Muckraker Descriptions

What is a Muckraker?

Muckraker is a name that was first given to American writers in the early 20th century who exposed corruption and scandals in business and politics. The term muckrake comes from a character in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress who could only look downward while holding a muckrake which he used to rake the filth at his feet. President Theodore Roosevelt used the term muckrake in a 1906 speech in which he agreed with the accusations of muckrakers, but questioned their methods. Some of the early muckrakers were Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Upton Sinclair, although for the purpose of this exhibit we have included not only the original writers associated with this movement, but also individuals who contributed to exposing social ills before their time as well as those who have continued in their tradition.

"Muckrakers." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. 2001.

"Muckraker." The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd Edition. 1989.

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Ralph Nader (1934-

Unsafe at Any Speed: the Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile
DISPLAY PLV - Muckrackers - Ralph NaderGrossman Publishers: New York, 1965

Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed begins by informing the reader: "For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people." Nader's first work was written after he handled several automobile accident damage suits. He then began to investigate if the automobile itself was at fault rather than his clients. In 1969 he founded the Center for Study of
Responsive Law , often referred to as "Nader's Raiders." Nader's efforts on behalf of consumers and citizens has made life safer for all Americans. From seatbelts in cars, to the Freedom of Information Act, Nader has been a America's most successful advocate for the public good, since the publication of this book.

His most recent book, Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President, chronicles his recent presidential candidacy on the Green Party ticket. Nader is now commonly known as the Father of the modern consumer movement, but few Americans realize how his work has positively influenced the way we live. He is perhaps the greatest living American muckraker.


"Ralph Nader." Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002.

Bollier, David. "Ralph Nader." Encyclopedia of the Consumer Movement. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. <>.

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Jacob Riis (1849-1914)

DISPLAY PLV - Muckrackers - RiisHow the Other Half Lives: studies among the tenements of New York
New York: Dover, 1971
[Originally published by C. Scribners Sons, 1890]

Jacob Riis chronicled a life of poverty, despair, and filth among the working class in New York City in the 1890s in his classic work, "How the Other Half Lives." His experience as a police reporter exposed him to the horrible living conditions in New York's Lower East Side and convinced him to become a spokeman for the rights of the poor. How the Other Half Lives, not only told the story of the poor in New York, but also contained photographs by Riis, many of which were only possible because of recent technological innovations in photography that allowed images to be captured in dark interiors and alleyways at night as well as in daylight.

Although this work was published over 15 years before Theodore Roosevelt labeled progessive American writers as "muckrakers," its influence on the movement is evident. Riis was a friend of both Roosevelt, whom he knew when Roosevelt served as New York's police commissioner, as well as Lincoln Steffens. He was important to the muckraking movement as a mentor to a young Steffens, who would later become one of the most influential muckrakers as both the editor of McClure's and a writer who exposed political corruption in America's cities. Steffens later recalled the influence of Riis upon him as a reformer who "worked through despair to set the wrong right" and "not only got the news, he cared about the news."


Cross, Robert D. "Riis, Jacob August." American National Biography. Edited by John A. Garraty, Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Everett, George. "Jacob Riis." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 23: American Newspaper Journalists, 1873-1900. Edited by Perry J. Ashley. Detroit: Gale Group, 1983.

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Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

DISPLAY PLV - Muckrackers - Rachel CarsonSilent Spring
Houghton Mifflin: New York, 1962

Rachel Carson, an American scientist, indicted the government as well as the chemical and agricultural industries for their indiscriminate use of pesticides which caused permanent damage to our environment and could possibly threaten us with extinction. Its publication resulted in President Kennedy requesting an investigation into the issues it raised and the 1963 report of the special panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee supported Carson's conclusions. A reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor, writing about Silent Spring said, "Miss Carson has undeniably sketched a one-sided picture. But her distortion is akin to that of the painter who exaggerates to focus attention on essentials. It is not the half-truth of the propagandist."


"Rachel Louise Carson." Contemporary Authors Online. The Gale Group, 2000.

Linda J. Lear. "Carson, Rachel Louise." American National Biography. Edited by John A. Garraty, Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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Ida Minerva Tarbell (1857-1944)

DISPLAY PLV - Muckrackers - Ida TarbellThe History of Standard Oil Company
Peter Smith: Gloucester, 1963.
[Originally published in 2 volumes in 1904 by McClure]

Ida Tarbell is best known as the writer who helped to break up the most powerful trust in America with the publication of, The History of Standard Oil. She constructed a well-researched, yet seething indictment of corruption and back-room deals by John D. Rockefeller in order to crush all competitors. Citing the eventual dissolution of the Standard Oil Company, American historian Charles D. Hazen said: "Miss Tarbell is the only historian I have ever heard of whose findings were corroborated by the Supreme Court of the United States."


Mary E. Tomkins. "Ida M. Tarbell." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 47: American Historians, 1866-1912. Edited by Clyde N. Wilson. Detroit: Gale Group, 1986.

Robert L. Gale. "Tarbell, Ida M." American National Biography.
Edited by John A. Garraty, Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

DISPLAY PLV - Muckrackers - Woodward and BernsteinAll the President's Men
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, investigative reporters for the Washington Post, linked the story of the Watergate hotel break-in to President Nixon's reelection committee. This book recounts their process of uncovering the story that helped force President Richard Nixon and other high-ranking government officials to resign. They won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism for their story which was turned into a movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. All the President's Men is a classic investigation into the modern journalistic process


"Carl Bernstein."Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002.

"Robert Upshur Woodward." Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002.

Szegedy-Maszak, Marianne. "Since Watergate: an update on Woodward and Bernstein." Biography. 1.1 (1997) 44-47.

