The American Muckrakers Who Spoke Truth to PowerHistorians in the News
tags: journalism, Ida B. Wells, Muckrackers, Ida Tarbell
In the antebellum period, American newspapers were growing in tandem with the westward expansion of capital. An economic boom in the burgeoning market economy ushered in the invention of the telegraph and faster printing presses, allowing publishers to broaden their circulation. After passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and formation of the reservation system, a new branch of journalism emerged outside the news business to challenge racism and corruption among capitalists and politicians. Some of the earliest examples of investigative reporting reveal that much of the colonial free press served as a mouthpiece for industrialists who were profiting off an oppressed, enslaved workforce.
“Muckraking,” as it became known in the twentieth century, developed in response to unfettered growth in private wealth and extreme bias in corporate news outlets. Independent journalists, many of them women, wrote in-depth investigations on resource- and labor-extractive industries, opening the public’s eyes to injustices that mainstream newspapers refused to report. This style of writing, which investigated many of the most powerful men of the Gilded Age and provided the receipts, stood in stark opposition to the overly sensational “yellow journalism” of the time. President Theodore Roosevelt would eventually call these journalists “muckrakers” due to the so-called dirty work being done in McClure’s Magazine and elsewhere, but many of them viewed his description of their labor as condescending.
Rather than charting a gradual degradation in American journalism, the archives of these writers reveal that national newspapers were long entangled in the defense of the status quo. Early investigations unraveled the racist underpinnings of Manifest Destiny and class interests that allowed hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan to operate in league with national newspapers. Ex-slaves in the Deep South wrote exposés on segregation and lynching in self-published newspapers and pamphlets. Likewise, native tribes wrote on their struggles with the US cavalry, vigilante militias, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, connecting across tribal lines as the federal government sought to divide and conquer. From the Jim Crow era through the Great Depression, each report points to the inadequacy of national newspapers in speaking truth to power.
Early commercial and political newspapers were published largely for commercial and political elites. Large daily newspapers were only available by yearly subscriptions of around eight to ten dollars, which wage laborers earning the average forty cents to one dollar per day could hardly afford. That all changed with the emergence of the first African American and native newspapers, followed by the introduction of the “penny press” in 1830.
Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827 by John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, urged free black workers to publish their views without dependence on white abolitionists and their press. Based in New York, the Journal ran commentaries and news stories linking whiteness with criminality to break stereotypes around African-American life. While the paper only published for a few years, it would inspire other black abolitionists to realize the power of the press, such as Frederick Douglass, whose North Star challenged the white intelligentsia to confront its own racism leading up to the Civil War.
The passing of the Emancipation Proclamation expanded access to secondary education and printing presses for freed slaves, multiplying black-owned newspapers throughout the South. In Tennessee, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight published long-form reports debunking racist media narratives promoted in white newspapers. Ida B. Wells, herself born into slavery, began writing for the Free Speech in the 1890s as a one-third partner. Her friend, postman and grocer Thomas Moss, had recently been killed in the People’s Grocery lynchings after a white store owner provoked Moss and two of his fellow workers into a skirmish. A white mob seized and murdered them while in police custody, leading Wells to pursue justice through public exposure.