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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

LO V Lecture

Define and discuss "Muckraking" and show how it was an effective tool used by the progressives to solve society's problems.

Muckraking , which suggests "digging up dirt," got its name from a speech made by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 about the journalists who were exposing corruption in American society . The time period during which much of this muckraking took place was from 1902-1912.


The term "muckraker" was reserved for the journalists and novelists of the Progressive era, but the literature of protest began some two decades earlier and was the work of philosophers and social scientists like Lester Ward and Henry George.


Historians date the start of muckraking with Lincoln Steffen's "Tweed Days in St. Louis" in the October, 1902, issue of McClure's, for it was not until then that such writing captivated the nation .

Muckraking arose, not because Americans fell in love with honesty, but because of the radical changes which society had just undergone.


Muckraking flared up at about the time when land was no longer freely available and large scale industry had begun to make clear that success was no longer easily possible for everyone.


The muckrakers did the work that no one else was prepared to do. They exposed the particular inequities that afflicted American life, stirred public opinion to the point where it was willing to support men like Roosevelt and Wilson in their reform programs, and planted the seeds of progressivism which the politicians were to harvest.


Muckraking was primarily a magazine phenomenon made possible by the development of the inexpensive periodical (McClure's, Everybody's, Cosmopolitan, and Collier's) with mass circulation willing to deal with controversial questions.


Examples of muckraking:

The January, 1903, issue of McClure's Magazine was sold out and the people clamored for more when it published Ida Tarbell's series on Standard Oil and the method by which the company had been built.


Tarbell published a wealth of statistical data showing how Rockefeller had crushed his competitors, seized control of natural resources, and purchased legislative favors.


Tarbell was paid $4,000 an article and Lincoln Steffen's essays on corruption in American society brought $2,000 an article.

With backing like this, the journalists were able to search court records, locate witnesses, and dig up mountains of facts.

Earlier social critics like Lester Ward and Henry George relied partly on public record and partly on guesswork but the new muckrakers named names and recounted misdeeds in sensational detail.


Perhaps the most famous accomplishment of the muckrakers was a series by Lincoln Steffens, who investigated Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and a host of other American cities and found them all suffering from the same ills: political corruption .


In Minneapolis , Steffens achieved one of the great coups in the history of reporting. Steffens obtained the ledger in which graft collectors had entered their accounts and the names of the persons to whom money was paid, and photographed its pages.

Steffens published the names (in McClure's Magazine) of public officials on the take and told how, under a mayor (Dr. Ames) who had been elected twice by the Republicans and twice by the Democrats, the chief of detectives (an ex-gambler--Norman King) had invited criminals to Minneapolis, fired 107 honest policemen , and freed prisoners to collect revenues for the gang.


Steffens received many letters from other cities after his articles were released asking him to come to their cities and expose the graft that existed there.


It is said that this phase of the progressive movement must be understood as a version of the old Protestant revivals. It was a revival for the sins of society, the seeking of salvation for society.


Upton Sinclair wrote a novel, The Jungle, which revealed filthy conditions in the Chicago meat-packing industry. Sinclair wrote:

"There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms, and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them. They would die, and then rats, bread , and meat would go into the hoppers together. This is no fairy story and no joke. The meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one. There were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit."

The Jungle 

Roosevelt read Sinclair's account of these conditions and dispatched two agents to confirm all that he wrote. The agents' report read, in part, as follows: "We saw meat shoveled from filthy wooden floors, piled on tables rarely washed, pushed from room to room in rotten box carts, in all of which processes it was in the way of gathering dirt, splinters, floor filth, and the expectoration of tuberculosis and other diseased workers."


As a result of Sinclair's muckraking, the Meat Inspection Act of June 30, 1906, required federal inspection of meats destined for interstate commerce and empowered officials in the Agriculture Department to impose standards of sanitation. Also enacted on that day was the Pure Food and Drug Act, which placed restrictions on the makers of prepared foods and patent medicines, and forbade the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated, misbranded, or harmful foods, drugs, and liquors.


Although there were federal inspections for meat that was destined for interstate transportation, there was not such legislation for meat that was to be transported within its origin state. As recently as 1967, twenty-two states did not require mandatory inspection of livestock before and after slaughter; and eight states had no meat inspection at all.


These state plants were often peddling what was known in the industry as "4-D meat." This stood for dead, dying, diseased, and disabled, and this meat obviously could not pass federal inspections. Large meat packers, such as Armour, Swift, and Wilson and Company, claimed that they were forced into operating these non-federally inspected interstate plants by competition from unregulated establishments.


A great many important and valuable reforms were in part adopted as the result of muckraking. What the muckrakers tried to do was necessary. The evils were there and there was no hope of removing them until the public was aroused to a recon of their existence .