Louis Van Oeyen/Western Reserve Historical Society/Getty Images


"There were writers of the early twentieth century," explains historian Howard Zinn, "not obscure pamphleteers, but among the most famous of American literary figures, whose books were read by millions." One such writer was Ida M. Tarbell (1857-1944), part of the original "muckrakers" (a term—not exactly of endearment—coined by Teddy Roosevelt).

Born in Pennsylvania but frustrated in her journalistic efforts in America, Tarbell left for Paris to study at the Sorbonne. It was there that she began writing articles for American newspapers and magazines. Her popular and successful series on Napoleon for McClure's was quickly followed by another on Abraham Lincoln. Both were later published as books while Tarbell took full advantage of her notoriety to focus on the Standard Oil monopoly.

Tarbell dug deep to uncover, among other dubious practices, a covert arrangement by which the oil giant received enormous price breaks from local railroads. Her sixteen-part series ran from 1901 until 1904 and was also published as a book. Fallout from the series and book directly resulted in a new antitrust precedent being handed down by the United States Supreme Court against the entire oil industry along with Congress establishing a Department of Commerce and a Bureau of Corporations.

Other muckrakers from this time period included Lincoln Steffens, author of Tweed Days in St. Louis, a novel about municipal corruption; Jacob Riis, who exposed life in New York's slums in his book, How the Other Half Lives; and perhaps the most famous muckraker of all, Upton Sinclair.

"Sinclair's novel The Jungle, published in 1906, brought the conditions in the meatpacking plants of Chicago to the shocked attention of the whole country, and stimulated demand for laws regulating the meat industry," adds Zinn. The Jungle was first published in the Socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason; it was then read by millions as a book, and was translated into seventeen languages.

In this age of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and text messages galore, what can we do to exploit this technology in the name of a safer, healthier planet? Certainly we could use some more muckraking. Post your suggestions in the comments section.

Got a tip or a post idea for us to write about on Planet Green? Email pgtips (at) treehugger (dot) com.