Today, Theodore Roosevelt prompts us to ask the same question he raised over a century ago in his speech “The Man with the Muck-Rake”: How do we devote our attention to society’s problems without allowing them to devour us? Our survival in the Information Age hinges upon on our ability to address this problem.

In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt introduced the term “muckraker” into the American lexicon. Today, many understand a muckraker to be simply a dedicated investigative journalist, a Woodward or Bernstein digging into corruption and scandal on a quest for truth and justice. But originally, Roosevelt intended to target a certain type of journalist, one who reminded him of “the man with the muck rake” in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

This man, as Roosevelt described him, “could look no way but downward, with the muck rake in his hand.” When he “was offered a celestial crown for his muck rake,” he refused the exchange. He “would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.” In Bunyan’s allegory, the muckraker represented a materialistic man who denies the spiritual realities above him. As Roosevelt adapted the image, “he also typifies the man who in this life consistently refuses to see aught that is lofty, and fixes his eyes with solemn intentness only on that which is vile and debasing.”

Roosevelt’s “The Man with the Muck-Rake” speech is a message for our time. We are inundated as never before by a firehose of demoralizing news made possible by new technologies. Yet our essential dilemmas, rooted as they are in unchanging human nature, were identified by Roosevelt a century ago, and his speech can provide us with much-needed perspective today.

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Born in 1858, Theodore Roosevelt lived through our nation’s worst crises. Within his lifetime the United States endured a Civil War, Reconstruction and the racial and political strife that attended it, a president’s impeachment, widespread and sometimes violent labor strikes, the First World War, and the assassination of three presidents, the last of which brought Roosevelt into the Oval Office. As a president of the Progressive era, Theodore Roosevelt, like William Taft and Woodrow Wilson after him, supported widespread social and political reforms intended to bring stability and modernization to his rapidly developing nation.

By the time Roosevelt was sworn into office in 1901, the newspaper industry had spent the prior decade rising in circulation and deteriorating in reputation. Rival publishers William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer blurred the lines between fact and fiction in their sensationalistic news coverage deemed yellow journalism. A 1910 political cartoon caught the common perception: Hearst, dressed as a jester, tosses newspapers with headlines like “Appeals to Passion,” “Attacks on Honest Officials,” “Sensationalism,” and “Venom” to an eager crowd. The “Advertiser” and the “Gullible Reformer” are among those who fuel the printing press with bags of money.

In contrast to the yellow journalists and their early-twentieth-century clickbait, serious investigative reporters arose in the early 1900s who devoted months or even years to investigating a single issue. Writers such as Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and Ida M. Tarbell published books and articles exposing corrupt politicians, underhanded business dealings, and atrocious working conditions. Their fundamental impulse was not to sell papers but to pursue earnest social reform. These are the journalists still known today as muckrakers.

Serious exposé journalism, though vastly superior to yellow journalism, suffered from two temptations. First, as its popularity began to catch the eye of people like Hearst, it became evident that this new genre of reporting could become very profitable, a development which would change its motivation. The second problem, perhaps even more serious, was that even those journalists who remained true to their principles were tempted to write stories that were not entirely reliable or impartial. By devoting themselves so completely to uncovering corruption and depravity in an urgent quest to create a more just and equitable world, they risked becoming consumed by the disproportionately dark picture of the world they were painting. And they risked taking their readers—the American people—with them.

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These were the concerns on President Roosevelt’s mind when he delivered his “Man with the Muck-Rake” speech in April 1906. A few weeks prior, when he delivered an earlier version to a private audience, he was widely misunderstood to be condemning all investigative journalists. Now, speaking to the public at large, he fervently attempted to strike the right balance with his words while vigorously expressing his convictions. It was a rhetorical tightrope act which he deeply hoped his listeners would not misunderstand or misconstrue.

