By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit writer
When Ida Tarbell was an adolescent growing up in the 1870’s in Titusville, in the oil region of northwestern Pennsylvania, she wanted to be a scientist. She enjoyed exploring nature, looking deep and close and careful to see things that were not easily apparent to the naked eye. But after graduating from Allegheny College, she turned that instinct for pain-staking research and attention to detail to journalism.
Starting in the 1890’s, Tarbell signed on with McClure’s magazine, one of the most influential magazines of the Gilded Age. A bedrock writer at McClure’s, she wrote several in-depth series on Napoleon and then Lincoln. After that, she turned her attention to Standard Oil, the oil producing and transportation behemoth run by John Rockefeller, one of the richest men in America. It would become her most enduring work.
“When she embarked on that, she already had her traditional Tarbell method worked out — this was unique to her before it became commonplace among journalists — she would do a lot of courtroom research and interviews. She tried to always confirm what one source was telling her with another source, or with documentary evidence. So that’s how she initially attacked it,” Stephanie Gorton told the Current by phone.
Gorton is the author of ‘Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell and the Magazine that Rewrote America’ (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2020), a book that feels particularly relevant at this moment, as journalism faces threats from outside and inside.
The president maligns journalists via twitter daily. Forbes recently published a story documenting the arrests of and attacks by police on journalists who are covering the nationwide protests. (54 and 173, respectively.) Simultaneously, the Post-Gazette has barred reporter Alexis Johnson and photojournalist Michael Santiago from covering the Black Lives Matter protests happening here in Pittsburgh. Both Johnson and Santiago are black, and Santiago was part of the team that won a Pulitzer for the paper for it’s coverage of the Tree of Life massacre.
Publisher S.S. McClure was a visionary, always looking for, “the next great thing that people would be excited to read and would potentially contribute to progress on a world scale,” according to Gorton. He had a talent for recognizing talent. He hired reporters to undertake immersive series, tackle complicated problems and explore the connective tissues of society. The staff at the magazine dug deep and set out to report with fearlessness and compassion.
Lincoln Steffens wrote a series investigating government malfeasance and political corruption (later, these collections were published as ‘The Shame of the Cities.’) Ray Stannard Baker wrote a series titled, ‘What Is a Lynching.’
“I find in this moment there was that spirit of righteousness,” Gorton said of the importance of the magazine. “I especially think of Baker’s series, ‘What Is a Lynching?’ In terms of the newspapers and magazines that would be in the halls of power and in the kind of old white man clubs — this was the first investigation in the press of the phenomenon of lynching. These were readers who were not reading the black press.”
These were mostly middle-class, mostly male reporters (other than Ida Tarbell) writing about poverty and societal unrest. They were also white reporters writing about race. McClure didn’t hire black writers and they weren’t elevating the work of Ida B. Wells. Yet, they were ahead of their time, even as they were a part of their era.
We now refer to Tarbell and her cohort as muckrakers — journalists who investigate events, practices and systems that those in power would prefer they not investigate. Muckrakers set out to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as the saying goes. The term originated when President Teddy Roosevelt delivered a speech excoriating journalists in the spring of 1906. In it, he referred to the ‘man with the muck-rake character.’ Intended as a burn by Roosevelt, the term is a badge of honor for working journalists.
“He’s really pointing a finger at journalists,” Gorton explained. “Afterwards, he wrote letters to his friends in the corps saying, I was really trying to talk about the wrongdoers (at a few magazines and newspapers.) The public didn’t get that sense at all — the nuance was lost, if there really was any nuance there. But the energy behind investigative journalism was compromised by this blow against them from the very top.”
In the meantime, Tarbell’s Standard Oil series contributed to the dissolution of the monopoly and led to the Clayton Antitrust Act passed by Congress in 1914, ten years after publication. ‘Citizen Reporters’ feels like a book we all need to read right now, to be reminded of the power of investigative reporting.
“She wrote 19 articles (about Standard Oil.) Each one is substantial. She turned this into a compelling series for a mainstream readership,” Gorton noted of Tarbell’s tremendous skill as a writer. People read her history of a financial titan the way modern Americans consume podcasts. According to Gorton, most historians agree that it led to the Supreme Court’s dissolution of Standard Oil in 1911. It was so widely read that it changed history.