting standards lost out as the system rewarded those who sold loans under any circumstances.) It coddles incompetence, discourages achievement, and wrecks markets. Ultimately, it undermines the legitimacy of any system that tolerates it.
While Tarbell and other muckrakers might see its roots in individuals’ moral failings, they were also savvy enough to realize that, generally speaking, corruption occurs when individual and corporate economic incentives are out of alignment with the laws, rules, or other norms that define fair play. As Tarbell put it in (with some heat) in insisting that Standard had engaged in behavior that was far below even the rough-and-tumble business norms of the day: “Everybody did not do it. In the nature of the offense, everybody could not do it. The strong wrested from the railroads the privilege of preying upon the weak, and the railroads never dared to give the privilege save under the promise of secrecy.” ((fm chernow)).
The McClure’s group and other muckrakers laid down an ideology of anti-corruption, or anti-lawlessness, that was purely journalistic in motive. It was about exposure of wrongdoing for its own sake, without partisan agenda. It held whether the offender was government, or business, labor, or anyone else. It’s a foundational idea that endures for American journalism today.
And they went further.
In a speech in 1974, when a new era of muckraking was beginning to take hold, Washington Post Publisher Katherine Graham made a distinction between two kinds of investigative reporting: The more widely understood type exposed “hidden illegalities and public official malfeasance.” The second, she said, “zeroes in on systems and institutions in the public or private realm, to find out how they really work, who exercises power, who benefits, and who gets hurt.” ((aucoin, p88.))
Tarbell and her colleagues at McClure’s understood the importance of the taking on big, broad systemic questions. The Tarbell series offered not incremental snapshots of the previous day’s news, but a sweeping overview that helped readers come to grips in concrete terms with what they had only sensed -- yes, things had changed; trusts had become enormously powerful and were tilting the political and economic playing field -- and explained exactly how. It is also not surprising that the well-educated readers of McClure’s appreciated the story told via a (colossal) compilation of facts, coherently arranged and offered without much rhetorical adornment. Tarbell correctly identified the threat Standard posed not just to competitors and consumers, but to the larger economy by tracing how Standard’s founders leveraged their gains to move in to other industries. This was the big picture.
Tarbell and McClure believed that the rise of trusts, and Standard Oil, the greatest of trusts, could only be understood in context and that incremental news reporting, even stories that documented isolated instances of wrongdoing, wouldn’t do. That’s why Tarbell began her narrative in 1872, with Standard Oil’s genesis as an illegal cartel, and why she labored to document so thoroughly the secret system of rebates and “drawbacks” from railroads that allowed Standard to undercut its rivals. “Cutting to Kill,” an installment in the summer of 1903, was a landmark because it showed the systematic nature of Standard’s espionage network; that it wasn’t the work of rogues here and there, as Rockefeller maintained, but tightly organized and the result of corporate policy.
Ninety years later, historian Ron Chernow would gain access to a trove of Rockefeller’s personal papers for his authoritative 1998 biography, Titan. Among them, he found confirmation not just of the espionage network, but also of what Tarbell had begun to demonstrate but that the titan had long denied: his personal involvement in what was blatant wrongdoing, even according to the standards of the time. As Chernow writes (my emphasis):
[blockquote]When confronted with well-documented cases of terror tactics, used by subordinated, he blandly conceded some few indiscretions by overly zealous employees and cast himself as a helpless spectator. But if one examines the reams of letters sent to him by his associates, his pose of innocence crumbles. He knew everything that was going on and now, for the first time, we can document it. For that reason we will digress occasionally in this chapter from the linear narrative of Rockefeller’s life to examine reports he received from the field. They leave no doubt that he was the brains of the operation, directing activities he professed to deplore and settling the tone for his subordinates. ((pg. 250))[endblockquote]
To hold Tarbell as an exemplar is not to say that she or her monumental “History” was without flaws. While historians have generally vindicated her findings, they have included important caveats. The series’ flaws can be said to fall into two categories: flat-out mistakes and errors of emphasis.
The most serious reporting mistake, cited by both Allan Nevins, a Rockefeller defender writing in the 1950s, and the more balanced Chernow, was her resurrection of the tale of so-called “Widow Backus,” Mrs. Fred M. Backus, whose tear-jerking tale had already been told (also in error) by Henry Demarest Lloyd in his Wealth Against Commonwealth, a polemical, proto-muckraking work written in 1894. Mrs. Backus’s late husband had once worked for Rockefeller and taught Sunday school at his church, before starting his own small refinery. He died and left the refinery to his wife, who would later claim Rockefeller robbed her blind when buying the works in the late 1870s. Rockefeller himself said of the story, “If it were true it would represent a shocking instance of cruelty in crushing a defenseless woman.” Tarbell’s version uncritically accepts Mrs. Backus’s side of the story. As it turns out, the widow received a fair or even generous price for what was in fact an outmoded refinery and died rather wealthy, having wisely invested the proceeds of the sale in Cleveland real estate. It is regrettable that Tarbell did not choose from myriad cases in which Rockefeller did use his enormous power to extract unfair bargains from (non-widowed) owners, driven under by Standard’s illegal railroad rebates, espionage schemes, and predatory pricing. But that doesn’t excuse the error.
