Communication Muckraking
by
Anya Schiffrin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0211

Introduction

“Muckraking journalism” is synonymous with in-depth investigative journalism that has an impact and addresses subjects of importance to society. The original muckrakers were a core group of about fifteen journalists writing for McClure’s Magazine in the first part of the 20th century. Among other topics, they took on corporate power, the big trusts, and government corruption. This band of journalists included Frank Norris, Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Jacob Riis, as well as many others. These Progressive Era journalists were called “muckrakers” because President Teddy Roosevelt accused them of raking the muck (filth) like the character in Pilgrim’s Progress, a religious book written by John Bunyan in the 17th century that became a classic of the genre. In a 1906 speech, Roosevelt said, “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” (Dean Starkman, The watchdog that didn’t bark: The financial crisis and the disappearance of investigative reporting [New York: Columbia University Press, 2014], p. 28). The muckrakers are known most famously for coalescing around McClure’s Magazine, the publication founded in 1893 and based in New York City. In its heyday, McClure’s circulation was close to 400,000 copies. Muckraking exposés seized the imagination of the public at a time when there was widespread unhappiness with political corruption and the dominance of the large trusts. The period of the original muckrakers did not last very long; however, muckrakers are often cited when investigative journalism resurfaces in the United States. In the early 21st century, “muckraking” has come to mean investigative journalism more generally, and many authors try to determine which conditions give rise to muckraking, how it is supported, what makes it hard to be a muckraker, and what effect digital technology is having on it. Investigative Reporters and Editors, a US nonprofit organization, defines muckraking, on its website, as “reporting, through one’s own initiative and work product, of matters of importance to readers, viewers or listeners, and in which the subjects of the reporting often wish the matters under scrutiny to remain undisclosed.” This article also broadens the definition of muckraking to include investigative reporting done around the world and takes note of the substantial recent body of literature on China, which is an interesting case study of how journalists manage to report on muckraking in authoritarian regimes. For textbooks on muckraking methods and the memoirs of famous muckrakers, as well as more information about anthologies of muckraking, see the excellent Oxford Bibliographies article in Communication Investigative Reporting by James L. Aucoin. Substantial research help from Anna Kordunsky, Anamaria Lopez. Thanks also to Hannah Assadi, Susanna de Martino, Ryan Powell, and Copyeditor Chloe Oldham.

History and Context of Muckraking

Muckraking has been studied for over one hundred years, not only by historians but also by economists and political scientists. This section highlights just a few of the books and articles on the subject. Cassady 1941 argues that hard-hitting reporting on the problems of the day was done during the Gilded Age and continued into the Progressive Era. Miraldi 2000, McKitrick 1962, Regier 1932, Wilson 1970, and Filler 1993 explore the motivations and cultural and political context of the era, whereas Goodwin 2013 discusses the relationships that President Theodore Roosevelt had with the muckraking journalists and how he made use of them to further his agenda. Written by economists, Dyck, et al. 2013 demonstrates that the muckraking reporting affected congressional voting patterns of the time. Valuck, et al. 1992 shows that reporting by muckrakers on drug safety spread to Britain and thus had impact beyond the United States. Poitras and Sutter 2009 argues that advertiser boycotts did not cause the muckraking magazines to decline. Biographies, such as Biggers 2017 and Steffens 1931, explain the challenges that muckrakers faced in their time and the impact of their work, whereas Tichi 2004 uses contemporary interviews to demonstrate the development of muckraking from the Progressive Era to the early 21st century.

  • Biggers, Jeff. 2017. Trials of a scold: The incredible true story of writer Anne Royall. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Biggers argues that Anne Royall was an early muckraker and attempts to restore her to a place in the history of US muckraking. Like Jessica Mitford, Royall wrote satire and accounts of her travels around the United States. She also tackled religious bigotry and the anti-Masonic prejudice of the early 19th century. Like the muckrakers who followed her, Royall covered prison conditions and the big banks and published numerous books.

  • Cassady, Edward E. 1941. Muckraking in the Gilded Age. American Literature 13.2: 134–141.

    DOI: 10.2307/2921106E-mail Citation »

    Cassady provides an overview of investigative and campaigning journalism in the late 19th century and its similarities to the “muckraking” journalism of the Progressive Era. Cassady argues against the characterization of the media as complacent in Gilded Age corruption, highlighting several significant pieces that skewered government and corporations of the era.

  • Dyck, Alexander, David Moss, and Luigi Zingales. 2013. Media versus special interests. The Journal of Law & Economics 56.3: 521–553.