On one hand, Roosevelt had no desire to alienate or condemn truthful, balanced, devoted journalists whose work and energy he applauded. Americans deserved to know the truth about corruption in business and politics. “Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing,” Roosevelt insisted. “There are in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man, whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, business, or social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform or in a book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack.”

On the other hand, neither good intentions nor the worthiness of the task could guarantee that such work would be performed honestly or result in positive change. “There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces of evil.”

This is the type of journalist upon whom Roosevelt bestowed the title of “muckraker”: the one who—good intentions notwithstanding—not only exposes corruption, but fixates on it in disproportionate, unhealthy, and even dishonest ways.

The temptation of muckraking is clear to see, both in Roosevelt’s day and ours. A sleepy public can be difficult to awaken to an important cause, but bombast and exaggeration can do the trick. The natural ambiguities of life may prevent people from choosing a side in a prominent controversy, but steady one-sided reporting might sway opinion or at least reinforce existing ones. Roosevelt warned against the dangers of these methods:

Hysterical sensationalism is the poorest weapon wherewith to fight for lasting righteousness. The men who with stern sobriety and truth assail the many evils of our time… are the leaders and allies of all engaged in the work for social and political betterment. But if they give good reason for distrust of what they say, if they chill the ardor of those who demand truth as a primary virtue, they thereby betray the good cause and play into the hands of the very men against whom they are nominally at war… Expose the crime, and hunt down the criminal; but remember that even in the case of crime, if it is attacked in sensational, lurid, and untruthful fashion, the attack may do more damage to the public mind than the crime itself.

Just weeks before Roosevelt’s speech, journalist David G. Phillips began publishing “The Treason of the Senate,” a nine-part series of articles in which he melodramatically pronounced the legislature’s corruption to be as serious a threat to the nation as “an invading army.” Roosevelt reacted with an open mind toward the facts but with repulsion toward the hysteric tone. This series clinched Roosevelt’s suspicions that some exposé journalists were less interested in fair and honest reporting than in pursuing a political agenda using methods which could, ironically, undermine the case for reform altogether: “An epidemic of indiscriminate assault upon character does no good, but very great harm. The soul of every scoundrel is gladdened whenever an honest man is assailed, or even when a scoundrel is untruthfully assailed.”

Beside misleading exaggerations, one-sided reporting posed another danger. It was not difficult to predict whom the muckrakers would cast as villains in their stories. Tapping into larger attitudes of social unrest, they targeted wealthy and powerful business leaders and politicians. Roosevelt, in fact, often attacked the same people, and later in his speech he promoted new regulations and taxes intended to restrain their power. Nonetheless, he called for consistency:

So far as this movement of agitation… seeks to establish a line of cleavage, not along the line which divides good men from bad, but along that other line, running at right angles thereto, which divides those who are well off from those who are less well off, then it will be fraught with immeasurable harm to the body politic… honesty can be no respecter of persons…

The eighth commandment reads, “Thou shalt not steal.” It does not read, “Thou shalt not steal from the rich man.” It does not read, “Thou shalt not steal from the poor man.” It reads simply and plainly, “Thou shalt not steal.”

No good whatever will come from that warped and mock morality which denounces the misdeeds of men of wealth and forgets the misdeeds practiced at their expense; which denounces bribery, but blinds itself to blackmail; which foams with rage if a corporation secures favors by improper methods, and merely leers with hideous mirth if the corporation is itself wronged.

In his private correspondence with magazine editor Sam McClure, Roosevelt urged him to remind his readers that threats to society could come from any direction: “It is an unfortunate thing to encourage people to believe that all crimes are connected with business… I wish very much that you could have articles showing up the hideous iniquity of which mobs are guilty, the wrongs of violence by the poor as well as the wrongs of corruption by the rich.” Roosevelt pointed to the French Revolution as the quintessential historic episode in which legitimate calls for liberty were drowned out by mob violence. Eventually, he lamented, the Revolution sank into “the hideous calamity of the Terror, which put back the cause of liberty for over a generation.”[1] The human predicament originates in the human heart, not a particular social caste or political party, and any journalist who suggests otherwise will inevitably fall short of addressing our fundamental problems.

