Tag Archives: muckraking

Jacob Riis showed “How the Other Half Lives”

By Christopher B. Daly 

A hat-tip to journalist and educator Ted Gup for a terrific story about his discovery of a classic work of journalism history — the copy of How the Other Half Lives that was owned and annotated by the author himself, Jacob Riis. As I described him in my book, Covering America, Riis (pronounced rees) was a Danish immigrant to New York City who was shocked and outraged by the conditions he found in the city’s many tenements in the late 19th century. Picking up his notebook and a camera (equipped with a then-new technology — the portable flash), he explored the warrens of tiny, windowless rooms where New York’s newest and most miserable found cheap housing. In buildings lacking heat, ventilation and plumbing, the masses huddled while the wealthy were building ever grander pleasure domes uptown on Fifth Avenue and the rest of the Upper East Side. His work also provided a template for the journalists of the classic “muckraking” movement in the first decade of the 20th Century. 

An important thing to know about Riis’ expose, published in 1890, is that it had an impact. His photos and writing contributed to a political demand for improvements in New York City housing codes, which resulted in concrete improvements in the tenements. The city adopted new building codes that required more light, less crowding and, eventually, heat and plumbing.

In his piece in today’s Times, Gup — an investigative journalist himself who now chairs the Journalism Dept at crosstown Emerson College — describes how he stumbled upon a first edition of How the Other Half Lives that contains Riis’ own handwritten comments and marginalia. He also rightly commends Riis as a “multimedia” journalist for his combining of text and photos (and his use of a flash to light up those dark inner rooms of the tenements).

As many have observed (including the city’s new mayor, Bill DeBlasio), Riis is as relevant as ever, now that New York City is living through another Gilded Age in which wealth is as unevenly distributed as it was in the days of Rockefeller, Morgan, and Hearst.

"The Italian Rag-picker," by Jacob Riis, from his book, How the Other Half Lives.  Photo from Museum of the City of New York.

“The Italian Rag-picker,” by Jacob Riis, from his book, How the Other Half Lives.
Photo from Museum of the City of New York.



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Doris Kearns Goodwin turns to journalism history

By Christopher B. Daly 

In her newest book, presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin takes a turn toward the history of journalism. Actually, she is working at the intersection of Presidential History and Journalism History in The Bully Pulpit: TR, Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism. In any case, I am happy to welcome her to the ranks of journalism 9781416547860_custom-cbfa6372bc5fbe63f5a575b089d8f201e92d1c0b-s2-c85historians, and I am always glad to see any professional historian from another specialty stray into journalism’s past.

I am also intrigued by her discovery of a “golden age” in the journalism at the turn of the last century. It was certainly a time of great achievement, thanks to the “Muckrakers” who investigated so much wrong-doing, corruption, and squalor. I look forward to reading the book and seeing why she considers that period so wonderful. (Personally, I would nominate the period from about 1968-74: rise of rock journalism/ heyday of “new journalism”/ Pentagon Papers / Watergate. Your nomination?)

Until then, here’s an interview Goodwin did recently with NPR.

One stunning excerpt: Goodwin recounts that the great muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens decided to examine the performance of the U.S. government. So, Steffens wrote to the head of the outfit — none other than President Theodore Roosevelt.

“Mr. President, I want to investigate corruption in the federal government.”

According to Goodwin, TR’s reply was quite a stunner. He gave Steffens a calling card that he could use in his reporting and present to government officials as needed, which read, in part:

“Please tell Mr. Lincoln Steffens anything whatever about the running of the government that you know (not incompatible with the public interest) and provided only that you tell him the truth.”

Now, that‘s the way to treat a reporter! Just tell the truth.


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What China really needs: press freedom

By Christopher B. Daly 

What ails the Chinese economy? According to a recent story and column in the NYTimes, it’s a lack of confidence among Chinese consumers in the safety of the products — from baby formula to cars to pork — made in their own country. They lack confidence for good reasons, but they lack the means to do much about it other than smuggle in substitutes.

I would submit that one missing ingredient is a free press that could reveal the abuses, shortcuts, and shoddy practices that undermine Chinese products. In his column, Joe Nocera gave this idea a quick nod.

In the United States, of course, it has become religion among conservatives to denounce regulation, saying it stifles business and hinders economic growth. But consider: At the turn of the last century, America was as riddled with scam artists as China is today. Snake oil salesmen — literally — abounded. Food safety was a huge issue. In 1906, however, Upton Sinclair published “The Jungle,” his exposé-novel about the meatpacking industry. That book, pointed out Stanley Lubman, a longtime expert in Chinese law, in a recent blog post in The Wall Street Journal, is what propelled Theodore Roosevelt to propose the Food and Drug Administration. Which, in turn, reformed meat-processing — among many other things — and gave consumers confidence in the food they ate and the products they bought.

