For a brief time at the beginning of the last century, politicians and journalists were friends. Not just friends, but colleagues, comrades in arms, letter-writing correspondents who praised and flattered each other in copious screeds. The politician during this period was President Theodore Roosevelt and the journalists were a handful of driven and talented writers. Many of them — Lincoln Steffens, Ray Baker, Ida Tarbell and others — were brought together by Samuel McClure in the magazine that bore his name.
McClure’s was published with the dual intention of explaining the contemporary era in lengthy researched pieces and supporting reform, especially of corrupt city governments and the huge, powerful corporations or trusts of the time.
Novelists, like Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair, and social investigators, like Jacob Riis, Gustavus Myers and Frances Kellor, compiled loosely fictionalized accounts of mass poverty, exploitation and desperation — the underside of America’s vast expansion. Sinclair’s novel The Jungle, about the meatpacking district of Chicago, brought about significant legislation on working conditions.
In her account of the age, The Bully Pulpit, Doris Kearns Goodwin showed how writers were regarded as front-line activist-investigators of Tammany Hall and corporate America. Roosevelt opened his mind and the White House to them (not without an element of calculation). The McClure’s writers both venerated and served him, responding to his suggestions to investigate this or that abuse, and even bringing him the results of their research before it reached their editors.
Eventually, the relationship turned sour. Roosevelt got fed up with the more sensationalist material that copycat investigators produced, and he included in his indictment even the serious “muckrakers” (an affectionate nickname that the president had bestowed to journalists). Writers thought him too moderate in his second term and resented his resentment of them. McClure’s staggered on for some years, but its golden age turned leaden.