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The American Muckrakers Who Spoke Truth to Power

The bulk of mainstream journalism in the US has long stood as a mouthpiece for ruling-class interests. Yet from Ida B. Wells to Ida Tarbell, a powerful tradition of “muckraking” has gone against the grain to hold the powerful accountable.

American journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells (1862–1931) in 1920. (Chicago History Museum via Getty Images)

In the antebellum period, American newspapers were growing in tandem with the westward expansion of capital. An economic boom in the burgeoning market economy ushered in the invention of the telegraph and faster printing presses, allowing publishers to broaden their circulation. After passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and formation of the reservation system, a new branch of journalism emerged outside the news business to challenge racism and corruption among capitalists and politicians. Some of the earliest examples of investigative reporting reveal that much of the colonial free press served as a mouthpiece for industrialists who were profiting off an oppressed, enslaved workforce.

“Muckraking,” as it became known in the twentieth century, developed in response to unfettered growth in private wealth and extreme bias in corporate news outlets. Independent journalists, many of them women, wrote in-depth investigations on resource- and labor-extractive industries, opening the public’s eyes to injustices that mainstream newspapers refused to report. This style of writing, which investigated many of the most powerful men of the Gilded Age and provided the receipts, stood in stark opposition to the overly sensational “yellow journalism” of the time. President Theodore Roosevelt would eventually call these journalists “muckrakers” due to the so-called dirty work being done in McClure’s Magazine and elsewhere, but many of them viewed his description of their labor as condescending.

Rather than charting a gradual degradation in American journalism, the archives of these writers reveal that national newspapers were long entangled in the defense of the status quo. Early investigations unraveled the racist underpinnings of Manifest Destiny and class interests that allowed hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan to operate in league with national newspapers. Ex-slaves in the Deep South wrote exposés on segregation and lynching in self-published newspapers and pamphlets. Likewise, native tribes wrote on their struggles with the US cavalry, vigilante militias, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, connecting across tribal lines as the federal government sought to divide and conquer. From the Jim Crow era through the Great Depression, each report points to the inadequacy of national newspapers in speaking truth to power.

Media Goes to the Masses

Early commercial and political newspapers were published largely for commercial and political elites. Large daily newspapers were only available by yearly subscriptions of around eight to ten dollars, which wage laborers earning the average forty cents to one dollar per day could hardly afford. That all changed with the emergence of the first African American and native newspapers, followed by the introduction of the “penny press” in 1830.

Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827 by John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish, urged free black workers to publish their views without dependence on white abolitionists and their press. Based in New York, the Journal ran commentaries and news stories linking whiteness with criminality to break stereotypes around African-American life. While the paper only published for a few years, it would inspire other black abolitionists to realize the power of the press, such as Frederick Douglass, whose North Star challenged the white intelligentsia to confront its own racism leading up to the Civil War.

The passing of the Emancipation Proclamation expanded access to secondary education and printing presses for freed slaves, multiplying black-owned newspapers throughout the South. In Tennessee, the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight published long-form reports debunking racist media narratives promoted in white newspapers. Ida B. Wells, herself born into slavery, began writing for the Free Speech in the 1890s as a one-third partner. Her friend, postman and grocer Thomas Moss, had recently been killed in the People’s Grocery lynchings after a white store owner provoked Moss and two of his fellow workers into a skirmish. A white mob seized and murdered them while in police custody, leading Wells to pursue justice through public exposure.

In an editorial published soon after, Wells urged black residents of Memphis to flee the city for their own safety. Two months later, she published another article debunking racist rape accusations against black men, pointing to the “old thread-bare lie” manufactured by white supremacists to justify public lynchings. Within a few days, the Daily Commercial called Wells a “black scoundrel” who tested the “wonderful patience of Southern whites.” Another white newspaper, the Daily Scimitar, republished the article and issued an actual threat of violence, leading another white mob to ransack and destroy the Free Speech office. Wells, who was on holiday in Harlem, decided not to go back.

