The muckrakers were indeed a group of journalists in the early 1900’s that tried to raise social awareness to the problems and issues that were plaguing the United States at the time.
The actual term “muckraker” was given to them by President Theodore Roosevelt who borrowed it from a Puritan story called “Pilgrims Progress. The story spoke of a man with ”a muck-rake in his hand, who raked filth rather than look up to nobler things.”. While Roosevelt recognized the value of the muckrakers in publicizing his Progressive agenda, he also felt that at times they went too far and that their views bordered on radicalism.
The so -called “muckrakers” were also a different breed of journalists. Unlike some of the their fellow writers, their stories did not focus on sensationalism but rather can be seen as what would be described today as investigative reporting. For the most part, their articles focused on big business and political corruption. The most notable of these were Ida Tarbell’s expose` of the business practices of the Standard Oil Company, Lincoln Steffens detailing of the graft and scandals that rocked city and state politics and probably the most famous of all, Upton Sinclair portrayal of the meat-packing industry. (Folks, for a truly gruesome read of what went on, I refer you to The Jungle.) Other hot-button issues that stoked the fires for the muckrakers were the insurance industry (an easy target if you ask me), manipulation of stock markets by the mega-wealthy, the always noble practice of child labor, inner city or slum conditions, and racial discrimination. (It just occurred to me, with the exception of child labor, which we now farm out to under developed countries, have any of these issues ever really “gone away”?)
Sorry, took off on a rant there. Anyway, between a ten year period from 1902 through 1912, thousand of articles were published in newspapers and magazines of that genre. Magazines that focused on issues of the day sprung up almost overnight. The more famous of them included McClure’s, Everybody, and Colliers.
The articles, books and essays the muckrakers wrote served many a purpose. They had an effect on middle class Americans and heightened public awareness to the practices of their elected officials and large industries. The most notable of their achievements that can be ascribed to their brand of journalism would be the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Hepburn Act, which called for regulation of the railroads. They also were instrumental in the banding together of many fragmented groups who were raising the same concerns. This led to a more unified voice when calling for reforms.
Alas, as the spirit of progressivism died out, so did the muckrakers. Some watered down versions of muckraking can still be found in magazines such as The Nation and The New Republic. Following World War II , the need for the governments, large corporations and advertisers to “manage” the news and infringe upon journalistic integrity and true investigative reporting have somewhat revived the muckraking style.