Once upon a time in America, there was a form of newspaper reporting known as muckraking. Some folks preferred to call this form of reporting "investigative reporting." No matter. Whatever it was called, the purpose of the reporting, the reporters, and the papers that ran the articles was to expose corruption, graft and just plain old evil in the echelons of government and big business. Of course, there was also a hope that this exposure would end the reported abuses or, at the least, get rid of the worst abusers and most corrupt men involved. Magazines in the first wave of muckraking included McClure's, Colliers, and Everybody's and some of the better-known writers were Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens, and Ida Tarbell.
Over the years this type of reporting has become harder to find. Many of the magazines and journals that used to run the often long articles that investigative reporting requires fell victim to the machinations of monopoly capitalism. Of course, this was fine with the capitalists, who were often the targets of the muckrakers. Other magazines and newspapers became the victim of the news media's shift to broadcast journalism. In the earlier days of that medium, there were many bold attempts to recreate the investigative form. Television news shows like 60 Minutes began in this mold, but now rarely present investigations that would upset the apple cart of the corporations that fund them. Currently, when shows that move in this direction do make it to television (PBS's NOW comes to mind), they are attacked by the forces they threaten and either disappear or tone down their stories, thereby becoming just one more hour of pap on the television.
During the 1950s and 1960s a few magazines appeared that represented a second wave in US muckraking: Ramparts, Scanlan's, IF Stone's Weekly and even more mainstream journals like Playboy and Esquire ran pieces that fell within the confines of this journalistic form. Of course, perhaps the most famous investigative journalism of the past century appeared in the pages of the Washington Post and New York Times with the publication of Woodward and Bernstein's investigation of the Watergate scandals and the Pentagon Papers, respectively. For the magazines and newspapers that still exist from that short list, those golden days are ancient history. Except for the occasional series on city crime or local graft, these papers and magazines are mere shadows of their earlier selves.
Fortunately, there is CounterPunch. Like a select few of its counterparts on the right and the left, this paper expands the limits of journalism, running investigative reports, commentary, announcements and cultural criticism both online and in a paper version. Edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, this journal often reminds me of Ramparts in its glory days. Going well beyond other leftish magazines like The Nation, Mother Jones and The Progressive, and maintaining a stubborn independence not found in organizational journals, CounterPunch is a consistent source of reporting that goes to the heart of the matter. “Radical” in its essential definition.
Jeffrey St. Clair's most recent book, Grand Theft Pentagon (Common Courage Press, 2006), is a collection of muckraking exposes of the corruption and greed that help fuel Washington's wars. Many of the pieces in the book originally appeared in CounterPunch, but their presence here in one volume brings together the full force of the theft and corruption we live with. Although the scope of the ruling elites' arrogance is easy enough to see, the scope of the corruption isn't. St. Clair's book changes that. The relentlessness of his reporting details exactly how broad and how deep the graft and outright theft of our national treasury and soul by the rich and powerful truly is. Needless to say, it's a depressing tale. Whether he's detailing the fraudulent manipulations of federal contracts specified for indigenous peoples by white guys with offices in Virginia or the no-bid contracts of Halliburton and General Dynamics, St. Clair provides the reader with detail after researched detail of the grandest larceny in history. Let me remind you -- there's been some tough competition for that title. His profiles of the America's biggest war profiteers are as detailed as his profiles of those men who deal with (and for) them. His most biting and even humorous words are saved for his profiles of the men who currently run this land. I chuckled loudly more than once while reading his chapter on George Bush that he titles “High Plains Grifter.” The guy sitting next to me on the bus thought I was reading something intentionally comic, not a book about government corruption and war.
St. Clair's reportage on the apparent refusal of the Bush administration to take Osama bin Laden out of business before September 11, 2001 is a story that should get much greater play than it has. His chapters on the business of war and its accompanying corruption and graft are like bookends to that chapter. After all, if the events of 9/11 had not happened, one wonders if the US would be at war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, one wonders if the Bush administration would even be in power, especially since it is their use of the 9/11 events that helps them maintain their fearful hold on a substantial part of the US electorate. Of course, if Bush weren't in the White House, one wonders how much difference it would make anyhow.
That's the danger of muckraking -- it can render the reader hopeless and cynical, especially in today's world of surveillance and all-encompassing barcode-produced data storage. That's where the intention of the original muckrakers is important to recall. Sinclair, Steffens, Tarbell and the rest of those reporters wrote their exposés to anger and inspire their readers into taking action. It wasn't enough to be ticked off that your government was a den of thieves and your leaders were well-connected criminals. You had to take this knowledge and use it to change things. Remember this after you finish Grand Theft Pentagon.
is author of
The Way the Wind Blew: A Hstory of the Weather Underground, just
republished by Verso Books. He can be reached at: