The Original Muckrakers

Author Stephanie Gorton chronicles the rise and fall of McClure’s Magazine

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In 1905, McClure’s Magazine ran a provocative headline: “Rhode Island: a State of Sale.” The story wasn’t about how great real estate prices were in the Ocean State; it was about political corruption, and many local leaders weren’t too happy about it.

But this kind of “muckraking” was one of McClure’s trademarks – to expose lies and abuses for a national audience, no matter the pushback. Local author Stephanie Gorton chronicles the rise and fall of McClure’s, a Gilded Age periodical that once attracted 400,000 subscribers, in her new book, Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America.

“After years spent working in publishing, I found myself wondering: How does a writer make a difference in the world?” says Gorton. “What does it take, in a world where there are new headlines and bits of content lobbed at us every minute, to create a story with real staying power? When I came across Ida Tarbell and S.S. McClure, I found surprising insights.”

The first character in question is McClure himself, who arrived in the United States as an impoverished child from Ireland and went on to create the first newspaper syndicate in the United States, followed by his eponymous magazine. McClure was a larger-than-life personality with lofty ambitions and a manic disposition. The second, Ida Tarbell, was a crackerjack reporter, a pioneer in “muckraking” investigative journalism. Together, the two colleagues helped invent the modern newsroom.

Gorton is more than familiar with this tradition, having contributed to such publications as NewYorker.com, The Millions, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. And, of course, the complex relationship between the press and the public is more relevant now than ever.

“Readers’ hunger for investigative stories, the way journalism exposed corporate greed, and the way the president was threatened by those who spoke truth to power can all be seen as parallels,” notes Gorton. “Not to mention the gender dynamics in the newsroom, which were often exploitative of women. Circumstances are a bit different now – for one thing, in 1900, print was the only mass medium, so it had much more power.”

One of the book’s many personalities is John D. Rockefeller, whose hostile tactics in the oil and railroad industries drew criticism from the media. As it happens, Gorton did much of her research at the Rockefeller Library on Brown University’s campus.

“Since Rockefeller emerges as a bit of a villain in the book,” adds Gorton, “I appreciated the fact that he endowed a library where I could learn so much.” Gorton will be speaking and signing books on March 26 at Savoy Bookshop and Café in Westerly.