Saturday, December 19, 2020

Media: Where Are The Muckrakers? The Rise and Fall of McClure's Magazine

 As noted back in 2016

Over the years, simply because the blog is composed of things that caught my eye rather than some grand plan, we've from time to time mentioned some of the early 20th century journalists who got appended the term muck-rakers but when I did a quick search of the blog I was surprised how many we'd named, although usually just in passing.

Some links below.
And from Allegheny College, a swell repository of all things Ida Tarbell:

“The Explosions of Our Fine Idealistic Undertakings” 
By Greg Gross, Allegheny College class of 1983

Table of Contents:


This thesis analyzes the staff breakup of McClure’s Magazine and demonstrates its historical significance by placing it in the context of the progressive era. The McClure’s schism occurred in late March and early April, 1906, and triggered the gradual decline of one of the era’s most popular mass-circulation periodicals. To present this study in a logical manner, I have divided this thesis into three segments, which can best be visualized by imagining three concentric spheres. The “outer sphere,” Chapter I, analyzes the rise of the progressive mentality, which had a strong influence on American culture at the dawn of the twentieth century, from approximately 1900-1912. I introduce the reader to the outer layer of my area of study, presenting an analysis of the origins of progressivism and its Protestant-oriented, middle-class character.

Chapter II, the “middle sphere,” chronicles the rise of McClure’s Magazine to national prominence as the forerunner of the muckraking movement. I introduce the central figures responsible for the expose journalism that “arraigned,” on a nationwide scale, the lawlessness and immorality of the American people, while analyzing the staff’s ideological ties to progressivism.

In Chapter III, the core of this thesis, I explore the ideological tensions that wrenched apart the McClure’s staff. Samuel Sidney McClure, the majority stockholder and chief editor of the magazine which bore his name, committed the “sin” of adultery, which affronted the moral standards of the progressive mentality. His staff reacted by sternly disapproving of his actions. Their disdain caused McClure to suffer from feelings of guilt, which aggravated his already unstable mental condition. In the face of his colleagues’ disapproval, he sought to regain their esteem by establishing a business empire which would serve society. McClure undertook to establish a new magazine,McClure’s Universal Journal, and subsidiary enterprises, including a bank, life insurance company and correspondence school, all geared to serve the “common man.” McClure’s “grandiose scheme” backfired, however, and only succeeded in convincing his staff that he was attempting to found a trust-like business conglomerate.

Convinced of their editor’s mental instability, and affronted by love affairs and unrealistic schemes they considered economically dangerous and morally untenable, the McClure’s staff left the magazine. Ida Tarbell, one of the “insurgents,” aptly summarized the breakup as “the explosions of our fine idealistic undertakings.” (1) I ultimately seek to demonstrate the relationship between these exploded ideals and the movement which nurtured them.

My thesis is intentionally limited to an analysis of how the McClure’s staff members perceived themselves and their mission; this paper is not, nor was it intended to be, a comprehensive history of muckraking or progressivism. Wherever possible, I have used the primary resource materials of the Ida M. Tarbell Collection at Pelletier Library, Allegheny College. The Tarbell Papers proved invaluable in assessing the tensions which led to the breakup of a prominent progressive magazine and the staff that created it.

“IMT Collection” designates Ida M. Tarbell Collection.
(1) Ida Tarbell to Ray Stannard Baker, October 17, 1939, IMT Collection, Correspondence between Ida Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker file, Allegheny College Library, Meadville, Pennsylvania.

Copyright 1997 by Greg Gross. All rights reserved. This work may not be used for any reasons other than noncommercial research and scholarship. For any other use, please email

Chapter I

“The Rise of Progressive Mentality”

Query: who made the world, Charles?
Charles: God made the world in 4004 B.C.;
but in 1901 it was reorganized by James J. Hill,
J. Pierpont Morgan, and John D. Rockefeller.

