Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Standard Oil Busted

Between 1902 and 1904, “muckraker” Ida Tarbell published the culmination of 2 years of meticulous research: a 19-part series exposing the Standard Oil Company’s corruption. The articles explained heavy research and complicated documents to the public with clarity. Tarbell’s “History of Standard Oil” tore down the mythical illusions about the company while revealing Rockefeller’s unethical practices and the mistreatment of his employees to the public.
In one article she wrote that “The oil men as a class had been brought up to enormous profits, and held an entirely false standard of values.”
Although McClure’s popularity flourished after the articles were printed, some mainstream newspapers did not publish the story at first. One can believe that reporters from papers like the LA Times, the NY Times, and the Washington Post were reluctant to associate themselves with the muckrakers and their reporting methods. When the story first broke, the kind of investigative journalism the muckrakers were producing at the time was not popular amongst most reporters, and many found the muckrakers to be crude. By writing off the muckrakers, big papers missed out on a major story at first. Instead of publishing their own stories, many papers wrote disparaging accounts of Tarbell and her findings. In one LA Times article, titled “The Standard Oil Legend: Ida Tarbell May Be Called a Writer of Folk Lore and Fairy Tales as Well,” condescendingly says that Tarbell’s work had “interestingly combined fact, rumor, common reputation, and current fiction regarding the great industrial giant.” Later, the reporter quotes someone saying that “the historical facts have been dressed in the motley of popular legend.”
As the story of the Standard Oil’s and Rockefeller’s schemes progressed, mainstream newspapers started printing stories and alerting even more people to Standard Oil’s misdeeds. The New York Times published a series of articles, especially after Standard Oil raised the price of oil, to which one reader responded in a letter to the editor saying “Its monopolistic power is well illustrated by taking advantage of the present necessities of the people.”
In 1904, the LA Times published an article titled “Where Standard Oil’s Real Interest Lies: Smoked Out at Last—It Means Desperation—An Unknown Quantity. Amazing Misstatements, Concessions of Defeat.” The article writes about a trial in which Standard Oil said it did not help to nominate a politician, and then said that it was not interested in industries besides oil (a statement that the New York Times editorial staff takes to be a gross lie). Some papers had criticized Tarbell for her grand language initially, but this article takes on quite a theatric tone itself. The article says that “the big fact of Standard Oil is that from its immense ganglion of wealth a million nerves radiate, binding scores of banks, and industrial companies into one large, consistent commercial body…If Standard Oil was not willing to tell the whole truth about its commercial power, it was probably still more unwilling to tell the whole truth about its political power.”
Tarbell started an intensive written battle against Standard Oil that the mainstream media eventually joined. Although I am not likening the muckrakers’ work with articles published the National Inquirer and other sensationalist celebrity magazines, the tendency of the elite media to disregard certain publications (or writers, in this case) as vulgar sometimes works to the media’s disadvantage today (other times, it is completely rational to ignore claims that Bat Boy is on the loose again). It is interesting to note that John Edward’s affair—a revelation that changed the makeup of last year’s election—was reported for months by the National Inquirer before the mainstream media picked it up after the Inquirer published photos of Edwards and his videographer.

WHERE STANDARD OIL'S REAL INTEREST LIES :THE CONTEST OF 1904. Smoked Out at Last--It Means Desperation--An Unknown Quantity. Amazing Misstatements--Confession of Defeat. Standard Oil and Parker. Smoked Out at Last. It Means Desperation. An Unknown Quantity. Each Speech an Evasion. Amazing Misstatements. The Parker Primer. Troubles of a Candidate. Justifying Hill. Parker's Inconsistency. Confessions of Defeat. A Guarantee of Peace. Caught With the Goods.. (1904, November 3). Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File),p. 11. Retrieved April 8, 2009, from ProQuest Historical Newspapers Los Angeles Times (1881 - 1986) database. (Document ID: 322838262).

NY Times, The Rise in the Price of Oil:

LA Times, Prejudice Against Oil Men.

The American Experience: the Rockefellers. A Journalistic Masterpiece. The Top 10 Media Blunders of 2008

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