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Stephanie Gorton: Citizen Reporters Book Review (The Atlantic)

The Atlantic:

Back when modern journalism was defining itself—before objectivity was a reportorial byword, before off the record and on background were terms of the trade, and before narrative nonfiction was common parlance—one of the leading practitioners of the bold new form of inquiry was Ida Tarbell. A tall woman in a long dress, her brown hair piled high, she might be seen regularly entering the doors of the Standard Oil offices in New York City as the century began. Tarbell was meeting with what we would call a “source.” Her interlocutor was a forceful man with a nickname—Henry “Hell Hound” Rogers—right out of central casting. Tarbell was writing a series on Standard Oil and the rapacious practices of its founder, John D. Rockefeller. Rogers’s job was to guide her reporting—as we might say, to “spin” her.

But Tarbell was not to be spun. When he gave her a glass of milk, she insisted on paying. When he pressed to know who had told her something, she refused to say. When she ran some near-finished copy by him—what would today qualify as fact-checking—she refused to let him make changes beyond offering corrections. All of these were guidelines she developed alongside her editor, S. S. McClure, and her colleagues at his eponymous magazine, McClure’s. The upshot was one of the seminal early examples of what is now known as long-form investigative reporting. Tarbell might have won a Pulitzer, except that journalism prizes also were not yet a thing. “Woman Does Marvelous Work!” was one of many rapturous headlines.

Tarbell’s 19-part Standard Oil series began in McClure’s in November 1902, and the celebrated January 1903 issue—which featured the third installment of the series, a piece on labor unrest among coal miners by Ray Stannard Baker, and an exposé by Lincoln Steffens on municipal corruption—sold out on newsstands in days. (The magazine also had about 400,000 subscribers.) Tarbell became so famous that she was recognized everywhere. McClure, a manic genius, had assembled what an editor of The Atlantic, Ellery Sedgwick, later called “the most brilliant staff ever gathered by a New York periodical” at precisely the time when magazines enjoyed top status as the mass medium of the moment; newspapers tended to be sensational and partisan, and radio had not quite arrived. Among the first-ever magazine staff writers, McClure’s team grasped that when laying a complicated topic before readers, narrative pacing and a strong writerly voice are invaluable. So are facts, facts, and more facts; vivid characters; and a central conflict.

The sway exerted by these “muckrakers” has been the subject of books including Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, which highlights the influence of their muscular exposés of political corruption, monopoly power, and labor conditions. Their work enabled Roosevelt to push his Progressive agenda, securing better enforcement of antitrust legislation and persuading Congress to regulate the food and drug industries. In Citizen Reporters: S. S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, and the Magazine That Rewrote America, Stephanie Gorton, a magazine journalist herself, focuses on how a “hothouse” collaboration happens. She explores the clash and interplay of talents that created an entity greater than the sum of its parts, absorbed in an endeavor as important now as it was then: molding coherent narratives that help readers—surrounded by a cacophony of daily stories—grasp the changes they are living through.

Link to The Atlantic

Citizen Reporter Book Launch: Symposium Books, February 18, 2020

Stephanie Gorton has written for NewYorker.com, Smithsonian.com, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Toast, The Millions, and other publications. Previously, she held editorial roles at Canongate Books, the Overlook Press, and Open Road. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh and Goucher College’s MFA program in creative nonfiction, she lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with her family. 

A fascinating history of the rise and fall of influential Gilded Age magazine McClure’s and the two unlikely outsiders at its helm—as well as a timely, full-throated defense of investigative journalism in America

The president of the United States made headlines around the world when he publicly attacked the press, denouncing reporters who threatened his reputation as “muckrakers” and “forces for evil.” The year was 1906, the president was Theodore Roosevelt—and the publication that provoked his fury was McClure’s magazine.

One of the most influential magazines in American history, McClure’s drew over 400,000 readers and published the groundbreaking stories that defined the Gilded Age, including the investigation of Standard Oil that toppled the Rockefeller monopoly. Driving this revolutionary publication were two improbable newcomers united by single-minded ambition. S. S. McClure was an Irish immigrant, who, despite bouts of mania, 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 defied gender expectations and became a notoriously fearless journalist.

The scrappy, bold McClure's group—Tarbell, McClure, and their reporters Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens—cemented investigative journalism’s crucial role in democracy. From reporting on labor unrest and lynching, to their exposés of municipal corruption, their reporting brought their readers face to face with a nation mired in dysfunction. They also introduced Americans to the voices of Willa Cather, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, and many others.

Stephanie Gorton has written for NewYorker.com, Smithsonian.com, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Toast, The Millions, and other publications. Previously, she held editorial roles at Canongate Books, the Overlook Press, and Open Road. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh and Goucher College’s MFA program in creative nonfiction, she lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with her family. 

Tracing McClure’s from its meteoric rise to its spectacularly swift and dramatic combustion, Citizen Reporters is a thrillingly told, deeply researched biography of a powerhouse magazine that forever changed American life. It’s also a timely case study that demonstrates the crucial importance of journalists who are unafraid to speak truth to power.

ISBN: 9780062796646