In 1880 Henry Demarest Lloyd published a series of articles exposing corruption in business and politics. This included The Story of a Great Monopoly (1881) and The Political Economy of Seventy-Three Million Dollars (1882) in the Atlantic Monthly and Making Bread Dear (1883) and Lords of Industry (1884) in the North American Review. These articles caused a stir and Lloyd has been described as the first American investigative journalist.
Nellie Bly, an eighteen year old reporter with the Pittsburgh Dispatch, was another important pioneer in investigative journalism. Bly's journalistic style was marked by her first-hand tales of the lives of ordinary people. She often obtained this material by becoming involved in a series of undercover adventures. For example, she worked in a Pittsburgh factory to investigate child labour, low wages and unsafe working conditions. Bly was not only interested in writing about social problems but was always willing to suggest ways that they could be solved.
Her editor later wrote that Bly was "full of fire and her writing was charged with youthful exuberance." However, it was not long before he was receiving complaints from those institutions that Bly was attacking in her articles. When companies began threatening to stop buying advertising space in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, the editor was forced to bring an end to the series.
In 1887 Bly was recruited by Joseph Pulitzer to write for his newspaper, the New York World. Over the next few years she used her unique approach to write about poverty, housing and labour conditions in New York. This often involved undercover work and she feigned insanity to get into New York's insane asylum on Blackwell's Island. Bly discovered that patients were fed vermin-infested food and physically abused by the staff. She also found out that some patients were not psychologically disturbed but were suffering from a physical illness. Others had been maliciously placed there by family members. For example, one woman had been declared insane by her husband after he caught her being unfaithful. Bly's scathing attacks on the way patients were treated at Blackwell's Island led to much needed reforms.
Another early example of investigative journalism was the work of Jacob A. Riis. In 1899 Scribner's Magazine published a series of articles by Riis entitled How the Other Half Lives. In December of that year Benjamin Flower established a magazine, The Arena, that specialized in this type of journalism. Over the first few years Flower published a large number of articles on poverty, sweatshops, slum clearance, unemployment and child labour. Flower proclaimed that his intention was to create a movement that would "agitate, educate, organize and move forward, casting aside timidity and insisting that the Republic shall no longer lag behind in the march of progress."
Investigative journalism became a movement in 1902 when magazines such as McClure's Magazine and Everybody's Magazine joined Arena in the struggle for social reform. These magazines became extremely popular and other mainstream publications such as Cosmopolitan and the Saturday Evening Post began publishing articles exposing corruption in politics and business.
By 1906 the combined sales of the ten magazines that concentrated on investigative journalism reached a total circulation of 3,000,0000. Some of these journalists used the material they had obtained and turned them into novels. Charles Edward Russell wrote several novels based on journalistic research and each one sold over 30,000 copies. Upton Sinclair was the most successful of these novelists. His novels, The Jungle and The Brass Check, were both best-sellers with sales of over 100,000.
Writers and publishers associated with this investigative journalism movement between 1900 and 1914 included Frank Norris, Ida Tarbell, Charles Edward Russell, Lincoln Steffens, David Graham Phillips, C. P. Connolly, Benjamin Hampton, Upton Sinclair, Thomas Lawson, Alfred Henry Lewis and Ray Stannard Baker.
President Theodore Roosevelt responded by initiating legislation that would help tackle some of the problems illustrated by these journalist. This included persuading Congress to pass reforms such as the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1906) and the Meat Inspection Act (1906).
Roosevelt was seen to be on the side of these investigative journalists until David Graham Phillips began a series of articles in Cosmopolitan entitled The Treason in the Senate. This included an attack on some of Roosevelt's political allies and he responded with a speech where he compared the investigative journalist with the muckraker in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress: "the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth on the floor."
These investigative journalists objected to being described as muckrakers. They felt betrayed as they felt they had helped Theodore Roosevelt to get elected. Lincoln Steffens was furious with Roosevelt and the day after the speech told him: "Well, you have put an end to all these journalistic investigations that have made you."
After Roosevelt's speech these investigative journalists became known as muckrakers. David Graham Phillips believed that Roosevelt's speech marked the end of the movement: "The greatest single definite force against muckraking was President Roosevelt, who called these writers muckrakers. A tag like that running through the papers was an easy phrase of repeated attack upon what was in general a good journalistic movement."
