Muckrakers and Yellow Journalism

views updated


The years following the American Civil War were a time of industrial and technological expansion in the United States unlike any the world had seen previously. Job creation and industrial development were unequivocally considered to be social goods. The purported heroes of the age were industrial titans with names such as Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Morgan. By and large, the political leaders of the era gave way to the greed of these entrepreneurs. In such an environment, business owners resisted unions and workers were given few rights. With no regulative agency, consumers bought at their own risk. If a consumer noticed a problem with a certain item, there was no available information technology to alert others. The nineteenth century offered a frontierlike, "no safety nets" era of consumption.

Many factors altered this plight by the close of the century. Possibly most significant is that journalists began to flex their muscle by the 1890s. Referred to as "yellow journalism," this style of writing derived from dubious motives. Most notably, "yellow journalism" was magnified by the newspaper circulation battle between two publishers, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. Graphic illustrations commissioned from some of the country's most talented artists and stories written by premiere authors and journalists of the day exaggerated the plight of Cubans under Spanish rule in the early 1890s and fanned the flames of war. As the public furor grew, President William McKinley (1843–1901) sent the USS Maine to Havana Harbor in 1898. The navy had functioned as a symbol of American expansionism. McKinley hoped that the modern ship might demonstrate American military might to the rebels. When the Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, the prowar press had roused national sentiment to the point that President McKinley felt he had to act. Although the explosion could not be definitively tied to anyone, journalists pointed the finger at the Spanish occupiers and thus began the public's call to "Remember the Maine!" The popular will drove McKinley to initiate the Spanish-American War.

New technologies allowed publications to be distributed broadly, which also enhanced the power of the written word. During the 1890s a few writers concentrated this power for the public good. The new journalism worked in tandem with a generation of young Americans who emerged from fairly prosperous upbringing in the late 1890s with a desire for social reform. Women, particularly those of the upper class whom the Victorian era had loosed from labor and developed intellectually, fueled the call for the social reform movement. A small group of young writers chose to use their power to influence the reading public, particularly upper-class women.

The first outlets for such writing were magazines, including Godey's Lady's Book (1830–1898), which sold 150,000 copies monthly at its peak in the 1850s. Godey's writers mixed discussion of women's rights and employment with sentimental fiction and elaborate fashion plates. In addition, Amelia Bloomer's The Lily (1849–1856) promoted temperance and dress reform, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony founded The Revolution in 1868, a weekly magazine that branched out from women's rights to such topics as land and labor reform. Encouraged by the Postal Act of 1879, which facilitated nationwide communications with low second-class rates, the number of magazine titles grew overall from 700 in 1865 to 4,400 by 1890. The stage was set for journalists and magazines to take a more active role in educating the public.


Magazines and serialized nonfiction would form the foundation of the "muckraking" tradition, but the subject matter continued to take shape against the culture of the late 1800s. Literary works played an important role in initiating the call for reform.

The era of big business created fortunes that allowed a younger generation to ask serious questions of the American model of progress. The expanding economy of the late nineteenth century was ripe for development by those with foresight and an aggressive approach to business. The ethics of these few successful tycoons are considered extremely dubious by twenty-first century standards. Even though they amassed some of the greatest fortunes in human history, these businessmen would become known as "robber barons." Due to the questionable way that figures acquired their wealth, the era of the robber barons is referred to as the "Gilded Age": lavish and beautiful on the outside but false on the interior. The beauty of the age was only skin-deep, and the ugly interior was dominated by human suffering. The imbalance of this situation, as described by Henry George, Edward Bellamy, Frank Norris, Lincoln Steffens, and other literary figures, fueled the political reform movement beginning in the 1890s.

These writers focused on the business practices of the barons. During the Gilded Age, many capitalists resisted considerations of workplace safety and human welfare in order to create the greatest profits. For instance, child labor became a norm in factories, mines, and other extremely dangerous environments, largely because children required the least pay. The intensity of this growth surged following the Civil War. This growth and a general faith in economic development allowed a few corporations to gain control of entire commodities and their production. Called "trusts," these conglomerates were near monopolies during an era when government and society had not yet defined such an entity as evil.

