1902: HISTORY OF STANDARD OIL (McCLURE’S MAGAZINE)
Sales: unknown – Sources: Reliable – Status: number of copies sold needed
«In 1904, female journalist Ida Tarbell exposed the unfair business practices of the Standard Oil Company. As a result of her expose, the government prosecuted the company under anti-trust legislation» (The National Women's History Museum)
In the dawn of the Twentieth Century, John Davison Rockefeller was an oil tycoon who founded in 1870 the Standard Oil of Ohio (now ExxonMobil). Possibly he have been the richest man in History, as he was considered by the study ‘Top 10 Richest Men Of All Time’, which values his fortune in 323.4 billion dollars, while Bill Gates occupied the fourth place with “only” 124.000.000.000 $.
In the mid-nineteenth century the ‘Gold rush’ shook California. Many people left his job and went to the West attracted by the California Dream, convinced to find a new El Dorado. A short time later in Pennsylvania, specifically in 1859, the first oil well was drilled. Edwin Drake had developed a method for extracting the fuel, although according to journalist Ida Tarbell —the main character of this story—, it was George Bissell’s idea. Others quickly copied the method and then began the ‘Pennsylvanian oil rush’. Many oil companies joined to form big enterprises called ‘Trust’ —as Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust—, so small business owners pressured the U .S. government to act for stopping what they regarded as a monopoly in the market. On July 2 1890 the Sherman Antitrust Act was published, outlawing the trusts to limit cartels and monopolies, as said in Section 1: «Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several States, or with foreign nations, is declared to be illegal».
McClure’s Magazine was a popular illustrated monthly publication that mixed political and literary articles. In fact, it published such prestigious writers as Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain. But the reason why McClure’s passed to posterity was for their publication in November 1902. The cover was one of its typical: a big illustration and tiny text. But that front page pointed in a neutral tone what the magazine hide: the first of nineteen installments on the ‘History of Standard Oil’ (here you can read first part), Rockefeller’s company. All the tricks that Rockefeller had used to become a person even more important than the presidents of that time (McKinley and Roosevelt), were going to be published.
The author of this story was Ida Minerva Tarbell, which worked at the magazine since 1894. It was also a personal vendetta, because Rockefeller had swept Tarbell’s father off the oil market. The journalist had conducted a thorough inquiry into the first big hit regarded as investigative journalism.
John Rockefeller had achieved a monopoly by corrupting public officials and eliminating competition with dishonest practices. Tarbell got to talk to some high charges and she could access to part of the private files of the ‘Standard Oil’. Ida’s own father told her of the bad consequences for the magazine if she published the research, because of the reprisals that Rockefeller could initiate. But she continued her work and she was able to write in a narrative understandable to most citizens.
The whole story was a complete success. The copy of McClure’s June 1903 in which Ida Tarbell related her research sold over 400,000 copies. And in 1904 Ida Tarbell collected all his research in the book ‘History of Standard Oil Company’, considered the fifth of ‘The Top 100 Works of Journalism In the United States in the 20th Century’, by the New York Times (March 1 1999).
In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt coined the term ‘Muckrakers’ during a dinner with journalists, recalling John Bunyan’s book ‘The Pilgrims Progress’ (1678): «… 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 hands; 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 despite of the complaints of Roosevelt, the contribution of Tarbell was crucial for the ending of the oil monopoly. In 1911, thanks mainly to investigations of this journalist, the U.S. Supreme Court divided the Standard Oil Company in 34 separate companies (one of them the well-known ExxonMobil), but those companies were still property of Rockefeller and the rest of the shareholders of the Standard Oil. In addition, Tarbell’s investigation forced the U.S. to amend the shortcomings of the old Sherman Antitrust Act, and in 1914 they approved the Clayton Antitrust Act and punish unfair competition. Rockefeller’s intentions about the survival of the strongest were clear after his speech on the American Beauty Rose: «The growth of large business is merely a survival of the fittest…the American Beauty rose can be produced in splendor and fragrance which brings cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it. This is not an evil tendency in business. It is merely the working out of the law of nature and the law of God».
The relevance of Tarbell’s research is acknowledged by many authors. Pablo Pardo wrote for El Mundo: «Ida Tarbell, who ended up causing the division of Standard Oil, the oil company of John D.Rockefeller». Paula Treckel: «Ida Tarbell was known as the foremost “Lady Muckraker” of her time». Paul E. Steiger for the Wall Street Journal: “A demonstration that . . . the power of the press to expose corruption was not to be ignored”. As Díaz Güell concludes: «The Golden Age of American investigative journalism starts from 1900 and one of the clearest exponents of those professionals in investigative journalism at that time was Ida Minerva Tarbell».