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Muckrakers: Using Words to Win Political Battles

The term "muckraker" was taken from the fictional character in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a man who was consigned to rake muck endlessly, never lifting his eyes from his drudgery. People in the United States had long been displeased with the unsafe conditions, political corruption and social injustice of the industrial age, but it was not until the late 19th century that the proliferation of cheap newspapers and magazines galvanized widespread opposition. Writers directed their criticisms against the trusts (oil, beef and tobacco), prison conditions, exploitation of natural resources, the tax system, the insurance industry, pension practices and food processing, among others. Theodore Roosevelt, however, became angry when he read a bitter indictment of the political corruption of the day. The president, clearly one of the most fervent reformers, believed that some of the writers were going too far, and cited the muckraker image in a speech on April 14, 1906, criticizing the excesses of investigative journalism.

In "Pilgrim's Progress" the Man with the Muck Rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. 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.
The writers, many of whom had been Roosevelt's ardent supporters, harshly criticized him for apparently deserting their cause. Originally used in a pejorative sense, the term muckraker soon developed a positive connotation in the public mind. Leading writers of this genre included:
  • Lincoln Steffens, an investigator of corruption in state and municipal governments, published Shame of the Cities in 1904
  • Edwin Markham published an exposé of Child Labor in Children in Bondage (1914)
  • Jacob Riis depicted the misery of New York City slums in How the Other Half Lives (1890), an early advocacy of urban renewal
  • Ida Tarbell wrote a series of magazine articles detailing the business practices of Standard Oil, which appeared in McClure's and later were published in book form as The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904)
  • David Graham Phillips' Cosmopolitan article, "The Treason of the Senate," a bitter indictment of political corruption, provoked President Roosevelt's wrath, but created momentum that would culminate in the adoption of the 17th Amendment
  • Henry Demarest Lloyd's Wealth against Commonwealth (1894) chronicled the rise of John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil
  • Ray Stannard Baker examined the sad state of race relations in America in Following the Color Line (1908)
  • Brand Whitlock expressed his opposition to capital punishment in the novel The Turn of the Balance (1907), while serving as the reform mayor of Toledo, Ohio
  • Samuel Hopkins Adams won fame from his muckraking exposés of the patent medicine industry
  • Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) was largely responsible for federal legislation regulating food and drug practices; he was later a failed Socialist political candidate, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Association, a prolific fiction writer and Pulitzer Prize winner.
Public interest in the writings of the muckrakers began to wane around 1910; however, the momentum they created would continue to influence legislation for many more years.