Throughout the 1890s, Wells carried out investigations on lynchings that implicated the laws allowing them and the public figures who participated. In her 1892 pamphlet Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, Wells details the legal loopholes granted to Southern white men outraged at the consenting relationships their female spouses, relatives, and friends elicited with black men, pointing to power dynamics established by slavery and still in place during Jim Crow. Women who confessed to consenting relations with black men were harbored safely, while those protecting men who impregnated them were accused of “fearful depravity and rank outrage.”

This was a double standard, Wells argues, as white men were notorious for nonconsensual sexual relations with black free women and slaves, many resulting in pregnancy. Likewise, white men who assaulted black women seldom faced serious consequences, with some becoming police detectives shortly after serving brief sentences. Wells calls out white militias for manufacturing these rumors as an excuse to build out their at-home caches of cannons and rifles. She also condemns South Carolina governor Benjamin Ryan Tillman, who stood at the base of a lynching tree and declared he would happily lead the mob himself, as well as Tennessee governor John P. Buchanan for overseeing the lynching of Ephraim Grizzard alongside state militiamen and police.

“The mob spirit has grown with the increasing intelligence of the Afro-American,” Wells wrote. “It has left the out-of-the-way places where ignorance prevails, has thrown off the mask and with this new cry stalks in broad daylight in large cities, the centers of civilization, and is encouraged by the ‘leading citizens’ and the press.”

Wells saw how white newspapers concocted crime-wave narratives to fuel what she called “lynching mania,” pointing to inconsistencies in their “unreliable and doctored” reports. She argued that the logic of the plantation had transferred to surveillance, social control, and punishment of black workers by white landowners — all fueled by an aggressive, corporate-owned press. The 1883 repeal of the Civil Rights Act led Southern states to pass segregation laws with penalties against infringement, and Wells writes that white women’s innocence was a “plausible screen” for elites to justify continued resentment toward African Americans.

“Men who stand high in the esteem of the public for Christian character, for moral and physical courage, for devotion to the principles of equal and exact justice to all, and for great sagacity, stand as cowards who fear to open their mouths before this great outrage,” Wells said. “They do not see that by their tacit encouragement, their silent acquiescence, the black shadow of lawlessness in the form of lynch law is spreading its wings over the whole country.”

Wells urged the public to see what had passed as ordinary behavior in the postwar South, eventually resettling in Chicago with her husband, fellow journalist Ferdinand Lee Barnett. Before her generation, she claimed, the only news that went out into the world was that which labeled black people as “a race of cutthroats, robbers, and lustful wild beasts.”

Wells acknowledged that black labor was the “backbone of the South” during Reconstruction and that its withholding could choke the flow of Northern capital. She ends Southern Horrors by calling for a boycott of the railroad companies in the aftermath of the Jim Crow car law, urging black Americans to arm themselves and conduct investigations of their own.

Laws of the Land

The turn of the twentieth century saw lynchings decrease in quantity but increase in intensity. The Chicago Defender, then the most popular African-American newspaper in the country, urged black Southerners to migrate north. The exodus of black workers negatively affected the Southern economy, as Wells predicted, through labor shortages. White newspapers in the South, which had long promoted lynching and deportations to Mexico or Africa, concocted conspiracies about labor agents infiltrating the black workforce.

This period also saw the birth of yellow journalism in white-owned Northern newspapers. By that time, a media war had erupted between William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Press, which both became known for publishing sensationalized articles to increase circulation and profits. While this elite turf war grew into public spectacle, actual land disputes had heightened between white settlers and indigenous tribes, partially at the encouragement of a professional media class that whitewashed the government’s war on indigeneity. An 1871 rider on the Indian Appropriations Act had officially ended US recognition of several tribes as independent nations, and the Dawes Act of 1887 further subdivided native lands from collective tribal ownership to individual properties.

Elite newspapers had long depicted natives as uncivilized outlaws, pushing the narrative that land commodification and the enforcement of private property would lift natives out of poverty. The St Paul Daily Globe reported that the Oceti Sakowin were “in great luck” for their newly appointed ability to own farms, many of which were on barren, undesirable lands. Throughout the nineteenth century, the US government similarly used newspapers to manufacture consent while forcing tribes off their ancestral lands.

