Citizen Reporters a New Look at Muckraking


Citizen Reporters: S. S. McClure Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America (2020)

By Stephanie Gorton

New York: Ecco 288 pages + back matter.





What’s the difference between investigative reporters and muckrakers? Usually, if you agree with them, they’re reporters; if not, they’re muckrakers. That’s how it played out for Samuel S. McClure, his namesake magazine, and those who wrote for him during the golden age of investigative reporting (1890s into the1920s).


McClure’s spotlighted some of the most impressive writers in the history of journalism, including Ray Stannard Baker, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Sarah Orne Jewett, Jack London, Frank Norris, Emily Post, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, Mark Twain, and Ida Tarbell. McClure also featured British writers he cajoled: J. M. Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson…. It is no exaggeration to say that McClure’s and competitors such as The Atlantic, Century, Colliers, Harper’s, and Munsey’s helped invent the Progressive Era.


Citizen Reporters focuses on McClure and Ida Tarbell, the first full-time female features writer in American history. Stephanie Gorton’s eminently readable account flip-flops between the two to give germane biographical details and to offer contrasting points of view. She also interweaves developments and politics of the age–from anarchist terrorism to world fairs, inventions, the New Woman, and the New Journalism. New ideas were in the air.


McClure was a master at reinvention. He was a short, wiry man born who grew up in a County Antrim blackhouse and immigrated to Indiana with his widowed mother. Things weren’t much better at first, and McClure did a stint as a pedlar. He managed to get through Knox College, a minor miracle as he spent more time on the student newspaper than in the classroom. His break came as editor of The Wheelman, a trade publication for Pope Bicycles, which he turned into a sporting publication. McClure never really stopped being a pitchman. He managed to woo and marry Harriet (“Hattie”) Hurd, a professor’s daughter, after a dogged pursuit and over her family’s objections.


Ida Tarbell was McClure’s opposite, including being tall. She haled from the oil region of Western Pennsylvania, and enjoyed financial comfort before her father was ruined by John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil juggernaut. It was only then that he noticed of the ugliness of the region, or how Standard Oil crushed smaller manufacturers. She graduated from Allegheny College, taught briefly, and got her start in journalism with The Chautauquan, a journal for the adult education summer resort in southwestern New York. She moved to Paris when Impressionism was in bloom and wrote of her experiences for American newspapers.


Gorton portrays McClure as a man of boundless energy who cooked up one scheme after another. He often traveled to Europe–sometimes for business and sometimes to recover from probable bipolar disorder–and he was not an easy man for whom to work. When one of his half-baked ideas was opposed by more pragmatic staff, he acted as if was surrounded by traitors. The exception was Tarbell, the calm in the storm and his confidant.


McClure’s became famous for crusades against corruption. Baker wrote about Coxey’s Army, the Pullman strike, and race riots. Steffens produced an entire series on graft in American cities and covered both the Mexican and Russian revolutions. As for Tarbell, she began by writing biographies (Lincoln, Madame Roland, Napoleon), but gained fame for investigative pieces, including exposés of Standard Oil that led to numerous pieces of Progressive Era legislation and the breakup of Standard Oil. She also placed U.S. Steel and General Electric under her social microscope.


Some scholars assert that muckrakers made Theodore Roosevelt. That’s debatable, but Roosevelt certainly helped unmake the muckrakers. Gorton presents Roosevelt’s rants against reformist journalists–he tried to turn Baker, whom he knew personally–as if they were extremists. That was perhaps true of Steffens, who was briefly a communist, but it was not the case for most. Tarbell actually developed sympathy for John Rockefeller, and was conservative in her personal habits, morals, and belief in fair play. She enjoyed easy-going banter with Standard Oil’s Henry Huddleston Rogers, who could be so ruthless he was nicknamed “Hell Hound Rogers.” Tarbell, who never married, was often upheld as a feminist, but she was initially suspicious of it and only embraced feminism in semi-retirement.


Gorton suggests that Progressive Era reformers bit the hand that fed them when attacking magazines like McClure’s, but blames McClure for the decline of the magazine. He was small in stature, but large in ego. McClure engaged in several affairs, which the staff tried to scuttle, as such revelations were ruinous at the time. Oddly, Hattie–a more organized business person than her husband–sometimes enabled his philandering. Ultimately, McClure’s erratic behavior and constant attempts to launch new magazines led Tarbell to push back. He dismissed her and she and several other writers bolted to The American Magazine, a competitor. In 1911, the McClure’s board fired their founder and World War One hastened the demise of muckraking journals.


Gorton gives us a look at the inner workings of a magazine whose reformist fires burned briefly, but brightly. She is to commended for taking us beyond stereotypical views of such publications. As suggested in the lede, muckraker is a loaded word. Congress and the White House often get too much credit for the Progressive Era correctives. It is hard to imagine reform would have been as sweeping without journalists such as S.S. McClure and Ida Tarbell.


Rob Weir