"Muckraking" Greenwich

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Lincoln Steffens0001.jpgThe term "muckraking" is derived from the use of a "rake" to dig in the "muck" or mud.  In journalism, it is the process of digging up "dirt" on public figures and exposing them to the public. Today it has morphed into "investigative reporting".  The Father of Muckraking (the first to employ this method) was a journalist for the Saturday Evening Post - Lincoln Steffens. Steffans liked to write about local political corruption.

Lincoln Steffans (1866-1936) grew up in California.  He studied at the University of California, where he developed radical political views. In college, he only put forth his best effort into courses he was interested in - English, political economy and philosophy. Steffans later developed an interest in history in his junior year. He put in minimal effort in his other courses. After touring Europe, he went to work for The New York Evening Post and then McClure's magazine.  He worked with Jack London, Ida Tarbell, Walter Lippman, Upton Sinclair and Willa Cather.   This is definitely a "Who's Who" of writers.

It is reported that he spent some summers at the Holley House, exchanging ideas with the artists.  He bought some land here with the help of Ernest Thompson Seton, who showed him some affordable land in the eastern part of town.  Steffens eventually had a country place here with three servants!   Eventually he bought land on Little Neck in Riverside.  Walter Lippmann joined Steffens there so they could "muckrake" Greenwich.  Steffens ignored his rich neighbors, but associated with the average people involved in the fishing trade.

Steffens grew tired of McClure's, and considered taking over the editorship of a small paper in Greenwich.  His boss, sensing Steffen's boredom, instructed him to go out to such cities as Kansas City, Topeka, Chicago and Pittsburgh, and report on what would interest him (Steffens), because that would interest the readership. He studied city governments in Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Minneapolis and St. Louis.  The results of his observations are recorded in The Shame of the Cities (McClure, Phillips & Co., 1904). He hoped to enrage citizens so that they would change the political situation (i.e. graft, corruption, etc.).         

In November 1903, Steffans observed the election process in Greenwich. It is reported that he said, " I stood on Election Day in the undertakers in Greenwich and saw the voters file through getting their $3 to support the machine." At a speaking engagement in eastern Connecticut, he was challenged by a banker to defend his observations on the corruption he witnessed.   Steffens was labeled as "libelous", and challenged to prove his conclusions. At a town meeting in December 1910, he and Walter Lippmann demonstrated to the public that Greenwich was as "riddled with privelege as any, and as much in need of change". The two skillfully proved their points with charts and other evidence.

Steffans founded the radical American Magazine in 1906.  After meeting Pancho Villa in Mexico, he became a supporter of revolution to change capitalism. He travelled to Russia to talk to Lenin and stated "I have seen the future and it works". Steffans thought the Communist system would treat the middle class fairly. Fighting for the public became his life's work. Eventually, he became disillusioned with Communism.

It is very interesting that Steffens ended up in the same town that William "Boss" Tweed resided in during the mid-1800s. Just as Thomas Nast had used his cartoons to "dog" Tweed, Steffens used his pen to point out the corruption in government. It's hard to imagine a world without Nast or Steffens. The news media would be far different today.

 

SOURCES

Autobiography of Lincoln Steffens; Steffens, L; Harcourt Brace, NY: 1931

Lincoln Steffens: A Biography; Kaplan, J.; Simon & Schuster, NY: 1974

 

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This page contains a single entry by Carl White published on August 18, 2010 10:00 AM.

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