What Issues Did Muckraking Journalists Concentrate on During the First Decades of the 1900s?

Many historians consider Lincoln Steffens the first American muckraker.
... Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the early 1900s, investigative journalists known as "muckrakers" published work exposing the dark side of America's rapid industrialization and urbanization. The growing middle class thrilled to read these often sensational and scandalous stories of government corruption and corporate wrongdoing fueled by greed. Muckrakers weren't revolutionaries, however. They wished to reform the system rather than overturn it, supporting the progressive movement that aimed to improve the lives of workers and immigrants.

1 Mouthpieces of the Progressive Movement

To a large degree, the progressive movement depended on the writing of muckraker journalists to build public support. Progressives were predominately white, middle class elites who believed they had a social duty to help improve the lives of the poor and working classes. Muckrakers typically came from the same background. The newly popular and inexpensive national magazines provided muckrakers with a large and eager audience for their work. Their particular style of investigative reporting first hit its stride in January 1903, when "McClure's" magazine published a piece by Lincoln Steffens on corruption and scandal in municipal government. Across the country, middle class readers were appalled by the depictions of poverty and the exposés of corporate greed and political corruption, and they demanded change.

2 The President Coins a Term

In many ways, the muckrakers boosted President Theodore Roosevelt's political career and his presidency with favorable articles that promoted his own progressive agenda. However, when he called them "muckrakers" in a 1906 speech, he meant it as an insult. Roosevelt compared the journalists to a character from John Bunyan's work "Pilgrim's Progress," a man who remained focused only on the negative traits of public officials without bothering to see the good they were doing. The muckrakers themselves embraced the term, however, and treated it as a badge of pride. The president was walking a fine line between encouraging capitalism and attempting to control the excesses of rapid industrialization. He didn't appreciate the sensational nature of many of the muckrakers' articles and felt they went overboard, although he respected their work and had close relationships with many writers and editors of the time.

3 Exposing Corporate Greed

Muckrakers owed a debt to industrialization because without the transcontinental railroad and the fierce competition of national news publishers, their work wouldn't have reached such a broad audience. At the same time, these writers exposed the costs of rampant capitalism and rapid industrialization. In the same issue of "McClure's" that featured Steffens' story on corruption in American city governments, a piece by Ida Tarbell introduced American readers to the tactics Rockefeller's Standard Oil company was using to suppress competition. Standard Oil's greed, Tarbell argued, caused Americans to pay higher prices. The piece ultimately led to government prosecution of Standard Oil for violation of antitrust laws.

4 Pressure to Reform

Historians refer to the first decades of the 1900s as the "Age of Reform," and many of these reforms were triggered by muckrakers' exposés. The nation's first legislation to regulate the handling and processing of food came about thanks to a novel written by a muckraker. While the characters and events in Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" were fictional, the conditions of the meatpacking plant he described in graphic and gory detail were real. The public, sickened by the picture Sinclair painted, demanded the government take action. Initially, the meatpacking industry refused inspections. President Roosevelt released a government report on industry practices and people were further horrified, so they stopped buying meat. As sales took a nose dive, the industry caved to pressure and asked Congress for assistance in restoring the public's confidence. The result was the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, both passed in 1906.

Jennifer Mueller began writing and editing professionally in 1995, when she became sports editor of her university's newspaper while also writing a bi-monthly general interest column for an independent tourist publication. Mueller holds a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University Maurer School of Law.