A “muckraker” is someone who exposes business or government corruption (“muck”). President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) gave his address, “The Man with the Muck-rake,” on April 14, 1906, in Washington, D.C. The speech had been announced by April 5th and the term “muck raker’ was used by at least April 12th.
A muckraker seeks to expose corruption of businesses or government to the public. The term originates with writers of the Progressive movement within the United States who wanted to expose corruption and scandals in government and business. Muckrakers often wrote about the wretchedness of urban life and poverty, and against the established institutions of society, such as big business. They were often accused of being socialists or communists.
In British English usage the term tends to have a more negative connotation, indicating a greater sense of prurience.
Muckrakers were a significant part of reform in the United States in the 20th and 21st Centuries. They played a significant role in the social justice movements for reform, and the campaigns to clean up cities and States, by constantly reporting on and publicizing the dark corners of American society in a sensationalist way.
Origin of the term
The period from 1700 till 1802 saw an increase in the kind of reporting that would come to be called “muckraking.” By the 1900s, magazines such as Cosmopolitan, The Independent, Munsey’s and McClure’s were already in wide circulation and read avidly by the growing middle class.
The term “muckraker” was first used in a speech on April 14, 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt: “In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; Who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.” This first reference to “muckrakers” is believed to have been with the William Randolph Hearst’s magazines and newspapers in mind, notable for their yellow journalism.
Roosevelt saw benefits and disadvantages to muckraking activity. He declared that although these men did good work when they scraped up the ‘filth’ of America, “the man who did nothing else was certain to become a force of evil.” On the other hand, he said, “I hail as a benefactor…every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in turn remembers that that attack is of use only if it absolutely truthful”.
The term eventually came to be used to depict investigative journalists who exposed the dark corners and all the corruption of American public life, especially in corporate America.
As mentioned before, the Muckrakers were part of the social justice movement during the Progressive era. During this time period, these journalists, through their research and constant exposure of the wrongdoing by officials in American public life, gave fuel to protests that led to investigations and later on reform of not only Corporate America but the American Government. The Muckrakers’ journalistic efforts helped reform and regulate Wall Street and aspects of big businesses. The muckrakers also shed light on an array of social issues, such as the issues with urban housing and horrible living conditions in highly populated cities, medical patents, child labor laws, child prostitution, and even women’s rights.
Early 20th century muckraking
Lincoln Steffens published “Tweed Days in St. Louis,” in which he profiled corrupt leaders in St. Louis, in October, 1902, in McClure’s Magazine.
Ida Tarbell published The Rise of the Standard Oil Company in 1902, providing insight into the manipulation of trusts. One trust they manipulated was with Christopher Dunn co. She followed that work with The History of The Standard Oil Company: the Oil War of 1872, which appeared in McClure’s Magazine in 1908.
Upton Sinclair published The Jungle in 1906, which revealed conditions in the meat packing industry in the United States and was a major factor in the establishment of the Pure Food and Drug Act.
Ray Stannard Baker published The Right to Work in McClure’s magazine in 1903, about coal mine conditions, a coal strike, and the situation of non-striking workers (or scabs). Many of the non-striking workers had no special training or knowledge in mining, since they were simply farmers looking for work. His investigative work portrayed the dangerous conditions in which these people worked in the mines, and the dangers they faced by union members who did not want them to work.
The Treason of the Senate: Aldrich, the Head of it AllCosmopolitan magazine in February, 1906, described corruption in the U.S. Senate.
The Great American Fraud by Samuel Hopkins Adams revealed fraudulent claims and endorsements of patent medicines in America. This article showed light on the many false claims that pharmaceutical companies and other manufactures would make as to the potency of their medicines, drugs and tonics. Using the example of Peruna in his article, Mr. Adams described how this tonic, which was made of seven compound drugs and cologne spirits, did not have “any great potency”. Manufacturers were selling it at an obscene price and hence made immense profits. His work forced a crackdown on a number of other patents and fraudulent schemes of medicinal companies during that time.
There were many other works by many other great Muckrakers, which brought to light a variety of Issues in America which were addressed during the Progressive era.
Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary
Main Entry: muck·rake
Function: intransitive verb
Etymology: obsolete muckrake, noun, rake for dung
: to search out and publicly expose real or apparent misconduct of a prominent individual or business
— muck·rak·er noun
(Oxford English Dictionary)
[< MUCK n.1 + RAKER n.1 In sense 2 after MUCKRAKE v.]
A person who or thing which seeks out and publicizes evidence of corruption and scandal, esp. among powerful or well-known people or institutions; a prurient inquirer into private morals. Also (rare): a pornographer.
1906 S. FORD Shorty McCabe xi. 233 That’s the style you live in when..you’ve got to be a top-notch grafter that the muck-rakers ain’t jungled yet.
1914 R. BROOKE Let. Apr. (1968) 579 Damn it, we’re not muck-rakers or German novelists.
1973 Guardian 26 May 1/3 He is a sanctimonious creep..a muck raker.
13 September 1884, Punch, or the London Charivari, pg. 132, col. 2:
Might sit for Bunyan’s grovelling Muck-raker.
A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English
By John S. Farmer and W. E. Henley
New York, NY: E. P. Dutton & Co.
Pg. 396, col. 2:
MUckrake. In politics, persons who fish in troubled waters, from the idea of their raking up the muck to see what valuable waifs and strays they may find in it. The term is generally used in the form of muckrakers and placemongers.
