Stories That Changed America: Muckrakers of the 20th century
Bureaucratic dishonesty, collective gluttony, infection and resulting fatality from unchecked food products: the problems people face today may be unbelievable. However, they are reflections of the ignominious motives from the previous century. At that time, just like how it is now, it was the new channels and the media that were responsible for shedding light on the existence of widespread malpractice and corporate depravity. This was not done by any government body, judiciary or law enforcing agency. Journalism has been famously referred to as one of the unofficial governmental components; the surveillance force that kept a check on the administrative, law-making and magisterial sections of the society.
The only method that can be used to fight the depravities of the industrial society in America (corporate America) is to unearth and expose such immorality. High school and university journalists can be inspired and mentored to unfold their valiant opinions through very critical manner, and that is to help them realize the immense power that lies in the written word as seen in the awe inspiring stories contained within the book “Stories that changed America: Muckrakers of the 20th century.” The book is written by well-known author Carl Jenson, who is an emeritus professor at Sonoma State University.
Journalism also aimed to correct the unbalanced segmentation of authority of these sections. Employing the freedom of speech and opinion that is inherent in the constitution of the United States, journalistic professional aims to evaluate, uncover and force reformation. Journalists are the people who voice the cumulative concerns of the general populace and bring the country’s shortcomings into the limelight. At the end of the 19th century, as journalism was catching up steam, investigative journalists like Ida Tarbell were pivotal to revealing the growing influence and exclusive possessive power of the Standard Oil Company.
Other notable journalists like Upton Sinclair brought to light the ungodly facts of industrial scale meatpacking. Lincoln Steffens is a name synonymous with investigative journalism, who at the height of his career proved the existence of widespread municipal venality in the United States. The president of the United States at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, termed such journalists as Muckrakers because his belief was that these individuals had no official decorum and were just gossiping mongers and conspiracy theorists. This analogue and nomenclature of Roosevelt persisted as the field of investigative journalism grew and gained widespread acclaim for its ongoing services.
Carl Jenson’s book is a delight for avid readers and intellectuals who are interested in the history of prominent journalists; this is achieved through short biographies and famous columns of the “Muckrakers” and the early history of investigative journalism. The book is spread out chronologically by date of birth; hence, the first individual mentioned is Ida Tarbell and the last is Frances Lappe; they were born in 1857 and 1944 respectively. An important point of focus is the fact that both the first and last writer mentioned are female, with mostly their male counterparts in the middle. This shows the investigative prowess of the female writers of that era.
As an intro to the book, the author Prof. Jensen remarks that his assemblage of characters in the book intends to invigorate the soul of the reader and work towards positive change in society. He even concedes that the seemingly pejorative term “Muckrakers” is actually proudly used to identify those individuals, journalists and social activists whose work helped to rectify the historical path taken and ameliorated the lives of the people. It is also an extraordinary book for aspiring journalists and students of investigative journalism with clean, crisp and clear language.
The amount of information that is showcased in the book is non-exhaustive and seemingly enough to satiate the hunger of a young aspiring journalist in search for an exemplary model to imitate. The information about the personalities mentioned in the book can be used as a suitable starting point for further research into the biographies and writings provided. Muckraking topics have been specifically grouped into six sections. The first section is about collective venality in corporate America; the second focuses on civilian rights; the third is on armed forces and their influence, the fourth on the environment. The fifth and sixth segment sheds light on destitution and political issues respectively.
Many people find the book controversial in its selection of individuals with some people citing the inclusion of Malcolm X and Betty Friedan to be politically incorrect as they are not considered Muckrakers. However, one cannot deny that the two individuals mentioned had overpowering effects on society at large, and their inclusion may inspire the next breed of reformists and social activists. Prof Jensen concedes that the list is by no means exhaustive, and due to limitations of space many potential muckrakers had to be left out as he worked on those individuals who garnered the most influence and generated greater social change.
People like Tarbell, Steffens, Sinclair, Seldes, Stone and Brodeur collectively define the productive period of Muckraking. These individuals also seamlessly fitted the description of bravery, audacity and amenability that is so crucial for resolving the problems of national importance. The writings mentioned in the books are excerpts from the above mentioned individuals’ works and two of them, Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” are fictional works. Other selections include clips from magazines, letters and newspapers that were circulating at the time.
The distinctive feature of the biographical depiction method used in the book is the Labels that are asserted by Prof. Jenson to individual writers and the parental guidance that each received. For example, Sanger’s father urged her to help those who live in ignorance and maintain free thinking. Seldes, who is typically considered the most suppressed journalist in the United States, was taught to challenge conformity. Fulbright was taught to urge the wealthy to help the destitute by his mother. Enrich was termed the scaremonger of journalism and Mitford was the titular characterization of female Muckraking. Bernstein is shown to have been trained with a civic recalcitrance and anti-establishment outlook by his politically charged family background.
On the downside, scholars and students alike who expect to receive a modern perspective to Muckraking may be left wanting. Prof. Jenson expects this apparent lack by acknowledging that investigative reporting is dying a slow death. He contends that investigative journalism is now a collective endeavor rather than an individual struggle. The conciseness of the facts and the brevity of the text in various writings and sketches may put off certain scholars, as some citations are missing or not capable of further research purposes.
Prof Jenson’s work has always revolved around the evils of censorship and challenges raised against investigative journalism. His book has a loud, solid reverberating effects on the minds of aspiring writers to take up the pen, speak and write their mind and to colloquially ‘Save the Nation” as it were. Roosevelt, who aimed his staunch animadversion towards journalism, prematurely shorted the career lifespan of many investigative journalists. In the 20th century, it was easy to silence someone who would take up controversial topics and appalling issues to the general view of the populace. However, the book shows that those investigative journalisms wore the derogatory term “Muckraker” as an honorable title to depict their undying efforts to expose corruption and slanders of their era.