Campaigning investigative journalism, or ‘muckraking’ in American parlance, came into its own in the USA during what is known as the Gilded Age, towards the end of the 19th century. As with all halcyon eras, it was ‘gilded’ only for the privileged few. Such fabulously wealthy individuals often had few compunctions about how the acquired their gold.
Newspapers and magazines uncovered and exposed the excesses of corrupt politicians, and the illegal and unethical activities of the so-called ‘robber barons’ of the period, staggeringly rich men, as well as major corporations, who wished to become even wealthier. The ‘muckrakers’—the term was originated by President Theodore Roosevelt, he meant it as a compliment—held corporate and political America up to close scrutiny, and generally found it wanting.
At the centre of this tsunami of investigative journalism, was a magazine called McClures, which employed some of the greatest campaigning writers of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was owned and edited by an Irishman, Samuel McClure. McClure was from Ballymoney, County Antrim. He was the son of a carpenter, whose mother was forced to take him, and his siblings to the USA, after her husband died in an industrial accident when young Sam was nine years old. McClure had a tough childhood, but his mother was determined that he would get a good education. This eventually brought him to one of the best liberal arts academies in the USA, Knox College in Illinois, and after that into a career in New York journalism.
He was already well-established when he started the monthly magazine McClure’s, in 1893. It sold for ten cents a copy, or a dollar a year. Among his achievements was the nurturing of new literary voices, like Jack London and Willa Cather. He also introduced the teaching methods of Maria Montessori to the American public. But McClure’s enduring significance lies in the fact that he championed an entirely new form of writing, the well-researched exposé. McClure was almost unique among editors in not demanding instant and regular copy from his employees. Instead, he was prepared to finance painstaking, thoroughly researched reporting, that would reveal the corruption and injustice of late 19th century American society. He did this with the help of the so-called ‘Big Four’, the talented, tenacious and courageous quartet, Lincoln Steffens, William Allen White, Ida Tarbell, and Ray Stannard Baker.
Steffens, once said of his editor that:
He was a flower that did not sit and wait for the bees to come and take his honey and leave their seeds. He flew forth to find and rob the bees.
The bees McClure robbed were amongst the wealthiest, most ruthless, and powerful individuals in early twentieth century America. Men like John D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil company was a particular target for Ida Tarbell in a series of articles between 1902-04. Rockefeller dismissed her as ‘Ida Tarbarrel’, a sure sign that she was getting under his skin. Or Andrew Carnegie, the activities of whose U.S. Steel Corporation were laid bare by Ray Stannard Baker in 1901. Steffens, who became editor of McClures in 1902, tended to focus his attention on crooked politicians and corrupt civic administrations, many of whom were in the pockets of the ‘robber barons’.
The muckrakers challenged the overt and the hidden power of an apparently invulnerable class of super-rich industrialists, and their allies in urban machine politics. The turn of the 19th century in the USA was a period, on the one hand, of unregulated capitalism, but on the other of a burgeoning progressive reform movement. McClures magazine was in the vanguard reform, providing progressive politicians with the ammunition they needed to curtail the power of a monopolistic oligarchy.
None of which made the mercurial Sam McClure easy to work with. He was often idiosyncratic and inconsistent, though highly supportive of his invaluable contributors. Finally, in 1906, Tarbell, Baker, White and Steffens, having had enough of his eccentricities, departed from what they called McClure’s ‘house of bondage’, and founded the equally radical American Magazine. To the astonishment of all, McClure, who parted with his stars on generous terms, simply dusted himself off, and started over again, as a dangerous pest to the elites he had already been stinging for years.
At its height McClure’s was selling four hundred thousand copies a month. Gradually, however, its influence started to decline, as did McClure’s personal interest in his pet project. By 1914 he had moved on to other things. These included three philosophical musings on the workings of democracy, two of which were published in the 1930s. McClure lived on to the age of ninety-two, and died in 1949.
Samuel Sidney McClure, scourge of the American entitled, was born in Co. Antrim, one hundred and sixty years ago, on this day.