The irritable necessity of muckraking journalism

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George Orwell once said that ‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is PR’. If that is the case, then muckraking journalism, as often as it is cast out, is a definable and necessary element of news.

The term is believed to have originated from the 17th century religious tale by John Bunyan, ‘the Pilgrim’s Progress’. In it, Bunyan encapsulated the arguments against an uncontrolled press more than three centuries before they would become mainstream problems.

“The man who could look no way but downwards with a muck rake in his hand.”

From 1450, when Gutenberg invented the printing press, news and its influence only grew in size and power. Inevitably, the profession of writing increased in scope with it, but it was possibly only by the 19th century that investigative journalism was recognised.

With Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, the news showed that not only could it go where others could not, but also that it could make significant challenges to the establishment. Writing under the pseudonym of ‘Nellie Bly’, Cochrane feigned an illness to infiltrate the infamous New York Blackwell asylum. 10 Days in a Mad House quickly became a hit, and her fame was secured with her bold efforts in exposing the awful conditions of the treatment centre, which was rife with corruption.

The practice exploded in the early 20th century, and the Gilded Age in general, with the popularity of McClure’s magazine, which at its peak had around 400,000 copies in circulation, perhaps owing to his cheapness at 15 cents a magazine. The paper revealed the leviathan operation John D. Rockefeller was running with his monopoly of the oil industry. The articles published, such as by Ida Tarbell, helped contribute to the 1911 Sherman anti-trust act, typifying the media’s role in rooting out corruption and abuses of power by the powerful.

Notably, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 The Jungle provided the starkest proof yet that the news was required by the population to regulate the government when he showed the horrors of the meat-packing industry. Such was the power of journalists, and arguably still is, that the same year, the President passed the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Theodore Roosevelt recognised the press’ importance but was reluctant to allow them free reign:

“the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the mud.”

For all the good that the papers did in 19th century, including bringing down crime boss William M. Tweed of Tammany Hall, some of the peers of the profession exploited their newfound power. Like weeds among a rose bush, tabloids sprung up as the production of papers jumped from 200 in 1800 to 3000 by 1860. In one instance, the New York Sun dedicated a column in 1835 to the explanation of unicorns and flying bat-men on the moon.

More recently though, the issue of the reliability of the press was spotlighted in 2011 with the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, when it emerged that a culture of immoral reporting through unlawful practices were not only present but encouraged by the leaders of the well-known paper. The event forced the establishment to consider the news industry as a whole, and the power that they should wield.

The News of the World went to such lengths because they wanted to print stories and inform the public. Their actions and subsequent punishments raise the question, ‘in what way were they different from the journalists of the past, in motivation or methods?’

As Alan Rusbridger wrote in response to the Leveson enquiry, “that lack of responsibility is one of the important respects in which the press is different. Of course, the press must be responsible for its own standards and ethics. But it’s not the job of journalists to run things: they are literally without responsibility.” This echoes the sentiment of former Prime minister Stanley Baldwin when he similarly commented on the deserved independence of the press from responsibility, which is arguably the cornerstone of a truly ‘free press’; free from intimidation so that journalists can choose between telling the truth and conforming to accepted knowns.

Whilst considerations over the Leveson enquiries findings continued, and how to respond to the revelations of the investigation, Lord Black of Brentwood saw the choice as binary, “there are no middle ways.” In short, any limitations would confirm an agenda of muzzling the news. In order to have vital, honest journalism, one must accept the poor quality exposes and the trivial. That is difficult to digest when chronicling the pit-falls of the press for the last 2 decades.

“Junk journalism is the evidence of a society that has got at least one thing right, that there should be nobody with the power to dictate where responsible journalism begins.” – Tom Stoppard

These issues arrive alongside renewed threats to the freedom of news papers around the world. Although the British may pride themselves on the liberty afforded to its media, Journalists without Borders’ 2021 index ranked the UK a mere 33rd place, far below the likes of Norway and new Zealand.

All the President’s Men, the sensational expose by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein exemplifies the great potential of journalism. Discovering a web of deceit and intrigue implicating Nixon in a plot to spy on the Democratic party in an effort to win the upcoming 1972 election, Woodward and Bernstein led the charge to hold America’s leaders to account, and quite probably dented the infallible image of the title of the President. But for every Woodward, there is a Coulson, and the line between the two is difficult to draw without contradicting the freedom of press.

After the events of Watergate, President Nixon could barely control his disgust with the media’s ‘intrusive’ revelations. The 37th U.S. President lectured reporters, saying “it’s the responsibility of the media to look at the President with a microscope, but they go too far when they use a proctoscope.” Ignoring for a moment the irony that proctoscopy is invaluable in medicine for discovering serious, insidious problems in the body, Nixon’s speech typifies the problem with a free press. With absolute liberty, who holds journalists accountable? Can the news be truly free  if parameters are set?

Throughout the development of the news, and investigative journalism in particular, there is a clear trend of progress; progression in the accountability of the government, progression in the standing of journalists, and progression in the power of news. But with that influence comes greater scrutiny, so it is only natural that more cracks have appeared in the glossy facade of journalism. Alan Rusbridger again offers an interesting insight into how we should approach these fundamental questions of media reform:

“The imperfections of the press are not the point when considering its freedom.”

A restricted press reflects the boundaries of our own freedom of speech, because it is the population who benefit and are the targets of the news. Although we may not appreciate the variety brought by the magazines and media that we reject, they are important nonetheless in defending our right to choose. Reviewing the Leveson enquiry, it was clear that an important catalyst of reform was the tireless reporting of the press itself on the issue, reminding us that the ‘papers’ are not a unified block but a multi-faceted group of independent news outlets, which above all, strive for the truth.

Carl Bernstein encouraged the public to see the news not as the finished product, but as a work in progress; a masterpiece that will never be finished. Maybe the price we pay for invaluable and daring journalism is the intrusive nature of tabloids. The price for the Paul Lewis’, the Claire Newell’s and the Ian Davies’. And perhaps that is a price worth paying.

“A partial, hasty, incomplete, inevitably somewhat flawed and inaccurate rendering of some of the things we have heard about in the past 24 hours… If we labelled the product accurately then we could… add… ‘its the best we could do under the circumstances, and we will be back tomorrow with the corrected and updated version.’