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William Fisher: Long Before Woodstein

Long Before Woodstein

By William Fisher

Most people under forty have no idea what investigative journalism is. Those old enough to remember Watergate and Deep Throat think it started with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward and “All the President’s Men”.

But investigative journalism has a rich and distinguished history in the United States. It started at least a century ago. But these writers weren’t called investigate journalists back then. They were ‘muckrakers’.

One of the first of this breed of journalists was Upton Sinclair (1878 - 1968) Sinclair wrote in many genres, but gained particular fame for a novel, “The Jungle” (1906), which exposed inhumane and unsanitary conditions in the U.S. meat packing industry and caused the public uproar that ultimately led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act in 1906.

Starting in the late 19th century and continuing through the first generation of the 20th century, a trio of investigative journalists rose to national prominence. The trio consisted of Ray Stannard Baker, Lincoln Steffens, and Ida Tarbell, all writers for McClure’s Magazine.

Baker, (1870 -1946), launched his career as a journalist in 1892 with the Chicago News-Record, where he covered the Pullman Strike and Coxey's Army in 1893. In 1908, he wrote the book, “Following the Color Line”, becoming the first prominent journalist to examine America's racial divide. He would continue that work with numerous articles in the following decade.

Joseph Lincoln Steffens (1866 - 1936), specialized in investigating government corruption, and two collections of his articles were published as “The Shame of the Cities” (1904) and “The Struggle for Self-Government” (1906). He also wrote “The Traitor State”, which beat up on New Jersey for patronizing incorporation, in a manner similar to what Delaware practices now.

Ida Tarbell (1857 -- 1944) -- whose father was forced out of business by John D. Rockefeller and the predecessor to his Standard Oil empire -- investigated the Standard Oil monopoly for McClure's. Following extensive interviews, her story ran in 19 parts from November 1902 to October 1904, and later became a best-selling book. Her work fueled public attacks on Standard Oil and on trusts in general, and her book is credited with hastening the 1911 breakup of Standard Oil.

I.F. Stone (1907 - 1989) was an iconoclastic investigative journalist best known for his influential political newsletter, I.F. Stone's Weekly, which he started in 1953.

Over the next few years, Stone campaigned against McCarthyism and racial discrimination in the United States. In 1964 he was the only American journalist to challenge President Johnson's account of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, which was used as a pretext for the Vietnam War.

George Seldes (1890 - 1995), one of the most influential American investigative journalists and media critics, moved to London in 1916, where he worked for United Press. When the United States joined the First World War in 1917, he was sent to France as a war correspondent. At end of the war he obtained an exclusive interview with Paul von Hindenburg, the supreme commander of the German Army. But the article was suppressed and never appeared in the American press.

In the interview, Hindenburg acknowledged the role that America played in defeating Germany. "The American infantry," said Hindenburg, "won the World War in battle in the Argonne." But American newspaper readers never read those words. Seldes was accused of breaking the Armistice and were court martialed. They were also forbidden to write anything about the interview.

Seldes believed that the suppression of the interview proved to be tragic. Instead of hearing straight from the mouth of Germany's supreme commander that they were beaten fair and square on the battlefield, another story took hold — the Dolchstoss (or "stab-in-the-back"), the myth that Germany did not lose in battle but was betrayed at home by "the socialists, the Communists and the Jews." This was the central lie upon which Nazism was founded.

In 1934 Seldes published a history of the Catholic Church, “The Vatican”. This was followed by an exposé of the global arms industry, “Iron, Blood and Profits” (1934), an account of Benito Mussolini, “Sawdust Caesar” (1935), and two books on the newspaper business, “Freedom of the Press” (1935) and “Lords of the Press” (1938). He also reported on the Spanish Civil War for the New York Post.

On his return to the United States in 1940, Seldes published “Witch Hunt”, an account of the persecution of people with left-wing political views in America, and “The Catholic Crisis”, where he attempted to show the close relationship between the Catholic Church and fascist organizations in Europe.

From 1940 to 1950, Seldes published a political newsletter, “In Fact”, which at the height of its popularity had a circulation of 176,000. One of the first articles published in the newsletter concerned the link between cigarette smoking and cancer.

In the early 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy accused him of being a communist. Seldes was blacklisted, but continued to write books: “Tell the Truth and Run” (1953), “Never Tire of Protesting” (1968), “Even the Gods Can't Change History” (1976) and “Witness to a Century” (1987).

From Ray Baker to Woodstein and beyond, reporters have dug deeply into public and private malfeasance, exposed it, and triggered actions that changed the nation. Today, sadly, this tradition is being strangled by cable and satellite television and their 24/7 news cycles, by shrinking news staffs at local newspapers and TV and radio stations, by the blurred line between news and entertainment, by the people’s low esteem for journalists, and by the consuming bottom-line obsession of big corporate media.

Paradoxically, the world is today better equipped technologically than ever before to find and disseminate thoughtful, probing news - but far less motivated to do so. It may be that Internet bloggers - citizen journalists -- will ultimately provide enough competition to drive a new era of investigative journalism.


William Fisher writes for InterPress News Service. He has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area during the Kennedy Administration.

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