Vanderbilt English professor Cecelia Tichi wrote this: “Say the word ‘muckraker, 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 .”
But there’s a reason why—despite our own ambivalence and their strangeness—the muckrakers are considered foundational figures in American journalism. In my book on the financial crisis and the financial press, called The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark, I’m going to argue the muckrakers—at least in their earlier, purer incarnation around McClure’s, bestowed on us great gifts—qualities that still guide, and I have to say, challenge us, today. These are the values we have to hold onto and insist up on in the current debate. It’s the circus tent—in Roy Peter Clark’s wonderful phrase—we have to hold up in the windstorm.
The first is what I call a certain journalistic purity. They had clean hands. The muckrakers literally stumbled upon their subject—institutionalized corruption-while searching for great stories. It was not, as some would believe, the other way around.
Most muckrakers’ early careers were not political. Many weren’t even journalistic.
McClure’s first job was at a bicycling magazine, The Wheelman. He left to form a literary syndicate, signing up magazine editors and assembling a stable of writers to write fiction and poems for them. When he started McClure’s, in 1893, it was because he collected 2,000 unpublished manuscripts, mostly fiction, and figured he could sell the public on a new literary style, realism, while undercutting the likes of Harper’s and the Atlantic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.
At its start, McClure’s would be filled with fiction writers. An early contributor (and investor) was Arthur Conan Doyle. Later, the magazine would 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.
McClure described his plans for the magazine this way in a letter to a friend: “I will have History, Politics, Finance, Invention, Education, Health, Science, etc., etc., treated say one topic a month by great thinkers.” Its editorial direction was, as historian Harold S. Wilson puts it, “confused.”
As I noted, McClure considered himself a storyteller first. “The story is the thing,” he often repeated, almost as a mantra. As he wrote in 1906, after McClure’s had become a national sensation, “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.” Phillips, told 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.” McClure’s articles were closely edited and read as many as thirty times, sometimes by everyone on the staff.
Harold Wilson said: “The McClure articles imitated the short story with quickly initiated action and a climax. But the most weighty criterion with McClure was that the story be readable, that it be as interesting and exciting on its second or third reading as on the first. But more, like all great Victorian literature, the article needed a moral, but the ‘ethical element’ was present ‘unconsciously.’ ”
What these writers understood quite consciously was that the story was an effective—perhaps the most effective—way to explain complex problems to a mass audience. Rather than being top-down communication, it was a means of democratizing information, a tool of empowerment.
Perhaps many in this room would disagree with me, but the fact that they had no political ax to grind—that they saw themselves as journalists, not activists—not only gave them credibility but allowed them to speak not in the name of a partisan interest but the public interest.
A second quality they brought was a fidelity to facts and fact-gathering. The muckrakers were hardly the first to practice the “journalism of exposure,” but McClure and Tarbell brought qualities that particularly matched the sensibilities of their well-educated, middle-class, Midwestern audience. It was deeply religious, but also influenced by the new social sciences, particularly sociology, then coming of age. It demanded not polemic but facts.
And McClure was known for his fidelity to facts. As historians Arthur and Lida Weinberg wrote: “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.