Some of the magazines such as Everybody's, McClure's Magazine, and the American Magazine continued to publish investigations into political, legal and financial corruption. However, as John O'Hara Cosgrave, editor of Everybody's admitted, the demand for this type of journalism declined: "The subject was not exhausted but the public interest therein seemed to be at an end, and inevitably the editors turned to other sources of copy to fill their pages."
The eating was one of the most horrible things. Excepting the first two days after I entered the asylum, there was no salt for the food. The hungry and even famishing women made an attempt to eat the horrible messes. Mustard and vinegar were put on meat and in soup to give it a taste, but it only helped to make it worse. Even that was all consumed after two days, and the patients had to try to choke down fresh fish, just boiled in water, without salt, pepper or butter; mutton, beef, and potatoes without the faintest seasoning. The most insane refused to swallow the food and were threatened with punishment. In our short walks we passed the kitchen where food was prepared for the nurses and doctors. There we got glimpses of melons and grapes and all kinds of fruits, beautiful white bread and nice meats, and the hungry feeling would be increased tenfold. I spoke to some of the physicians, but it had no effect, and when I was taken away the food was yet unsalted.
People in the world can never imagine the length of days to those in asylums. They seemed never ending, and we welcomed any event that might give us something to think about as well as talk of. There is nothing to read, and the only bit of talk that never wears out is conjuring up delicate food that they will get as soon as they get out. Anxiously the hour was watched for when the boat arrived to see if there were any new unfortunates to be added to our ranks. When they came and were ushered into the sitting-room the patients would express sympathy to one another for them and were anxious to show them little marks of attention."
I recall vividly meeting Charles Edward Russell and asking him what he had got out of it all. He was the most earnest, emotional, and gifted of the muckrakers. There was something of the martyr in him; he had given up better jobs to go forth, rake in hand, to show things up; and he wanted them to be changed. His face looked as if he had suffered from the facts he saw and reported.
We are going to expose evil wherever we can; we are going to expose it calmly and truly; we are going to expose it in order that it may be replaced by good, and we are going to hold, by the very process, the loyal army of subscribers, whose standing and number command advertising. There is not going to be any let-down.
The years from 1911 to 1914 were a happy interim for me. Working with college men and women who were convinced that the old order was breaking up, living in a world that had confidence in literature and in the power of ideas, it seemed to me that a new dispensation was about to be ushered in. A half-dozen magazines had built up their circulation on disclosures of corruption and economic wrong; Lincoln Steffens, Ida M. Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Charles Edward Russell had the attention of America; forums were being opened in the churches, city reformers were springing up all over the country. The young people it whom it leaped to expression hated injustice. They had no questions about the soundness of American democracy. They had supreme confidence in the mind. They believed, not less than I had always believed, that the truth would make us free.
Wall Street cannot gull the public as it once did. Insurance is on a sounder basis. Banking is adding new safeguards. Advertising is nearly honest. Food and drug adulteration are dangerous. Human life is more respected by common carriers. The hour of the old-time political boss is stuck. States and municipalities are insisting upon clean administrators. The people are naming their own candidates. Protection is offered to the weak against the gambling shark and saloon. Our public resources are being conserved. The public health is being considered. New standards of life have been raised up.
It is a new era. A new world. Good signs, don't you think. And what has brought it about? Muckraking. Bless your heart, just plain muckraking. By magazine writers and newspapers and preachers and public men and Roosevelt.
Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together. An able, disinterested, public-spirited press, with trained intelligence to know the right and courage to do it, can preserve that public virtue without which popular government is a sham and a mockery. A cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will produce in time a people as base as itself. The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations.
Every issue of the paper presents an opportunity and a duty to say something courageous and true; to rise above the mediocre and conventional; to say something that will command the respect of the intelligent, the educated, the independent part of the community; to rise above fear of partisanship and fear of popular prejudice. I would rather have one article a day of this sort; and these ten or twenty lines might readily represent a whole day's hard work in the way of concentrated, intense thinking and revision, polish of style, weighing of words.