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Upton Sinclair (1878-1968)

DISPLAY PLV - Muckrackers - Upton SinclairThe Jungle
Grosset & Dunlap: New York, 1906

The publication of Sinclair's novel which told the story of a poor Lithuanian immigrant working in the stockyards of Chicago led to the passage of both the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906. Despite the passage of these acts, Sinclair's novel continues to convince many of its readers to become vegetarians. In the fall of 1904 in preparation for the writing of The Jungle, Sinclair visited Chicago to observe the slaughterhouses and meat factories. His work reflects the brutally unsanitary conditions that he witnessed.


Bloodworth, William A. "Upton Sinclair." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 9: American Novelists, 1910-1945. Edited by James J. Martine. Detroit: Gale, 1981.

Robert L. Gale. "Sinclair, Upton." American National Biography.
Edited by John A. Garraty, Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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Seymour M. Hersh (1937-

DISPLAY PLV - Muckrackers - HershMy Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath
New York, Vintage Books, 1970

Seymour Hersh is an investigative journalist who gained prominence after he broke the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, when American soldiers killed every man, woman and child -- all unarmed civilians -- about 500 all told, in the vicinity of a village called My Lai 4 on their maps. Women were raped and babies were used for target practice. All of the ugly details are told in Hersh's book, which won him the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting in 1970. He also wrote: The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, which was described by Alan Wolfe in the Nation, "as the official record of the major foreign policy atrocities of the Nixon years." Hersh 's latest book is: Against All Enemies: Gulf War Syndrome; The War between America's Ailing Veterans and Their Government. Hersh deserves credit most recently for breaking the story on the flawed Iraq intelligence used in President Bush's State of the Union long before the mainstream media picked up on the story in a big way.


Hersh, Seymour. "The Stovepipe Annals of National Security." The New Yorker. October 27, 2003.

"Seymour M. Hersh." Contemporary Authors Online. Gale Group, 2002.

Rubien, David. "Seymour Hersh." Salon January 18, 2000. 14 January 2002. <>.

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Michael Moore (1954-

DISPLAY PLV - Muckrackers - Michael MooreRoger & Me
Written, produced and directed by Michael Moore
Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 1990

Michael Moore gained international fame with the release of his controversial breakthrough documentary, Roger & Me, the most successful nonconcert documentary ever. It tells the story of Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan, and the hard times that have beset the community as a result of General Motors factory closings. (Moore's father worked at General Motors for 33 years.) The film is an indictment of GM's policy of plant closing at a time when it was the world's largest corporation with a large profit margin. The film satirizes attempts to rejuvenate the economy and bolster the spirit of the community.

Moore's latest film, Bowling for Columbine, attempts to address the growing problem of violence in America and includes interviews with rocker Marilyn Manson who is surprisingly thoughful, as well as Charlton Heston, the actor and former president of the National Rifle Association who was not quite as cooperative. He also recently published, Stupid White Men and Other Excuses for the State of the Nation, which reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

His films and books provide an alternative view of tradional issues that will not not only make you laugh, but also reflect deeply upon contemporary issues such as violence and corporate greed. He was attacking the latter issue long before ENRON and the other corporate scandals of the past year.


Andrews, Paul. "The Little Leftist Rant That Could." U.S. News & World Report. 1 April 2002: 4-5.

Georgakas, Dan, and Barbara Saltz. "Michael and us: An interview with Michael Moore." Cineaste 23.3 (1998): 4-7.

Johnson, Brian D. "Staring Down the Barrel of a Gun." Maclean's. 21 October 2002: 34-36.

Michael Ed. David Schankula. 2002. Michael Moore. 09 January 2003. <>.

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John Hersey (1914-1993)

DISPLAY PLV - Muckrackers - HersheyHiroshima
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985
(Originally published 1946)

John Hersey was a World War II correspondent for Life magazine and he completed the book after a trip to Japan in 1945-46. Hiroshima is an account of six survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima -- two doctors, a widow with two children, a German priest, a Japanese pastor, and a woman clerk. Their experiences become personal events for the reader. This work was originally printed as the August 31, 1946 issue of The New Yorker and later read in its entirety on ABC radio. Norman Cousins, in The Saturday Review of Literature, said Hersey was highly regarded for: "compassion without sticky sentimentality, an almost monumental integrity, an eloquent simplicity, a basic respect for his craft."


"Hersey, John Richard." The Columbia Encyclopedia. Sixth Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. <>.

Jones, Dan R. "John Hersey." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 185: American Literary Journalists, 1945-1995. Detroit: Gale, 1997

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Lincoln Steffens (1866-1936)

DISPLAY PLV - Muckrackers - SteffensThe Shame of the Cities

New York: Hill and Wang, 1957
[Originally published in 1904 by McClure, Phillips & Co.]

The publication of The Shame of the Cities in 1904 brought together six McClure's articles by Lincoln Steffens that exposed the corruption of governments in Chicago, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and New York. As one of America's early muckrakers, he worked as a police reporter in the 1890s for the New York Evening Post, sharpening his investigative reporting skills of corruption and reform with Jacob Riis serving as a mentor. His work in exposing police corruption in New York helped to defeat the Tammany machine's candidate for mayor in 1894 and elect a reform candidate, William Strong, who subsequently established a board of police commissioners, that was headed by future President Theodore Roosevelt. He also wrote The Struggle for Self-Government in 1906, which examined corruption in politics on the state level. Much of his work explored the idea that the resources of American business interest allowed them to pervert the traditions of representative government.


"Steffens, Lincoln." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001. <>.

Mooney-Melvin, Patricia. "Steffens, Lincoln." American National Biography. Edited by John A. Garraty, Mark C. Carnes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

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