Published on Monday, August 13, 2001 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Return of the Muckraker
Barbara Ehrenreich Follows in the Tradition of Investigative Journalists' Patron Saint, Ida Tarbell
by Burt Dragin
WHO WOULD have thought it? Ida Tarbell - Cover Girl! Of course, the
cover is the Columbia Journalism Review. But that's still remarkable when you
consider that Tarbell hit her stride in 1904, the year she exposed John D.
Rockefeller and the Standard Oil trust in McClure's Magazine.
Tarbell was labeled a "muckraker" by President Theodore Roosevelt, who compared her to the "Man with the Muckrake" who dredged up dirt in John Bunyon's "Pilgrim's Progress."
Rockefeller called Tarbell "that misguided woman." CJR called her a "patron saint." (The magazine's May/June issue features a special report: "The Investigators: Staying on Target," and should be read by any aspiring journalist or any citizen who may regard CNN's "Larry King Live" as the apotheosis of investigative journalism.)
Other "misguided" reporters of the day included: Lincoln Steffens, who wrote about "Shame of the Cities," a series about political corruption; and, of course, Upton Sinclair, whose book "The Jungle" exposed appalling working conditions in a Chicago meat packing house.
Soon thereafter, the same President Roosevelt signed the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act.
Muckraking has since been worn as a badge of honor by reporters who have uncovered everything from the My Lai massacre in Vietnam to the Ford Pinto's exploding gas tank to revelations about the tobacco industry.
Today's muckrakers have a tougher sell.
In Tarbell's day, magazines were the only mass medium. Today's journalists must compete for public attention with Trash TV, tabloids, the Internet, monster movies - even those compelling PalmPilots. So it has been encouraging to see Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," hovering on best-seller lists.
The political essayist took a year off in 1998 to answer some simple questions: "How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled? How, in particular, were the roughly 4 million women about to be booted into the labor market by welfare reform going to make it on $6 or $7 an hour?"
Ehrenreich shed her middle-class skin and tried to make it as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. Her results are revelatory: "What you don't necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour," she wrote, "is that what you're actually selling is your life."
The book is peppered with witty asides and dead-on salvos at an economic system perilously out of whack. As a "Merry Maid," Ehrenreich dusts a master bedroom replete with "books on pregnancy, breast feeding, the first six months, the first year, the first two years."
The author wonders about her co-worker, a child-care deprived young mother named Maddy: "Maybe there's been some secret division of the world's women into breeders and drones, and those at the maid level are no longer supposed to be reproducing at all."
The author gleans much from being temporarily trapped in the low-wage "service industry," not the least of which is "there really is no such thing as 'unskilled labor.' "
Drug testing seems the norm for jobs designed to keep you in line, obedient and docile. Ehrenreich is the perfect subversive to scope out this "invisible" world: She's empathetic, sardonic and wise.
Another huge obstacle faced by today's investigative reporters is public - and government - response. More precisely, who cares? Franklin D. Roosevelt used to decry a nation "one-third ill-housed, ill-clothed and ill-nourished."
He said we could do better.
Today's pols are simply well-dressed fund-raisers with messages calculated to the tiny percentage of Americans who vote. Still, the muckrakers won't give up.
"The duty to monitor power," notes the CJR introductory essay, "political, corporate, whatever - for the benefit of the general public is why we get to carry the great shield of the First Amendment."
If that's not enough, perhaps we should listen to the plaintive words of Linda Loman in "Death of a Salesman," who speaks of her drowning husband, Willy, but could also be addressing the notable work of the muckrakers: "Attention must be paid."
Burt Dragin teaches journalism at Laney College in Oakland. He is writing a book on compulsive gambling.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle