Who were the “muckrakers”?

The term "muckraking" dates to 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt criticized journalists for tearing down the country by their insistent emphasis on corruption and scandal. These writers were, he said, like "the Man with the Muck-rake" in John Bunyan's seventeenth-century spiritual classic, Pilgrim's Progress, who focused exclusively on filth rather than salvation. Roosevelt insisted to his friends in the press that his target was just William Randolph Hearst's newspaper and magazine empire but not the responsible critical investigations in leading magazines like McClure's where Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, and others published. Roosevelt was particularly upset by the appearance in Hearst's The Cosmopolitan magazine of David Graham Phillips' nine-part series, "The Treason of the Senate." Soon thereafter, Roosevelt gave an off-the-record talk to journalists at a private club, but word got out that he planned to deliver it again as a public address. His muckraker friends urged him not to, but Roosevelt went ahead anyway to both praise and condemn investigative journalism. Critical reports could be "indispensable" but could likewise be "potent forces for evil" when sensational and untruthful.

Roosevelt's praise was quickly forgotten; the critique stuck. So did the term "muckraker." The original muckrakers invariably wrote for magazines or published their muckraking work in books. Muckraking was not a notable feature of the newspapers of the early 1900s. Criticism there was a-plenty in the newspapers, but it was typically motivated by and infused with political partisanship. It was not driven by a pride in investigative finesse or professional virtue. But even in magazines the heyday of muckraking was brief. The most famous of the muckrakers wrote for McClure's and a handful of other upscale national magazines. The leading writers at McClure's left the magazine in 1906, bought The American magazine, and hoped to continue their muckraking ways there. The effort fizzled. Despite Roosevelt's criticism, the influence of these magazine writers stemmed in large part from the reforming energy of the Roosevelt administration itself. Roosevelt fueled muckraking. The end of the Roosevelt presidency in 1909 was also in many ways the end of the era of the muckrakers.

Years later, Leonard Downie, Jr., then a young editor at the Washington Post, fresh from working on the team that had edited Woodward and Bernstein, would write The New Muckrakers (1976) with chapters on different contemporary muckrakers. His central examples were primarily newspaper writers—Bernstein and Woodward, syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, Seymour Hersh, David Barlett and James Steele at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mike Baxter and Jim Savage at the Miami Herald, along with Bruce Brugmann at the San Francisco Bay Guardian (a weekly), and Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation (also a weekly). In terms of constructing a self-identified field of investigative reporting with a coherent and enduring legacy, the "new muckraking" that took off in the late 1960s had a much more pervasive and lasting influence on journalism than the original muckrakers.

What the original investigative era contributed was a shining example and, thanks to Roosevelt, a name. Still when muckraking became institutionalized in the 1970s, it did so under a different name, the term "investigative reporting." And what exactly is that? "The only workable definition of an investigative reporter is a reporter who spends a lot of time doing investigations," according to a 1976 textbook on the subject. Or, as the authors say a few pages later, "Investigative reporting, then, is simply the reporting of concealed information." Others place emphasis on a specific intent in investigative journalism—calling it "the journalism of outrage." They hold that it is distinctive in seeking to provoke indignation in readers or viewers; it is not just a form of gathering news but also of policing threats to public morality, exposing shortcomings in society in the hope of restitution and reform.

This second coming of muckraking, more than the first, found its home in America's daily newspapers and the culture of its newsrooms. It was in 1967 that Newsday became the first newspaper to establish an investigative "team" of reporters to do nothing but investigative work. The Associated Press created a similar "special assignment" team the same year. The Chicago Tribune followed in 1968. The Boston Globe adopted the same model in 1970 with its "spotlight" team. In 1968, 60 Minutes took the investigative reporting ideal to television for CBS. Nearly fifty years later, it is still a staple of Sunday night television and the longest running prime time show in any genre in US television history.

In 1975 a national organization of investigative journalists was established, Investigative Reporters and Editors. It continues to offer education and training in investigative journalism and moral and social support for its members. "The journalism of outrage" has become an enduring ideal in American journalism, persisting in shrinking newspaper newsrooms and being adopted with enthusiasm in many online start-ups..

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