In my student days, I was fascinated by the muckrakers, those turn of the (20th) century investigative reporters — such as Upton Sinclair, Ida M. Tarbell, and Lincoln Steffens — who exposed social ills, corporate shenanigans and political corruption. They were at the head of the pack of watchdog journalists and their stories, often years in the making, effecting real change. Or so I thought.
Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed the horrible conditions in the meat packing plants; the public sentiment he aroused was a significant factor in passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, a bill that had been kicked around Congress for 27 years, stymied by special interests, until the mood became ripe.
Tarbell laid bare the machinations and “open disregard of decent ethical business practices” of Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Public fury generated by her 19-part magazine series and subsequent book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, is often credited with contributing to the breakup of the Standard Oil trust.
Lincoln Steffens’ Shame of the Cities catalogued the corruption of political machines in large cities across America and spoke out against governments run “by the rascals, for the rich.” In Steffens view, the public was not blameless; it was its complicity that permitted corruption to flourish.
Today, I still thrill to reporting that shines a light on injustice, exposing monopolies, government ineptitude and arrogance, and all shades of corporate greed. Yet, older now, I realize that shining a light on something doesn’t put an end to it, especially in an age when shame seems an anachronism.
Meat processing and food production are still rife with abuses, to man and animal. Big oil and any number of “trusts” still call the tune in the corridors of power. Civil and corporate corruption still pull the strings governing our lives.
Revelation is only the beginning. To effect change, to stop being manipulated, exploited and controlled, we need to keep the light focused until it catches fire.