biography, Book List, Corruption, David Simon, Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore?, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Essay, free speech, Freedom, history, Ida Tarbell, Informed Democracy, Isabel Allende, J.D. Rockefeller, journalism, McClure's, Politics, President of the United States, Pulitzer Prize, Railroad Companies, Reporters, Republic, Sam McClure, Standard Oil, Ted, The Bully Pulpit, The Stories of Eva Luna, Theodore Roosevelt, Totalitarianism, White Tower Musings Stands with the Free Press, Writing
My little sister and I have this joke.
I’ll send her a text that usually has a long opening, and after that I will simply have to show you how it goes. I’ll think about the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, and the man who helped establish the Teddy Bear into the cultural consciousness. There’s actually a rather fascinating story behind that but I’ll have to put it in later. Because my little sister is a historian, and in fact because several of my good friends are historians, I usually try to learn a little history so that I have something to talk to them about; the fact that Roosevelt is one of her favorite Presidents is also a way for us to bond as siblings. But anyway I think about his administration and what he accomplished or failed at and then I send her a text that could read, “Hey! Who has two thumbs, and pushed for legislation that would eventually lead to the Clean Food Act thus ensuring the health of the American consumer of meat products and ignoring the larger abuse of labor issues affecting numerous amounts of immigrant peoples working in the meat factories of Chicago?” After this I will usually send a photograph of Theodore Roosevelt smiling a wide toothy grin, and then finally send one last text that reads, “THIS GUY!!!”
Obviously the pair of us are nerds to the level of Super Nintendo Boss Battles, but we have fun and that’s what counts.
This personal joke, which as I write it out loud is in fact no longer personal, reveals part of the reason why I picked up the heavy brick that is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book The Bully Pulpit, and why I bothered to finish it. Now to be honest I probably would have gotten around to it anyway because the book received a Pulitzer Prize not long after it was published, and having read the book it’s safe to admit that it certainly earned it. Part of the way I’ve found the books is that I have often simply Google searched “Pulitzer Prize winning books,” or “Nobel Prize winning books,” and making notes of the names and authors on these lists I usually go hunting to my local bookstore to find these books that somebody somewhere felt should receive an award. On of the one hand I suspect this impulse is some ego-driven mania to appear educated and sophisticated, but if I can give myself some credit here I also simply like to read great books. And if a book receives a Pulitzer Prize it’s either because it’s brilliant, or else because some author knew where the judge that year went to visit his mistress…or gay lover…or tranfestite prostitute…the point is these lists have pointed me towards some great books.
The Bully Pulpit was at first an opportunity to read and learn about Theodore Roosevelt, but after starting the book twice, putting it down for six months, and starting it up again to have something to read between the grueling snippets of Infinite Jest, I began to focus less and less time on the Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, and more time on the staff of McClure’s magazine.
To my reader who has no idea what I’m talking about let me give a brief synopsis. The Bully Pulpit is a biography, however to be more exact it is a chronicle of the lives of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and a man by the name of S.S. McClure who began a magazine, sometimes periodical if you prefer a fancy-pants term with your tea and pretentiousness, called McClure’s which was in vein of contemporary magazines like The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, Ms., and Harpers. However rather than simply create an internal culture McClure’s in its time became a Journalistic hub that, while it published the works of great literary figures, impacted the United States’ political landscape in ways that really couldn’t be dreamed of in today’s media environment.
This isn’t just mawkishness on my part, it’s just a legitimate observation. I wrote in a previous article about three contemporary pieces of journalism that noted the current fate of newspapers and in one of them, Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? by David Simon the reader gets an insiders impression of what most casual viewers already know:
In Baltimore, the newspaper now has 300 newsroom staffers, and it is run by some fellows in Chicago who think that number sufficient to the task. And the locally run company that was once willing to pay for a 500-reporter newsroom, to moderate its own profits in some basic regard and put money back into the product? Turns out it wasn’t willing to do so to build a great newspaper, but merely to clear the field of rivals, to make Baltimore safe for Gremlins and Pacers. And at no point in the transition from one to the other did anyone seriously consider the true cost of building something comprehensive, essential and great.
And now, no profits. No advertising. No new readers. Now, the great gray ladies are reduced to throwing what’s left of their best stuff out there on the Web, unable to charge enough for online advertising, or anything at all for the journalism itself.
Simons article can be gloomy, assuming you give a rat’s ass about newspapers, but I quote it here to note that while newspapers today are largely viewed as anachronisms even a century ago their social functions came under fire. The Bully Pulpit follows the Presidency of Taft and Roosevelt the latter of whom accidently created the bias of newspapers as “muckrakers,” and while I was reading one reporter continually held my attention. Sam McClure, the founder of McClure’s magazine was an ambitious man who acquired a top-notch staff and was continually coming up with idea for news stories and themes to explore. One of his writers, a woman by the name of Ida Tarbell proved herself rather quickly writing in-depth articles about Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte. McClure, eager to pursue a new topic, decided to focus his attention on Standard Oil, a large trust (today we might call it a monopoly though it’s not necessarily the same thing) operated by John D. Rockefeller which was one of, if not the, largest company in the United States at that time.
Goodwin explains McClure’s motivation for the piece and then offers an insight into Tarbell’s motivation:
The story of the world’s wealthiest man would beguile the public into the more complicated exposition of his corporation and the hitherto esoteric question of the trusts. No one, McClure perceived, was better situated to engage that subject than Ida Tarbell, who “had lived for years in the heart of the oil region”
Tarbell initially hesitated, though no subject so captured her imagination. As a child, she had witnessed the anguish the “big trust” had caused in its early development, and “the unfairness of the situation” had troubled her deeply. […] If she hoped to write a work of history rather than a propaganda, she would now have to “comprehend the point of view of the other side.” She recognized the difficulties, even hazards, this undertaking would present, for Standard Oil officials were notoriously close-mouthed. Even in her hometown she found that men and women were unwilling to talk, featuring “the all-seeing eye and the all-powerful reach of the ruler of the oil industry” […] Her own father tried to dissuade her “Don’t do it, Ida,” he admonished; “they will ruin the magazine.” Finally, she was tantalized by “the audacity of the thing”—just as when McClure had challenged her to complete the first installment of Napoleon’s life in one month’s time. (330).
I may have given off the wrong impression as I opened this article, for an avid fan of Theodore Roosevelt may be wondering when I’ll get past Miss Tarbell’s Oil reporting’s and get to the meat of the man’s presidency. I will have to disappoint this reader for my effort from the start was to explore the idea of the history of reporting and observe what is the legacy of the reporter in the United States. If you hate me and think I should jump in a dry pit of farts…I think you might have a possible career in politics or else in poetry.
I believe in a free working press and the power it has to influence the citizenry of a republic. This isn’t just flag waving, chest beating, U-S-A chanting patriotism on my part, but simply a real understanding that in order for people to make informed choices about their life they need to actually be informed, so a newspaper’s job becomes absolutely essential when picking someone to vote for. The Bully Pulpit as a history book is not just a biography of Taft, Roosevelt, and Sam McClure, it’s a study on the issue of power and how those who have attained have used it, attempted to hold onto it, and then ultimately lost it. Both Roosevelt and Taft ultimately lost their executive authority to Woodrow Wilson, and McClures plummeted after Sam McClure’s personal erratic behavior chased away most of his reporters including Ida Tarbell. The idea of a bully pulpit is that it is an opportunity to exert influence and ultimately power is fleeting in a healthy democracy because power and influence can only last so long.
To put it in a way most people would recognize I’ll go with a brilliant quote from the movie Ted:
Narrator: No matter how big a splash you make in this world whether you’re Corey Feldman, Frankie Muniz, Justin Bieber or a talking teddy bear, eventually, nobody gives a shit.
For Tarbell her prominence came to be after publishing her six part investigation into the behavior of Standard Oil, listing and analyzing its multifaceted series of abuses upon the communities it supposedly served and worked alongside. Goodwin succeeds in presenting Tarbell as a woman of ambition, and reading the passages dedicated to Tarbell’s investigation one almost feels a romantic connection to All the President’s men.
Goodwin describes Tarbell’s beginning:
For Ida Tarbell, McClure’s directive to approach a narrative history of Standard Oil proved that “one hundredth idea”—a true stroke of genius. Her investigations were fortuitously timed. In an era of heightened, yet unfocused, public concern over increasing corporate consolidation, the growth of the first great industrial monopoly provided a dramati blueprint for comprehending how “a particular industry passes from the control of the man to that of the few.” (333).
This quote anticipates my contester who interrupts to ask the question, “why should I read a dense 700 page book just because there’s a few snippets about the Oil Trusts during the 1800s. We’re living in the new Information age and those problems are no longer applicable, so why should I give a shit?”
