Nation's First Investigative Reporter Drilled Deep On Big Oil

May 15, 2008


When Ida Minerva Tarbell began her invention of investigative reporting slightly more than 100 years ago, that two-word journalistic term so familiar today did not exist. Neither did the term "environmental reporting." The book that locked in Tarbell's contribution to contemporary journalism does not look especially impressive today. It rests on an out-of-the-way shelf, one of millions of volumes in a cavernous university research library. Its green cover is faded now, after decades of steady wear, occasional abuse, and, ultimately, lack of use. It is still mentioned in early-20th-century-America history courses on campuses. But few have read it from beginning to end, all 815 pages of dense type.

This is a shame. The book is arguably the greatest work of investigative journalism ever written. The History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1904, is its unprepossessing title.

The book created a social maelstrom that built and destroyed reputations, altered public policy, and changed the face of the nation. This was the era of the great robber barons. Powerful men colluded to create even more powerful monopolies. By the dawn of Theodore Roosevelt's presidency, however, there arose a cadre of devoted journalists and publishers intent on uncovering the perfidy of the economic juggernauts, including corporate environmental degradation.

Tarbell worked as a staff writer for McClure's Magazine, founded by an energetic, determined Irish immigrant named Samuel Sidney McClure. The magazine succeeded during the 1890s and into the new century against huge odds. For readers of magazines circa 2008, think of McClure's as a combination of The Atlantic, Harper's and Mother Jones.

A woman of formidable intelligence and character, Tarbell labored at a time when men dominated the realm of journalism. The tycoon John Davison Rockefeller, born into a broken family, had built an empire on black gold and had become the wealthiest individual of the GildedAge.With impressive business savvy and upright character, Rockefeller served as the guiding force within Standard Oil Company, the nation's most sprawling corporate "trust," a term out of fashion today except as part of the word "antitrust."

In many ways, it seems like Tarbell was destined to write the Standard Oil exposé. She was born in northwestern Pennsylvania just two years before the first major strike of underground oil occurred almost in her family's backyard. The Drake Well was such an extraordinary discovery for its time that Ida Tarbell considered it a "sacred spot" from the moment she learned of it as a child. Indeed, she tended to romanticize the Drake Well discovery and what followed from it. She would write, "Here we have demonstrations of the enterprise and resourcefulness of American men in adapting what they knew to unheard-of industrial problems, of their patience and imagination in adding by invention, by trial and error, a body of entirely new mechanical and commercial advices and processes.

Tarbell's emotional attachment to the oil region of her childhood did not compromise her accuracy when writing about it. Scholars who came after her have verified over and over the accuracy of her accounts. In the year 2000, for example, Brian Black, a member of the Pennsylvania State University history faculty, acknowledged his debt to Tarbell's research in his book Petrolia: The Landscape of America's First Oil Boom. "The writing and spirit of Ida Tarbell rose like a beacon guiding me beyond the romance and riches to the human and natural story available in the oil country of Pennsylvania," Black said. 

(Not so incidentally, Black's own book contains graphic accounts of how the exploration leading to oil boom towns harmed the local environment, sometimes beyond redemption. "Certainly, residents of company or industrial communities are beneficiaries of a living made from harvesting resources," Black reflects, "but they are also subject to the inevitable decline of their social and natural environment. Indeed, traditionally, these earliest industrial communities have almost always been abandoned by the industries that created them. Too often a mode of production or land use moves on, and the human communities are left with nothing in a place that has become desolate or even dangerously contaminated.")

Paul H. Giddens, a history professor who became a Tarbell acolyte after meeting her at Allegheny College, her alma mater in Meadville, Pa., documented with precision her never-ending fascination with the culture of oil in books such as The Birth of the Oil Industry. Giddens grasped that Tarbell could never escape the influence of oil, a "strong thread weaving itself into the patterns of her life ever since childhood." Her emotional and intellectual investments in the oil culture of her youth made it impossible for her to ignore the colossus who would soon dominate the oil industry, and all of American life. Tarbell's experiences growing up in the oil region of Pennsylvania would make her confrontation with Rockefeller all the more shot SPRING 2008 SEJournal 5 through with drama later.

