A Journalist’s Duty
Over a century ago, a new breed of journalist, derogatorily referred to as the muckraker, made its mark in an America beset by so-called captains of industry (or robber barons) who, single-minded as they were in their pursuit of unbounded wealth, went to any lengths to achieve their wildest dreams. The muckraker was a champion of the underprivileged and underserved, a purveyor of truth who, at great personal and professional risk, kept the public abreast of important events, and thereby forestalled the government from exploiting its citizens’ ignorance and cheating them of their constitutionally-mandated inalienable rights. The muckraker was courageously un-conformist and anti-Establishment, someone who, by being unstintingly blunt in depicting the misdeeds perpetrated by the corporate giants that presided over America’s ‘gilded age’, served as a catalyst for reform and improved the lives of millions.
Upton Sinclair was one such muckraker. Sinclair is most famous for authoring The Jungle (1906), which, besides exposing corruption in the US meatpacking industry, illustrated the horrors of working class poverty. To procure source material for this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, whose influence was such that it inspired the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, Sinclair spent seven weeks at a Chicagoan meatpacking plant, subjecting himself to the harsh working conditions of the characters depicted in his novel.
Another prominent muckraker was Ida Tarbell, who published The History of the Standard Oil Company in 1904. Tarbell’s book divulged the monopolizing practices of the Standard Oil Company, and depicted its immeasurably wealthy founder, John D. Rockefeller, as greedy and corrupt. By so doing, Tarbell went toe-to-toe with a man whose wealth was such that, at its peak, it accounted for 1.53 percent of the entire US economy.
Needless to say, the muckrakers’ legacy is one of journalistic integrity and principled activism, along with a certain sympathy for the underdog. Theirs is a legacy that all journalists should strive to manifest, one that has significance even––no, especially––today.
Since his death late last year, Nelson Mandela has been on my mind intermittently. Mandela, who suffered personally for his upstanding and righteous views about race relations, is singular in that his awe-inspiring courage and generosity has come to embody an entire generation. But Mandela’s fame and positive influence on society, however remarkable, are only as considerable as the media coverage he received during his 27-year imprisonment, when journalists likened him to a tragic martyr, and upon his triumphant release in 1990, after which the press molded Mandela––inspirational life story and all––into a larger-than-life personage, a mythical figure to whom all looked up. For all his accomplishments as a revolutionary then as a statesman, Mandela, or rather his imposing public persona, was very much a product of the media’s idolatry.
This isn’t to say that Mandela’s celebrity and stature were fabricated and undeserved, or that the press adulation expended on Mandela should have been bestowed on another. Yet Mandela is by no means the only man or woman to have fought against injustice and suffered for it.
Consider two individuals named Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga and Imam Oumar Kobine who, despite their religious differences––Nzapalainga is Christian and Kobine is Muslim––have recently joined forces to quell the religious violence that has gripped the Central African Republic. The Archbishop and Imam’s simple yet profound message of peace might seem naive to the cynical, but so too, at first, was Mandela’s vision of an Africa devoid of racial discrimination looked upon with derision. Just as it was the journalist’s responsibility then to give Mandela the public support he so deserved, it is the journalist’s duty now to ensure that Nzapalainga and Kobine’s efforts do not go unrecognized.
After all, in the spirit of the muckraker, was it not a journalist’s duty to seek out philanthropes wherever they might be found, and to publicize their humanitarian efforts at will and without regard for one’s own personal and professional wellbeing?
Copyright © 2014 Elliot Silverberg. All rights reserved.