There has been a lot of media attention on the “Je suis Charlie” movement after the execrable terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo editorial staff. I’m not going to enter into the discussion of freedom of the press vs. respecting religious sensitivities. I am not familiar with Charlie Hebdo except from the news coverage. Broadly speaking, I defend press freedoms to the hilt while at the same time wanting to hold the press to standards of responsible journalism that recognize the power of images and rhetoric either to inflame or promote deeper understanding. I will leave the discussion of Charlie Hebdo to others.
What I would like to do is hold up an ideal of responsible journalism that I came across in reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. One of the delightful surprises in her book is her account of some of the journalists that covered Roosevelt, Taft, and their age, particularly the group of journalists Sam McClure gathered to write for his monthly publication, McClure’s Magazine.
One of the figures who stands out, along with Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and William Allen White is Ida M. Tarbell. For my Youngstown friends, she began her career as a teacher at Poland Seminary (now Poland Seminary High School in Poland, Ohio). She later went to France to pursue post graduate studies on the life of Madame Roland. It was here that McClure recruited her to write a series of articles on Napolean Bonaparte. Subsequently she researched and wrote a 20-part series on Abraham Lincoln that stood out particularly for the meticulous research into Lincoln’s childhood and youth.
Meticulous research marked everything Tarbell wrote, and nothing more than the 12 part series she wrote on John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil that led to the breakup of Standard Oil’s monopoly on the oil business. She spent nearly three years doing careful research of depositions, company and government documents, interviews with oil producers forced out of business by Rockefeller, and even a partner of Standard Oil, Henry H. Rogers, who provided the company’s side on all that she was uncovering. She set a new standard for investigative journalism that indeed warrants Goodwin’s assertion of “golden age” for the journalism of her day.
This didn’t mean that she was “neutral” in her assessment of Standard Oil. Her meticulous research marshaled an incontrovertible case for illegal and monopolistic activity that provided the basis for the government’s efforts to break up the Standard Oil trust. Her measured consideration and refutation of corporate arguments made the case far more persuasive than a “hatchet job.”
If I were to identify with anyone journalistically, I would like to identify with people like Ida M. Tarbell, who were both careful and courageous in their writing. In an article titled “Muckraker or Historian,” cited in the Wikipedia article on Tarbell, she wrote:
“All the radical element, and I numbered many friends among them, were begging me to join their movements. I soon found that most of them wanted attacks. They had little interest in balanced findings. Now I was convinced that in the long run the public they were trying to stir would weary of vituperation, that if you were to secure permanent results the mind must be convinced.”
My question with our own age is whether this is the journalism we want, and are willing to pay for. To give a writer three years to research a story is probably more or less unheard of today. Yet the same internet that stresses news organizations’ viability also makes possible fact-checking that doesn’t always require physically crisscrossing the country as Tarbell did.
Maybe what this means is identifying the publications that are still striving for this ideal and supporting them with our subscriptions, or more. And maybe with my payment, I’ll send a note: “Je suis Ida.”