    DOI: 10.1086/673216E-mail Citation »

    Dyck and colleagues studied voting patterns during the muckraker era and found that the reporting had a statistically significant effect on voting records in the house and Senate. The work of these authors confirmed what many had taken as an article of faith and provides the most compelling statistical evidence of impact.

  • Filler, Louis. 1993. The muckrakers. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    Written within living memory of the muckraking movement, this book has an enormous amount of context about contemporary politics and cultural life and how the muckrakers fit into the debates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Also includes details on the response to their reporting.

  • Goodwin, Doris Kearns. 2013. The bully pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the golden age of journalism. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    E-mail Citation »

    Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin discusses the way in which President Teddy Roosevelt used the press to further his reform agenda and his relationship with muckraking reporters. The author writes that the muckraking reporting made “major contributions” to the reforms of what is now known as the “Progressive Era.”

  • McKitrick, Eric L. 1962. Review of the book The Muckrakers, 1902–1912, by Arthur & Lila Weinberg. Commentary (July): 85–87.

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    This review of an anthology of muckraking journalism, written by a noted historian, sums up much of the thinking of the muckraking era and puts it in the context of the United States after the Civil War. A good period piece that considers motivations and the national mood in a way no longer seen.

  • Miraldi, Robert, ed. 2000. The muckrakers: Evangelical crusaders. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    E-mail Citation »

    A collection of essays written by scholars about different aspects of the muckraking movement. Different chapters cover Lincoln Steffens, editor Alfred Eugene Roese and the muckrakers, and women. Chapter 4 about women called “Women and Exposé: Reform and Housekeeping” (pp. 71–93). Chapter 5 about Lincoln Steffens called “Lincoln Steffens: The Paradoxical Muckraker” (pp. 93–107), and chapter 6 about Alfred Eugene Roese called “Small-town editor, Big-Time Fight” (pp. 107–131).

  • Poitras, Marc, and Daniel Sutter. 2009. Advertiser pressure and control of the news: The decline of muckraking revisited. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 72.3: 944–958.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jebo.2009.07.015E-mail Citation »

    Poitras and Sutter examine the decline in muckraking in the early 20th century as a possible case study of advertiser influence. The authors’ statistical analysis of advertising, circulation, and magazine failure rate finds no evidence to support the common hypothesis that advertising boycotts, rather than popular interest, led to the demise of early muckraking.

  • Regier, Cornelius C. 1932. The era of the muckrakers. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book has a meandering old-fashioned feel and provides much context about tensions over income inequality and the rise of large trusts in the late 19th century. This background information makes the book relevant in the early 21st century, particularly the sections on the pressure on professors who spoke out against the trusts and the ways in which local newspapers tried to build relationships with readers. Examples include Cosmopolitan magazine’s plan to launch Cosmopolitan University (p. 16), which attracted 20,000 people who tried to register, as well as Upton Sinclair’s call for a ban on fake news (p. 179) and discussions on how to free the press from corporate capture.

  • Steffens, Lincoln. 1931. The autobiography of Lincoln Steffens. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

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    This detailed memoir by one of the nation’s foremost muckrakers is a two-volume account of his work. Steffens describes how he reported many of his stories and the reaction that followed. Includes the author’s writings on Mexico and the Russian Revolution.

  • Tichi, Cecelia. 2004. Exposés and excess: Muckraking in America, 1900/2000. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Based on a course taught by the author, this book is a collection of essays on US muckrakers in the 19th and 20th centuries, It also includes interviews with contemporary muckrakers, such as Barbara Ehrenreich (who writes on labor and women) and Laurie Garrett (who is known for her reporting on health). This is a selective look at the highlights of some muckraking writing.

  • Valuck, Robert, Suzanne Poirier, and Robert G. Mrtek. 1992. Patent medicine muckraking: Influences on American pharmacy, social reform, and foreign actors. Pharmacy in History 34.4: 183–192.

    E-mail Citation »

    The authors discuss the impact of muckrakers, such as Edward Bok whose coverage of patent medicines led to the 1906 Food and Drug Act. Not only did the journalism on the subject of ineffective and dangerous medicine lead to new laws in the United States, the muckraking tactics were also used by journalists in the United Kingdom and in Europe.

  • Wilson, Harold S. 1970. McClure’s magazine and the muckrakers. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Wilson describes the major stories written by the muckrakers as well as their career trajectories, political beliefs, and their relationships to each other and to the magazines for which they worked. One of the most detailed accounts available, Wilson also discusses the conflicts within McClure’s, including allegations of “gross impropriety.” This is a detailed account of the journalistic and intellectual climate of the period.

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