A refreshingly old-line-liberal anthology that celebrates 21 crusader journalists who needed to change the world with their words—and did.
Aiming to counter the current “bleak” state of muckraking, Jensen (Communication Studies/Sonoma State Univ.) assembles a staggering, if familiar, array of word heroes: Ida Tarbell on Standard Oil, Upton Sinclair on the meat-packing houses, Jessica Mitford on funerals, Ralph Nader on the Corvair. All, he points out (excepting the Washington Post Watergate team) were solo writers doing “individual investigative reporting,” an accepted practice now replaced largely by a “corporate group approach” that results in company allegiance and avoidance of costly litigation. Unsurprisingly, he does not believe that we now have less muckraking because our society has improved, and he points (albeit sketchily) to our high rates of poverty and child abuse as proof. The excerpts are meant to disturb and enthrall, and they do. Seymour Hersh’s My Lai details still shock, and the vision of a bank-owned tractor crushing a tenant farmer’s house “like a bug” while the family watches is haunting. The writers also make the average citizen—the reader—part of the situation. For Edward R. Murrow, it was his audience who had succumbed to Joseph McCarthy’s exploitation of fear and who needed to become “defenders of freedom” to reject him. For Betty Friedan (in The Feminine Mystique), the job of breaking the pattern of housewives’ “vicarious living” and “progressive dehumanization” belonged to society and to “each woman alone.” For these writers, no one got off the hook: not the corporations, government, or individuals. All were responsible to make a fair society.
Respectful and earnest, this is less an armchair read than a good textbook for an investigative journalism class. The writers’ commitment, techniques, and results may inspire young readers; others of a certain age may remember how scared Rachel Carson made them or why they were glued to TV’s Watergate hearings.