Book Notes
by Lynn McKeown

Journalism with a conscience

Muckraking! The Journalism that Changed America (New Press, 2002, $25) is a new book by Judith and William Serrin that deals with an important type of news reporting and one that has many important Illinois connections and a specifically Galesburg connection.

The authors are journalism professors and writers, and this book is an anthology of American journalistic writing over the years, with added commentary to put each excerpt in perspective. Judith Serrin has been a newspaper reporter and William Serrin has published a book of American history. The present volume is probably intended to be used for college journalism courses.

Excerpts included in the book cover a historical span from Revolutionary War times to the year 2000. In their introduction the authors say the articles are the products of reporters with ''an agenda,'' but it might be more accurate to say they were reporters with a conscience or ones who had a passionate need to find the unvarnished truth and convey it to the public.

Subheadings of the book include ''the poor,'' ''public health,'' ''women,''''politics,'' ''sports,'' ''conservation'' and ''crime and punishment.'' One of the earliest articles is the description of his own trial for criticizing the British colonial government by John Peter Zenger in the New-York Weekly Journal of August 18, 1735. The latest excerpt is a transcript of a broadcast on Houston television station KHOU from February 7th, 2000, reporting on a pattern of fatal rollover deaths involving Firestone tires on Ford vehicles.

In between are a great variety of reports on any number of subjects: from United Press reporter William Shepherd's horrifying eye-witness description of teenage girls jumping to their deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of May 27, 1911 to the New Mexico Reporter story on cold war era testing of radioactive substances on humans, that was published in 1993.

Some instances are famous, like the Woodward and Bernstein Washington Post reporting on Watergate in 1972. Others are less well-known, like 1967 reports by Nick Kotz of the Des Moines Register on loopholes in federal meat laws. In most instances the stories aroused the public and resulted in legislation to prevent similar wrongs in the future.

Other accounts include early reports of the Holocaust in the Jewish Frontier of 1942, defense by the legendary CBS-TV reporter Edward R. Murrow of an Air Force Lieutenant unjustly accused of Communist ties, and even excerpts from articles on the history of the Civil War by Ulysses Grant, apparently included because they represented a new, more down-to-earth coverage of war. (A transcript from the famous 1940 Murrow radio broadcasts from WWII London is also included.)

There are many important stories relating to Illinois. An article in Collier's Magazine, for instance, alerted the public and ''broke'' the inordinate power of Illinois Congressman and House Speaker Joe Cannon. Hugh Fullerton's reporting in the Chicago Herald and Examiner broke the story of the Black Sox World Series scandal in 1919. A story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recounted a mine disaster in Centralia, Illinois and drew attention to lax mine safety regulation.

The book contains a number of excerpts from McClure's Magazine, including highly influential articles on the Standard Oil Company and John D. Rockefeller by Ida Tarbell, and other classics of the muckraking genre by great reporters such as Lincoln Steffens. McClure's, which practically invented muckraking journalism, was the creation of editor S.S. McClure, a Knox College graduate, who was aided in his operation of the publication by several Knox classmates.

The story of McClure's, especially the Knox connection, is also told in Hermann Muelder's history of the college, Missionaries and Muckrakers (1984), and S.S. McClure's life is the subject of a good biography entitled Success Story, by Peter Lyon (1963). The latter author says of McClure, ''His vision and energy turned the literary, social, and political fabric of his own time inside out....'' McClure and his wife, the daughter of Knox professor Albert Hurd, lived most of their lives in New York City but are buried in Galesburg's Hope Cemetery.

It is alternately depressing and encouraging to read the articles and commentary contained in Muckraking! On the one hand, it is a record of the tragedy, perfidy and corruption in America over the years. On the other, it demonstrates that there were always reporters and editors who had the integrity to expose the truth, and this exposure led the public and their elected officials, eventually, to right the wrongs.

The term ''muckraking,'' itself apparently comes from a disparaging comment by Theodore Roosevelt, but he and other officials paid attention to the ''muckrakers,'' the investigative reporters who told the unpleasant truths about U.S. society -- and it was improved as a result.

The authors end their introduction with these words: ''What we hope to do is to remind journalists, historians, and the readers and viewers in whose name journalists act that doing journalism is honorable and that honorable journalism can do good.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr website September 7, 2002

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