NEW YORK -- As opulent mansions sprouted up on the Upper East Side in the late 19th century, reporter Jacob Riis journeyed through the slums downtown, chronicling the lives of tenement-dwellers in his landmark book, How the Other Half Lives.
Riis' work greatly impressed a young civil service commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt and spurred Gilded Age reforms. But 120 years later, in the midst of a “New Gilded Age,” the widening gap between rich and poor in the city looks eerily familiar, thus making investigative journalism in the muckrakers' spirit just as vital and urgent today.
Last month, The New York Times published a five-part series on 12-year-old Dasani, one of 22,000 homeless children living in New York City. During the Bloomberg boom years, the new uber-rich bought some of those same Upper East Side mansions for tens of millions of dollars, along with plenty of starchitect-designed luxury condos. New York had become, in the words of reporter Andrea Elliott, "the most unequal metropolis in America.”
"With Dasani, my goal was to get inside one contemporary American experience of child poverty," Elliott said in an email to HuffPost. "There's obviously a long tradition of this kind of reporting, but the story hasn't gone away. We just seem to forget about it from time to time."
New York offers the most glaring example of income inequality, with mere blocks separating billionaires from families living below the poverty line. But such disparity is evident throughout major U.S. cities and across the world, where the 85 richest people now have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion.
President Obama is expected to address income inequality in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. But as the president puts the issue squarely on his second-term agenda, he may want to crack open Doris Kearns Goodwin's latest book, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Goodwin writes about how a generation of muckraking journalists, several of whom wrote for the widely-read McClure's magazine in the early 1900's, "ushered in a new mode of investigative reporting that provided the necessary conditions to make a genuine bully pulpit of the American presidency.”
In educating the public about systemic corruption and inequality, the muckrakers' brand of crusading investigative journalism fostered a climate for Progressive Era reforms. Ida Tarbell’s history of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, serialized in 19 issues of McClure’s, helped lead to the break-up of the oil monopoly. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, portraying immigrant life in the underbelly of Chicago's meatpacking industry, prompted Roosevelt to call for investigations.
The spirit of the muckrakers can still be found in journalists like Matt Taibbi, who has written extensively on post-financial crisis America, including an eye-opening look at the impact on Birmingham, Ala. In recent years, some news outlets have looked closely at the roots of income inequality, as Reuters did in a 2012 series, “The Unequal State of America.” HuffPost has also chronicled the impact of the Great Recession on average Americans. And last June at the Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Conference, how to best cover income inequality in America was a main topic.
Still, the news media do more in prioritizing such coverage that is truly in the public interest -- and is appreciated not just by Pulitzer judges, but the public itself. Though Elliott's series was published in mid-December, it still ranked as one of the paper's top 10 reads of 2013. Just as Riis grabbed Roosevelt's attention, Bill de Blasio -- who promised progressive reforms on the campaign trail -- invoked the series just weeks before formally taking office as the city's new mayor.
Muckraking and reform often go hand in hand. And as media critic Dean Starkman argued in his new book, The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark, the U.S. business press lacked a strong muckraking ethos in an era that demanded serious reform on Wall Street: the years leading up the financial crisis of 2008.
"The essential problem remains the same,” Starkman told HuffPost. “It was the same in 1903 as it was in 2003: how to explain something really big and complicated and dangerous to a mass audience."
The U.S. media has proven more than capable of covering the aftereffects of a disaster, but has a spottier record in seeing the signs beforehand. In the run-up to the Iraq War, the U.S. –- with some exceptions, like McClatchy’s Washington bureau –- amplified the Bush administration’s cherry-picked case to invade a nation that had nothing to do with the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. When the WMD’s weren’t found, and public opinion soured, journalists produced penetrating accounts of the rush to war.
Starkman gives high marks to Michael Hudson, now a senior editor at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and The Financial Times' Gillian Tett, for raising concerns about the subprime market and collateralized debt obligations before they were headlines and hashed out on cable chat shows.
Starkman, who edits Columbia Journalism Review’s “The Audit” blog, has written about the similarities between investigative reporters of the early 21st century and their forbearers a century earlier.
“What industry concentration was to the muckrakers’ era, financialization is to ours,” he wrote. “Both phenomena were equally baffling to the literate citizen. Both demanded an explanation. Both had been brewing for decades. Both were marked by institutionalized lawlessness perpetrated by increasingly brazen brand-names. Both were widely known among legislators, clerks, cops, bartenders, and prostitutes -- just not the public.”
This article is part of a weeklong series examining income inequality in America in advance of President Obama's State of the Union address. Read more here.