During the early 20th-century heyday of America's progressive movement, many journalists published slashing articles that revealed problems and faults in U.S. business, government, and social conditions.
Their exposés, most published in nationally circulated magazines, often helped to spark important reforms but arguably failed to change society in fundamental ways. Investigative journalism is still often called "muckraking."
Although this style of journalism began in the late 19th century, when author-photographer Jacob Riis showed "how the other half lived" in New York's urban slums, the term was popularized in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt.
Infuriated by a series of articles denouncing the U.S. Senate, Roosevelt publicly berated author David Graham Phillips for seeing only the bad and the corrupt in U.S. life. Like the man obsessively raking muck in John Bunyan's 17thcentury religious tract Pilgrim's Progress, such critics, said the president, failed to acknowledge beauty and social advancement.
There was plenty of raking to do. Ida Tarbell was foremost among muckrakers who focused on the misdeeds of business and laissez-faire capitalism. Born in Pennsylvania oil country, Tarbell saw her oil refiner father lose his livelihood to an oil scheme put together by John D. Rockefeller and others.
Nevertheless, she became the first woman to graduate from Pennsylvania's Allegheny College. Between 1902 and 1904 her exhaustively researched book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, was serialized in McClure's magazine, and it was later published in book form. Her work has been credited with helping to instigate a 1911 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that broke up the Standard Oil trust.
McClure's in 1902 also began serializing Lincoln Steffens's The Shame of the Cities. Visiting St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York, Steffens found ample evidence of graft, kickbacks from public utilities, unofficially sanctioned prostitution, and manipulation of police forces, all in the cause of enriching corrupt municipal officials.
He also found honest workers who helped him reveal these practices and earnest efforts at good government. Collected into a book, Shame created a stronger push by progressives, including jane addams, for local government reforms.
Charles Edward Russell, the son of Iowa abolitionists, was a muckraking jack-of-all-trades, writing primarily about business misdeeds in such industries as meat packing, railroads, and housing. A declared socialist, Russell nevertheless supported Woodrow Wilson's preparations for World War I.
His investigation of the Beef Trust inspired Upton Sinclair's 1906 muckraking novel The Jungle, an exposé of danger and filth in Chicago's slaughterhouses and mistreatment of a largely immigrant workforce.
In 1909 Russell was a founding member, with black sociologist W. E. B. DuBois, of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), but muckrakers, most of them white, paid little attention to the plight of African Americans as the nation grew more segregated.
Ida B. Wells, another NAACP cofounder, fled her Memphis home in 1892 after a white mob destroyed her newspaper office. From Chicago she continued investigating and publicizing lynching, the extralegal system of "justice" used in the South and elsewhere mainly to terrorize and control African Americans. Her Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases and many other writings and personal appearances also brought news of U.S. racial injustice to Britain and other European nations.