Ida M. Tarbell: Investigative Journalist Par Excellence
By Arthur L. Lowrie, Allegheny College class of 1955
Investigative journalism is the contemporary journalist’s path to fame and fortune and the competition is fierce. Success in uncovering misdeeds by the rich and powerful can mean instant fame, TV talk shows, and perhaps a movie. With such rewards, the temptation is great to exaggerate the sin, omit relevant facts, and follow only those leads that may confirm the evil deed. Such lapses will go unnoticed by most readers and ignored by those who celebrate scandal and enjoy higher profits.
Ida Tarbell (1857-1944), the sole woman who matriculated in 1876 and graduated in Allegheny College’s class of 1880 [see additional note below], was America’s first great woman journalist. She set an example that today’s practitioners would do well to emulate. A relentless pursuit of all the facts and fairness in presenting them marked her writing throughout her career. She also refused to exploit her professional accomplishments for monetary gain or celebrity status.
In her first major work, Miss Tarbell studied Madame Roland to confirm her view that women brought moderation and compassion to politics. After completing her research she reluctantly concluded that Madame Roland had behaved during the French Revolution much as men had. This conclusion no doubt contributed to her later, and unpopular, rejection of some positions of the suffragettes, particularly their insistence that men had corrupted the world and women could straighten it out.
In her most famous work, The History of the Standard Oil Company (which oil historian Daniel Yergin called the “most important business book ever written”), Miss Tarbell revealed, after years of painstaking research, the illegal means used by John D. Rockefeller to monopolize the early oil industry. Yet Miss Tarbell interspersed in her condemnation of Standard Oil’s illegal practices, praise for Rockefeller’s enormous accomplishments in organizing and stabilizing a volatile industry. She rejected being labeled a “muckraker” (despite its popularity), because “I was convinced that in the long run the public they were trying to stir would weary of vituperation, that if you were to secure permanent results the mind must be convinced.”
Ida Tarbell had many opportunities to capitalize on her reputation as one of America’s most respected journalists. Instead, she rejected the pleas of the suffragettes to endorse their causes because they contradicted her own convictions about the role of women. In 1914, Henry Ford and others tried unsuccessfully to have her join the celebrity-laden “Peace Ship” to bring an end to World War I. She considered it totally unrealistic and said so. In late 1916, she turned down President Wilson’s offer to make her the first woman on the Tariff Commission because he believed she had written more common sense about the tariff than any man. Finally, she put off writing her autobiography until she was eighty years old, and even then it was a work of such modesty and self-effacement that it added little to her popularity.
The lasting results of Ida Tarbell’s brand of investigative journalism, which include the 1911 Supreme Court decision to break up the Standard Oil trust, suggest that her career, characterized by thoroughness, fairness, and intellectual integrity, should be studied by any journalist more interested in recording and influencing events that achieving celebrity status.
NOTE: According to Allegheny’s records, three women, who did not matriculate in 1876, also graduated in 1880.
Copyright 1997 by Arthur L. Lowrie. All rights reserved. This work may not be used for any reasons other than noncommercial research and scholarship. For any other use, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ida M. Tarbell: A Selective Bibliography
- All in a Day’s Work: An Autobiography. New York: Macmillan, 1939.
- The Business of Being a Woman. New York: Macmillan, 1912.
- Father Abraham. New York: Moffat, Yard, 1909.
- The History of the Standard Oil Company. 2 volumes. New York:McClure, Phillips, 1904.
- The Life of Abraham Lincoln, Drawn from Original Sources and Containing Many Speeches, Letters and Telegrams Hitherto Unpublished. 2 volumes. New York: McClure, Phillips, 1900.
- Madame Roland: A Biographical Study. New York: Scribners, 1896.
- A Life of Napoleon Bonaparte. New York and London: McClure, Phillips,1901.
- The Tariff in Our Times. New York: Macmillan, 1911.
- The Ways of Woman. New York: Macmillan, 1915.
- The University of Pennsylvania’s Online Books by Ida M. Tarbell page.
- Anonymous. “Ida M. Tarbell” in The Bookman January, 1903.
- Brady, Kathleen. Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker. New York: Seaview/Putnam, 1984.
- Camhi, Jane Jerome. Women against Women: American Anti-Suffragism,1880-1920. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishers, 1994.
- Kochersberger, Robert C. More Than a Muckraker: Ida Tarbell’s Lifetime in Journalism. Knoxville: U of Tennessee Press, 1994.
- Tomkins, Mary E. Ida M. Tarbell. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974.