Mightier than the sword

The Mother of All Muckrakers Knew How to Take On Men Like Trump

Ida Tarbell brought down, single-handedly, the first mega-corporation. Now that corporate morality has captured the White House we need her skills as never before.

StampCollection / Alamy Stock Photo

I’m sure that in his 40-plus years at ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson learned of the work of Ida Tarbell. I’m equally sure that Donald Trump has never heard of her.

Yet Tarbell is someone of immense relevance to the four years of living dangerously that this republic now faces.

Tarbell was the nemesis of John D. Rockefeller, the creator of Standard Oil, precursor of ExxonMobil. But she was a lot more than that — as a journalist she was the first to understand and challenge the power of the modern corporation, the first to dig deep into the way corporations bought and used politicians and the first to force a president to check that power.

And all this at a time, the age of the robber barons, when white males dominated not only big business and politics but also journalism. Indeed, there has never been a woman who so single-mindedly cleaved her way through all the male hierarchies and vanities and humbled them.

If she were here now Tarbell would surely have recognized what seems to be taking a lot of people too long to recognize: that the ethics and interests of the corporation have now totally captured the heights of the political system, including the White House.

Recognizing this is the first step in assessing whether today’s journalists are as up to the task as she was. This raises the issue of the technical literacy of journalism — are there enough reporters literate enough in the way that corporate power is developed and exploited, particularly the way in which it effectively covers itself with opacity and uses deliberate deception in the promotion of its policies?

Nobody could have started out with less knowledge of what she was going up against. Tarbell’s story is, among many other things, a lesson in how a journalist can build, by relentless diligence, a revelatory grasp of details and finally see them whole, as a picture that nobody was meant to see, least of all the American public.

Tarbell was the protégée of Samuel S. McClure, editor and owner of McClure’s Magazine, a man with a practiced eye for talent—among his discoveries were Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, O’Henry, and Damon Runyan.

In the summer of 1892 McClure found Tarbell, a graduate of Allegheny College, working as a freelance writer in Paris, very much living hand-to-mouth. He assigned her to write a profile of Napoleon. It was such a hit that he brought her back to New York and assigned a similar profile of President Lincoln. That was a hit, too, and both articles became books.

But Tarbell wanted to move from research to reporting. In New York McClure had two of the most renowned reporters already on staff, Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker. Steffens, in particular, epitomized the all-male clubbish journalism of the time, cultivating close relationships with politicians, lawyers, and cops as he busted open big city racketeering.

Tarbell was just 32, and a relative innocent in the game, when she told McClure that she was interested in what she saw as a classic American innovation, the octopus-like consolidation of big business in the form of a corporation. She settled on Standard Oil as the most aggressive example. McClure thought that there might be enough material for six pieces. After Tarbell had done months of reporting he upped it to 12. In the end, after well over two years of reporting, the investigation went to 19 consecutive pieces, beginning in 1902, under the bland title of, “The History of the Standard Oil Company.”

It was a sensation. But an unusual level of intellectual curiosity shaped the narrative—far from the hysterical prose of traditional scandal-busting. Tarbell delivered a devastating record of how Rockefeller had ruthlessly and systematically created a monopoly of the oil business in the form of a trust—but she saw a kind of genius in its design. Her penultimate piece was titled, “The Legitimate Greatness of the Standard Oil Company.”

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However, the admiration came with a withering moral assessment:

“This huge bulk… has always been strong in all great business qualities—in energy, in intelligence, in dauntlessness. It has always been rich in youth as well as greed, in brains as well as unscrupulousness. If it has played its great game with contemptuous indifference to fair play, and to nice legal points of view, it has played it with consummate ability, daring and address.”

The main reason she was able to drill down deep into Standard Oil’s dark genius is that the corporation had given her unprecedented access. And this is where there is a salutary lesson for today’s journalism. Tarbell never got to interview Rockefeller, who was bitter about her view of him. Nonetheless his corporation decided to try some subtle damage control.

Mark Twain was a friend of McClure. Twain contacted McClure to report that one of the most powerful men on the board of Standard Oil, Henry Rogers (he and Twain were close) wanted to talk to Tarbell. Tarbell said she would like nothing better.

Part of the calculation was that Rogers would vamp the lady. And that seemed to work — Tarbell wrote of her first meeting with Rogers, in his 57th Street mansion: “He was a man of about sixty at this time, a striking figure, by all odds the handsomest and most distinguished figure in Wall Street.”

