Ida Tarbell helped transform journalism by introducing what is called today investigative journalism. Through her achievements, she not only helped to expand the role of the newspaper in modern society and stimulate the Progressive reform movement, but she also became a role model for women wishing to become professional journalists.
Born on the oil frontier of western Pennsylvania in 1857, Tarbell was among the first women to graduate from Allegheny College in 1880. After trying her hand at the more traditional women’s job of teaching, Tarbell began writing and editing a magazine for the Methodist Church. Then, after studying in France for a few years, she joined S. S. McClure’s new reform-minded magazine in 1894. Initially she wrote two popular biographical series–on Napoleon and Abraham Lincoln. In 1902, she embarked on her ground breaking study of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, or what was called the Standard Oil Trust. Her History of the Standard Oil Company, published in 1904, was a landmark work of expos√© journalism that became known as “muckraking.” Her exposure of Rockefeller’s unfair business methods outraged the public and led the government to prosecute the company for violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. As a result, after years of precedent-setting litigation, the Supreme Court upheld the break-up of Standard Oil.
As the most famous woman journalist of her time, Tarbell founded the American Magazine in 1906. She authored biographies of several important businessmen and wrote a series of articles about an extremely controversial issue of her day, the tariff imposed on goods imported from foreign countries. Of this series President Wilson commented, “She has written more good sense, good plain common sense, about the tariff than any man I know of.” During World War I, she joined the efforts to improve the plight of working women. In 1922, The New York Times named her one of the “Twelve Greatest American Women.” It was journalism like hers that inspired Americans of the early twentieth century to seek reform in our government, in our economic structures, and in our urban areas. Along with other muckrakers like Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and Upton Sinclair, Tarbell ushered in reform journalism. Ever since, newspapers have played a leading role as the watchdogs and consciences of our political, economic, and social lives.
Although Tarbell was not, herself, an advocate of women’s issues or women’s rights, as the most prominent woman active in the muckraking movement and one of the most respected business historians of her generation, Tarbell succeeded in a “male” world ‚Äì the world of journalism, business analysis, and world affairs, thus helping to open the door to other women seeking careers in journalism and, later, in broadcasting.