Tarbell's book, which began as a McClure's Magazine series, brought her fame and established a new form of journalism known as muckraking. She became a model for countless journalists, and despite the passage of more than a century, her work remains an example of how a lone journalist can uncover wrongdoing. Moreover, through her expos., Tarbell forever tarnished the peerless reputation of Rockefeller.

Reading Tarbell's exposé of the Standard Oil Company is a remarkable experience; in many ways it seems that it could have been composed only yesterday, not more than a century ago. The most dramatic of all her dramatic discoveries involved the collusion between Standard Oil and the railroads, a vital form of transportation back then. Many citizens and their elected representatives believed railroads should act in the public interest, especially given that their tracks often ran through previously public land. But Rockefeller and his colleagues at Standard Oil turned railroad officials into their minions, gaining a significant competitive advantage as the behemoth corporation shipped oil and its byproducts all over the nation and across oceans.

The strangleholds that Sam Walton's Wal-Mart and Bill Gates's Microsoft demonstrate in their business realms are reminiscent of the sway held by Rockefeller's Standard Oil. The environmental consequences of energy exploration have not changedmuch, either. 

Tarbell's book played a significant role in my own career. In addition to practicing the craft of investigative journalism since 1969, I have studied it carefully—in large part because I served as a spokesman of sorts for that branch of journalism while serving as executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). Based at the University of Missouri Journalism School, IRE serves thousands of members around the United States and increasingly around the world. The techniques Tarbell used to gather information about a secretive corporation and its evasive, powerful chief executive taught me that a talented, persistent journalist can penetrate any fa.ade through close readings of government documents, lawsuits and interviews with knowledgeable sources inside and outside the executive offices.Tarbell's methods have allowed me to train investigative journalists around the world while directing IRE and ever since.

The most important of many factors that drove Tarbell year after year into the 1940s, her octogenarian decade, can be stated simply: a passion to discover and disseminate the truth about political, economic and social issues. She believed that research could lead to an approximation of Truth, indeed with a capital "T." Beforeherexpos.ofRockefeller, she researched the lives of N a p o l e o n Bonaparte and A b r a h a m Lincoln. The books that arose from this research convinced her that Truth about the actions and motivations of powerful human beings could be discovered. That Truth, she became convinced, could be conveyed in such a way as to precipitate meaningful social change.

Tarbell's research into the life of Rockefeller convinced her that good and evil could be embodied simultaneously in oneindividual. Reducing Rockefeller to a symbol of good or evil would be a biographical sin in itself. Although Tarbell was at times ruthless when chronicling Rockefeller's life, she did not make that mistake; she did not distort his accomplishments into a sensationalistic paradigm of good or evil. In fact, she titled the final chapter of her expos. "The Legitimate Greatness of the Standard Oil Company."

Rockefeller presented a substantial challenge to Tarbell. Unlike Bonaparte and Lincoln, he was alive and at the zenith of his power. He had no intention of letting a journalist—and a mere woman at that—question the way he had amassed and used his fortune. Tarbell's biggest obstacle, however, was neither her gender nor Rockefeller's opposition, but rather the craft of journalism as practiced at the turn of the twentieth century. She investigated Standard Oil and Rockefeller by using documents— hundreds of thousands of pages scattered throughout the nation— and then amplified her findings through interviews with the corporation's executives and competitors, government regulators and academic experts past and present. In other words, she proposed to practice what today is considered investigative reporting. Indeed, she invented a new form of journalism.

The History of the Standard Oil Company influenced the U.S. Supreme Court—where the justices mandated the breakup of multinational trusts—as well as in the court of public opinion, where Rockefeller's reputation disintegrated. So far during the twenty-first century, no journalist's expos. has led to the breakup of Wal-Mart or Microsoft or led to Sam Walton or Bill Gates losing his sterling reputation as a private-sector demigod. Plenty of journalists, however, have delved into these modern-day trusts andtheir controlling founders, thinking that perhaps the published results will serve as the successor to The History of the Standard Oil Company.

SteveWeinberg's narrative about the collision course between Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller, Taking on the Trust, has just been published by W.W.Norton.Weinbergwrote this essay exclusively for SEJ.

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2008.