—Life (1)
The forty years between the end of Reconstruction and the finish of World War I were a period of significant transformation in the United States. The American way of life, which many would have formerly believed inalterable, yielded to the cultural change prompted by westward settlement. With the rise of industrialism, the populace began to move from the farm to the city. This migration fostered a concurrent shift in political and economic power from agrarian to urban America. The United States, in short, was undergoing a redefinition of its basic goals and values, and such a change — the growing pains of a nation — inevitably ignited discontent. Populism was the first significant expression of protest in this period and formulated much of the progressive ideology which later followed. 
The farmers who composed the populist movement were angered because they witnessed the economic power they once held slipping out of their hands and into the grip of prosperous city dwellers. In the face of crop failures, declining prices, and diminished sources of credit, the farmers demanded reforms that would place them in parity with the burgeoning economic power of industry. They demanded the unlimited circulation of silver currency, direct election of United States senators, and revenue tariffs only. Above all, the populists called for governmental ownership of the railroads, for they realized that control of this mode of transportation was essential to their well-being. The westward expansion of the railroad enabled the ways of the industrial East to invade and disrupt the division of labor in the rural United States:
The farmer suddenly discovered that he was implicated, to an extent undreamed of in the days of true isolation, with banks, with railroads, and with the manufacturers who went into politics in the interest of controlling prices through discriminatory tariffs and favorable monopolies. (2)

The farmer, in the midst of the transportation revolution, felt betrayed. When the tracks were first laid, he envisioned the railroad as the path to prosperity. The train would propel his goods to a larger market and feed the ever-increasing post-war populace, thereby causing crop prices to skyrocket. Under the limitations imposed by federal tariff barriers, however, the market for the increasing amount of agricultural products sharply narrowed, and food prices subsequently declined. Yet the industries of the East “had only to compete in a local market behind high tariff walls,” (3) and the agrarian man bought his clothing, farm implements, and other manufactured necessities at steadily rising prices while his own financial resources continued to shrink....


That of course was the impetus of the line in John F. Kennedy's stump speech during the 1960 Presidential campaign. I think this was first given in Nebraska but it might have been in Iowa ahead of the caucuses:

"The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, 
sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.
Not bad for a Harvard Man, son of a stockbroker. (he had good advisors)
And some of our muckraker posts:
In 2011 we visited Ida Tarbell in "Ida M. Tarbell: 'John D. Rockefeller: A Character Study'" in part because I wanted a searchable link to the Tarbell collection at Allegheny college and partly because she described John D.'s grandfather, Godfrey as "a shiftless tippler, stunted in stature and mean in spirit".

In February 2016's "Oil Tankers and Interest Rates and Scallywags and Time" one of the Rockefeller minions, Thomas Lawson, got a mention, not for his exposé of his copper dealings with Standard Oil honcho Henry Huttleston Rogers, Frenzied Finance, but because of the ship for which Lawson was namesake.

Staying in 2016, it was Ida's buddy Lincoln Steffens in "Goldman Sachs: Death Of Capitalism Averted, Time For Working Schlubs to Partaay!", again not for the work he was most famous for, in Steffens' case his Shame of the Cities (St. Louis, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh et al) but because of his famously wrong statement about Soviet Russia in a letter dated April 3, 1919: “I have seen the future and it works.”.
It didn't.

In 2015 there was Jacob Riis because I was reminded of one of the photographs from "How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York":
Jacob Riis Lives! "San Francisco Housing Bubble Goes Subterranean: $500/Month To Live In A Crawlspace"
And along the way Theodore Dreiser got a major link (possibly one of the best business novels ever) in "Switzerland Begins Two-Year Trial of Driverless Buses (plus money, art, glory and sex)"

So yes, more than wary reader might have anticipated and I've probably forgotten a couple.
Circling back to Ida, here's an online version of History of the Standard Oil Company.

Although there are quite a few critiques you can raise about her book it was pretty important and was one of the factors that led to the breakup of Standard Oil in the Supreme Court decision "Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey v. United States" seven years later. So Mr Rockefeller probably considered the book important.

It ranks #5 on NYU's Journalism school's list of the 100 best works of 20th-century American journalism. (via the NYT)