The Dirty Truth: Muckraking in the Progressive Era

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THE DIRTY TRUTH

As the Civil War concluded and the era of Reconstruction began, America tried to cure the tribulations society had fostered. More specifically, the Progressive Movement tried to repair the problems by reformation and cultivation of a better country. Some activists removed themselves from civilization and created utopian communities, while others struggled for equal rights and temperance. However, the success of all reforms came greatly from the work of “muckraking” journalists and the exposure they generated. These progressive journalists commented on not only reforms, but also on the corruption that was causing the people to rebel. Reporters like Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair brought attention to nation-wide topics of government corruption and food safety regulations. These articles were written in extremely popular magazines and newspapers like McClure Magazine and The World newspaper, and paved the way for publications of today like Cosmopolitan and Redbook. Today, we think of “muckraking” as a typical part of life—just simply the way we receive our news. But beginning in the late 1800s, a group of journalists later referred to as “muckrakers” banded together to expose and to inform the public of the immense corruption of many social issues, and thus, changed the way society was viewed.

As stated in Mark Feldstein’s article, muckraking, also called investigative reporting, is done for the purpose of “fact gathering to challenge authority and oppose the abuse of power—political, governmental, corporate, or religious—on behalf of ordinary citizens.” These journalists seek to improve the country by pointing out what is wrong, rather than trying to overthrow the entire system. The writing played an important part in passing laws and acts of the time, as well as simply informing the population of the sinking of the government. While the muckrakers were typically well intentioned in exposing corruption and crime to the public, many politicians did not like the idea of this type of journalism, especially President Theodore Roosevelt. President Roosevelt coined the phrase “muckrake” on March 17, 1906, as reference to a dirt-digging character in John Bunyan’s fable Pilgrim’s Progress. In his April, 1906 speech, he stated “the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society.” While the name was meant to be negative, the journalists saw it as a badge of honor.

One of the first, as well as one of the most influential muckrakers was a man named Julius Chambers, who in 1872 began an investigation for the New York Tribune at the Bloomingdale Asylum. With the help of friends and co-workers, Chambers had himself committed to the asylum so that he could “expose the ill-treatment to which the insane confined in all such institutions are subjected.” After ten days of horrible living quarters, almost inedible food, and cruel caretakers, Chambers was released and taken to court to prove what he had done. He then went on to write a book called A Mad World and its Inhabitants. Through his testimony, 12 of the 185 patients were discharged from the asylum and inspectors were sent to review the establishment. A new staff was formed and living situations were mended. Along with this, Chambers’ story resulted in the changing of lunacy laws across the country.

Continuing with the notion of undercover journalism, female muckraker Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, or as she was known in print—Nellie Bly, had herself covertly committed to Bellevue Mental Hospital, an asylum for women. Like Chambers, she wanted to study and report on patient abuse unknown to outsiders. In September of 1887, Bly feigned insanity and had herself committed where upon arrival, she acted as her normal self. Though once inside, doctors began to diagnose her normal self as even crazier than before. After ten days, she was released and wrote a series of articles for the New York World documenting her time in the asylum and...
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