A yearning sort of nostalgia has arisen among readers of the new twin biography of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book, called “The Bully Pulpit,” describes how a crew of pioneering muckraking journalists uncovered the abysmal corruption of business, labor and government in works that proved to be essential for the success of the progressive reforms that President Roosevelt hoped to bring about.
Readers today might be saying: If only journalism today could shine a similar intense light on predatory business practices and government corruption, then we might be able to get somewhere.
In fact, journalists have played, and continue to play, a crucial role in revealing the dark corners of our national life. The difference may be that the nation has become so inured to scandal and misbehavior that no particular revelation shakes us up the way the early muckrakers were able to do in the first decade of the 1900s.
In those days a constellation of stellar journalists was working for McClure’s Magazine, including Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker and William Allen White. Their work detailed the predatory practices of the Standard Oil monopoly, in league with the railroad trusts, as well as the corruption of city governments and labor unions. The magazine became one of the best-selling in the nation, opening people’s eyes to the abuses growing out of unfettered industrialization and the willingness of politicians to do the bidding of business for the right price.
Goodwin’s book makes the point that the reforms Roosevelt achieved in confronting the monopoly power of business would not have been possible if public opinion had not been aroused by an aggressive, reform-minded press. Part of the impact of the press may have been due to the fact that the kind of hard-hitting, fact-based exposes produced by the best writers had not been seen before. Partisan journalism was the norm; thorough, objective investigative works were something new.
In our time we are awash in all kinds of journalism, and we may not fully appreciate that the spirit of Ida Tarbell and others is still alive and making its contribution. Thus, Michael Lewis’ new book, “Flash Boys,” has received much attention in recent days because of what it reveals about how practitioners of high-frequency stock trading are rigging the stock market, essentially skimming money from the market and diminishing the gains of everyone else. Lewis is the author of previous books examining Wall Street and the financial crash.
There have been other important muckrakers. Jane Mayer, writing in The New Yorker, drew the veil away from the Koch brothers, billionaire businessmen who have marshaled their money on behalf of conservative political candidates. Other revelations by enterprising journalists in recent years have exposed a whole range of nefarious deeds, including torture, secret prisons and pervasive spying by the American government.
Even in the Golden Age of Journalism, which is the term used for the era of the first great muckrakers, reforms challenging the power of big money were difficult to secure. It was a struggle for Roosevelt and others to make the kind of labor, tax and antitrust reforms that would carry the progressive movement forward, making a decent life for middle-class Americans possible. So today, for all we have learned about the criminality of Wall Street, the big banks are bigger than ever, and it took a titanic effort by President Obama even to achieve the modest reforms of the Dodd-Frank bill. Now we learn about the skimming by the high-frequency traders.
It’s hard to say that this is a new golden age of journalism when so much of the public discussion is dominated by partisan claptrap. But pioneering works still capture our attention. Lewis’ book is likely to kick up a storm, both positive and negative, and maybe something will be done to curb new abuses on Wall Street. Meanwhile, we’re still on the lookout for work by the new generation of muckrakers shedding light on the crimes and misdemeanors of the new Gilded Age.
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