Muckraker is the word used to describe any Progressive Era journalist who investigated and publicized social and economic injustices. Theodore Roosevelt applied the term in his important speech in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1906, entitled “The Man With the Muck-Rake.”

Roosevelt disapproved of journalists whom he considered to be so overly focused on the bad that they failed to notice and report on the good. He borrowed the term “muck rake” from the well-known didactic novel, Pilgrim’s Progress, written in the late seventeenth century by John Bunyan. Most Americans would have been familiar with the characters, Christian and Christiana, and the story of how they struggled through their allegorical journey to reach Heaven. Along the way, Christiana met the man with the muck rake, who could only peer down at the dust and debris. He was so engrossed raking the muck at his feet that he never looked up to see the “celestial crown” that was being offered to him. President Roosevelt suggested that some journalists were just like the man with the muck rake—fixated solely on the terrible things in the nation.

He did not mean the term as a compliment. Most journalists disliked being labeled muckrakers. In her 1939 memoir, Ida Tarbell wrote that Roosevelt had “misread his Bunyan,” and “had become uneasy at the effect on the public of the periodical press's increasing criticisms and investigations of business and political abuses."[1] Her insinuation was that Roosevelt was not happy when he was the object of press investigation.

In his speech, Roosevelt insisted that his “plea is not for immunity to but for the most unsparing exposure of the politician who betrays his trust, of the big business man who makes or spends his fortune in illegitimate or corrupt ways. There should be a resolute effort to hunt every such man out of the position he has disgraced….It is because I feel that there should be no rest in the endless war against the forces of evil that I ask that the war be conducted with sanity as well as with resolution.” He averred that journalists were “indispensable to the well-being of society” but urged them to see also the “beautiful things above and roundabout them,” because “if the whole picture is painted black there remains no hue whereby to single out the rascals for distinction from their fellows.” Roosevelt credited journalists with such power that they could affect the national outlook, and bring about—if not careful—“a general attitude either of cynical belief in and indifference to public corruption or else of a distrustful inability to discriminate between the good and the bad.” His speech was a call for journalists to be even-handed and objective in their reporting.

Muckraking journalists in Roosevelt’s era included Ray Stannard Baker, Louis Brandeis, Frances Kellor, Edwin Markham, Frank Norris, Jacob Riis, Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffans, Ida Tarbell, and Ida B. Wells. Such journalists today might be referred to as investigative journalists or watchdog journalists.


[1] Ida Tarbell, All in the Day’s Work: An Autobiography (1939; repr., Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 242 and 241.