As the diffuse progressive army gradually formed its battalions, a new journalistic fad brought the movement into focus. For many years magazines had been publishing articles discussing current political, social, and economic problems. Henry Demarest Lloyd’s first blast at the Standard Oil monopoly appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1881. Over the years the tempo and forcefulness of this type of literature increased. Then, in the fall of 1902, McClure’s began two particularly hard-hitting series of articles, one on Standard Oil by Ida Tarbell, the other on big-city political machines by Lincoln Steffens.
These articles provoked much comment. When the editor, S. S. McClure, decided to include in the January 1903 issue an attack on labor gangsterism in the coal fields along with installments of the Tarbell and Steffens series, he called attention to the circumstance in a striking editorial.
Something was radically wrong with the “American character,” McClure wrote. These articles showed that large numbers of American employers, workers, and politicians were fundamentally immoral. Lawyers were becoming tools of big business, judges were permitting evildoers to escape justice, the churches were materialistic, and educators seemed incapable of understanding what was happening. “There is no one left; none but all of us,” McClure concluded. “We have to pay in the end.”
McClure’s editorial caused a sensation. The issue sold out quickly. Thousands of readers found their own vague apprehensions brought into focus. Some became active in progressive movements; still more lent passive support.
Other editors jumped to adopt the McClure formula. A small army of professional writers soon flooded the periodical press with denunciations of the insurance business, the drug business, college athletics, prostitution, sweatshop labor, political corruption, and dozens of other subjects. This type of article inspired Theodore Roosevelt, with his gift for vivid language, to compare the journalists to “the Man with the Muck-Rake” in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, whose attention was so fixed on the filth at his feet that he could not notice the “celestial crown” that was offered him in exchange. Roosevelt’s characterization grossly misrepresented the literature of exposure, but the label muckraking was thereafter affixed to the type. Despite its literal connotations, muckraker became a term of honor.