Thursday, October 31, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, a Series #5

This post will share what brought me to the idea of exploring the history of muckraking and its current status.  You will probably be surprised to learn that it was a picture of a mural by British artist Jules Muck.

She describes herself as a Mural and Graffiti Painter, whose current work was inspired by meeting a mural artist whom Muck refers to as the "legendary" Lady Pink.  Their meeting resulted in an apprenticeship with Pink in New York, and Muck was inspired to paint on street walls.

Jule Muck's Larry Bird mural after tattoos removed
I learned about Jule Muck when I happened to see a mural she painted of former NBA player Larry Bird.  She had worked from a photograph taken when Bird was a young college player for Indiana, using it to paint an accurate portrait--EXCEPT, she had covered his exposed skin with tattoos.  Bird had no tattoos when he played college ball nor has he had any tattoos since.  When he saw her depiction of him, he asked her to remove the tattoos.

As an attorney, I was interested in the legality of a famous person's right to his own image.  Muck's comments about his request seemed to indicate that she didn't believe he could demand changes to her art, although she did remove all of the tattoos except the "Indiana" on Bird's arm.  Among the other tattoos that were removed were a large black spider's web on Bird's right shoulder and a pair of mating rabbits on his left arm.

Larry Bird was clear to state that he had nothing against tattoos.  Many of his friends have tattoos, as anyone who watches pro-basketball already knows, and that is fine with him.  However, he felt a depiction of him should not make it appear that he has tattoos that he has never had.

Their dispute caused me to wonder about her unusual last name.  Is it her actual surname or is it a name she chose to use as an artist?  Her website doesn't say.  The dictionary defines "muck" as "soft moist farmyard manure; slimy dirt or filth; and defamatory remarks or writings."  Looking at examples of her murals at her website, I noticed that her name is often a prominent part of  her work.
Investigative reporters often disliked being described as muckrakers, and I could not help but wonder whether Jules Muck chose her professional name or simply accepted the surname with which she was born.

But, back to Larry Bird and his request that she remove the offending tattoos...

We are living in a world where the saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words" doesn't always apply.  Recently a video appeared on the internet which had been altered to make it seem that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was slurring her words drunkenly.  In fact, an authentic video had been altered to make a false impression.  In that case, no fancy technology was involved.  The culprit had simply reduced the speed of the video and tweaked the pitch of her voice in the slowed version.  People continued to post and watch it even after it had been debunked.

Perhaps even worse are examples of realistic face-swaps.  The technology works by using a computer program to find common points on two different faces, and if enough common points are used, the face of the victim can be "stitched" over the source to create a faked image capable of fooling viewers.  This has already been done to embarrass celebrities by face-swapping them into pornography.  Imagine the harm that could be done to politicians by their political enemies through face-swapping them to appear to be saying things or being places that were false.

Perhaps you have seen examples of using facial recognition for security purposes, in which a person's face is used to gain entry rather than using a key or a card that might be lost or stolen for someone else to enter secured areas.  This facial recognition works by mapping faces for 'landmark' points, like the corners of eyes and mouth, nostrils, and jaw line contour.

President Theodore Roosevelt
These technologies are rushing forward, spurred by positive uses but surely likely to be abused for reasons less acceptable.  How could most of us even begin to recognize such abuses?  If a mural could make us believe that a basketball player known for his positive character had tattoos of spiders and mating rabbits that he didn't have, what sort of muck is ahead to mislead us?

This technology, it seems to me, calls for a new generation of muckrakers to be our watchdogs against a world increasingly unable to recognize the truth amidst the fakery.  As President Roosevelt said, "There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them.  There should be relentless exposure of and attacks upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life.  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 his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful."

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, a Series #4

From the late 1800s and the early 1900s, muckraking journalists deserve credit for exposing many social wrongs--political, corporate, coal mining, unsafe working conditions, meat packing cruelties and others.  Some muckrakers embraced the name, but many found it demeaning.  The fact that the name was affixed to them by President Roosevelt was particularly disturbing to them, as they felt they had treated him fairly in the press.  In fact, however, Roosevelt did support the need for "relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or social life."  He encouraged writers, speakers, and publications that called the guilty out, but included this admonishment:  "...provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful."

Edward R. Murrow
The tradition of investigative journalism continues today, although the term "muckrakers" has largely disappeared.  Who might be considered muckrakers among commentators and journalists during the last one hundred years?

Edward R. Murrow, 1908-1965, would probably be on most lists, and his March 9, 1954 See It Now special titled "A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy," if nothing else, earned him a place in broadcasting history.  Ironically, the Senator himself knew that Murrow was one of the best, for in his statement attacking the criticism, he acknowledged Murrow's reputation in his own condemnation of the program, saying:  "...Murrow is a symbol, a leader, and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors."  The show exposed McCarthy for what he was and marked the end of McCarthy's popularity.  Murrow's last major show on CBS Reports, "Harvest of Shame," was broadcast in November of 1960 and was in keeping with his reputation to expose controversial issues, focusing on the plight of migrant farm workers.

