Muckraker: A term most often applied to American investigative journalists and other writers in the early 1900s who sought to expose abuse and corruption in capitalist big business and government as well as alliances between the two; more generally, one who investigates and publicly exposes such misconduct. The term derives from U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s comparison of such writers in a 1906 speech to the “Man with the Muck-rake,” a character in Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) who sees the filth on the floor but can neither look up nor regard the celestial crown he is offered in return for his muck-rake.
The muckraking movement was enabled by the advent of the mass-circulation magazine in the 1890s and flourished from about 1902 to 1912, during the Naturalistic Period in American literature. Muckrakers combined detailed factual description with a commitment to reform, writing exposés on topics ranging from child labor and monopolies to insurance schemes and patent medicine fraud. Lincoln Steffens is generally credited with pioneering the genre with “Tweed Days in St. Louis” (1902), an article published in McClure’s Magazine exposing political corruption, including widespread bribery, in St. Louis. Other major publishers of muckraking articles included Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, and Everybody’s.
FURTHER EXAMPLES: Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904); Steffens’s The Shame of the Cities (1904); Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906), a novel that exposed the disgusting conditions and rampant corruption in Chicago’s meat-packing plants; Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), which exposed the American automobile industry’s resistance to safety features; and Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s 1970s reporting of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately brought down U.S. president Richard Nixon. Noted muckrakers of more recent times include Gary Webb, whose controversial “Dark Alliance” series (1996) in the San Jose Mercury News charged the CIA and the Reagan administration with involvement in the drug trade to finance the Contras, a Nicaraguan rebel group, and Julian Assange, a hacker and programmer who founded Wikileaks in 2006.