The condition of the human heart was, in fact, Roosevelt’s highest concern. The muckrakers’ methods appeared counterproductive and morally questionable. But their most damning consequences would be their psychological and social effects on the American public. Throughout the speech, Roosevelt’s metaphorical language had frequently transformed the muck raker into an aggressive mud slinger. But Roosevelt knew that for Bunyan, the muckraker’s essential transgression was personal and spiritual: For when he was offered a crown in exchange for his muckrake, he refused the offer. So long and so fervently had he been raking muck that he had lost sight of everything else around him. Muck had come to define his reality; muckraking, his significance.

Far beyond an ordinary investigative journalist, Roosevelt’s muckraker was a man who had adopted an intellectual and spiritual posture toward the world which undermined his capability to recognize and appreciate what is good, true and beautiful. Their attitude, in the words of historian Edmund Morris, was one of “fierce, preachy, perpetual grimness.”[2] “If the whole picture is painted black,” Roosevelt lamented, “there remains no hue whereby to single out the rascals for distinction from their fellows. Such painting finally induces a kind of moral color blindness; and people affected by it come to the conclusion that no man is really black, and no man really white, but they are all gray.”

Journalists who painted an unrealistically dark portrait of the nation would “sear… the public conscience,” instilling in the public “a general attitude either of cynical belief in and indifference to public corruption or else a distrustful inability to discriminate between the good and the bad.” In the end, a muckraker’s most lasting influence might not be cleaning up corruption, but spreading to the public his dismal outlook on life.

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Were Roosevelt alive today, he would surely recognize the same trends, now magnified, everywhere he looked. The same kind of hysterical exaggeration, partisan bias, and dark pessimism characterizes the news. This does not mean all negative news is problematic, and to exaggerate the extent of the problem would be both hypocritical and ironic. We need the same nuances and qualifications today that Roosevelt provided in his speech. Still, the results of muckraking cannot be missed.

Between Roosevelt’s day and ours, a technological revolution has saturated our lives with news media in ways William Randolph Hearst could have only dreamed about. Cable networks, news websites, streaming videos, and social media services compete for our attention, delivering up-to-the-minute breaking news updates. They do this, we should be reminded, through business models whose competitive edge typically depends upon the amount of time we spend using their websites and apps. They profit from our attention, if not our money. (Addictiveness, as has been pointed out many times, is a feature, not a bug.)

Today, Roosevelt would notice how interconnected we all are, how a tragedy recorded on camera in one part of the country or the world can be instantly sent into our homes, offices, and wherever we carry our phones. Video recordings allow us to experience far-away events much more vividly than newsprint could. Tragic events which may be relatively rare on a planet with nearly eight billion people come to seem commonplace when news travels so quickly. We engage in “doomscrolling,” the habit of continually swiping up on our phones, digging deeper and deeper into the bottomless pit of news updates far beyond the point of diminishing returns. We are more aware than ever at just how much muck there is to rake.

Beyond the dramatic increase in news consumption, Roosevelt would also notice our obsession with what historian Daniel Boorstin described as “pseudo-events.” In previous eras, Boorstin observed in his 1960’s book The Image, reporters went out in search of major stories to cover; now, stories go out in search of reporters to cover them or are simply generated by the reporters themselves. Press conferences, protests, presidential debates, and other events that take place with the sole intent of generating news coverage, while not wholly insignificant, are a form of pseudo-event. Endless commentary is another. In the wake of a tragedy like a destructive hurricane or a mass shooting, news coverage quickly moves from the event itself to what is being said about it; that news is then eclipsed by coverage of debates over what was said, followed by debates over those debates, and the process repeats itself ad nauseum. “Here’s How People Are Reacting on Twitter” has become the breathtaking headline of the day, presented to us as if it were serious journalism.

