The term “muckraker” was commonly used to identify Progressive Era journalists who provided detailed and accurate journalistic accounts of the political and economic corruption caused by the power of big business in a rapidly industrializing the United States. Later, the term was used pejoratively by President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1906 speech to insult journalists who had gone too far in the pursuit of their stories. Muckrakers have had an infamous reputation in the course of American history; however, when muckraking is used correctly, it has a positive effect on society.
Muckrakers first gained their popularity in the early 20th century as a result of technological advancement and social changes. As new inventions, such as the telegraph and the linotype, were created, newspapers became more self-sustaining and commercially driven. The two big publishing giants, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, competed for the most popular stories.
The Spanish American War, which was commonly considered unnecessary, was fought because of the American sentiments stirred up by the journalists. When the American battleship Maine exploded, the two competitive presses exaggerated the story to gain more popularity. Such stories rallied Americans to cry out for war, which pressured President McKinley into declaring the Spanish American War. This type of journalistic practice, called Yellow Journalism, is often confused with muckraking. While the former used misleading headlines, lavish pictures, and exaggerated stories to gain popularity, the latter strived to expose corruption and misfortune of the poor in the Progressive Era.
Despite President Theodore Roosevelt’s distaste for muckrakers, when muckraking is used correctly, the benefits to society outweigh the negative effects. As a result urbanization and rapid industrialization, many economic and social problems arose in the Progressive Era. Progressive journalists, in the attempt to reform American society, published articles and books. Jacob Riis, one of the many muckrakers from the Progressive Era, advocated for the benefits of the immigrants, the poor, the oppressed, and the exploited. In his book How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, Riis exposes the appalling conditions under which the poor lived.
His photographs often depict the dark, crowded tenement houses of New York City slums, where most middle and upper-class people overlooked. As a result, when the photographs were published, it shook the sentiments of the riches and the middle class. Riis blamed the miseries of the poor mainly on the corrupted building speculators and landlords; therefore, after his book was published, many reforms minded activists aimed to alleviate the poor’s living conditions.
Riis and his fellow muckraker journalists had the power to influence political legislation not because of the glaring title of their books, but because of the credibility of their stories. Because they had a reliable reputation, people believed in their stories and accepted what they said. Similarly, Lincoln Steffens, another famous Progressive muckraker, uncovered the municipal corruption of the New York City. His series of articles, first published in McClure’s Magazine, was later put together in a book titled The Shame of the Cities. In his article, he sought to bring about political reforms in urban America by appealing to the emotions of people. Steffens went beyond a mere sensational exposure and worked to reveal the roots of corruption and the way in which the corrupted system worked. His investigation on Wall Street brought about the Federal Reserve System, which is an institution that oversees the nation’s payments system. The work of progressive muckrakers had revealed many shortcomings of the 20th Century American society and their exposure had brought about many positive reforms to American society.
Although the term “muckraker” was first used to describe Progressive Era journalists, it has been expanded to include any investigative journalists who vow to expose the defects of the government or the society. In the infamous Watergate scandal, President Nixon was suspected of abusing his presidential powers against his political opponents. Because most of the White House assistants, including Cabinet members, were involved in the cover-up, when President Nixon firmly asserted his political uprightness, most of the American public believed in his words. However, two Washington Post journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, embarked their independent investigation of the scandal and they eventually uncovered the information that suggested President Nixon’s knowledge of the break-in.
The increased media coverage of the event raised public attention, which was crucial in uncovering the truth behind the cover-up attempt. Muckrakers perform a watchdog function in that they keep the society alerted at all times. While American government has a checks and balances system rooted in its Constitution, the press functions as an independent fourth branch that oversees the activities of the government. Without journalists who search out and expose misconducts of the government, slanderous acts would go unnoticed by the public. And when the public is deprived of the information, they are credulous to the government’s propaganda. For instance, the North Korean government, under the dictatorship of Kim Jong Un, does not allow the freedom of the press. The press is at all times under the control of the central government, and therefore it is a mere tool for the North Korean government to spread its ideas and influences. On the contrary, the journalistic practice of muckraking is the epitome of America’s democratic government. When muckrakers are performing their job, they keep the American public informed of the events that happen within the country and around the world.
Although some journalists go too far in the pursuit of their stories, the benefits of muckraking overshadow the negative effects when exposing truth occurs within the acceptable boundaries. When the information portrayed in articles are accurate and factual, muckraking leads to a well-informed and educated society. Keeping the positive aspects of muckraking in mind, it is no surprise that Mitford would happily accept the title “Queen of the Muckrakers.”