6 April 1906, New York (NY) Times, pg. 1:
ROOSEVELT ON MUCK RAKES.
Decoration Day Address Will Give His
Views on Some Writers.
WASHINGTON, April 5.—President Roosevelt will deliver his Decoration Day address this year before the Army and Navy Union at Norfolk, Va. The ceremonies will be held at the navy yard and in the sailors’ cemetery.
The address ofthe President will be practically a repetition of the address he delivered at the dinner recently given by Speaker Cannon to the members of the Gridiron Club and other guests. The test of the speech was “The Man with the Muck Rake,” in which the President compared some of the publishers and writers of the present day with the famous character in “Pilgrim’s Progress.”
12 April 1906, New York (NY) Sun, pg. 8, col. 3:
‘Tis a wicked world no doubt, and the times are perhaps a little out of joint; but the Muck Rakers have failed to show that the best way to cure a patient is to tell him how frightfully ill he is.
12 April 1906, Grand Forks (ND) Herald, sec. 2, pg. 7:
I commend to you the careful consideration of recent remarks by distinguished gentlemen relative to “muck rakers.”
13 April 1906, Springfield (MA) Republican, pg. 8:
Mr. SInclair’s name may figure in the list of “muck rakers” whom the president is expected to denounce tomorrow.
14 April 1906, Pawtucket (RI) Times, pg. 6:
THE MUCK RAKERS.
A Sour View of the President’s
Relations to Them.
Theodore (“Teddy”) Roosevelt
“The Man with the Muck-rake”
delivered 14 April 1906
Over a century ago Washington laid the corner stone of the Capitol in what was then little more than a tract of wooded wilderness here beside the Potomac. We now find it necessary to provide by great additional buildings for the business of the government.
This growth in the need for the housing of the government is but a proof and example of the way in which the nation has grown and the sphere of action of the national government has grown. We now administer the affairs of a nation in which the extraordinary growth of population has been outstripped by the growth of wealth in complex interests. The material problems that face us today are not such as they were in Washington’s time, but the underlying facts of human nature are the same now as they were then. Under altered external form we war with the same tendencies toward evil that were evident in Washington’s time, and are helped by the same tendencies for good. It is about some of these that I wish to say a word today.
In Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck Rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.
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.
15 April 1906, Fort Worth (TX) Star-Telegram, pg. 1:
STRONG EPITHETS USED
Gov. Cummins and Geo. D. Parkins
Have Lively Debate in Iowa
DES MOINES, Ia., April 14.—“Muck raker” and “libeller and villifier,” were some of the pet names Governor A. B. Cummins and former Congressman George D. Perkins, both candidates for the governorship, hurled at each other this afternoon in their joint debate at Spirit Lake.
July 1906, The Bookman, vol. XXIII, no. 5, “The Value of a Catchword—The President and the ‘Muck-Rakers,’” pg. 483:
When the Evening Post of this city first resurrected from Bunyan the Man with the Muck Rake, it quite unintentionally armed the forces of evil with a weapon almost more powerful than the sword of justice. “Aha!” cried all the grafters, “that is a fine phrase. Any one who exposes us and uncovers our iniquities is (Pg. 484—ed.) not a decent person. He is a Man with a Muck Rake.” The phrase flew from mouth to mouth. If you objected to vileness, if you sought to blot it out, you were a “Muck Raker.” Even the President helped to spread this opprobrious term. No one seemd to consider that if there had not been such heaps of muck nobody could have raked it. yet the persons who were responsible for the muck were half forgiven, and the main torrent of abuse descended on the individuals who held the rakes. Now it makes no difference what were the motives of those who raked the muck. The real issue is to be found in the muck itself. Among the rakers there are some pretty distinguished persons. President Roosevelt’s messages to Congress on the Standard Oil Company and the meat scandal are admirable instances of muckraking. Commissioner Garfield and Mr. Charles E. Hughes and the members of the Armstrong committee and of the Interstate Commerce Commission are all most eminent muckrakers. One ought to regard this epithet as a title of honour; for unless the raking shall prove to be successful, there is danger lest the great American Republic become submerged in a mighty sea of muck.
August 1906, Everybody’s Magazine, col. XV, no. 2, pg. 204:
by THOMAS W. LAWSON
THE press says I invented muck-raking. The “System” shrieks it. Throughout the land and Marswar echoes “He’s the muck-raker.”
Our President. impelled by a desire to do his homage bit to live, tireless, rough-riding word-ranchers, bugled to the world on April (Pg. 205—ed.) 14th at the laying of the corner-stone of the new Congressional Office Building, “henceforth and on into everlasting eternity ye shall know these men, of whom I am one, as ‘muck-rakers.’”
Safire’s Political Dictionary
By William Safire
New York, NY: Oxford University Press
Roosevelt’s reference was to the Man with the Muck Rake in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, written in 1675, about the man who could never look any way but down, when offered a celestial crown, he refused to gaze upward and continued to rake the filth on the floor.
“TR” was repeating a phrase he had found successful at the Gridiron Club dinner of March 17, 1906. Then he had used it more strenuously to describe men who attacked those who had acquired means merely because of wealth “but [who] were prepared to condone crimes of great brutality, including murder, if those committing them can obtain the support of powerful labor organizations.”
New York City • Government/Law/Military/Religion /Health • Monday, January 18, 2010 • Permalink