When we think of famous investigative journalists, writers such as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who investigated the Watergate Scandal, might come to mind. Or we might remember that Seymour Hersh uncovered the My Lai Massacre. But how much do we know about the first generation of investigative journalists?
In the last decade of the 1800s, mass circulation brought magazine publishers enough revenue to pay journalists to conduct in-depth investigations of problems arising with the new industrial economy and the rapid growth of cities. Issues such as unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, child labor, slums, municipal corruption, false advertising, and unethical business practices were brought to the attention of the reading public by these journalists.
After Cosmopolitan published a series of articles by David Graham Phillips which accused some of President Theodore Roosevelt's allies in the Senate of corruption, Roosevelt coined the term "muckraking" to malign the efforts of these journalists.
Three of the most famous investigative journalists of the period wrote for a magazine called McClure’s. Beginning in 1902 with "Tweed Days in St. Louis," Lincoln Steffens ferreted out corruption in various American municipal administrations, eventually gathering his McClure's pieces into a book, The Shame of the Cities (1904). Ida Tarbell brought to light the questionable business practices that underlay John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust. Ray Stannard Baker examined the dismal predicament of African Americans under Jim Crow, being one of the first mainstream journalists to do so.
In 1906, Steffens, Tarbell, and Baker, along with a few other investigative journalists, took over editorial control of The American Magazine. According to an editorial statement, the magazine aimed "to become a lively and important journal, which keeps its temper, gets things somewhat near as they are, loves mankind, never attempt to puncture anything which it is not convinced is a sham, then does it with good nature and precision."
Our Periodicals Stacks are a treasure trove of historical primary source documents, which students and researchers can use to gain a close-up view of history. Visit the Periodicals Department any time to explore our copies of McClure's, The American Magazine, and several other late nineteenth and early twentieth-century muckraking magazines.