This is a fair question and worth considering. My review here only covers one chapter of the book because if I tried to write about everything this essay could be in the range of 20,000 words or more and nobody on the internet is going to read that (not that they do now anyway). But the answer to my contester is contained several pages on as Goodwin notes Tarbell’s conclusion after analyzing the business practices of Rockefeller’s industry:
Most important, Rockefeller now had the power to control prices. Rather than use this domination and the efficiencies of scale to reduce costs, Standard Oil sought to maximize profits. Wherever competition was extinguished, Tarbell maintained, the consumer paid more. Under investigative duress Stabdard would temporarily reduee prices, only to jack them up in the same area once the scrutiny ceased. “Humman experience long ago taught us,” [Tarbell] warned, “that if we allow a man or a group of men autocratic powers in government or church, they use that power to oppress and defraud the public.” (338).
I’ll admit part of this essay is largely because of President Trump. Yes he is the President and yes typing that leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I find myself hating Facebook mostly because I’m thinking about it all the damn time, which can be frustrating especially because I’m reading The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende right now and it’s frustrating not being able to focus on all the sensual women while you’re busy thinking about what [X] said about the fascists at the women’s march on Washington, or how your friend [Y] is starting the #NotMYPresident which is just as galling. And before the reader thinks this is going to be an Anti-Trump piece I promise you that it isn’t, not entirely. The most troublesome aspect of the 2016 election is not just the results which are already raising problems about women’s health, climate change, and LGBTQ rights, it’s the fact there is now a power structure which is working to reduce the ethos of the press and leave the citizens of a democracy doubtful about whether or not they can trust the news they’re reading.
When the press, who’s job it is to monitor power, is labeled opposition and leaders paint themselves as the font of all real truth and fact that is the origin of totalitarianism and dictatorship.
To put it simpler, you need a free oppositional press to call out a leader’s bullshit.
A Bully Pulpit, a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt, is a platform from which one can push or advocate an agenda. It’s this idea that Goodwin writes about and demonstrates the humanity of these historical figures, and it’s this idea that’s been more and more present in my mind lately. Every person assumes some kind of political position, and even those who profess to have no politics are in fact arguing their own brand of politics. Each person then approaches government with their own philosophy concerning how power should work and operate, and the press exists along this power structure in order to ensure that no leader is not held accountable for their actions.
Through her reporting Ida Tarbell used the Bully Pulpit she had to report that Rockefeller’s businesses were hurting Americans and benefitting only a small handful of people. And such determination is still relevant to this day. Looking at the dedication of her research is enough to see this. Goodwin writes:
Such vigorous inquiry soon revealed that critical memos and reports had vanished from the record. Informed that Standard had destroyed them, Tarbell refused to give up, convinced that if a document had been printed, it would eventually “turn up.” Usually she was right. In the archives of the New York Public Library, she found the sole remaining report of an obscure thirty-year-old investigation; all the other copies had curiously disappeared. […] “Her sources of information,” McClure proudly noted, “were open to any student who had the industry and patience to study them.” (333).
I hoped that when I wrote this I would be able to find a more poetic statement than simply re-stating that “Journalists matter,” but looking at those words in this new era I find myself in that statement assumes its own weight. The fact that I even have to write it speaks volumes. Journalism is corrupted by capitalist interest and bias, and in many ways journalists have always been susceptible to this impulse. But at the same time that makes the job of individual citizens more important than ever, and also the reason why a book like the Bully Pulpit such an important read.
Goodwin chronicles two presidents and a handful of reporters who managed through their own efforts to capture a Bully Pulpit and use it in ways that, often, tried to benefit to citizenry of the United States. These people were not without fault, and in the end many saw some of their achievements quashed or undone, but looking at Ida Tarbell alone there is a real sense about the relevance of journalism.
Power isn’t going anywhere, and when corrupt people acquire their own Bully Pulpits it’s more important than ever to make sure journalists have their own to keep the bullshit from passing by unnoticed.
So, as my sister explains it, Theodore Roosevelt actually hated the name “Teddy” in public because it was actually a private name given to him by his sisters after he “saved” a bear, when in fact all he did was refuse to shoot it.
All quotes from The Bully Pulpit were taken from the Simon & Shuster First Edition Hardback. All quotes from Does the News Matter to Anyone Anymore? was taken from the article published in the web archives of The Washington Post. If you would like to read Simon’s article for yourself you can by following the link posted below: