Muckrakers Facts About A Progressive Era of American History | Kidadl


Muckrakers Facts About A Progressive Era of American History

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You might have come across the phrase 'the pen is mightier than the sword' several times.

The quote might not apply to some cases, but when it comes to muckrakers, it is absolutely true! The title 'Muckrakers' was conferred upon the daring Progressive-era reporters, writers, photographers, and journalists who took it upon themselves to expose grave social injustices affecting American society.

There are so many evils that infiltrate our society, such as corruption, poverty, adulteration, racism, and pollution. If the media does not report such incidents, the general public will remain unaware of society's darker side and what triggers it. However, documenting instances like these need courage, determination, and patience. This is exactly what the Progressive Era's investigative journalists had! The muckraker group was so influential that a word by them could bring down a business and even a government. Continue reading to learn more about muckrakers and how they utilized their power to make America a better place.

Who were the muckrakers?

The muckraker journalists of the Progressive American Era are synonymous with the investigative journalists that operate in the United States today. Despite the dangers of facing wealthy businesspeople and politicians, these journalists worked for the community by exposing their evil side. Muckraking was undoubtedly a dirty business, but it was done with good intentions and required countless hours of research, determination, expertise, and guts capable of condemning the rich and powerful while being revered by the masses.

  • Muckraker was a collective term used to refer to journalists, photographers, and writers of the Progressive Era in the United States that was the period between 1896-1916.
  • The primary task of muckrakers was to report and expose corrupt leaders and unethical businessmen and raise awareness among the masses.
  • Contrary to objective reporting, the muckrakers considered themselves reformers and were actively engaged in politics.
  • Muckrakers differed from the previous generations of journalists as they were linked to the reforms in the Progressive Era, unlike their predecessors, who were not associated with any single political or populist movement.
  • These progressive journalists aimed to increase the federal government's regulatory power to expose corruption, abolish unfair economic practices, and improve society.
  • While most muckrakers wrote nonfiction, fictional works were also highly impactful.
  • Some of the most famous muckrakers in those times were women. Notable names are Ida Tarbell and Ida Wells. Other popular muckrakers are Upton Sinclair, Claude Wetmore, Lincoln Steffens, and Julius Chambers.

History Of The Muckrakers

During 1880-1920, the muckraker movement was the most influential in the United States, resulting in major progressive reforms. Although the movement waned eventually, the muckrakers became heroes of that era and continue to inspire modern journalists today.

  • In the United States, the Progressive Era lasted from the 1890s until the early 1920s. This period was characterized by major political reforms and extensive social activities aimed at eliminating the shortcomings of industrialization, urbanization, and migration.
  • The Progressive Era provided journalists with an ideal opportunity to expose societal inequities and target corrupt politicians and corporations. These journalists were collectively called 'muckrakers.'
  • While reform-minded journalists had already started publishing literature during the mid-19th century, the type of journalism known as 'muckraking' first appeared around 1900.
  • The muckrakers appeared in response to the 'yellow journalism' in the United States. Yellow journalism refers to news that has little or no legitimate source of information and is mainly aimed at increasing sales by attracting an audience using eye-catchy headlines.
  • Muckraking can be dated back to 1901 when President Theodore Roosevelt took office and started managing the press corps. He attended news conferences at the White House but had more difficulty handling investigative journalists than objective reporters.
  • The January 1903 issue of 'McClure's Magazine' is believed to be the official beginning of muckraking journalism, even though the journalists got the label of 'muckraker' later.
  • The first muckrakers were investigative journalists Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker, who wrote about municipal government, trusts, and labor in the January 1903 issue of 'McClure's Magazine'.
  • In terms of a specific article, Claude Wetmore and Lincoln Steffens's article called 'Tweed Days in St. Louis' in McClure's October 1902 issue is called the first muckraking article. It was about one of the biggest scandals in the post-Civil War era associated with the bribery and corruption case of William Tweed, the boss of Tammany Hall.
  • In April 1906, President Roosevelt referred to investigative journalists as 'muckrakers' in his speech by comparing them to the man with the muck-rake in John Buyan's book 'Pilgrim's Progress'.
  • Following President Roosevelt's speech, the term grew in popularity and began to be used in reference to investigating journalists who reported on issues such as crime, waste, fraud, public health, graft, and illicit financial practices.
  • The most significant outlet for muckraking journalism were magazines like 'McClure's Magazine', 'Arena', 'Cosmopolitan', 'Everybody's Magazine', 'Collier's Weekly', 'Hampton's', 'The Independent', 'Outlook', 'Pearson's Magazine', 'American Magazine', 'Twentieth Century', and' World's Work'.
  • President Theodore Roosevelt also wrote for 'Scribner's Magazine' after the termination of his office.
  • The muckraker movement began to fade during the presidency of William Howard Taft. Political leaders and corporations were also more successful in silencing investigative journalists as advertising boycotts caused some periodicals to go bankrupt.
A stamp printed in USA dedicated to Women in Journalism

