How can people change their world? Keep reading to learn more about the muckrakers, folks who did just that. As you read, don’t be surprised if you feel inspired to have some of the same effect in your world today!
Definition of Muckraker
In a 1906 speech, President Teddy Roosevelt brought the term muckraker to popularity. Referencing The Pilgrim’s Progress, Roosevelt explained a muckraker is an individual who was committed to raking up the filth on the floor through his use of the muck rake. Roosevelt believed that a muckraker should be a person who does not flinch from his responsibility against what he sees as vile and debasing.
Doesn’t that sound like someone who wanted to change the world?Roosevelt thought so, as he used the term to describe the wave of social change that took hold of America in the late 19th century and early 20th. This landscape gave birth to the muckraker, individuals who wanted to change the world through the written word.
What Muckrakers Wanted to Change
The muckrakers were journalists that saw different abuses going on in American society.
They used their ability to write as a way to bring attention to these issues. Social and economic injustices were important to the muckrakers. They did not like how the rich and the powerful controlled so much of American society. Muckrakers wanted to change what they saw as wrong. They wanted to reform business practices and break up monopolies.
They fought for economic justice and political equality. They saw a need to provide rights for workers and to inform the public of abuses of power. They sought to restore power to the powerless.
They were advocates for the dispossessed and kept a check on institutional abuses of political and economic power. The muckrakers believed ‘the little guy’ was being stepped on by the rich and the politically well-connected. They wanted to put an end to that. As we meet some of these individuals, it will become clear how committed to social change the muckrakers really were.
Lincoln Steffens was one of the first muckrakers. He wrote about the abuses of the political machinery that dominated life in New York City. Steffens challenged William ‘Boss’ Tweed, who played a major role in New York political life.
Steffens published his work in McClure’s Magazine_, a publication devoted to muckraker news stories.Another example of a prominent muckraker was Ida Tarbell. Much of her work focused on the practices of the Standard Oil Company. Tarbell published a series of articles depicting techniques used to eliminate the competition, embracing a culture of big business that had no regard for individual rights.
Tarbell also depicted an unhealthy relationship where government and business colluded with one another to generate greater profit and work against the common good. Tarbell published her work in McClure’s Magazine, as well.Upton Sinclair was one of the most prominent muckrakers.
Sinclair wrote the book, The Jungle. In it, he depicted the reality of meatpacking plants in Chicago. Most Americans were unaware of the world he depicted. His work discussed issues of workers rights, consumer protection, and the sanitary preparation of food.
Finally, Jacob Riis was a very important muckraker. He used his pen and his camera to show the realities of many people who lived in America. His photojournalistic focus in works such as How the Other Half Lives exposed poor living conditions in urban America. Riis was an effective muckraker because he recognized that a visual medium, like photography, can provide a means through which change can be visualized and understood.In each of these examples, the muckraker confronted American society with the harsh filth that existed on its floor.
The muckraker asked the audience, ‘What type of world do we want?’ Imagine if someone forced to you confront glaring injustice in your world. It would force you to change your thinking and reorient your actions. This is what the muckrakers wanted to do to all of American society.
The muckrakers were an essential part of American history.
The muckrakers used journalism and writing to change the world. This defined America as a nation that had the courage to see what was wrong in trying to make it right. This legacy remains with America today in the spirit of investigative journalism and the use of the news media as a way to awaken the conscience of American society.