Journalists of the Progressive Era Exposing Corruption
Muckrakers were investigative reporters and writers during the Progressive Era (1890–1920) who wrote about corruption and injustices in order to bring about changes in society. Publishing books and articles in magazines such as McClure’s and Cosmopolitan, journalists such as Upton Sinclair, Jacob Riis, Ida Wells, Ida Tarbell, Florence Kelley, Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and John Spargo risked their lives and livelihoods to write stories about the terrible, hidden conditions of the poor and powerless, and to highlight the corruption of politicians and wealthy businessmen.
Key Takeaways: Muckrakers
- Muckrakers were journalists and investigative reporters who wrote about corruption and injustice between 1890 and 1920.
- The term was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, who thought they went too far.
- Muckrakers came from all levels of society and risked their livelihoods and lives by their work.
- In many cases, their work did bring improvements.
The term “muckraker” was coined by the progressive president Theodore Roosevelt in his 1906 speech “The Man With the Muck Rake.” It referred to a passage in John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” which describes a man who raked muck (soil, dirt, manure, and vegetal matter) for a living rather than raising his eyes to heaven. Even though Roosevelt was known for helping usher in numerous Progressive reforms, he saw the most zealous members of the muckraking press as going too far, especially when writing about political and big business corruption. He wrote:
“Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.”
Despite Roosevelt’s efforts, many of the crusading journalists embraced the term “muckrakers” and indeed forced the country to make changes to ease the situations they reported. These famous muckrakers of their day helped expose issues and corruption in America between 1890 and the start of World War I.
Jacob Riis (1849–1914) was an immigrant from Denmark who worked as a police reporter for the New York Tribune, New York Evening Post and New York Sun in the 1870s–1890s. For those papers and magazines of the day, he published a series of exposes on slum conditions in the Lower East Side of Manhattan which led to the establishment of the Tenement House Commission. In his writing, Riis included photographs presenting a truly disturbing picture of the living conditions in the slums.
His 1890 book “How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York,” 1892’s “The Children of the Poor,” and other later books and lantern slide lectures to the public led to tenements being torn down. Improvements which are credited to Riis’s muckraking efforts include sanitary sewer construction and the implementation of garbage collection.
Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi, and grew up to become a teacher and then an investigative journalist and activist. She was skeptical of the reasons given for black men being lynched and after one of her friends was lynched, she began researching white mob violence. In 1895, she published “A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynchings in the United States 1892–1893–1894,” providing clear evidence that lynchings of African American men in the south were not the result of the rape of white women.
Wells also wrote articles in the Memphis Free Speech and Chicago Conservator, criticizing the school system, demanding that women’s suffrage include African-American women, and vehemently condemning lynching. Although she never achieved her goal of Federal anti-lynching legislation, she was a founding member of the NAACP and other activist organizations.
Florence Kelley (1859–1932) was born to affluent abolitionists in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and educated at Cornell College. She joined Jane Addams’ Hull House in 1891, and through her work there was hired to investigate the labor industry in Chicago. As a result, she was selected to be the first female Chief Factory Inspector for the State of Illinois. She tried to force sweatshop owners to improve conditions but never won any of her filed lawsuits.
In 1895, she turned to muckraking, publishing “Hull-House Maps and Papers,” and in 1914, “Modern Industry in Relation to the Family, Health, Education, Morality.” These books documented the grim reality of child-labor sweatshops and working conditions for children and women. Her work helped create the 10-hour workday and establish minimum wages, but her greatest accomplishment was perhaps the 1921 “Sheppard-Towner Maternity and Infancy Protection Act,” which included health care funds to reduce maternal and infant mortality.
Ida Tarbell (1857–1944) was born in a log cabin in Hatch Hollow, Pennsylvania, and dreamed of being a scientist. As a woman, that was denied her and, instead, she became a teacher and one of the most powerful of the muckraking journalists. She began her journalism career in 1883 when she became the editor of The Chautauquan and wrote about inequality and injustice.
After a four-year stint in Paris writing for Scribner’s Magazine, Tarbell returned to the United States and accepted a job at McClure’s. One of her first assignments was to investigate the business practices of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil. Her exposés documenting Rockefeller’s aggressive and illegal business methods appeared first as a series of articles in McClure’s, and then as a book, “The History of the Standard Oil Company” in 1904.
The resulting furor led to a Supreme Court case finding that Standard Oil was in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and that led to the breakup of Standard Oil in 1911.
Ray Stannard Baker
Ray Stannard Baker (1870–1946) was a Michigan man who enrolled in law school before turning to journalism and literature. He began as a reporter for the Chicago News-Record, covering strikes and joblessness during the Panic of 1893. In 1897, Baker began working as an investigative reporter for McClure’s Magazine.
Perhaps his most influential article was “The Right to Work” published in McClure’s in 1903, which detailed the plight of coal miners including both strikers and scabs. These non-striking workers were often untrained yet had to work in the dangerous conditions of the mines while fending off attacks from union workers. His 1907 book “Following the Color Line: An Account of Negro Citizenship in the American Democracy” was one of the first to examine the racial divide in America.
Baker was also a leading member of the Progressive Party, which allowed him to seek out powerful political allies to help institute reforms, including then-president of Princeton and future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
Upton Sinclair (1878–1968) was born into relative poverty in New York, although his grandparents were wealthy. As a result, he was very well educated and began writing boys’ stories at the age of 16, and later wrote several serious novels, none of which were successful. In 1903, however, he became a Socialist and traveled to Chicago to gather information about the meatpacking industry. His resulting novel, “The Jungle,” gave a wholly unsavory look at abysmal working conditions and contaminated and rotting meat.
His book became an instant bestseller and, although it did not have much impact on the plight of the workers, it led to the passage of the country’s first food safety legislation, the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Lincoln Steffens (1866–1936) was born into wealth in California and was educated at Berkeley, then in Germany and France. When he returned to New York at 26, he discovered his parents had cut him off, requesting that he learn the “practical side of life.”
He landed a job working as a reporter for The New York Evening Post, where he learned of the immigrant slums of New York and met future president Teddy Roosevelt. He became a managing editor for McClure’s, and in 1902 wrote a series of articles exposing political corruption in Minneapolis, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York. A book compiling his articles was published in 1904 as “The Shame of the Cities.”
Other Steffens targets including the Tammany boss Richard Croker and the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst: Steffens’ investigations into Wall Street led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System.
John Spargo (1876–1966) was a Cornish man who was trained as a stonecutter. He became a socialist in the 1880s, and wrote and lectured about working conditions in England as a member of the nascent Labour Party. He emigrated to the United States in 1901 and became active in the Socialist party, lecturing and writing articles; he published the first full-length biography of Karl Marx in 1910.
Spargo’s investigative report on the terrible conditions of child labor in the United States called “The Bitter Cry of Children” was published in 1906. While many were fighting against child labor in America, Spargo’s book was the most widely read and most influential as it detailed the dangerous working condition of boys in coal mines.