Digging Through the Muck : The Mother of Investigative Journalism

by Haleigh Freeman

In a 1906 speech, President Theodore Roosevelt compared investigative journalists to a narrow-minded character from a 17th century religious fable. During this speech Roosevelt first coined the term “muckraker.”

That term continues today.

Muckrakers are the foundation of investigative journalism; they started “raking through the muck” of corrupt politicians and leaders, pointing out their malpractice and shedding light on the hidden truth.

Reporting wasn’t always such a battle; there had to be a start to the muckrakers’ movement. One of the nation’s most famous muckrakers was Ida Minerva Tarbell.

Ida Tarbell was born on November 5, 1857, in Hatch Hollow, Pennsylvania, just eight years before the end of the Civil War. Her father, Frank, was an independent oilfield worker. Her family enjoyed luxuries many workers did not know. But, as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end: In 1872 a secret agreement between railroad companies and oil refiners, led by John D. Rockefeller, rocked the Pennsylvania Oil Region to its core.

It also rocked the Tarbell family.

“Out of the alarm and bitterness and confusion, I gathered from my father’s talk a conviction to which I still hold – that what had been undertaken was wrong,” Ida Tarbell wrote.

After graduating as the only woman in her class from Allegheny College in 1880, Tarbell resigned from a two-year teaching position. She found her true calling back in Pennsylvania when she met the editor of a small magazine, The Chautauquan, which was published in Meadville, Pennsylvania. 

Her inquisitive nature and drive to have a career led her to write captivating historical accounts. She was popular with audiences and an adept judge of character. Her work got the attention of Samuel Sidney McClure, and Tarbell was hired as an editor for McClure’s Magazine in 1894.

She would become their most successful writer.

However, the economy and society of America was changing: monopolies formed, corruption abounded, and a new generation of investigative journalists emerged, vowing to expose corruption in business and political lawlessness. 

Tarbell, remembering the impact of Rockefeller’s action on her childhood, took the story of Standard Oil Company and ran with it.

She spent two years painstakingly picking through countless volumes about Standard Oil’s ascent to the top of the oil industry. She gathered court records, state and federal reports, and newspaper coverage; but even more impressive than the sheer amount of research she put into her expose was her ability to digest and present Rockefeller’s business tactics in a way that was accessible and easy to understand by the American public.

Her 19-part series, “The History of the Standard Oil Company,” was published between 1902 and 1904. It was instantly popular with readers, and shook Rockefeller’s empire to its foundations. 

Rockefeller never rebutted her allegations, but she’d stolen America’s attention, and would not let go until everyone knew the truth.

On July 2, 1890, the Sherman Antitrust Act was approved. It was the first measure passed by Congress to prevent monopolies – businesses that dominate and have complete control over a specific trade. It also prevented the formation of secret agreements between businesses, which had been the beginning of Tarbell’s legacy.

In 1911, shortly after the publication of The History of the Standard Oil Company, the Supreme Court found Standard Oil in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, and ordered it broken up into 34 separate companies.

Even over 100 years later, Tarbell’s remarkable reporting is considered a landmark of investigative journalism. By many, she is considered the mother of muckrakers, having given birth to a new era of journalism.

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