“Muckraker” is a name given to progressive journalists and writers in the early 20th century. The term is still sometimes used today to refer to investigative journalists.
The early 20th century muckrakers were not, of course, the first journalists ever to seek to expose corruption and injustice. They were continuing a long-standing tradition which existed on both sides of the Atlantic. However, investigative journalism – muckraking – reached a kind of golden age, from the late 19th century and into the early 20th century.
Reform writers used newspaper articles, novels, and books to write about issues like political corruption, industrial monopolies, and unfair labor practices. One of the best-known muckraking journalists of the early 20th century was Lincoln Steffens. Steffens began his career as a newspaper writer in New York City, where he specialized in writing about corruption and bribery in politics. This was, of course, during the heyday of Tammany Hall and the political machine. Steffens later published a collection of his investigative work in a highly influential book, The Shame of the Cities.
Ida Tarbell was another leading muckraking journalist. Tarbell wrote a series for McClure Magazine on the rise of the Standard Oil Company and company’s corrupt practices. The articles, eventually collected in a book, drew attention not only to problems with Standard Oil but to the broader problems of corporate monopolies. Tarbell’s work also fed interet in the practice of investigative journalism itself.
Upton Sinclair was a self-proclaimed socialist from New York. His writing didn’t draw a lot of attention until his newspaper, Apppeal to Reason, assigned him to do an undercover investigation of working conditions in the Chicago stockyards. The result was “The Jungle,” an expose of the poor labor conditions faced by immigrant workers in the meatpacking industry.
The term “muckraker” was popularized after President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech in 196 in which he criticized the so-called muckraking journalists for what he saw as their insistently negative perspective. Roosevelt, himself notorious for his “trust busting” and attacks on powerful corporations, complained that progressive journalists were going too far. He borrowed his terminology from the writer John Bunyan, whose Pilgrim’s Progress featured a man with a “muck rake” who was forever looking down at the dirt. Roosevelt said:
In Pilgrim’s Progress the Man with the Muck Rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing.
Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.
The most famous muckrakers in American history are probably Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for their work in exposing the corruption in the Nixon administration.