A Tour of Journalism at Its Best

By Christopher Farrell


The Journalism That Changed America

Edited by Judith and William Serrin

New Press -- 392pp -- $25

In 1905, journalist Ray Stannard Baker reflected that his probe of railroads had given him a new respect for bookkeeping. "Some one should write a book on the `Marvels and Possibilities of Astute Accounting,"' he archly suggested. Sound familiar? Some things, it seems, never change.

Baker's musings appear in his five-part series on the railroads written for McClure's, the turn-of-the-century magazine whose name became almost synonymous with investigative journalism, or "muckraking," as it was known. In terms of clout, the railroads were the tech sector of the 19th century. In fact, railroad barons such as James J. Hill and Edward H. Harriman wielded vastly greater power over communities and customers--making and breaking people with gusto--than do tech titans Lawrence J. Ellison and William H. Gates III. The railroads cut preferential deals with some large shippers, colluded with one another to drive up rates, bribed politicians, and engaged in fraudulent financing and accounting schemes. One reader of Baker's work was President Theodore Roosevelt, who called on Congress to pass tough regulatory constraints. The McClure's series helped create a public climate that persuaded Congress to give the existing Interstate Commerce Commission new powers.

Muckraking! The Journalism That Changed America, edited by Judith and William Serrin, is a highly readable collection of such history-changing articles from the mid-1700s to today. The Knight-Ridder editor and New York University journalism professor have put together a celebration of a particular brand of reporting: investigative, passionately polemical, and deeply rooted in the American reform tradition. For instance, in the early years of the republic, journalists such as Frederick Douglass rallied public opinion to end slavery, while Edwin Markham pushed child-labor reform laws. More recently, Seymour M. Hersh described illegal CIA spying in the U.S., and Randy Shilts heightened public awareness of AIDS. Although "muckraking" was coined as a term of opprobrium, the authors feel that it should be an accolade. They approvingly quote the famous maxim that the job of a journalist is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

The book is divided into 13 sections, ranging from "The Poor" to "Politics" to "America at War." Many of the articles are well known, such as Ida M. Tarbell's 19-part exposé of John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Co. that was published in McClure's from 1902 to 1904. There's also one of the hundreds of Watergate articles penned by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Among the other well-known names in the volume are John Steinbeck, Drew Pearson, Edward R. Murrow, Nellie Bly, Lincoln Steffens, and David Halberstam.

But I was particularly intrigued by the writings of some less well-known reporters, often in smaller publications. Take, for example, the article published on June 7, 1985, by Arthur Jones in the National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly. Its headline was "Priest child abuse cases victimizing families; bishops lack policy response." The story, told in straightforward language, is buttressed by a steady accumulation of fact and analysis. It makes for depressing reading. The NCR revisited the topic many times, and the national media picked up the story about two years later. Raised as a Catholic, I've followed the pedophile scandal with interest, including the recent National Conference of Bishops in Dallas. After reading this article, I felt that no cardinal or bishop could credibly claim they didn't know what was going on. Many just didn't care.

Another fascinating tale concerns the role played by the Chicago Defender in America's great black migration. With nothing but 25 cents in capital, a card table, and a borrowed chair, Robert S. Abbott founded the Defender on May 5, 1905. Within a decade, it became the most important black newspaper in the country. In 1915, the paper started urging Southern blacks to escape oppression by moving north. The article in Muckraking! notes that Southern employers worried that they were losing valuable labor and tried to discourage black flight by stressing the cold climate up north. The Defender responded: "Better a thousand times, even if it was true, to run chances of being nipped by the fingers of Jack Frost than to shake off this mortal coil at the end of the lynchers' rope, or to the crackling of the lyncher's fire brand."

There are disappointing gaps. For instance, there are few ink-stained wretches representing a libertarian or conservative point of view. The Serrins also slight the critical contributions made by business journalism in the past quarter-century. Business scribes such as Alan Abelson, Allen Sloan, James B. Stewart, and Chris Welles have all practiced a brand of journalism that exposed wrongdoing, afflicted the comfortable, and influenced public-policy debates.

Still, it's heartening to see how diverse are the media outlets that produced sterling work. Yes, there are The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CBS. But there are also the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, Jewish Frontier, and Harper's. Journalism has many critics, and the media does focus on a lot of superficial schlock. But the reporting gems in this book remind us of just how strong U.S. journalism can be.

Farrell is a contributing economics editor.

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