Rachel Carson, 1907-1964, did her muckraking in books like the sea trilogy:  The Sea Around Us,  The Edge of the Sea, and Under the Sea Wind.  But, her book that brought the greatest changes in Americans' thinking was Silent Spring.  It changed the way we regard pesticides, inspired the environmental movement, and lead to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  What might she be writing if she were still living today?

Rachel Carson
The reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein for The Washington Post in connection with the Watergate break-in in 1972 certainly placed them in the ranks of political muckrakers.  Because many of their sources were anonymous, including William Mark Felt, Sr., their key source who was  identified only 33 years later as being "Deep Throat," The Washington Post put great trust in the young reporters.  Initially, they, and the New York Times, were nearly alone in recognizing the importance of  the events that eventually brought down a president.

The New York Times broke another story more recently that has had significant social ramifications beyond the original events they reported.  On October 5, 2017, reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey appeared under the headline, "Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades."  That accusation not only brought forth more women willing to accuse Weinstein but also fueled the #MeToo movement, with accusations against other men.  A report by the Women's Media Center in 2018 pointed to the increase in articles on sexual assault since the Weinstein article was published.  Weinstein continues to deny the allegations.

The role of being a muckraker, breaking news of misdeeds by powerful people, can be dangerous, and on October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, never to be seen again.  Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian dissident, author, columnist for The Washington Post, and editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel.  His newspaper articles critical of the Saudi government earned him powerful enemies.  Postumously,  Time Magazine named him its "Person of the Year" for his journalism, referring to Khashoggi as a "Guardian of the Truth."  Along with their recognition of Khashoggi the magazine recognized other journalists who face political persecution for their work.

As Roosevelt said, the need for men and women willing to expose evil presents an "...urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them."  For our democracy to survive we need these "Guardian[s] of the Truth."  Whether they like the name or not, we need Muckraking journalists and commentators, and newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters courageous enough to bring their reporting to the public.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, a Series #3

Reform-minded journalist had existed during earlier years of the 1800s, but as the century drew to a close a new crop of journalists known as Muckrakers appeared.  The earlier journalists had been more likely to write their articles for newspapers, but in the late 1800s magazines gained popularity, and longer, well-written stories had a place for publication.  McClure's was one of these magazines, willing to give journalists space to develop thorough examinations of business, political and social abuses in need of reform.  These magazines became known as muckraking magazines, and the journalists, and occasional fiction authors whose stories exposed abuses, were called muckrakers.

The term is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, who borrowed the term from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. In that classic, the Interpreter shows Christiana a man who can "look no way but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand...[raking] to himself the straws, the small sticks, and dust on the floor."  Christiana understands what she is being shown, for the man is so focused on the muck that he is ignoring the Celestial crown being offered to him.  She says, "I know somewhat the meaning of this, for this is a figure of a man of this world, is it not..."

Although most of us have not read Pilgrim's Progress, it would have been familiar to his listeners in 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt used a reference to the book to criticize journalists who took their investigative writing too far.  The President said, "the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck."
In oposition to Muckrakers were other Newspapers

The issue with investigative reporting was then, and continues today, to be judged by whether journalists are an essential check on a free society or are a disruptive nuisance.  The founding fathers understood the importance of freedom of the press to enlighten an informed citizenry.  Unfortunately, the professionalism of members of the press has always varied, from those who speak and write with a commitment to accuracy versus those who distort the truth to intentionally mislead readers or to slander public figures for readers' amusement.  

At the same time ethical journalists were producing reform articles, other writers published in so-called yellow journals, hawked stories of scandal, crime, and sensationalism for entertainment and malice rather than purposeful information.  Those publishing motivations continue today.

That is not to say that legitimate journalists should never write stories involving scandal, crime, and sensational facts, whether they were writing in the 1800s and early 1900s or today.  The distinction is that yellow journalism (or what we refer to today as tabloid stories) invent and exaggerate stories with little regard for accuracy, to titillate, shock and amuse readers, in contrast to ethical journalists who seek to report information in an objective, impartial way.  While the facts may still be sensational, reputable journalists rely on accurate sources and avoid exaggeration.  Or, as Roosevelt said, ethical journalists "know when to stop raking the muck."

The subjects reported by professional journalists in the late 1800s and early 1900s have similarities with what journalists cover today, although news today is more likely to be seen on television than in newspapers.  Today's news still includes subjects reported in Isaac Werner's era, such as: Lincoln Steffens "Tweed Days in St. Louis exposing political corruption; Ida Tarbell, exposing ruthless business tactics and influence; and Samuel Hopkins Adams, revealing false claims by pharmaceutical companies.

