Saturday, April 11, 2020
Books: "Citizen Reporters" On One Of The Most Influential Magazines Ever
Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America
By Stephanie Gorton
Ecco; hardcover, 384 pages; $28.99
The United States of a century ago was not all that different now, as it was a time when we were divided politically, wealth inequality hasnever been higher, and the president of the United States publicly attacked the press, calling reporters who threatened his reputation "forces of evil.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt directed his attacks at McClure's magazine, a story which is told in incredible detail by Stephanie Gorton in the new book, Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America.
This is the fascinating history of the rise and fall of this influential Gilded Age magazine. McClure's drew over 400,000 readers at its peak, far more than its rivals at the time including Harper's Monthly and The Atlantic. The magazine published the groundbreaking stories of its time, including the investigation of Standard Oil that toppled the Rockefeller monopoly.
McClure's was led by two unlikely outsiders at its helm, who were united by a single-minded ambition. S.S. McClure was an Irish immigrant who overthrew his impoverished upbringing and bent the New York media world to his will. His steadying hand and star reporter was Ida Tarbell, a woman who defined gender expectations and norms to become a notoriously fearless journalist.
This story has particular relevance today, with the press under attack around the world, as this magazine cemented investigative journalism's crucial role in democracy and introduced Americans to the voices of Willa Cather, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, and many more. This is a reminder of the crucial importance of journalists who are unafraid to speak truth to power, and the publications that support them.
Gorton writes: "The Gilded Age takes its name from the 1873 novel by Mark Twain and journalist Charles Dudley Warner. The two friends, provoked by a dare from their wives, collaborated on a story that satirized what they saw as a mindless, materialistic America around them. But it could have had a third allusion, to a sensational yet significant age of journalism - and of magazines, as a form. Out of a heated, competition-driven surge in print media, the now-vanished McClure's magazine rose up and leveled reportage and entertainment at a growing American readership, coming to embody the emerging art of investigative journalism.
"With origins in immigrant-packed steerage quarters and the rapidly industrialist Midwest, the strivers who made McClure's brought long-held quests and biases to the task. They - the visionary Samuel Sidney McClure, dauntless Ida Tarbell, dedicated John Phillips, gentle Ray Stannard Baker, idealistic Lincoln Steffens, and dozens of other reporters and novelists in their circle- channeled their vision into print, creating a magazine whose roving interests paralleled the evolving concerns of the society around them. Their lives and loves, as well as their work, were consumed by the magazine's success and dissolution.
"In the last years of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, the frontier vanished, Victorian values were pushed aside, and entrenched political corruption sparked a grassroots reform movement. Railroads extended their reach across the continent, requiring American time zones to be standardized for the first time; town clocks no longer set their time by the sun or the local almanac, but by the railroad schedule. Electricity lit cities that had previously been dim and smoky with kerosene and whale oil, an telegraphy accelerated the end of the Pony Express. A dentist from Buffalo invented the electric chair, which dispatched its first murderer in early August of 1890. Life was brighter and more efficient, but also fraught with new ways to die...
"The written word never held as much power as during this period of transformations. Actors might have been known by name across the country, and traveling lecturers appeared in towns large and small, but many lacked the means or the time to attend plays and talks. Print was the only mass medium, and 'the pulpit, the press, and the novel' influenced an increasingly literate population. In the post-Civil War years, the prevalence of magazines in America mushroomed. In 1860, there were about 575. That number practically doubled every decade until, by 1895, there were more than 5,000. Reporters' words did not only fill space on the page; they could make or break campaigns, careers, products, and fashions."
Citizen Reporters is one of the best journalism books you will read, a deeply researched biography that traces McClure's from its meteoric rise to its swift and dramatic fall.
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