In fact, Rogers was notorious in Wall Street, known as the Hell Hound, making himself rich from sudden coups on the market.

For two years, with the collusion of Rogers, Tarbell made many clandestine visits to Standard Oil’s headquarters at 26 Broadway. Rogers gave her a carefully vetted stash of documents, but Tarbell was not fooled. She made use of the material that Rogers disclosed without revealing to him that, by pure luck, she had stumbled on one meeting that unlocked the whole design of the trust.

It happened over breakfast in Saratoga where, Tarbell revealed, Rockefeller had said to two co-conspirators, “Let us become the nucleus of a private company which gradually shall acquire control of all refineries everywhere, become the only shippers, and consequently the master of the railroads in the matter of freight rates.”

In that way Standard Oil was able to fix the price of everything from the oil well to the refiners and from the refiners via the railroads to the customers, through a web of 40 companies, controlling 80 percent of the American oil market.

Across the country newspapers followed and reported on Tarbell’s revelations. Front page cartoons depicted Rockefeller as a frock-coated looter. A vaudeville routine of the time became a hit—“They say it’s tainted money. Sure it’s tainted. ’Taint yours and ’taint mine.” Rockefeller was jeered as he left church on Sunday and had to hire Pinkerton guards for protection.

In Washington the president, Teddy Roosevelt, felt he was being upstaged by Tarbell. He wanted to act against the business trusts himself, but to do so required building bipartisan support, and that needed time. Roosevelt called Steffens to try to get the magazine to slow down the investigation; Steffens said that was not possible, but Roosevelt summoned Tarbell to the White House, like Rogers believing that he could vamp her with his charm.

Instead, the president got an earful from Tarbell. She listed the names of senators in the pay of Standard Oil who planned to kill anti-trust legislation and warned him that the State Department had been infiltrated by Rockefeller stooges to help Standard Oil build its foreign oil interests.

No contest: Afterward Roosevelt called Steffens and said, half in anger and half in awe, “That’s the damndest woman I ever met.”

In 1906 the attorney general opened a case against Standard Oil under the Sherman Antitrust Act, charging it with conspiracy to rig the oil market. In 1911, after years of appeals, the Supreme Court upheld an original ruling that the Standard Oil trust was to be dissolved. The outcome shaped all future anti-trust actions.

Even cut down to size, Rockefeller’s creation proved resilient and, slowly recovered to ultimately become the global octopus of ExxonMobil.

But Tarbell had instructed journalism with a lesson that remains the ultimate test of any newsroom now: Do you have the ability and stamina required to pursue the forces that Teddy Roosevelt, his eyes opened by Tarbell, described as “the malefactors of great wealth?”

Nonetheless, Roosevelt himself demonstrated an ambivalence toward investigative journalism that all presidents, no matter how progressive they claim to be, seem to harbor. In a speech to editors at a gathering in Washington that was supposed to be private, he compared a crusading reporter with the man with the muck rake in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: “… eyes fixed on the mire when he might have seen a celestial crown,” and added, “if the whole picture remains black there remains no hue whereby to single out the rascals from their fellows.”

From this outburst came the term muckraker, happily adopted by some unapologetic editors but felt by others as a warning not to rock the Washington boat in case everyone went down with it if it was too damaged.

Suggesting that sometimes a collective interest, political, commercial, social, or patriotic, should sometimes override the urge to rake the muck—however great its stink—is an insidious form of coercion. Indeed, sadly it was a factor in the way some of the finest of our newspapers were swayed into backing the invasion of Iraq, and even conned into buying phony stories about Saddam acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

But the stakes are a lot higher now. The disparagement of adversarial reporting began early with Trump. He has convinced legions of his supporters that any reporting that he doesn’t like is dishonest. Most threatening is that he has stacked his Cabinet with people who don’t apparently believe that the first duty of public office, as opposed to corporate office, is to be scrutable. Tillerson, for example, spent his entire career in a corporation that felt no shame in cooking up an alternative science of its own to undermine public policy on climate change.

For the moment, let’s leave this field of battle with an observation by Ida Tarbell as she completed her reporting on Standard Oil: “A large body of young men in this country are consciously or unconsciously growing up with the idea that business is war and that morals have nothing to do with its practice.”