In Isaac Werner's times, U.S. Senators were not elected by popular vote but rather were chosen by the various elected state senators.  The enactment of the 17th Amendment, which allows the voters in each state to elect their two U.S. senators, had been one of the key demands of the People's Party.  A series of articles written by muckraker David Graham Phillips and published in "Cosmopolitan" magazine in February of 1906 is given significant credit toward the passage of the amendment allowing the people to directly choose their senators rather than having their elected state senators make the choices for them.

The importance that the press has played in digging through the muck of American Society is shown in these few examples, as is the criticism journalists must confront when presidents and other powerful people don't like the muck they uncover.

Next week the series continues.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series #2

Nelly Bly
Wealth had great power and influence in America in the 1800s, not terribly unlike today.  While farmers struggled to survive, in the cities there was a growing middle class, and they began to focus on issues beyond their personal needs.  Middle class urban women tended to focus on prohibition and suffrage, but other issues caught the attention of the middle class.  With more leisure time for reading, their newspapers and magazines began including articles about things outside the lives of their readers.  There was curiosity about the extravagant lives of the wealthy--their mansions, their social events, their clothing, and their power.  Wherever there is excessive wealth and power, there is likely to be abuse, and reform-minded journalists began to write about those abuses.

Newspapers began to report their scandals, sometimes exposing wrongdoing as much for increasing readership as for seeking a correction of the abuses.  Gradually, however, certain writers began investigating social abuses with the intention of reform. Most of these reporters were male, but the beautiful young Nelly Bly was among them.  Her work was even covered in the St. John County Capital where Isaac would have seen it.  In 1887 she focused on the scandal of placing 'troublesome' women in mental hospitals.

She set out to determine whether women were sometimes admitted to these hospitals because they were unconventional or inconvenient rather than being mentally ill.  Further, even if there was mental illness, Nelly wanted to see how these women were treated.  With the approval of her editor, she faked mental illness and was admitted to Bellevue Mental Hospital, where she personally observed and endured the cruelties suffered by women who had been admitted to get them out of the way.  It was a daring way to investigate actual conditions, but she gained release and published a series of articles in The World newspaper that brought public attention to the abuses.  Later, her information was published as a book, and her reporting made a difference in correcting the mistreatment of women.

Also in Isaac's time, Henry Demarest Lloyd published Wealth Against Commonwealth, an expose revealing the corruption of the Standard Oil Company.  A few years later, but prior to Isaac's death, McClure's Magazine was formed, and in addition to articles about general topics, they became a leading publication for exposing social abuses.  Later, Willa Cather joined McClure's to cover the arts.

The early 1900s were the highpoint of what came to be known as muckraking journalism.  Next week's blog will include some of the familiar names known for their exposure of abuses in American business and society.   

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Battling Abuses in the 1800s, A Series, #1

One of Isaac's favorite authors
Among the first things that appealed to me about Isaac was his love for books.  I have written about that in this blog before, but this series goes beyond prior posts.  A good place to start is to understand Isaac's (and the populist movement's) belief that education was essential.  

As a young druggist Isaac had read Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but when he read the book as a homesteader trying to make a living breaking sod for farming, he realized that what he had learned from reading Smith as a merchant had been interpreted differently from his reading as a struggling farmer. 

I have discovered from observing quotes posted online that words I interpreted to mean one thing are sometimes construed to mean just the opposite by someone else.  We all respond to information based on our own experience and the bias we have.  As  Carlow Ruiz Zafon wrote in The Shadows of the Wind, "Books are mirrors:  You only see in them what you already have inside you."

Isaac was a serious scholar and own this title
Another book that Isaac read was Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, the story of a wealthy young man struggling with insomnia, who is hypnotized to help him sleep, but like Rip VanWinkle, the young man awakens years later to a completely different world.  I had read the book years ago because it remains on many reading lists as a classic.  At that time, I read superficially, seeing it simply as an interesting tale about awakening in a changed society.  However, when it was originally published, people struggling to survive economically read it as a sort of guide to what could be a more equitable society if social changes were made.  The book was so popular during Isaac's time that Bellamy Clubs were formed around the world to encourage the sort of changes represented in the novel.

Edward Bellamy, author
Isaac also read Henry George, most famous for writing Progress and Poverty, which advocated Land Rents rather than taxes on land.  It would have eliminated owning land for speculation or investment, prohibiting the wealthy from acquiring and holding land to manipulate prices.  Collecting the land rents would, according to George, have been simpler than collecting taxes on production from the land, and would not have penalize successful farmers.

Farmers believed in the importance of learning, and they pooled their money to buy books.  Isaac gifted many of his books to their common library and built a cupboard at the school house where their books were stored.  I agree with Zafon that we see in books what we have inside us, but I also believe reading lets new light into our minds.  If we only read books and other material that reinforce what we already believe, we shut out the illumination of new perspectives.

Next week's blog will look at other books of that period with a different focus more aligned with urban issues.