Albion Monitor /Features


A Queen With no Apparent Heir

by Carl Jensen, Director of Project Censored

Muckrakers exposed corruption, captured the public's attention, and made life a little better

Muckraking, a vituperative term coined by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904 to lambaste a style of journalism not to his liking, enjoyed its Golden Age at the turn of the century.

True giants of journalism like Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, and Upton Sinclair mercilessly exposed corporate and governmental crimes in a way that aggravated Roosevelt, attracted national attention, and led to reform legislation.

Steffens revealed widespread municipal corruption with his series titled "Shame of the Cities" in the 1903-1905 period; Tarbell's series on Standard Oil in 1902 led to the break-up of that corporate giant monopoly; and Sinclair aroused the nation's disgust and ire with his exposé of the meat packing industry in The Jungle in 1906.

They, and a handful of others, writing during the first decade of the twentieth century represented journalism at its very best -- exposing corruption and evil doers, capturing the public's attention, and making life a little better for many people.

Unfortunately, this is one of the few periods in history that has not enjoyed a revival. With the exception of three more contemporary journalist/authors, investigative journalism of that earlier era has not been seen since.

The three are George Seldes, I.F. Stone, and Jessica Mitford. Some media observers feel that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein should be included in such a list. But while Watergate obviously was an important story, it was more of a singular achievement hardly representative of a lifelong devotion to exposing crime and corruption.

Seldes, wit his exposes and media criticism in some 21 books and a decade of In fact newsletters, filled the muckraking void between Lincoln Steffens and I.F. Stone. Stone of course with his I.F. Stone's Weekly, provided the first and most effective criticism of government policy in Viet Nam.

Poison Penmanship should be required reading for all journalism students

And then there is Jessica Mitford -- a genteel and literate person. And yet, it was she who took the writer's pen and turned it into a poison pen, indeed a slashing sword with which she slew the modern day dragons of fraud, falsity, and hypocrisy.

She was so good at what she did that The New York Times acknowledged that "Mitford's pen is mightier than the sword" and Time magazine unsuccessfully tried to diminish her work by calling her "Queen of the Muckrakers." Not surprisingly, it was a term she cherished.

It was also a title she earned.

Her devastating exposé of the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, forced the industry, which until Jessica came along greedily grew fat on the miseries of grieving Americans, to restructure itself overnight. Other powerful investigative books by Jessica included The Trial of Dr. Spock, Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking, and The American Way of Birth.

In a series of investigative articles, Mitford single-handedly exposed a variety of society's cherished institutions including Bennett Cerf and other "faculty members" at The Famous Writer's School, Elizabeth Arden's Maine Chance spa, NBC censorship, The Sign of the Dove restaurant in New York, and absurd personnel procedures at San Jose State University in California.

In the latter case, Jessica was the subject of an embarrassing, for the university, attempt at censorship. she had been hired to teach at San Jose State University as a Distinguished Professor during the fall 1973 semester. The trouble began when the University ordered MItford to sign a loyalty oath, demanded her fingerprints, and deleted the word "muckraking" from her class outlines. All of which she refused or ignored.

The administration fired her and canceled her classes, actions which would have devastated most academics. But not Jessica. She simply ignored the administration's order. With extraordinary student support, she kept teaching her classes although unpaid for it. She eventually signed the oath "under duress" but forced the fingerprint flap into court. Finally, an embarrassed University paid her and, after the semester ended, the court ruled that the fingerprint requirement was not enforceable.

This episode, and a number of other equally informative and entertaining stories, are included in Poison Penmanship : The Gentle Art of Muckraking which should be required reading for all journalism students.

No lack of topics to investigate

Unfortunately, despite the foundation provided by the Golden Age of Muckraking, there has been no similar era of investigative muckraking journalism in the United States since with the isolated exceptions of the three superstar muckrakers cited above. And one not need look far to see that this sorry circumstance has not been for the lack of subjects to investigate.

Project Censored, now in its 20th year, annually exposes dozens of important issues literally screaming for hard-hitting investigative journalism and widespread mass media coverage. But the media continue to devote their energy to easy "junk food news" stories, such as the O.J. trial, that don't rock the corporate or political boats.

While there are a number of reasons for the failure of the media to cover controversial issues, one structural explanation for the lack of contemporary muckraking may be found in Ben Bagkikian's The Media Monopoly. As the media continue to devour one another in an apparently never-ending quest for growth, most recently observed in the Time Warner/Turner Broadcasting buyout, the number of sources are reduced the stakes are heightened.

If Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and their colleagues were around today, I suspect one of their favorite subjects might be the monopolization of the media and the resulting lack of true muckraking. Unfortunately, they, and I.F. Stone and George Seldes, are not around. But Jessica continues to hold her genteel hand firmly on the muckrake -- yet eager to pass the rake and title on to a worthy successor.

However, Jessica once noted that there have been no recent fundamental changes or improvements in any aspect of American life, which led her to conclude: "merely points up the need for a new generation of muckrakers who will hone and perfect the craft, and will shout long and loud enough to get people not only to listen but to do something."

I would appear that Jessica Mitford is a queen with no apparent heir.

The Making of a Muckracker

Albion Monitor October 9, 1995 (

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