More importantly from my point of view was this: Will it be able to produce great stories? That’s what journalism does, isn’t it? And it seems to be a hole—and not a small one—in a peer-produced model of news. It doesn’t really have any great stories, and, worryingly, it doesn’t seem to have any way to produce them.
I don’t say this as in, haha. I say it because it’s a critical problem.
I’ve written that a centerless model for enterprise journalism, is having trouble producing great stories for the same reason that Here Comes Everybody wasn’t written by “everybody.” Important books, like great journalism, require authorship, a power journalists require and deserve at least as much as academics. Can Plan B support authors? If so, great. But as I’ve asked, how exactly?
The larger question looming behind this entire debate, though, is whether the FON consensus believes that the story really is the thing, that is, whether it believes in the centrality of the great story. I’m happy to have that debate. But, as I’ve said, relegating the story to the margins of journalism would be a bold position for a journalism academic to take.
And, you know, it was never Bill Keller’s lawn. It’s the public’s lawn, so it was time to bring some seriousness of purposes to the discussion.
And this brings us to McClure.
Okay, this was a very peculiar man. Considered by many to be a genius, he was also just an impossible boss—a font of enthusiasms, you might say. He was forever steaming in from Europe, throwing the office into turmoil with new schemes, ideas, and editorial changes. “I can’t sit still,” he once said to Lincoln Steffens. “That’s your job and I don’t see how you can do it!” Staffers would literally rent hotel rooms so they could hide and finish their stories, but apparently McClure would always find them.
The son of an Irish shipyard worker and his wife, Samuel Sidney McClure was brought to the U.S. as a child after his father was killed in a work accident. He was raised amid severe privation in rural Indiana, moving among relatives, and grew into a high-strung, impulsive boy. He ran away “dozens and dozens” of times, his biographer notes. He worked his way through Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois, founded by abolitionists and a center for social reformers and as a collegiate orator, once made this declaration about the abolitionist movement, so revealing of his character: “It was when they believed in what seemed impossible that the abolitionists did the most good, that they created the sentiment that finally did accomplish the impossible.”
Modern journalists have an ambivalent relationship toward muckrakers, I would suggest. And it’s understandable. They were moralistic. They were deeply religious, part of the religious left you might say. They wrote in such high-flown language, in such high dudgeon. We remember them, inaccurately, I should add, as intemperate hotheads.
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.