In the rapidly developing Western states, editorials in such far-ranging papers as the Montana Post, Denver’s Daily Rocky Mountain News, and Phoenix’s Salt River Herald all portrayed indigenous tribes as unwelcome, violent mobs perpetually on the offensive against benevolent pioneers. Some referred to them as “savages” unfriendly to white missionaries, and many promoted racist stereotypes in political cartoons.

This rhetoric echoed the Supreme Court’s 1823 decision legitimizing the “right to extinguish Indian title of occupancy” that labeled tribes as “fierce savages whose occupation was war and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest.” Natives became intertwined in legal and political battles against their will, with white elites speaking for them in the mainstream press. As early as 1828, indigenous writers tried founding their own newspapers for discussing the violence wrought on their communities, largely in partnership with white missionaries. The Cherokee Phoenix, the first bilingual indigenous newspaper, published articles on land disputes leading up to the 1830 Indian Removal Act. By 1835, however, the state of Georgia would seize their presses and forcibly remove the Cherokees to Oklahoma during the Trail of Tears.

The mid-nineteenth century saw the rise of similar newspapers, such as the Dakota Friend, the Cheyenne Transporter, the Progress, and the Indian Journal — many of them only publishing for a few years. Despite their efforts, white journalist Helen Hunt Jackson was more successful in popularizing indigenous struggle with her 1881 book A Century of Dishonor. Paiute writer Sarah Winnemucca managed to reach wider audiences with her memoir, Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims, which gives a first-person history of colonial violence during the first decades of her tribe’s contact with white settlers. Winnemucca, whose relatives were murdered by US cavalry, exposed patterns of abuse among military and government officials. She also called out the hypocrisy of the national press for prioritizing testimonies of colonial agents over tribal leaders.

This joint project of disenfranchisement allowed government officials and business elites to extract resources from indigenous land under the guise of humanitarian aid. Through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the federal government converted native lands into national parks, used reservation water for irrigation while indigenous-owned farms dried up, and let cattle graze in their fields — betraying the treaties that originally designated land only for native use. The BIA spent tribal money without permission and made their laws, offering little opportunity for success in court. From 1887 to 1920, Bureau expenses soared from $5 million to $15 million. Yavapai-Apache medical doctor Carlos Montezuma (born Wassaja, which translates to “beckoning” or “signaling”) scrutinized how the government enforced private ownership over lands that native families could hardly afford to maintain, especially if a bad harvest befell them. Thus, in stripping tribes of their own land — then enforcing financial autonomy — federal authorities and private corporations worked in lockstep to confine indigenous life within a permanent state of subjugation.

Montezuma regularly called for the abolition of the BIA in his activism and writing. His investigations on the declining quality of native life — published in his Wassaja newsletter — reflected his belief that indigenous workers should organize with the proletarian masses to protect tribal land, water, and culture. In editorials, he argued that natives were fighting America’s wars despite living like animals on undesirable lands, and he compared government-adjacent groups like the Indian Rights Association to the Chicago Police Department (“when they are most needed, they are not there”). Montezuma also published letters from native readers to foster the kinds of intertribal dialogue that the US government sought to stifle.

In the March 1922 issue of Wassaja, Montezuma condemns the BIA’s failure to lift natives out of poverty despite its bloated budget:

How has this gigantic organization, with its tremendous expenses, been built up? How has it been possible to not only perpetuate, but to increase greatly, the task definitely undertaken thirty years ago, that of making competent, self-supporting Americans out of some 300,000 assimilable American Indians. It could be done in but one way — making the Indians incompetent and keeping them incompetent. The system depends upon branding the Indian race as inferior and incapable of looking out for their own welfare and taking care of themselves.