Railroads and steel were primary examples of this type of growth; however, petroleum, which had been discovered in 1859, provides the best example in the form of the Standard Oil Trust. John D. Rockefeller Sr. (1839–1937) formed a corporation that owned few oil wells but almost completely controlled the refining of crude oil into other products. He wanted to drive all of his competitors out of business. To lower his expenses, Rockefeller made a secret deal with the railroad owners. He told each that unless they gave him lower rates than anyone else, he would take his business elsewhere. By 1880 Rockefeller controlled 90 percent of the oil in the United States. Competitors were unable to match his low prices, and Rockefeller even began to receive kickbacks from the railroads he chose to use.

The ideas of Henry George (1839–1897) began the muckraking tradition. George's Progress and Poverty, which first appeared in 1879, functioned as a call for revision to the American political economy. Without emphasizing a single industry, George's treatise offered a philosophical approach to work and workers that was similar to what would become known as the "Social Gospel." He argued that ownership of land by private individuals was the chief cause of poverty. Although he stopped short of socialism, George argued for public ownership of railways and other monopolies such as telegraphs.

Against a culture in which Rockefeller's business ethics were the norm, reformers came to see journalism as a way of voicing discontent. Their impassioned pleas found receptive ears among the elite Americans, particularly women of the era. Activists such as Jacob Riis, who wrote How the Other Half Lives in 1890 to describe life in New York City slums, and Jane Addams, who started Hull-House to aid immigrant acclimation to American culture, led a movement for progressive reform. Ironically, the wealth of some robber barons would contribute to the evolution of a public consciousness on issues such as ghettoes, environmental degradation, and unfair labor practices.


A new breed of journalism became both a tool and expression of these new concerns. Writing fiction, documentaries, and serialized articles, these socially concerned writers began to critically consider the corruption and exploitation involving large companies. The term "muckrakers" was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) in 1906 in reference to their ability to uncover "dirt." Roosevelt borrowed the word from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1668), which spoke of a man with a "Muck-rake in his hand" who raked filth rather than look up to nobler things. Later the presidential candidate for the Progressive Party in 1912, Roosevelt recognized the muckrakers' key role in publicizing the need for progressive reform but demanded that they also know when to stop in order to avoid stirring up radical unrest.

Many fine writers made their name during the muckraking era of the 1890s and early 1900s. A crucial device in this movement was McClure's Magazine, which began running installments of muckraking investigations before they were released as books. Ida Tarbell (1857–1944) had been at work for years on her history of the Standard Oil Company, and it began to run in McClure's in November 1902.

McClure's remained at the heart of this new journalistic form. In the 1880s S. S. McClure had dropped the price of his general-interest magazine to only fifteen cents. He hoped to create a magazine that would appeal to the growing reading masses in the United States. McClure's circulation climbed, and it became one of many magazines constructing a new, mass culture that was not restricted to elite Americans. Muckraking articles played directly into this change in readership. From 1902 to 1912 over a thousand such articles were published in magazines specializing in the genre, including McClure's, Everybody's, and Collier's.

McClure's best-known authors of this era included Tarbell, who wrote "History of the Standard Oil Company" (November 1902–October 1904) and "John D. Rockefeller: A Character Sketch" (July 1905); Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936), who wrote primarily about city and state politics in "Enemies of the Republic" (March 1904), "Rhode Island: A State for Sale" (February 1905), "New Jersey: A Traitor State" (April 1905), and "Ohio: A Tale of Two Cities"(July 1905); and Ray Stannard Baker (1870–1946), who dealt with racial discrimination and other issues in articles such as "What the United States Steel Corporation Really Is?" (November 1901), "The Right to Work" (January 1903), "Reign of Lawlessness" (May 1904), "What Is Lynching?" (January 1905), "Railroads on Trial" (January 1906), and "How Railroads Make Public Opinion" (March 1906). Subsequent writers in the muckraking tradition included Thomas W. Lawson (1857–1925), who wrote about insurance and stock manipulation, David Graham Phillips (1867–1911), who wrote on political corruption, and Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871–1958), who wrote about safety issues related to medicines.


