Ida Tarbell: The Muckraker

Ida was a thirtyish writer and editor, who had left western Pennsylvania in1890 to go to Paris to write about the life of a hero of hers, a woman who had perished in the French ‘Terror’ of the 1790s. She also wrote articles for American publications about life in Paris that were well-received. In 1892 as she was finishing her research, a rising Scots-Irish American magazine publisher, S.S. “Sam” McClure, bounded into her life. Stopping over in Paris on his way to Italy, he came by her apartment to tell her how much he liked her writing. Then, because he had stayed too long and the banks had closed, he borrowed $40, nearly all she had in the world, to pay for his ticket onward. Ida assumed she would never see her small nest-egg again, but the next day McClure’s British agent wired her the money. It was the beginning of a relationship that would last, with ups and downs, until she died decades later.

In 1893, Ida returned home to Titusville, Pennsylvania to write her study of Mme. Roland. She had barely completed it when, in August 1894, McClure summoned her to New York City and offered her a job writing a biography of Napoleon on the centenary of his rise to power for his new McClure’s magazine. Her writing, combined with some rare engravings of Napoleon and his family, helped to triple the magazine’s circulation between the first installment and the last. Next came an assignment to discover new things to say about, and by, Abraham Lincoln for the anniversary of his election as president, which proved equally popular. Through the period of these two large projects, she lived in Washington, DC, finally moving to New York in 1899 to become the managing editor of McClure’s. The owner was more interested in talent than in gender, and Ida had more editing experience than anyone else on staff. Meanwhile, her biography of Mme. Roland had been published in 1896.

For the next three years, Ida wrote relatively little, but managed a lot. According to one of the staff, “she was pacifier and arbiter, guide, philosopher and friend.” During this time, McClure’s and its competitors discovered the public was interested in uncovering corporate scandals. The magazine’s management debated how to respond and, toward the end of 1901, Ida went to Europe to meet with McClure, who was there with his family, and present him with an outline of a story for which she had both the skills and personal experience to pursue: the history of the Standard Oil Corporation. Over the next two years, she submitted regular installments to McClure’s that eventually filled two volumes when they were published as a book. Her account was hugely influential, and became the landmark text of the “muckraking movement.” Coupled with others’ revelations of municipal corruption and labor union misdeeds, McClure’s became the leader in exposing scandalous corporate and public-sector behavior.

When President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “muckraking” in 1906 to refer to the stream of exposés of political corruption, consumer fraud, and the use of monopoly power and price rigging that characterized journalism in the late 1890s and 1900s, he was ascribing the image of the “muck-raker” in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress to the tenor of the time. In the novel, the man who is turning over the barnyard muck is so focused on his task that he has no time to look up and see the glories of Heaven.

The president’s jibe was aimed at a particular editor who was a constant critic of his policies, but soon became a catchall term for everyone who was exposing organized wrongdoing. The term was meant to distinguish between the normal reporting of news events and the lengthier, research-intensive discussion of broad topics. Some earlier muckrakers also used a fictional format to bring evils to light — one can think of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had a great impact on pre–Civil War America, or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which appeared in the 1880s, a decade of labor strife.

Ida kept her account of Standard Oil fairly balanced. She noted that some of Rockefeller’s actions as he built the largest company in America were underhanded, if not illegal, but she also noted that the squabbling among his opponents, the independent oil producers, was destructive of their common interests as well.

The story that emerged was one of Standard Oil’s exercise of corporate power to monopolize the market for a vital product, using bribery, for example, as a tactic to gain insider information to damage competitors, while claiming in court that the company was just more competitive than its rivals. Standard Oil, in fact, had indulged in a sophisticated industrial espionage operation for decades.

A careful reader of public opinion, President Theodore Roosevelt began to move on the oil monopoly. It was a lengthy process, but by 1911 Standard Oil Corporation had been convicted under the Sherman Antitrust Act and ordered by the Supreme Court to break itself up into competing corporations. Even so, it took more years before the “independent” parts actually began to compete.. As the US was gradually drawn into World War I, the public’s focus shifted away from wrongdoing to patriotism and the age of the muckraker was over.