A second, serious error of judgment was Tarbell’s two-part “character study,” a follow up to the series published at McClure’s urging in 1905. Abandoning fact-based reporting and sober language, Tarbell employed instead sheer invective and descriptions that were vengeful and mean. Tarbell described Rockefeller as simply the embodiment of evil, a “living mummy,” hideous and diseased, leprous and reptilian. “It is this puffiness, this unclean flesh, which repels, as the thin slit of his mouth terrifies,” she wrote, in one example of the unfortunate prose. The result was counterproductive on every level. As Chernow says, “the patent cruelty of the character study steeled Rockefeller against Tarbell’s valid strictures about his business methods.”
Tarbell is faulted, justly, for idealizing the independent producers and refiners that lost out to Rockefeller, a group that included her own father and brother. Nevins and Chernow say she was wrong to blame Rockefeller for initiating the illegal cartel in 1872, when it was the railroads’ idea, even if he went along with it and then drove it to its logical conclusion. Other legitimate complaints fault misplaced emphasis. Historians argue, for instance, that she placed too much blame on Rockefeller personally and not enough on other actors in what was a sprawling enterprise.
Finally, Tarbell is faulted for what is seen as her excessive moralism and inability to place Rockefeller’s rise in the context of structural changes overtaking the oil business and the American economy.
All fair enough.
Tarbell’s work, it should be clear, was not a history but a work of journalism, written while Rockefeller was still much alive (he would live until 1937) and, if retired, still active (a telegraph stood ready in the company’s headquarters to receive his orders from Cleveland). The company was at the peak of its powers, one of the most feared institutions on the face of the earth. And while Standard Oil never retaliated or even responded during the series, its silence, which today seems self-defeating, could be seen as ominous then. Tarbell, of course, had no way of knowing the outcome when she was writing it.
Tarbell (like Roosevelt, for that matter) never condemned Standard for its size, only for lawless acts. And while she can be faulted for recycling the problematic “Widow Backus” story, she had no problem flatly exonerating company executives of involvement in the explosion of a competing refinery in Buffalo, for which Rogers and other Standard officials had been indicted (the case seems to have had little merit). She also had no trouble acknowledging the genuine achievements of Rockefeller and his cohorts and devoted an article to, “The Legitimate Greatness of the Standard Oil Company.” “There was not a lazy bone in the organization, not an incompetent hand, nor a stupid head,” she wrote. [vol II, p. 126].
It wasn’t that Standard was big or even that it played rough. It was that it cheated. It broke the law. It was the very fact that it could have succeeded without resorting to unethical acts that so exasperated Tarbell. As she says in her memoir, “I never had an animus against their size and wealth, never objected to their corporate form. I was willing that they should combine and grow as big and rich as they could, but only by legitimate means. But they had never played fair, and that ruined their greatness for me. I am convinced that their brilliant example has contributed not only to a weakening of the country’s moral standards but to its economic unsoundness.” ((p230))
In the end, Rockefeller had the last laugh. He was playing golf in 1911 in Tarrytown, New York, with a Catholic priest, Father J.P. Lennon, when a message arrived with word of the Supreme Court decision. ((chernow)) Rockefeller hardly blinked. “Father Lennon,” Rockefeller asked blandly, “have you any money?” No, the priest answered, why? “Buy Standard Oil,” Rockefeller cracked. And in fact, shares of the new companies created from the breakup would later soar, turning Rockefeller from a mere millionaire into nearly a billionaire.
Tarbell, retiring to a farm in Bridgeport, Connecticut, came to see her own personal victory, however moral, as hollow. ((Brady P. 158))
But her legacy is secure. What Tarbell and the muckrakers (not uniformly, but at their best) brought to their era and handed down to ours were their journalistic and commercial motivations; a fidelity to fact-gathering, accuracy, and storytelling–journalism qualities all familiar to us today. They also brought unusual journalistic ambition: a willingness to step away from the incremental news of the moment to examine systemic changes; and a willingness to expose malpractitioners as well as malpractices, to challenge official accounts of powerful institutions, and do it while those institutions were still powerful. If in her “character sketch” of Rockefeller, Tarbell was crude and unfair, that is to be regretted. But no one could accuse her of avoiding the main actor, at the main institution, involved in the main economic problem of the day.