The Progressive Era which spanned from the 1890s to early 1920s in the United States was marked by political reforms and widespread social activities with the objective of eliminating the problems that resulted from industrialization, migration, and urbanization. It was in this spirit of reforms that influential journalist used the platform to attack corrupt leaders and reveal injustices in the society. This group of journalists who were collectively referred to as “muckrakers.”
Work of Muckrakers
These journalists had a large audience in certain popular magazines including The Cosmopolitan Magazine and McClure’s Magazine. The muckrakers worked to expose corporate monopolies and reveal wrongdoings such as child labor, unsafe working conditions, prostitution, and urban poverty. The work of muckrakers led to the passage of key legislation that safeguards and protects workers and consumers.
Today, investigative journalists in the United States are referred to as muckrakers.
Background of Muckraking
Although the literature of reforms had appeared before the Progressive Era, the king of journalism that would become “muckraking” started around the 1900s. Magazines such as McClure’s Magazine and Collier’s Weekly were already in circulation by then. The January 1903 issue of McClure’s Magazine is credited for setting off the muckraking journalism. However, the term “muckraker” was only coined later.
In 1905, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a novel that fictionalized the state of contamination and corruption in Chicago’s meatpacking industry. In his novel, Sinclair raised awareness on the exploitation and poor conditions workers were subjected to. The novel’s description of such conditions and meat contamination lead to a public outcry and demand for federal regulations over food and drug industries. As a result, the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were passed in 1906.
Soon, “personal journalism” evolved into investigative journalism with magazines becoming the leading outlets for this type of journalism.
Origin of the Term
When President Theodore Roosevelt took over the presidency in 1901, he began managing the press corp. To achieve this, he promoted his press secretary to cabinet status and held press conferences at the White House. However, investigative journalists proved to be more difficult to manage than the objective ones. The president used his press conferences effectively to promote his Square Deal, a series of domestic policies aimed at helping middle-class citizens.
During one of his speeches in April 1906, President Roosevelt was quoted as using the phrases “muck rakes” and “raking the muck” in reference to the investigative journalists who highlighted unpleasant “muck” of corruption in businesses and governments. The name “muckrakers” soon became popular and eventually came to be used as a reference to investigative journalists.
Some of the most famous muckrakers of the Progressive Era were women. Perhaps the best known female muckraker is Ida Tarbell who was one of the main contributors to McClure’s Magazine in 1902. She exposed Standard Oil tycoon John Rockefeller in her book The History of Standard Oil as a corrupt and greedy man.
Others muckrakers included Lincoln Steffens who authored The Shame of Minneapolis, Julius Chambers who mainly wrote about psychiatric abuse, Ray Stannard Baker who authored The Right to Work, and Josiah Flynt, Jack London and Alfred Henry Lewis who contributed for The Cosmopolitan Magazine.