That is fine as far as it goes, but it’s a bit reductionist. The fact is, it took a sustained campaign by a lot of muckraking journalists to build public support for reform, and it took a political system that could (with sufficient effort) bring about change, and it took a political movement (Progressivism) that was poised to mobilize that public sentiment into electoral and legislative results.

Ironically, the same issue of the NYTimes has a roundabout confirmation of the virtue of regulation: the red-state folks who raise catfish are worried that Washington will fail to fund the federal office that oversees inspections of catfish. No inspectors, no public confidence, no sales.



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A St. Patrick’s Day tribute (part 2)

By Chris Daly 

One of the greatest Irish-Americans in the history of U.S. journalism is one who is not often remembered today: S.S. McClure.

After making money in the syndication business, McClure sent on to found one of the most important magazines in American history, the eponymous McClure’s Magazine. More than any other magazine, his was at the heart of the Muckraking movement at the start of the 20th Century. He hired or published Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and other pioneers of investigative journalism. The January 1903 issue of McClure’s Magazine was one of the greatest single issues ever published. 

Here is an excerpt from my new book (on sale now!), called Covering America, which is a narrative history of 300+ years in journalism.



As a coherent national movement, muckraking can be traced to the year 1902. The setting was a monthly magazine called McClure’s, which had been founded by S. S. McClure, an Irish-born journalist, in 1893 in New York City. Sam McClure was a pioneer in a new kind of publication then sweeping the country. Although magazines had been published in America for more than a century, they generally steered clear of journalism and focused instead on literature, fiction, ladies’ fashion, or housekeeping hints. Traditional magazines like the Atlantic Monthly, Scribner’s, or Harper’s were also typically quite expensive in price and conservative in outlook. But starting in the 1880s, a new kind of magazine appeared. Thanks to dramatic drops in the cost of paper, magazines could now be priced to reach middle- and working-class audiences. And thanks to the halftone engraving process, they could print extensive displays of photographs. It is also important to note that, unlike even the biggest daily newspapers, which were rarely distributed far beyond their home base, these magazines circulated around the country. The emergence of cheap, well-illustrated monthly magazines created the possibility, for the first time, of a mass national audience focused on news and public affairs. Until the advent of radio networks in the 1920s, such magazines were the only truly national outlet for journalism.

Still, it took some initiative to capitalize on this new possibility and to turn it in a politically progressive direction. That was precisely where Sam McClure, after making a fortune in syndication, led the way. One of McClure’s first hires for his magazine was a young woman named Ida Tarbell, who spent most of the 1890s working on lengthy serialized biographical sketches—first of Napoleon, then of Lincoln. Two other key additions were a contributing editor, veteran Chicago reporter Ray Stannard Baker, and a managing editor, Lincoln Steffens, hired in 1900. In January 1903, McClure’s Magazine assembled an issue that has been called the most famous in American magazine history. It contained three articles that became recognized as classics of modern muckraking: part three of Tarbell’s history of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil trust, Steffens’s exposé of municipal corruption in Minneapolis, and an article by Baker on a brutal coal-mining strike in Pennsylvania—all accompanied by an editorial written by McClure that attempted to frame the entire issue as one that raised serious questions about American society. “Capitalists, workingmen, politicians, citizens—all breaking the law, or letting it be broken. Who is left to uphold it?” he asked. “There is no one left; none but all of us.”

Tarbell’s nineteen-part series on Standard Oil became a sensation and set the standard for the techniques of exposé. Tarbell, who had grown up in the oil fields of western Pennsylvania, where Rockefeller built his business, was a scrupulous researcher, and she relied heavily on official government documents and court records to build the case against him. Rockefeller’s companies had been sued and investigated for many years, and there was an extensive paper record dispersed across dozens of courthouses and state agencies, but no one had committed the time and expense (McClure sank an astonishing $50,000 into the project) to pull it all together in a dramatic narrative for a national audience. Tarbell’s account was quickly published in book form, and two years later, the administration of Theodore Roosevelt filed a federal antitrust suit against Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. For McClure’s Magazine, the impact was also great. From a circulation of about 370,000 in 1900, the magazine shot past half a million after it began running exposés.

Soon, others joined in. Journalists began looking into child labor, race relations, lynching, prostitution, and an array of other social ills. . .


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