The problem with pseudo-events, Boorstin observed, is that they are like celebrities: “famous for being famous.” A pseudo-event, likewise, is a subject that is newsworthy because it is on the news. With ever more controversies to argue about, pseudo-events have dramatically increased the amount of alleged muck we view on a daily basis. If the original muckrakers were up to their knees in muck, we are at the bottom of an ocean of the stuff.

Finally, Roosevelt would observe that not only do we consume more news media than ever before, but through social media we also now participate in its dispersal. We can now “like” and “share” articles, photos, stories, and memes in order to increase the likelihood that others will read and see them too. Through Twitter and Facebook we become digitized paper boys, using our social media accounts to lob curated editions of the morning paper into our friends’ newsfeeds—but without the hassle of getting up at 5:00 A.M. or leaving our bedrooms.

Unfortunately, as our culture continues its march toward “the politicization of nearly everything,” as sociologist James Davison Hunter described it, political and cultural controversies have increasingly hijacked social media networks and many users find themselves irresistibly drawn into the fray. Whether one is a moderately engaged Facebook user ready to share an outrageous story now and then with friends and family, or a highly motivated Twitter activist posting photos and live-streaming video from a protest, social media applications offer the ability to influence others in a manner not possible with analog technology.

These developments have given rise to what sociologist Daniel Cornfield has called “a new form of muckraking.” In a previous era, the average American depended upon the professional journalist to expose and rake the nation’s muck. Now, enabled by the new technology at our fingertips and generally distrustful of major news networks (61% of Americans “say the news media intentionally ignores stories that are important to the public” [3]) we can become participants in the process.

The technology of social media encourages users to share and then vigorously debate the day’s pseudo-events. But of all the controversies taking place within the week’s news cycle, how many are of lasting significance? How many of our online debates make any difference? How often are we merely reading pseudo-news about pseudo-events, using pseudo-rakes to engage in pseudo-debates about pseudo-muck?

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Today, Roosevelt prompts us to ask the same question he raised over a century ago: How do we devote our attention to society’s problems without allowing them to devour us? Our survival in the Information Age hinges upon on our ability to address this problem. As Cal Newport, author of Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, poses our dilemma, “To abstain from all information about the world at this current moment would be a betrayal of your civic duty. On the other hand, to monitor every developing story in real time, like a breaking news producer, is a betrayal of your sanity.”

Roosevelt did not tell us how much time to spend on our phones, whether to watch cable news or use social media, or how to resist information overload. To meet those challenges, we can turn to recent books by perceptive authors like Cal Newport (Digital Minimalism), Justin Earley (The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose in an Age of Distraction), and Alan Jacobs (Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind). What Roosevelt does offer us in “The Man with the Muck-Rake” is a vivid and memorable image to ponder: a man who, like us, bears witness to the world’s troubles and finds himself fixated by them, desperately needing to regain his sense of perspective.

The digital devices we carry in our pockets and hold in our hands give new meaning to the man who “could look no way but downward.” For the muckraker, as for us, the solution is the same: look up. Roosevelt once told a prominent muckraker that he could depict the real world more faithfully if only he would “put more sky in his landscape.”[4] As Roosevelt likewise observed in his speech, “The forces that tend for evil are great and terrible, but the forces of truth and love and courage and honesty and generosity and sympathy are also strong.” In spite of whatever a steady downward gaze may lead us to believe, “There are,” we may discover, “beautiful things above and round about.”

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Notes:

[1] Letter to Samuel Sydney McClure, October 4, 1905.

[2] Edmund Morris, Theodore Rex (New York: Random House, 2010), 435.

[3] Lee Rainie, Scott Keeter, and Andrew Perrin, “Trust and Distrust in America,” Pew Research Center (July 2019).

[4] Letter to Samuel Sydney McClure, October 4, 1905.

The featured image is “Theodore Roosevelt” (1903) by John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikiquote. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.

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