Impact Of The Muckrakers

Despite being a Progressive, President Roosevelt despised the continual negativity that muckraking entailed. Nonetheless, the narratives of these muckrakers led him to investigate different circumstances and implement reforms. As a result, muckrakers were effective in influencing change and providing a significant boost to investigative journalism.

  • Popular muckraking magazines, like 'McClure's Magazine', published articles on corporate monopolies and political machines to raise public awareness.
  • Due to the efforts of muckrakers, monopolies in the oil industry like that of Standard Oil broke apart.
  • Muckrakers put the spotlight on business titans, such as Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, by openly criticizing them for amassing large fortunes at the expense of their workers. Due to such reporting, labor unions arose to promote workers' interests against the strong business magnates.
  • In addition to labor unions, muckrakers were essential in the formation of various advocacy groups advocating for the rights of women, children, consumers, and the environment.
  • The reform of the United States Navy was prompted by Henry Reuterdahl's controversial essay in 'McClure's Magazine'.
  • The investigative journalism of muckrakers influenced the 17th Amendment to the American Constitution, which modified the way senators were elected.
  • Muckraking helped in the creation of the first laws against child labor in the United States in 1916.
  • Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exposed the scandals of the Nixon Administration in Watergate, causing Richard Nixon to resign office in 1974.
  • Muckrakers continue to motivate journalists today to delve deeper into facts and expose the filthy acts of the wealthy and powerful. A recent muckraking example would be Edward Snowden's disclosure of state spying activities which made the public aware of the scale of the breaches of their privacy.

Details On The Father Of Muckraking

Modern journalists still regard muckrakers as heroes and exemplars of their craft. To understand why contemporary journalists are so taken with muckrakers, it is important to study their individual contributions. Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker are credited with establishing the muckraking trend. Apart from these, several other famous muckrakers are remembered for how they challenged the biggest names in politics and business and won their battle.

  • Lincoln Steffens worked for 'McClure's Magazine', where he mostly wrote on political corruption in America's large cities. His most notable project was his investigation of the corruption in St. Louis. His findings were published as 'Tweed Days in St. Louis' in 'McClure's Magazine' October 1902 edition and helped bust the corrupt political ring in St. Louis.
  • Ida Tarbell's groundbreaking story on the Standard Oil Company in 1902 made her one of the most revered muckrakers in America. Her work sparked public outrage and resulted in the dissolution of Standard Oil.
  • Ida Tarbell also worked for 'McClure's Magazine' and targeted wealthy businessmen and corporations for their unethical practices. For instance, she openly rebuked John Rockefeller for his immoral and ruthless business tactics.
  • Ray Stannard Baker is another member of the famous muckraker McClure's Magazine trio, including Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. He wrote about the unsafe working conditions in coal mines in his piece 'Right to Work.'
  • Julius Chambers was a muckraker long before the phrase was coined. In 1872, he examined allegations of abuse of inmates at the Bloomingdale Asylum. He assisted in the release of twelve people who were not mentally ill, resulting in a modification in the lunacy laws.
  • Upton Sinclair's most famous work, 'The Jungle,' was released in 1906, exposing the exploitation of workers in the meatpacking industry. His work, however, influenced regulations on food safety rather than worker protection and resulted in the passage of two important laws: the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act.
  • In 'The Great American Fraud', Samuel Hopkins Adams exposed the bogus claims and endorsements of patent medicines in America in 1905.
  • Ida Wells was another influential female muckraker and was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Editorial credit: neftali /

Written By
Akshita Rana

<p>With a Master's in Management from the University of Manchester and a degree in Business Management from St. Xavier's, Jaipur, India, Akshita has worked as a content writer in the education sector. She previously collaborated with a school and an education company to improve their content, showcasing her skills in writing and education. Akshita is multilingual and enjoys photography, poetry, and art in her free time, which allows her to bring a creative touch to her work as a writer at Kidadl.</p>

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