Muckrakers demanded action. In at least two cases, the writers inspired swift and dramatic action. Tarbell was born in the oil regions of northwestern Pennsylvania. She watched as her father's oil tank business failed due to the unfair practices of one corporation in particular, the Standard Oil Company. To Tarbell, the efforts of John D. Rockefeller to place his company in control of the nation's energy in the early 1870s created a turning point for the nation. In the episode known as "the Oil War," Rockefeller sought to dominate petroleum markets worldwide. Initially, small producers banded together and defeated his efforts. But Rockefeller built his Standard Oil from the ashes of this initial setback. By the end of the 1870s Standard controlled roughly 80 percent of the world's oil supply. By dominating transportation and refining, Rockefeller dominated the market.

An alarming picture of "Big Oil" took shape as Standard used ruthless business practices, including rollbacks and insider pricing, to squeeze out its competitors. Tarbell, who had become a successful journalist and editor, wanted to expose what Rockefeller was really doing. Across the nation, readers awaited each of the nineteen installments on the story published by McClure's from 1902 to 1904. Though Tarbell teemed with bitterness for what Rockefeller had done to the private businessmen of Pennsylvania's oil business, she appreciated the value of allowing the details of the story to express her point of view. The articles were compiled into the History of the Standard Oil Company (1904). President Theodore Roosevelt, who succeeded McKinley in 1901, used the public furor created by the articles to order a federal investigation. Tarbell's work inspired new efforts to enforce antitrust laws. In 1911 the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of Standard Oil.

Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) also achieved significant changes through his writing. Sinclair's most famous book, The Jungle, was published after Tarbell's work gained almost immediate action. In The Jungle the meatpacking industry of Chicago was the setting for the tale of a Lithuanian immigrant named Jurgis Rudkus. Although Sinclair made the difficult experience of new immigrants the primary theme of the narrative, readers were drawn to the details of squalor in which their meat and other food was prepared. In the end The Jungle exposed the horrors of the Chicago meatpacking plants and the immigrants who were worked to death in them to a wide audience.

In a 1906 issue of Literary Digest, the meatpackers themselves protested Sinclair's characterization:

We regret that if you feel confident the report of your commissioners is true, you did not make the investigation more thorough, so that the American public and the world at large might know that there are packers and packers and that if some are unworthy of public confidence, there are others whose methods are above board and whose goods are of such high quality as to be a credit to the American nation.

However, the public reacted so strongly that Congress launched an investigation of the meatpacking plants of Chicago. Based on the commission's findings, Roosevelt pushed through the 1906 Pure Food and Drug legislation that placed regulatory authority with the federal government. It was one of the first moments in which Progressivism placed the responsibility for protecting citizens' everyday lives on the federal government.

Throughout the twentieth century, this expectation consistently increased. As president, Roosevelt held the ideal that the government should be the great arbiter of the conflicting economic forces in the nation, especially between capital and labor, guaranteeing justice to each and dispensing favors to none.


Spurred by the muckrakers, Roosevelt helped to create responsive federal legislation that appeared to be concerned about the welfare of "common" people. However, he remained dubious of the journalists' tendency toward sensationalism. Similar to twenty-first-century investigative journalists, muckrakers could sell more papers or copies by shocking readers. Despite such tendencies, the writing of muckrakers forever altered the role of American journalism and spurred the continued growth of a social consciousness in the United States.

In general, the writings of this era served the political movement known as Progressivism. Leaders such as Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot argued vociferously that the government had a responsibility to its citizens. Some of this social change derived from moralism, in which Progressives instructed people on what they should decide. Some critics called this sanctimonious. Supporters of muckraking and the Progressive movement, however, argued that writers such as Sinclair were reformers who were upholding American values and the American way of life.

With the justification of reform, Roosevelt's administration entered into open confrontation with big business. Roosevelt's reputation as a Progressive grew in 1902 when Pennsylvania coal miners went on strike for higher wages and better working conditions. Roosevelt threatened to send in the army to operate mines unless the owners agreed to arbitration. Some people said that this governmental interference went against the U.S. Constitution. They argued that the government had no right to take command of public property, but Roosevelt replied that the constitution was intended to serve the people, not vice versa.

Next, Roosevelt followed the findings of the muckraking journalists and attacked a few giant business trusts. He argued that these trusts were becoming too powerful and prevented economic competition. While some business leaders were angered, many Americans cheered Roosevelt and nicknamed him the "trustbuster." Roosevelt said that he wanted to give a "square deal" to the seller, consumer, employer, and employee. He did this by utilizing the Sherman Antitrust Act, which had been enacted in 1890 but largely left unused.

Roosevelt had tapped into a spirit of the times. He perceived the impact of reformers and journalists and appropriated it as part of his progressive initiatives. Progressives argued for an activist government that foresaw problems and acted aggressively to prevent calamities before they occurred rather than reacting to damage already done. Thus Progressives in Congress demanded safety legislation, closer regulation of public health issues, and better management of things such as public utilities.

By 1906 the combined sales of the ten magazines that concentrated on investigative journalism reached a total circulation of three million. Writers and publishers associated with this investigative journalism movement between 1890 and 1914 included Riis, Norris, Tarbell, Russell, Sinclair, and Steffens, along with Henry Demarest Lloyd, Nellie Bly, David Graham Phillips, C. P. Connolly, Benjamin Hampton, Thomas Lawson, Alfred Henry Lewis, and Ray Stannard Baker. Many of these investigative journalists objected when Roosevelt described them as muckrakers. Some of the journalists felt that the president had betrayed them after they had helped improve his political standing.

The muckraking journalists can be credited with initiating a movement that created significant change between 1900 and 1915, including the dissolution of the convict and peonage systems in some states; reform of prisons; passage of a federal pure food act in 1906; adoption of child labor laws by many states; 1906 passage of a federal employers' liability act; expansion and development of the forest reserve system; the reclamation of millions of acres of land in the West after passage of the Newlands Act of 1902; construction of a policy of the conservation of natural resources; eight-hour labor laws for women were passed in some states; prohibition of racetrack gambling; twenty states passed mothers' pension acts between 1908 and 1913. Furthermore, twenty-five states had workmen's compensation laws by 1915, and an income tax amendment was also added to the Constitution. In each case, an activist federal government implemented reforms to basic portions of American life.

see alsoThe Jungle; McClure's Magazine; Reform; Spanish-American War


Primary Works

Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York: Macmillan, 1910.

Baker, Ray Stannard. American Chronicle. 1925. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1945.

McClure, Samuel Sidney. My Autobiography. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1914.

"The Packers' Reply." Literary Digest 32 (16 June 1906).

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle. New York: Doubleday, Page, and Co., 1906.

Steffens, Joseph Lincoln. The Shame of the Cities. New York: McClure, Phillips and Co., 1904.

Tarbell, Ida M. All in the Day's Work. New York: Macmillan, 1939.

Tarbell, Ida M. The History of Standard Oil Company. New York: McClure, Phillips and Co., 1904.

Secondary Works

Chalmers, David M. The Social and Political Ideas of theMuckrakers. New York: Citadel Press, 1964.

Colburn, David R., and George E. Pozzetta. Reform andReformers in the Progressive Era. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983.

Filler, Louis. Appointment at Armageddon: Muckraking and Progressivism in the American Tradition. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976.

Filler, Louis. Progressivism and Muckraking. New York: R. R. Bowker, 1976.

Hofstadter, Richard. The Age of Reform: From Bryan toF. D. R. New York: Knopf, 1955.

Pendergast, Tom. Creating the Modern Man: AmericanMagazines and Consumer Culture, 1900–1950. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000.

Schneirov, Matthew. The Dream of a New Social Order:Popular Magazines in America 1893–1914. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Shapiro, Bruce, ed. Shaking the Foundations: 200 Years ofInvestigative Journalism in America. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, 2002.

Stein, Harry, ed. Muckraking: Past, Present, and Future. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1973.

Weinberg, Arthur and Lila. The Muckrakers. New York: Capricorn Books, 1964.

Wilson, Harold S. McClure's Magazine and the Muckrakers. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970.

Brian Black