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?
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.