Muckraking ain’t what it used to be

It is kind of interesting to see the little rift within the journalism community over shale gas development.   The Philip Lee / Halifax Media Co-op dust up is a good example.

I wrote a bit about this a while ago in a column in the TJ (below).    All you have to do is read one page of the Halifax Media Co-op and it is clear they see themselves as the new muckrakers fighting for justice and the little guy.  I’m just not sure the narrative works the same way as it did in the day of Ida Tarbell and S.S. McClure.  The vast majority of economic benefit from the natural gas industry will accrue to average New Brunswickers – workers and the public through taxes and royalties – not to some cartel of Rockefeller billionaires.  These days Tarbell could just as easily be fighting in favour of an exciting new industry and the opportunities it might bring to the province.

One thing is for sure.  If this nascent industry is brought to its knees – it will cost the province several thousand good paying jobs and tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue every year.  That may be acceptable if we deem the environmental risks too high.  I’m not the guy to weigh in on environmental issues – but I am the guy to weigh in on economic issues and the province will be kiboshing the highest potential industry to come along in a long time.  The way it looks now, I am pessimistic that any natural gas will flow from New Brunswick wells any time soon other than Corridor Resources, of course, and its 38 fracked wells that get rarely any mention in the press, I don’t see any other new companies having the stomach to invest here.

Anyway, here’s the column on the muckrakers.




In my opinion, Doris Kearns Goodwin is rapidly becoming one of the best political history writers of our time. Her latest offering, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, weaves together the stories of the former U.S. presidents and the muckraker journalists of the early 20th Century in a compelling tale of the emerging age of progressivism.

The muckrakers were a group of investigative journalists in the early 1900s that were determined to use the media to expose the broader public to serious challenge with the emerging economic and social order and to advocate for reform. They saw their role as reshaping the moral compass of the day.

The muckrakers exposed the pernicious influence of the trust companies which had consolidated whole industries – and even groups of industries – into enormous monopolies that distorted the principles of market competition and enriched few at the expense of millions of workers.

They wrote about the misery of early 20th century industrial workers in coal mines, meat processing plants and other manufacturing industries.

They uncovered the corruption of politics and showed how this distorted economic and social progress.

Some muckrakers got it wrong. They took on fights that were sensational but not grounded in facts. They played on fear and anger and ended up only hurting the people they were claiming to defend.

In the end, however, the muckrakers were making the case for economic justice.

Just about every issue they investigated was meant to improve the economic fortunes of everyday Americans and the local communities in which they lived. It wasn’t some abstract concept of justice – it was about ensuring the vast economic expansion of the United States economy was benefiting all Americans.

As I read Goodwin’s book, I couldn’t help think about journalism today – particularly in New Brunswick.

Our province is facing serious economic and demographic challenges.  We have achieved enormous progress over the past 50 years, raising living standards around the province, fostering a stronger environment and investing in community infrastructure.

But that progress is in jeopardy. We face weak economic growth, a stagnant labour market and a high level of pessimism among business leaders combined with a challenging political environment. Throw in public apathy toward development and we end up with a toxic situation not conducive to entrepreneurialism and economic progress.

I’d like to see a new round of muckrakers emerge in New Brunswick tackling the biggest economic challenges of our time.

In my opinion, seeking economic justice today is not about bringing down titans of industry or exposing political corruption. Today it is about enlightening the public on the challenges of this slow economic decline and exposing us to ways other jurisdictions have broken out.

Imagine feature-length stories on how small cities such as Boise, Idaho have bucked the trend and built dynamic urban economies revealing a pathway for New Brunswick’s small urban centres.

It would be nice to see investigative reports on how rural communities across North America have leveraged natural resources to revive struggling communities. Rural decline is not inevitable. Many have got their mojo back and offer great examples for New Brunswick.

My own interest is in how communities rally together to foster economic development from the ground up rather than having it imposed (or not) from above.

New Brunswick journalists would argue they don’t have the time to do real muckraking. Besides, many would say I am just dressing up a ‘pro-business’ agenda in the language of the noble journalist.

