June 19, 2012 By Jack Jodell
With the rise of that horrible phenomenon in recent years known as the corporate media, we in the United States have been getting an ever-increasing slant of pro-corporate, incomplete news. In an era of unprecedented access to news from all over the world, and in this age of a fact-filled internet, our corporate media is spoon- feeding us worthless trivia and repetitive entertainment garbage as if we were all a bunch of mindless infants. The way they dummy-down stories and important issues is absolutely maddening! Actual deep and probing investigative journalism has become an almost nonexistent commodity. It is truly the tragedy of our times. With this in mind, today I am launching a new intermittent series I am calling “Heroes of American Journalism.” In this first offering, I will feature a spectacular progressive voice from our past.
IDA M. TARBELL helped set the stage for what would become true investigative journalism here in this country. She was a pioneer in her field, especially because at the time, most women did not embark on professional careers and instead remained homebound, doing the cooking and laundry and rearing children as well.
Born Ida Minnerva Tarbell in 1857 to Franklin and Esther Ann (nee McCullough) Tarbell, she grew up in western Pennsylvania, just as the oil boom started in that region. Her mother was a teacher and ger father a tradesman who initially built large wooden oil storage tanks and later became a small oil ptoducer himself. Ida graduated at the top of her high school class and continued her education at Allegheney College, becoming the first woman to graduate from that institution in 1880. She then began a brief teaching career, but found she enjoyed writing a great deal more. She began to write and edit a magazine for the Methodist Church. After a time, she went to Paris to begin studies for a post-graduate degree. In 1894, she returned to the U.S. and joined S. S. McClure’s new reform-friendly magazine McClure’s. After writing several popular biographical series for that publication, she actually helped double the magazine’s circulation! Her 20-part series on Abraham Lincoln did the job. It was published in book form, and established her credentials as a national writer. Soon, she began her famous investigation into the Standard Oil Company.
With the aid of Mark Twain, Tarbell was able to directly interview a top senior Standard Oil executive by the name of Henry H. Rogers beginning in 1002. These interviews continued for the next two years, and proved to be a cornucopia of knowledge about the inner workings of the oil giant. Rogers proved to be unusually candid, probably because he thought mistakenly that the published interview would be of a supportive or complementary nature. Tarbell, in her typically thorough fashion, also interviewed company employees, competitors, former executives, antitrust attorneys, and government regulators. She painstakingly searched out, located, and examined many thousands of the company’s documents as well. The series ran in McClure’s for 19 installments between 1902 and 1904. She was meticulous in presenting all the details of the company’s rise, John D. Rockefeller’s involvement in it and the strong-arm tactics he used to bully anyone who got in his way, including railroad companies and competitors (a number of which he had run out of business, including her father’s tiny refining business). She exposed the unsavory business practices of Rockefeller at a time when he was the most powerful CEO in the country, and the public loved it.
Published in 1904, Ida Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company became a best-selling book and established her firmly as a leader in the new muckraking line of progressive journalism. She, however, disliked being known as a “muckraker” and preferred to be known as an historian. In 1911, partly as a result of her work, the Supreme Court decided to break up the once all-powerful Standard Oil Trust. A woman journalist of the early 20th century had succeeded in bringing down a massive corporate giant!
Her resultant fame led her to be called on in 1914 by Henry Ford to join his celebrity-filled “Peace Ship” in an effort to end World War I, and by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 to be the first woman on the Tariff Commission. She modestly turned down both offers.
Ida Tarbell died of pneunonia in 1944 and left us with a rich legacy of accomplishment for one originally born so humbly in a log cabin many years previously. She almost single-handedly created modern investigative reporting, and we could definitely use a resurgence of her kind today. She serves as a model of thoroughness, accuracy, integrity, humility, and dogged determination, and should always be an inspiration to those who wish to report truth, especially to young writers in the alternative news media.