That old-time journalism of guts and glory

Carl Jensen is the author of "Stories That Changed America: Muckrakers of the 20th Century." He is emeritus professor of communication studies at Sonoma State University and founder of Project Censored.


The Journalism That Changed America

Edited by Judith and William Serrin

New Press: 392 pp., $25 paper


If you ever questioned the power of the written word, you never will again after reading “Muckraking! The Journalism That Changed America.” In absorbing detail you’ll learn how journalism saved lives, solved crimes, built bridges, eliminated slums, created national parks, brought us safer automobiles, exposed sports scandals and inspired reforms that made our lives a little better.

Co-editors Judith and William Serrin had high expectations when they agreed at the behest of their publisher to compile a book on this form of journalism -- roughly defined as reporting that searches for and exposes misconduct in public life -- and they have succeed marvelously, selecting some 125 stories spanning three centuries. In approaching their subject so broadly, they distinguished their effort from other books on the subject, most of which start with the muckraking era in the 1900s known as the Golden Age of Journalism.

The Serrins were a good choice as editors because they have extensive experience teaching and working as journalists. (William Serrin was a member of the Detroit Free Press team that won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Detroit race riots of 1967, one of the stories cited in the book.) They have categorized the stories chronologically into 13 subjects ranging from “The Poor” to “Politics” to “Americana,” and they take us into such disparate worlds as the celebrated John Peter Zenger seditious libel trial in 1735 and a story produced in 2000 by a Houston television station about the fatalities associated with Firestone tires and Ford Explorers.


While their choice of subjects is somewhat eclectic, occasionally straying from traditional muckraking topics (the “Americana” chapter includes Horace Greeley’s call for a transcontinental railroad and Richard Goldstein’s 1968 defense of rock ‘n’ roll), the book’s organization makes it easy for the reader to pursue a special interest.

The section titled “America at War,” for instance, provides an insight into how the press has covered our military involvements, starting with the revolutionary battles at Lexington and Concord in 1775 and ending with our imbroglio in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992.

Other chapters include “The Working Class,” “Freedom,” “Public Health and Safety,” “Women -- Their Rights -- Nothing Less,” “Conservation,” “Crime and Punishment” and “Sports.” There is also a chapter titled “The Press” that features stories about its foibles and achievements. One amusing item relates how James Gordon Bennett, who founded the New York Herald in 1835, reported a conversation he had had with a New York madame, and in doing so, created a new journalism practice now known as the interview.

One may cite the omission of such writers as Upton Sinclair, whose landmark piece on dangerous meat-processing practices, “The Jungle,” initiated the first Pure Food and Drug Act; or George Seldes, who traced tobacco’s link to cancer in 1938; or J. William Fulbright, who alerted the nation to militarism’s threat; or I.F. Stone, who early on warned about the futility of the Vietnam War; or Paul Brodeur, whose expose on asbestos shut down the industry in the U.S.; or Paul Ehrlich, whose bestseller, “The Population Bomb,” awakened the world to the impending problems of overpopulation -- and indeed, the list is long -- but no anthology can ever be complete.

Most of the Serrins’ stories document how the press has covered important issues such as child labor, slum housing, mine safety, the Holocaust, cigarettes and cancer, birth control, political corruption, slavery, the Pentagon, patent medicines and police brutality. Many readers will be surprised to discover that the issue of priests molesting children surfaced in the National Catholic Reporter in June 1985. That story reported that “[i]n cases throughout the nation, the Catholic church is facing scandals and being forced to pay millions of dollars in claims to families whose sons have been molested by Catholic priests.”

Despite the inflammatory nature of the story, the Serrins point out that the National Catholic Reporter kept the story of pedophiles in the priesthood alive in its pages for two years before “the national media stepped in, and pedophilia became a topic for the covers of the national news magazines.” Now 17 years later, again the national media have stepped in and pedophilia and the church has again become a topic for the covers of the national news magazines. It is a story that raises an interesting question: If the goal of a book about muckraking is to show how journalists have changed America for the better, why are we still mired in a social problem that was exposed in 1985? Is it possible that muckraking is merely a short-term solution to a long-term problem?


The Serrins acknowledge this and point out how many times journalists find new stories in old places: mental hospitals, programs for the poor, jails and prisons. It would appear that much of today’s investigative journalism is hit-and-run: The media hit on a story and run with it, until it makes headlines and wins awards, and then they move on to the next expose du jour.

While the Serrins mention no threat to the practice of muckraking, it is clear that muckraking in America is on the decline. In spite of its strong start in the first decade of the 20th century, muckraking languished before peaking in the 1960s and essentially ending in the early ‘70s with Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate expose. The last quarter of the 20th century did not produce any life-changing exposes comparable to earlier eras. The decline can be attributed to increasing litigation against the media, media monopolization and an unparalleled drive for corporate media profits.

Nonetheless, It is a mixed blessing to recognize that the future of muckraking journalism is secure: We live at a time when political and economic corruption jeopardizes the security of our society, not at all unlike the period that inspired the original muckraking era in the early 1900s. The Serrins’ “Muckraking!” is a tribute to the power of the written word, and it is a powerful indictment of a political system that has failed to respond effectively to the tenacity and courage of the reporters who ferreted out the truth of these exposes.