The Next Page: Channeling Ida Tarbell — an unlikely muckraker
Tarbell set a standard for investigative reporting that market forces are undermining — at the nation’s peril, argues Tom O’Boyle
November 6, 2016 12:00 AM
Library of Congress
Ida Tarbell, circa 1905.
Library of Congress
John D. Rockefeller with his son John D. Rockefeller Jr., circa 1915.
By Tom O’Boyle
At a time when the Republican nominee for president treats the press like a pinata and wants libel laws eased to more easily jail or punish his critics, while the Democratic nominee routinely stonewalls reporters who demand more access to her as well as greater transparency, I wish to offer a rebuttal.
It’s a rebuttal on the value of a free press and of journalism and especially the value of being exposed to all sorts of information, even that with which you may not agree.
While defending the press may seem like a fool’s errand, I have history on my side, for journalists have done some mighty deeds in the annals of this great nation. And none was mightier or demonstrated more courage and tenacity than Western Pennsylvania’s own Ida Minerva Tarbell.
Born in Titusville and educated at Allegheny College in Meadville, Tarbell may be the most important person you’ve never heard of. Few people outside of journalism are acquainted with her exploits. But you would be hard-pressed to name any journalist whose crusading and muckraking better influenced the world in which we live.
Her extraordinary story has been told many times by historians, most recently in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s marvelous book, “The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and the Golden Age of Journalism.” And in that golden age, Tarbell’s star glowed brightly indeed.
Her editor, Sam McClure, called her “the most famous woman in America” six months after her sensational series on John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil trust was published in his McClure’s magazine in 1903. But significance mattered more to Tarbell than fame and, on that score, she counts not only as one of the Mount Rushmore figures of 20th-century journalism but arguably one of this country’s more notable and distinguished citizens.
It seems difficult to imagine but the entire oil business — all the refiners, producers and explorers we commonly know, everything from OPEC to ExxonMobil — descends from one company and one man.
The age of oil began on Aug. 27, 1859, when Col. Edwin Drake drilled a well near Oil Creek in Titusville. When he struck oil, it unleashed commercial enterprise the likes of which hadn’t been seen before in Western Pennsylvania, or few places since.
The first installment of Tarbell’s “History of the Standard Oil Co.” explored the birth of the oil industry in the region where she was raised. Scores of small businesses flourished after Drake’s discovery, as hamlets became towns and towns became cities, transforming a region “from wilderness to market-place,” Tarbell wrote.
Rockefeller, a young and ruthlessly ambitious accountant from Cleveland who had a “genius for detail,” gradually assembled monopolistic concentration under Standard Oil through such brute tactics as bribery, fraud, conspiracy and intimidation, which forced virtually all rivals out of business — all meticulously documented and described in Tarbell’s account.
By 1887, Tarbell wrote, Rockefeller “had completed one of the most perfect business organizations the world has ever seen, an organization which handled practically all of a great natural product.” With unfettered power to control prices, Rockefeller used this domination to maximize profits, forcing the consumer to pay more for oil than if competition hadn’t been illegally repressed.
At the time the series appeared, Rockefeller was the world’s richest man with a concentration of wealth about twice that of Bill Gates today. The very idea that any journalist would have dared challenge him was brazen in itself but that the challenger would be a diminutive woman laboring in relative obscurity at upstart McClure’s is indeed difficult to believe but nonetheless a uniquely American “David vs. Goliath” story.
Tarbell’s stories caused an absolute sensation. In the end, the exercise of press freedom advanced economic freedom, which is usually the case. Emboldened by public support, Roosevelt, who coined the phrase “muckraker,” took full political advantage of her celebrity. Rockefeller’s defenders were overcome as legislation passed in Congress and agencies were created to bust trusts and put restrictions on abuses of corporate power.
The Justice Department subsequently sued for the dissolution of Standard Oil for violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1911 that Standard Oil was indeed an illegal monopoly, Rockefeller was given six months to dissolve his empire.
