Mark Twain was once reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Reading Stephanie Gorton’s smart and engaging “Citizen Reporters” summoned rhythms of a past whose cadence can be felt in the present. The two stories whose origins she begins by telling in fascinating alternate chapters are those of Ida Tarbell, the journalist whose exposé of Standard Oil led to the breakup of its monopoly, and S.S. McClure, the founder of the magazine where Tarbell and others like her published their stories.
McClure’s magazine was founded in 1893, and, by 1900, its founder enjoyed a reputation as one of the nation’s most important men. But in 1906, a walkout by the magazine’s core editorial staff ended its golden period and began its fatal decline. Gorton offers the magazine’s storied history in rich detail, but also delves deeply into the lives and characters of Tarbell, McClure and others, including Lincoln Steffens. Rather than arguing that McClure’s was great just because of the individual talents of its staff, Gorton seeks to also locate the magazine in a particular historical moment, one that bears great resemblances to our own. She succeeds admirably.
The type of Gilded-Age investigative journalism that McClure’s was famous for, what contemporaries labeled as “muckraking,” explored the ways that the mega-rich and the monopolistic companies they commanded affected the lives of the common people. Writing in an era where striking workers could be shot dead and their children thrown out into the streets, as they were at Homestead, Pa., in 1892, while the company owners lived like kings, the reporter who exposed unfair business practices helped to explain to readers how malfeasance at the top of the economic ladder led to suffering on the lower rungs. The ability to provide readers with the facts so that they could make demands as citizens was at the heart of the muckraking project and gave McClure’s higher circulation numbers than most other magazines.
Gorton provides readers with a rich context for understanding the historical and cultural milieu in which the McClure’s staff moved. But she adds the personal histories of McClure and Tarbell as a means of understanding how the ideas that became huge stories took root in each of them. In the case of Tarbell, Gorton shows how small oilmen, like Tarbell’s father, were broken by the gargantuan reach of Standard Oil.
McClure emerges as a man of great vision, but one who seemed unable to fully commit himself to any one project for very long. And it is in this conflux of massive economic and social inequalities, a technological boom that included the telephone and wireless communications, and the perceived threat of imminent revolution, that McClure’s dedication to exposing the truth and afflicting the comfortable created the magazine’s reputation for signal flares still visible in our own skies.
Lorraine Berry is a Florida-based writer.
Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America
By: Stephanie Gorton.
Publisher: Ecco, 368 pages, $28.99.