I’ve been grappling with what made Ida Tarbell so good since about 1983, when I was appointed executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). I felt I needed to read her 1905 classic, “The History of the Standard Oil Company.” This plainly titled book was no mere history; after I found the book and devoured its 800-plus pages, I was struck by her journalism, which felt not only exemplary but also as relevant as if written the month before I read it. I became an avid admirer of Tarbell’s, and determined to write her biography [Taking on the Trust: How Ida Tarbell Brought Down John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, 2009]. What I learned during my two decades of Tarbell study led me to formulate the hypothesis that more than any other individual, Tarbell invented the brand of reporting we call “investigative.”
Tarbell (1857-1944) was a superb reporter. She gathered information so compelling, so fresh, that her published pieces could not fail. As every reporter and editor eventually realizes, pyrotechnic writing rarely yields memorable journalism without a foundation of highly sophisticated information gathering. She did her reporting under circumstances difficult to fathom in 2016. She worked decades before open records/open meeting laws. Travel to repositories was arduous and time-consuming, and there was no photocopying, faxing or digital servicing. Tarbell also encountered misogyny and condescension.
She and a few male counterparts worked to create something new, digging into the netherworlds of giant corporations, individual tycoons, the federal government, local governments, and corrupt politicians. These “muckrakers” often worked for McClure’s, the magazine run by S.S. McClure. He decided during the 1890s to employ Tarbell as a staff writer, setting multiple precedents—hiring a salaried journalist, hiring a woman to publish serious journalism, and creating what we now call investigative reporting.
In my study of Tarbell, I learned that obstacles never discouraged her. Agreeing to McClure’s request that she investigate Standard Oil was fraught with risk. Standard Oil qualified as the world’s most powerful corporation, at a time when companies faced less regulation than they do today. Its founder, John D. Rockefeller, was forbidding.
Tarbell was also tireless. Her appetite for documents was never satisfied. She located Congressional hearings and transcripts of debate, regulatory agency initiatives, railroad contracts with shippers, records of Rockefeller’s philanthropy, filings about previously mysterious Rockefeller family members, and more. She could also work a source – she convinced both current and former Standard Oil executives to talk with her, she interviewed Rockefeller’s dissident brother, and met with an array of important additional human sources.
And she could write. Her Standard Oil series ran in nineteen parts, and was widely read. Then she expanded that into a book despite efforts by Standard Oil minions pushed by Rockefeller to neutralize her damning revelations. Tarbell’s ability to take a complicated story and keep people interested in it is remarkable still.
Here is how she introduced her story:
“One of the busiest corners of the globe at the opening of the year 1872 was a strip of northwestern Pennsylvania not over fifty miles long, known the world over as the Oil Regions. Twelve years before, this strip of land had been but little better than a wilderness, its chief inhabitants the lumberman, who every season cut great swaths of primeval pine and hemlock from its hills, and in the Spring floated them down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh.
“The great tides of Western emigration had shunned the spot for years as too rugged and unfriendly for settlement, and yet in twelve years this region avoided by men had been transformed into a bustling trade center, where towns elbowed each other for place, into which three great trunk railroads had built branches, and every foot of whose soil was fought for by capitalists. It was the discovery and development of a new raw product, petroleum, which had made this change from wilderness to marketplace.
“What had been done [to find oil] was, in [the independent oilmen’s] judgment, only a beginning. Life ran swift and ruddy and joyous in these men. They were still young, most of them under forty, and they looked forward with all the eagerness of the young…They would make their towns the most beautiful in the world…
“But suddenly, at the very heyday of this confidence, a big hand reached out from nobody knew where, to steal their conquest and throttle their future…”
The big hand belonged to Rockefeller. Tarbell discovered how he had gained advantage by conspiring with the railroads to undercut his competitors, creating an unlevel playing field.
Tarbell’s shocking revelations about underhanded conduct demonstrated that there are lucky reporters, but rarely lazy, lucky reporters. She set new standards for journalism. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
Steve Weinberg is currently writing a biography of Garry Trudeau.