Winnemucca and Montezuma were foundational in exposing violent, reactionary symptoms of American colonialism at a time when newspaper magnates like Hearst were capitalizing on indigenous lands and creating local publications to whitewash their reputation. Their writings existed outside the realm of white mediation and laid the groundwork for progressive legislation, such as full US citizenship and the right to vote, as well as the Red Power movement of the mid-twentieth century. While mainstream papers eventually admitted native writers, cultural preservation and land repatriation remain unresolved due in large part to the business side of news, which continues to profit on indigenous suffering.

The Laws of Capital

The Progressive Era’s social reforms reigned in aggressive capitalists who amassed their wealth in extractive industries during the Gilded Age. Renowned muckraker Ida Tarbell was just a teenager when she watched oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller pressure her father into selling his independent oil business. Throughout the 1870s, Rockefeller’s South Improvement Company had raised shipping fees on smaller companies while providing kickbacks to Pennsylvania, Erie, and New York Central railroads. When anonymous sources leaked this information to newspapers, small business owners organized protests and sabotaged company property.

Rockefeller still managed to sway enough small producers to buy into what would become Standard Oil using capital leverage and fear tactics. Tarbell’s father refused and was forced into debt, and his business partner committed suicide. This early experience, along with the lasting effects of the Cleveland Massacre, influenced Tarbell’s development first as a teacher then as a reformer. From her earliest articles in the Chicago Tribune and Scribner’s, she wrote with a sense of righteous morality. Her early essays for McClure’s Magazine, where she worked as a staff writer, focused on particular historical figures like Napoleon Bonaparte and Abraham Lincoln. The success of these essays granted her more creative freedom as the magazine shifted its editorial strategy to “expose the ills of American society” in the 1910s.

Tarbell relished the opportunity to publicize the scheme underlying Standard Oil’s monopoly on the fossil fuel industry. In nineteen parts, she laid out the clandestine deals Rockefeller made with transportation companies that allowed him to beat and buy out his competitors. To accomplish this, Tarbell obtained internal company documents, conducted interviews with workers and lawyers, and — with the help of Mark Twain — recorded her conversations with senior executive Henry H. Rogers. While kickbacks and backdoor bargaining were common practices among powerful corporations, Tarbell exposed how Standard Oil’s “ruthless efficiency of organization” allowed Rockefeller to maintain dominance and silence all dissent:

“He was like a general who, besieging a city surrounded by fortified hills, views from a balloon the whole great field, and sees how, this point taken, that must fall; this hill reached, that fort is commanded,” she wrote. “And nothing was too small: the corner grocery in Browntown, the humble refining still on Oil Creek, the shortest private pipe line. Nothing, for little things grow.”

Tarbell pushed public outrage over the limit and brought on the breakup of Standard Oil, following a 1911 Supreme Court ruling that the company violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. She fueled rising antitrust sentiment by laying bare what many had already suspected: that the history of capitalist expansion was one of deceit, secrecy, and unregulated consolidation of power. Along with contemporaries Upton Sinclair and Florence Kelley, Tarbell helped popularize the budding genre among left-wing journalists that would become known as “muckraking,” drawing from the long history of independent investigations.

A Digital Gilded Age

Today’s corporate media continues to parrot ruling-class ideology despite adopting muckraking into its editorial purview. This is a product of the industry’s efforts to appear impartial, despite the fact that at the end of the day, it will always come to the defense of capitalism, private property, and policing. Mainstream investigative journalists, therefore, might still end up perpetuating State Department myths about communism and prioritizing statistics over material conditions in crime reports.

On top of that, many of their publications — including CNN, Fox News, and the New York Times — are becoming as increasingly partisan as the Gilded Age newspapers that upheld dominant ideological commitments through every subsequent era of reform, reflecting only in hindsight. Other popular news publications like the New York Post and National Review are rehashing the culture wars as they continue to attack workers and all people of color as they have throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In our contemporary era of widespread inequality and wealth consolidation, corporate media ensures that working-class demands get treated as too pricey and unprecedented. We need an independent media that can play the same role as the muckrakers of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, holding power accountable while envisioning a more equitable future.