MUCKRAKERS. Writers whose exposés of corruption in business and government aroused public opinion and helped spur Progressive-Era reforms. Theodore Roosevelt popularized the term in a 14 April 1906 speech, in which he compared them to the Man with the Muck-rake in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, who remained so intent on raking the filth at his feet that he failed to look up and behold the celestial crown. Likewise, Roosevelt argued, the muckrakers remained so focused on the evils in society they failed to reaffirm the vision of America's promise. The usage stuck, and henceforth the term was applied to all those engaged in uncovering scandal and corruption.
Lincoln Steffens's "Tweed Days in St. Louis," appearing in the October 1902 issue of McClure's Magazine, is generally regarded as the first true muckraking article. Noteworthy precedents, however, included Henry Demarest Lloyd's Wealth Against Commonwealth (1894), Jacob Riis's How the Other Half Lives (1890), and Josiah Flynt's World of Graft (1901). The classic pieces of muck-raking's golden age included Steffens's series on municipal corruption (collectively titled Shame of the Cities), Ida Tarbell's The History of the Standard Oil Company (1902), Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), David Graham Phillips's Treason of the Senate (1906), Ray Stannard Baker's Following the Color Line (1908), and renegade financier Thomas Lawson's Frenzied Finance (1904). All were initially serialized in popular journals, a fact revealing the close connection between the muckrakers and a new generation of mass periodicals. Established near the turn of the century, journals including McClure's, Cosmopolitan, Collier's, Everybody's, and the revamped Ladies' Home Journal quickly supplanted the older established literary magazines by featuring popular, attention-grabbing stories. Editors such as S. S. McClure and Cosmopolitan's John Brisben Walker combined their commitment to reform with their drive to reach a new readership and boost circulation, thus providing fertile ground for the muckrakers' talents. The genre these writers developed merged elements of investigative, advocacy, sensationalist, and yellow journalism.
The muckrakers' best work provided hard-hitting, factual revelations of wrongdoing in the nation's most powerful institutions. What distinguished the muckrakers from previous reform-minded writers was their emphasis on concrete detail rather than moral suasion. It was the revelation of fact based on verifiable information and firsthand experience that gave the genre its impact. At its worst, however, muckraking degenerated into sensationalism and yellow journalism, lending credence to Roosevelt's criticism.
The muckrakers' influence reached its zenith between 1904 and 1908, when the exposés on patent-medicine fraud, meat processing, insurance swindles, monopolies, political corruption, and racial violence led to criminal indictments and reform legislation, which included the Pure Food and Drug Act, the breakup of Standard Oil, the direct election of senators, investigations into the insurance and finance industries, and the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Their fortunes began to fade with the accession of the conservative William Howard Taft to the presidency in 1909, and by 1911 most of the journals were feeling the pinch of a concerted effort by business and political foes to silence their attacks. Advertiser boycotts forced some magazines to close, while others found their loans recalled and creditors insisting on immediate payment. Still others, including McClure's and Cosmopolitan, were bought out and transformed into noncontroversial entertainment publications.
Chalmers, David Mark. The Social and Political Ideas of the Muck-rakers. New York: Citadel Press, 1964.
Filler, Louis. Crusaders for American Liberalism. Yellow Springs, Ohio: Antioch Press, 1950.
Miraldi, Robert, ed. The Muckrakers: Evangelical Crusaders. West-port, Conn.: Praeger, 2000.
Muckrakers emerged on the U.S. journalism scene around the turn of the nineteenth century. They were journalists who sought out and exposed the misconduct of prominent people or high profile organizations. As crusaders for social change, muckraking journalists wrote articles not about news events, but about injustices or abuses, and corruption in the world of business and politics. Their aim was to bring such information to the attention of the U.S. public.
Politician Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919) was the first to call controversial journalists "muckrakers." [This was a reference to a character in the then well-known book Pilgrim's Progress, by English preacher John Bunyan (1628–1688).] A muckraker was a person who rejected a crown for a muckrake, a tool used to rake dung.
Magazines such as McClure's, Cosmopolitan, and Everybody's published articles revealing abuses of power or negligent practices. These included the use of tainted meat by the meat packing industry, prostitution rings, fraudulent insurance, and corruption among city politicians. Proponents of this progressive journalism included magazine editor Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936), whose collected articles in McClure's were published as the book Shame of the Cities (1904). Writer and social reformer Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) also incorporated pointed criticisms of business and government into such topical novels as The Jungle (1906), The Money Changers (1908), and King Coal (1917). Author Ida M. Tarbell (1857–1944) penned a History of the Standard Oil Company (1904) which was then a scathing indictment of the U.S. petroleum business.
While the muckrakers were derided in their own time, their work succeeded in raising widespread awareness of social, economic, and political ills. This prompted a number of reforms, including passage of pure food laws and anti-trust legislation.