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My recitation of Tarbell’s glorious history is occasioned partly by an event I attended recently in Titusville to celebrate her life, and partly, on this eve of a presidential election, to affirm her legacy and the role that journalism plays in a democratic society. While that may seem self-serving, please indulge me.
Journalism has many detractors nowadays, not without reason. According to the latest Gallup poll, only 32 percent of the American public has a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the news media. Today’s trust ranking is the lowest it’s been since Gallup began asking the question in 1972.
Amid this erosion in trust, however, it’s important to get some historical perspective, which is what events such as those celebrating the life of Tarbell provide. As I looked out upon the fresh-faced high-school and college-aged student journalists who attended the lectures, the thought struck me that I was looking into a distant mirror of my own youthful exuberance as a student journalist in the 1970s (at Allegheny College, no less, Tarbell’s alma mater and mine, too, 98 years removed).
Here’s some of what I told them:
There is no democracy without journalism. Amid all the hand-wringing about the trustworthiness of journalists, the news media are, for better or worse, an institution that is the guardian of the most basic civil liberty we enjoy as a free society — the right to know information about those who govern us or will (has there ever been a greater need for that than in this election?). It is no coincidence that the United States enjoys both the freest press rights and the fiercest debates on issues of national significance. Press freedoms can look like a barroom brawl, but they yield a symphonic synthesis of opinion once the room is cleaned up and the chairs are put back in place.
Few people comprehend the scope of what has occurred to so-called legacy media over the past 15 or so years. Staggering is the only word to describe it. About $42 billion a year have been drained out of the newspaper industry, a sum that roughly equals the net annual inflow of advertising dollars to one company, Google.
This is problematic for journalism because newspapers traditionally provided 80 percent of journalism in the United States, and an even higher proportion of investigative journalism.
The problem is that the new recipients of advertising dollars — Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Instagram, Craigslist and many others — do not pay to produce original news content. As money has evaporated, so have 40 percent of newsroom jobs. What this means in practical terms is there are far fewer people looking into skulduggery of all sorts. Far fewer are people watching politicians in Harrisburg or other state capitals. Far fewer people are attending the meetings of your local school board and municipality.
You may think this is good — they were biased anyway, so good riddance, the fewer of them the better — but if you believe that, you overlook the fact that reporters are your allies in a larger war against dark forces that often seek to prevent information from flowing to the public. I know this to be true, as I was victimized by it personally many times when I was a reporter.
One former colleague of mine at The Wall Street Journal was beheaded while seeking to shed light on Islamic terrorism in Pakistan. The light of public scrutiny can be a great disinfectant — witness the scandal in the Catholic Church over protection of priest pedophiles — but it must be shone and it is sometimes shone at great cost. Reporters on The Boston Globe Spotlight Team who broke the church story (which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 as well as the Academy Award for Best Picture this year) labored on your behalf so that the public might know the truth. That may sound sanctimonious, but it’s true.
Don’t think for a moment that the disappearance of newspapers and news reporters on a grand scale is good for society, or that you will get fairer, more balanced and more accurate treatment from this new emerging news “ecosystem.” This transformation is in fact leading to the very thing you’d decry — media that are more stupid, less trustworthy, less virtuous and less courageous.
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What will happen to this tradition of muckraking which Tarbell and her cohorts championed? We can be sure that Facebook and Google will not be providing it, but will anyone? And if no one provides it, how will democracy fare in an environment where citizens have less access to reliable information?
There is no democracy without journalism. Tarbell, who set the gold standard for acts of courage in journalism, understood this. I can only hope that those who walk in her footsteps in the century to come carry on that enterprise with the same virtue, courage and conviction as she demonstrated.
Tom O’Boyle (email@example.com) is the Post-Gazette’s senior manager of Audience. He is author of “At Any Cost: Jack Welch, General Electric, and the Pursuit of Profit,” of which Kirkus said in the first sentence of its review: “In the grand tradition of muckraking journalists …”
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