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The Man with the Muck Rake

I’ve been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Bully Pulpit” and wanted to share the surprising origin of “muck raker”.

The term dates to just over a century ago, originating in a speech President Theodore Roosevelt delivered at the House Office Building cornerstone laying ceremony in 1906. The U.S. Capitol Historical Society has thankfully compiled some facts on the topic, as well as obtaining this glass plate negative, which upon enlargement shows the Happy Warrior himself addressing the crowd.

And the closeup.

But what did Roosevelt say? Shades of grey indeed. Roosevelt tried to thread a needle, celebrating the reforms made possibly by the important magazines of the time – namely, McClure’s Magazine – while at the same time warning of their excesses.

More abstractly, through its exposure of rampant municipal, corporate, and political corruption, McClure’s Magazine threatened to undermine the foundations of the very government that Roosevelt sought to enlarge, even though McClure’s goals for social reform were quite aligned with TR’s own.

The term muck raker started as a slander, a put-down, an attempt to disgust. But isn’t it ironic that a century later, this context has dissolved, and all that remains is the positive aspects of the term? Striking at our very American strain of investigative journalism, with its roots in the document-driven research of pioneers such as Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, the term is today aspirational, as embodied by startups like MuckRock.

Here’s the moment early in the speech where Roosevelt characterizes their ilk as muck rakers:

In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck Rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.

In Pilgrim’s Progress the Man with the Muck Rake is set forth as the example of him whose vision is fixed on carnal instead of spiritual things. Yet 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.

Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. 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 for evil.

Such is the dilemma of the community journalist! By focusing on the bad, and pushing towards the good, you risk alienating more naturally optimistic public servants like Roosevelt, who might prefer that instead of concentrating on eliminating the bad, we simply work to multiply the good. And such are the men and women we want in office!

There’s much more to be said here, as soon as I figure out how.

Last thought for now: Did the term “bloggers” go through a similar disparagement and revitalization? If it hasn’t been reclaimed, will it? I certainly hope so.

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