In Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan describes a man with a Muck Rake, a man who looks only down, raking the muck off the floor. Earthly, gazing down, collecting the muck around himself, the Muck Raker sees only the detritus of our world. He never looks up, neither into the heavens or even into the face of another. For Bunyan, the Muck Raker is blind to the spiritual and sublime.
The journalists who beginning in the late 19th century came to be called Muckrakers looked down at the painful truth that was America in an age of corruption, inequality, and corporatism. As Doris Kearns Goodwin describes in her excellent new book Bully Pulpit, the muckrakers turned a “microscope on humanity, on the avarice and corruption that stunted the very possibility of social justice in America.”
One of the central storylines of Kearns Goodwin’s Bully Pulpit is the alliance between Theodore Roosevelt and the Muckraking journalists around McClure’s Magazine. Roosevelt met frequently with Sam McClure and his writers, feeding them stories and also soliciting their advice and knowledge as he promoted his progressive agenda and took on corporate trusts. Roosevelt both needed the journalists, but also feared the excess of their truthtelling zeal. Here is how Teddy Roosevelt describes the Muckrakers in one speech from 1906:
In Pilgrim’s Progress the Man with the Muck Rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of spiritual things. Yet he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing. Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.
The McClures crowd always insisted that they “muck-raked never to destroy, but with utter faith in reason and progress.” It was because McClure and his writers “criticized in full confidence that, once understood, evils would be speedily corrected,” that they so fully gained Roosevelt’s trust and confidence. What Kearns Goodwin so vividly makes clear was the power of such an alliance between crusading journalists and a courageous politician.
Complaints about the contemporary state of the press are common. Rarely, however, does someone lay out in stark detail both the failures of the press, as well as providing insight into when, why, and how the press does succeed in fulfilling its role as the watchdog of corruption and the attendant for crusading change. But that is just what Dean Starkman does in his new book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (recently excerpted in Columbia Journalism Review).
Starkman sets out to argue a simple thesis: “The US business press failed to investigate and hold accountable Wall Street banks and major mortgage lenders in the years leading up to the financial crisis of 2008. That’s why the crisis came as such a shock to the public and to the press itself.” In short, he argues that if the press had done a better job of alerting the public and our political leaders to the corruption and crises within the mortgage markets, the financial crisis likely could and would have been avoided.
Starkman offers an optimistic view. It is based on the assumption that the people and our leaders actually respond to rational warnings. It is equally likely, however, that the press doesn’t warn us because we don’t really want to be warned. Over and over again on questions of importance from torture to totalitarianism and from corruption to criminality, complaints that the press failed are myopic. In nearly every case, the press has indeed reported the story. What has happened, however, is that the hard-hitting stories about torture or cover-ups or financial misdeeds rarely find an audience when times are good or the country feels threatened. The problem, indeed, may be less a feckle press than dormant population.
The beauty of Starkman’s analysis is that he makes clear that serious muckraking journalism about the illegal and corrupt practices in the mortgage lending industry did appear if briefly—it just had little effect and faded away. While most of these articles appeared in small non-mainstream journals, some larger papers and magazines like Forbes and the Wall St. Journal did run such hard-hitting investigative reports. The problem is that they did so only early on in the build up to the crisis—from 2001-2003. After that period, they dropped the ball. Starkman sees this as evidence that the press did not bark. On one level he is right. But it could also be seen as evidence that the press barked and learned a sad lesson: That so long as chickens were plentiful, the people didn’t care to know that the fox was in the hen house.
The lesson Starkman draws is different. It is that we need to preserve the muckraking tradition, which now goes under the bland professionalized name of “accountability reporting.”
Now is a good time to consider what journalism the public needs. What actually works? Who are journalism’s true forefathers and foremothers? Is there a line of authority in journalism’s collective past that can help us navigate its future? What creates value, both in a material sense and in terms of what is good and valuable in American journalism?
Accountability reporting comes in many forms—a series of revelations in a newspaper or online, a book, a TV magazine segment—but its most common manifestation has been the long-form newspaper or magazine story, the focus of this book. Call it the Great Story. The form was pioneered by the muckrakers’ quasi-literary work in the early 20th century, with Tarbell’s exposé on the Standard Oil monopoly in McClure’s magazine a brilliant example. As we’ll see, the Great Story has demonstrated its subversive power countless times and has exposed and clarified complex problems for mass audiences across a nearly limitless range of subjects: graft in American cities, modern slave labor in the US, the human costs of leveraged buyouts, police brutality and corruption, the secret recipients on Wall Street of government bailouts, the crimes and cover-ups of media and political elites, and on and on, year in and year out. The greatest of muckraking editors, Samuel S. McClure, would say to his staff, over and over, almost as a mantra, “The story is the thing!” And he was right.
Starkman opposes “accountability reporting to “access reporting,” what he calls “the practice of obtaining inside information from powerful people and institutions.” The press relies too much on simply telling us what the companies want us to know rather than digging deeply to tell the untold story. This is even more the case in the internet era, Starkman worries, because news organizations are cutting budgets for investigative reporters as the economics of journalism turns to commentary and linking rather than investigation. What the public needs, he writes, is a public-centered support for accountability journalism in the mainstream media.
To buttress his claim, Starkman invokes Walter Lippman.
Walter Lippmann is as right today as he was in 1920. It’s not enough for reporters and editors to struggle against great odds as many of them have been doing. It’s time to take the public into our confidence. The news about the news needs to be told. It needs to be told because, in the run-up to the global financial crisis, the professional press let the public down.
But after his early call for a better kind of public-spirited journalism in 1920, Lippmann shifted gears with the publication of Public Opinion in 1922. As Jim Sleeper writes recently in Dissent, Public Opinion was much less optimistic about the power of the press to serve the public good.
Lippmann later claimed to identify something more profoundly problematic than bad reporting: “the very nature of the way the public formed its opinions,” as his biographer Ronald Steele put it. He despaired of a public of citizens with enough time and competence to weigh evidence and decide important questions, and in 1922 he published Public Opinion, which contended that experts needed to be insulated from democratic tempests when making decisions, which could then be ratified by voters. Lippmann’s contemporary John Dewey called it “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned.”
Sleeper recognizes, in a way Starkman does not, that such optimism runs counter to Lippmann’s powerful conclusions about the formation of public opinion in democracy. Sleeper nevertheless praises “Starkman’s civic faith, which enables him to distill from his experience some real clarity about journalism and its proper mission.” Undoubtedly the mission is laudable. His story about journalism should be told. Starkman does it well and it should be read. It is your weekend read. As you do so, ask yourself: If we want to revitalize democracy can a revitalized muckraking journalism lead the way?