150 Years Ago in News History: Birth of a Muckraker
Aspiring journalists can learn a few lessons from pioneering "muckraker" Ida Minerva Tarbell, born Nov. 5, 1857. Her journalism is as relevant today as when she exposed the monopolistic practices of the Standard Oil Company more than a century ago.
Tarbell was one of the country's leading muckrakers, a name used to describe a new breed of early-20th-century investigative reporters who attempted to bring about social reform by exposing corporate wrongdoing and municipal corruption. President Theodore Roosevelt is usually credited with coining the term in 1906, drawing on a character from "The Pilgrim's Progress" — the man with the muck-rake, who would rather look at the filth on the ground than at the heavens.
Tarbell's groundbreaking 19-part series, "The History of the Standard Oil Company," was published in McClure's Magazine from 1902 to 1904. The exposé tracked John D. Rockefeller's path to fortune and exposed shady deals that harmed honest businessmen, among them Tarbell's father. Tarbell's investigation inflamed readers' passions, inspired journalists and led to new antitrust laws.
But what made Tarbell unique as a journalist, says Missouri School of Journalism professor and biographer Steve Weinberg, was her meticulous record-searching, documentation of facts and thorough interviews.
"When she was doing the Standard Oil series there wasn't even a phrase for investigative journalism. I would say she was the role model for the way we do investigative journalism today," says Weinberg, former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors.
Tarbell saw herself as a historian, not a crusader. "We were undertaking what we regarded as a legitimate piece of historical work," she wrote in her autobiography. "We were neither apologists nor critics, only journalists intent on discovering what had gone into the making of this most perfect of all monopolies."
The story of Ida Tarbell and the muckrakers can be found in the Newseum's News Corporation News History Gallery, which also features the issue of McClure's Magazine containing the first installment of Tarbell's Standard Oil investigation.
Above: Ida Tarbell and the November 1902 issue of McClure’s Magazine. (Tarbell photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division; Magazine: Loan, Steven Lomazow)