Continuing The Orkney News series on journalists who made a difference.
“Perhaps our national ambition to standardize ourselves has behind it the notion that democracy means standardization. But standardization is the surest way to destroy the initiative, to benumb the creative impulse above all else essential to the vitality and growth of democratic ideals.”
Born in Pennsylvania, USA in 1857 Ida Tarbell was an investigative journalist back in the day when a woman’s place was very much in the home.
Her first job as a teacher did not last long and after 2 years she began writing for publications. She wrote for several magazines over her life and produced biographies of historical figures such as Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln.
She is most famous for her investigative journalism which exposed the workings of The Standard Oil Company. The series of articles she wrote were compiled into a successful book:The History of the Standard Oil Company. Published in 1904 it is described thus:
“This muckraking classic, which eventually led to regulation of the Standard Oil Company, was the inaugural work for crusading journalists whose mission was to expose corruption and abuse during the early 20th century. The history combined descriptions of John D. Rockefeller’s business practices with his personal characteristics, creating an image of a cunning and ruthless person.”
It led to the dissolution of Standard Oil and The Clayton Anti Trust Act in the States in 1914 which sought to prevent anti competitive practices.
To collect evidence of what Standard Oil was up to Ida Tarbell had to research and find documents from all across the USA. She interviewed people and checked out her findings. It was thorough and it has been described as the beginning of investigative journalism. For this she was labelled as a ‘muckraker’ by the President – Theodore Roosevelt.
Ida Tarbell was also extremely significant in her writings about women publishing ‘The Business of Being a Woman’, advocating woman as the home maker. Ever controversial this was not well received by suffragettes and even by her own mother. Ida was extremely critical of suffragettes and their militancy although both she and her family were suffragists. This was not an uncommon conflict at the time.
Women in the US got the vote in 1920 and Ida Tarbell continued to write about women’s issues highlighting the dreadful conditions many women were forced to work under. Late on in her career she wrote a series of articles about the rising fascist Mussolini in which she compared him to Napoleon. It was considered to be a favourable account of him.
She died on January 6th 1944 of pneumonia. She was 86. An extremely influential journalist pioneering a forensic investigative style Ida Tarbell was controversial in what she wrote throughout her long career.
Reporter: Fiona Grahame