Stories That Changed America

Stories That Changed America: Muckrakers of the 20th Century by Carl Jensen

The 20th century can be named as the age of dirt. Two World Wars, the rise of totalitarian regimes, new “dirty” industrial technologies and new “dirty” techniques of making money. At the beginning of the 20th century, the US was ruled by corporations, with only slight control of governmental authorities. Therefore, a group of American journalists and writers at the end of the 19th – the beginning of 20th centuries launched a campaign to expose the economic and social problems in the country, including officials of corruption and fraud industrial magnates. They were called muckrakers after famous phrase of Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, who called the scandalous journalists “muckrakers.” From that time, these people, among which one can find famous names of Jack London, Rachel Carson, Theodore Dreiser, Ida Tarbell, Joseph Stables and many others. They dealt with corruption, food industry, oil industry, monopolization and plenty of other issues disturbed America at that time. This paper is to discuss and analyze one of the main and comprehensive works on muckrakers’ history, written by another muckraker.

The story of muckrakers is rather popular to be chosen for investigation since their statements made history as a movement that in general terms reflected dissatisfaction with the liberal intelligentsia and the development of anti-monopoly sentiment wider circles of American society beginning of the 20th century. Carl Jensen, being considered also the modern muckraker, created a comprehensive work dealing with all history-changing works of 20th century. Being born in the second part of the 20th century, and witnessing the end of muckrakers’ era, he was able to understand the message of these authors and value the contribution they made into American history.

Carl Jensen is an outstanding figure in modern American Journalism. More than 45 years he worked as a publisher, news writer, copywriter and editor. He obtained his academic degrees (BA, MA and PhD) at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1970s and since then specialized in the communications, he started teaching at his alma mater and was the founder of Lincoln Steffens Journalism Award and the co-founder of other honorable journalism awards. Jensen is famous not only for muckraker’s studies, but for the creation of “Project Censored” in Canada and the USA investigating the state of modern media and “publicize the extent of censorship into [our] society by locating stories about significant issue of which he public should be aware.” This project is to stimulate writers and journalists to uncover the public issues and to develop objectiveness in their words. Obviously, the purpose of writing Stories that Changed America: Muckrakers of the 20th Century was to show modern journalists the image of a real newsmaker and writer. This book was to show how the journalistic investigation should be held and presented in order to address important social issues and changing the reader’s mind about the issue and change the state of things.

The book is considered to be one of the most comprehensive and worth-reading books in historical literature. As Hugh Downs said in the foreword, “The stories in this book … show dramatically how journalistic courage … act as an immune system for our liberty …” the main thesis of the book is that scavenging and muckraking is one of the most effective ways of inspiring the reader to make a difference. It highlights that scrutinizing the dirty laundry of the society is a real journalism – scandalous, life changing and prominent. This thought penetrates the whole book giving obvious evidence and addresses the thesis in every muckraker’s story. However, there is also another main point in the book. Jensen indicates that muckraker were (and are) main bearers and protectors for democratic values and beliefs in America.

The further content of the book is concentrated around the mentioned main points. The author firstly briefly, but deeply discusses the biography of the particular writers and then provides extracts from his/her work in order to acknowledge his choice of an author as the muckraker. Such a deep look into the author’s biography gives the reader an understanding of why the writer decided to discuss this or that matter, and, most importantly, in the biography Jensen gives the consequences of this or that work, that lead to the change, by those supporting his thesis. For example, when discussing Ida Tarbell’s biography, Jensen says “Ida Mae Tarbell was born … on the noisy, dirty and rough oil frontier.” He also indicates that her father was also an oil producer. Therefore, one can say that her work on the oil monopoly of Standard Oil Company was directly influenced by what she saw in her childhood. As a support for the thesis here, Jensen says that after a long trial “The Standard Oil Company was broken into thirty-eight pieces.” By this he actually gives a particular example of successful muckraker’s work. Another example, Jensen characterizes George Seldes as “one of the most censored journalists in American history.” Not surprisingly, Seldes dedicated his work to censorship and limits in the American journalistic world. Jensen indicates that Seldes was a military Journalist during World War I. Seldes was censored to the great extent in order to keep the facts as they are beneficial for the authorities. That is why Jensen admires his contribution to access journalism and supports the idea of changing the purpose of muckraker journalism.

Woman, who supported healthy eating and “suffragette who wouldn’t drink coffee or tea because they were stimulants” raised Upton Sinclair. Not surprisingly, Sinclair addressed his most prominent work to the horrors of America’s meatpacking industry, resulted in the adoption of Pure Food and Drug Act, being the initial version of the modern Food and Drug Administration. As one can see, exactly by giving the results of muckraker’s work Jensen proves their necessity and value. There are a lot of similar examples. By indicating these facts, Jensen says to the possible muckraker that in case there is something personal in the work, it becomes more valuable and successful.

Every writer in Stories that Changed America: Muckrakers of the 20th Century is followed by years of research. Rachel Carson for a couple of years studied and gathered material for Silent Spring, Ida Tarbell collected all possible information to write Napoleon’s biography and so did other writers. By indicating these passionate researches, Jensen apparently indicates that the real journalist should reinforce his arguments with facts and cases, enabling to add Logos to the work and strengthen its rhetoric message.

The advantage of Jensen’s research is that he presents the muckrakers’ stories in the chronological order “by birth date of the author.” This allows not distinguishing the authors from the overall list and equalizing their works by importance. Muckrakers prepared the ground for the movement for reform, and forced the Americans to see themselves without embellishment. In their works they showed the American reality unvarnished, and performed only by the need to eradicate vices of this reality. They supported the democratic right of citizens to know the truth, as well as media freedom, when everyone that has something to say is able to speak. This issue is as important for democracy as gender equality since it provides citizens with the possibility to make own choices. Muckrakers provided the nation with the view being other than that of the official one, enabling people to have the whole scope of information and to decide whether they agree with such state of things. Muckrakers gave a new push to democracy development, as long as there are social problems, their existence will be required.

Michael Calderone, the correspondent of the Huffington Post says that due to the growing gap between social backgrounds, muckrakers today are needed in order to open the society’s eyes onto the situation. Arielle Levin Becker, who wrote an uncovering story of medicine in the United States. In her article “As Patients Pay More of Their Medical Bills, Many Unclear on the Costs,” she deals with problem of prices for medical services and inability to find them. Becker raises very compelling question for modern-day medicine in the U.S. since in spite income lowering, the majority of citizens have to be attentive to how much money and for what they spend. Becker not only discusses the question, gives particular examples, but also offers the ways of finding the prices, but the main solution she recommends is creating “the menu” of service at the doctor’s office. However, this muckraking differs from that of in 20th century.

Muckrakers touched almost all the aspects of American society. They have exposed the criminal actions of the owners of canned meat plants and medicines, which led to cases of poisoning the population of poor quality products, portrayed tough working conditions of immigrants and people of color US enrichment exploitation of children and prostitution. Their contribution to the pace of American history cannot be underestimated. In fact, they partly control the flow of the history since who has information, has the power.

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