Muckraker Essay

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After years of research, she spent two hours anonymously watching Rockefeller in church to complete a character study of him.

“A man who possesses this kind of influence cannot be allowed to live in the dark. began spewing “black gold” within a few miles of her home.

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Over the last few years, the idea of “the one percent” has become a popular way to discuss the gap between the fantastically wealthy—the one percent of Americans who control more than 20 percent of the country’s wealth—and the rest of us. Back in 1900, they were known as the Robber Barons—people like Andrew Carnegie and Philip Armour, who were riding new industries and monopolies to ever greater fortunes. Rockefeller, founder of Standard Oil, who virtually invented the model of a vertically integrated, globe-spanning corporation.

I was fascinated because the quality of her journalism was astounding by any standard—and especially during an era of no open records laws, no photocopy machines, almost no telephone service, no air travel and few roadways or automobiles, and widespread resistance to women doing journalism.

I started by visiting the nearby University of Missouri library.

Although published in 1904, the book read as if written the previous week, given its richly documented narrative about how a brilliant entrepreneur created a behemoth from scratch, then allowed his pride and greed to push him into moral and legal ambiguity.

Tarbell’s commitment to transparency and public knowledge inspired me.

When I became executive director of the group Investigative Reporters and Editors in 1983, I realized I had to be a spokesperson for several thousand of us and I needed to learn more about the early 20th-century journalists known as the Muckrakers—people like Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, David Graham Phillips, and Paul Y. She was not born to an influential family; she was an independent woman at a time when women had few options beyond wife, mother, or schoolteacher; and she was a late bloomer—age 37 before she found her footing as an editor and reporter.

She was a thoroughly modern woman, though she had died four years before I was born.


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