But I am pro-community and pro-economic development, not pro-business. Businesses will, and should, invest where they determine there is potential to make a return on that investment.

We want them to invest here, create good paying jobs, generate more taxes and help us achieve our community and social objectives.

If muckraking can tell the stories that help us build a stronger economy, I’ll advocate for it even if it looks like a case of really strange bedfellows.

9 thoughts on “Muckraking ain’t what it used to be

  1. To be fair, you have to admit that you haven’t exactly been as non biased as you claim at the end of your article. I never found out about the northeastern fisherman’s co-op who simply wanted a small LOAN to open an inshore scallop festival. I NEVER saw a mention of McAdam’s attempt to build a community based forestry industry. But boy have I heard defenses of government handouts to foreign investors!

    That’s like the ultimate 1984 trip to try and turn ‘muckracking’ into ‘more journalism about natural resources’. Irvings rags say nothing but wonderful things about fracking, if they aren’t talking about North Dakota (and I’m pretty sure they have, certainly when Alward returned from a trip there), then you should talk to your employers about their lousy journalism even for policies they support.

    I think your blogs used to be a let better ages ago when apparantly you had more time. But from your article defining ‘muckraking’-aren’t you talking about YOURSELF? That’s essentially what you do isn’t it? But to call that ‘muckraking’, come on, I really had to fight to withhold the sarcasm.

    The Halifax media co op certainly fits the bill of ‘muckraking’, but only to a limited extent. Go back sometime and look at the press of the early 20th century and you will see that its very much similar. The ‘dust up’ has nothing to do with shale gas, except that Philip Lee has decided that Miles Howe is ‘an activist who writes’, which is blatantly untrue. I have found bias in his writing, but no more to the extent that I see it in the Irving papers.

    I don’t know who Philip Lee is, he appears to be a teacher at STU, so the idea that he gets to decide who is a journalist and who isn’t is a bit of a joke. For TRUE ‘muckraking’, I don’t see ANY going on in New Brunswick. Heck, that ‘anonymous’ group or somebody trying to claim to it, made a video which made the laughable claim about how its going to “show the links between Irving and other businesses in natural resource industries”-as if every New Brunswicker didn’t already know Irvings reach. The other half was about setting to to find out which officer said a bad word about the natives. Wow, if your biggest complaint as a protestor from that experience with the police was that one of them said a racist statement, well, then I suspect you weren’t actually there.

    There certainly does need to be some muckraking done in NB, just like most places, but so far the media co op hasn’t done much. Actually, it doesn’t even NEED that much investigating. I was on a facebook site debating the pros and cons, and BOTH sides are incredibly unaware of many of the most basic facts.

  2. Just to flesh out, I don’t think the quality of your blog has gone down, just the much lower quantity makes it ‘not as good’.

  3. We certainly need to have a frank conversation about the future of New Brunswick and good investigative journalism can be a part of that conversation. However, sensationalistic and over-blown reporting (“muckraking”) fruitlessly stirs people up and is often a distraction or diversion from the main issues.

    Journalism is a profession that has standards and ethics. It should not be confused with the practice of free speech that we see in blogs (like this one) that comment on the events of the day or provide the perspective of the author.

  4. It depends what you mean by ‘standards’ and ‘ethics’. To state that the Irving rags have ‘ethics’ just because they have ‘standards’ is to stretch incredulity. The most ‘overblown’ and ‘sensationalistic’ comments by far have come from government.

    The commenters were simply ‘wrong’, and that’s it. That is blatantly obvious from listening to them ADMIT that they never even heard or read any of Mr.Howe’s reports. They spent most of their time talking about Charles Leblanc, whose standards are far different than Mr. Howe’s. As they media co op points out, Mr. Howe is paid, the same as the commenters were. He has editors AND fact checkers, which I can guarantee you that most Irving and CBC reporters DON’T have. Just go read any CBC report on fracking, the latest online report was basically describing the ‘feelings’ of the protestors now that SWN has finished. How is that different from a blog?

    Their claim to ‘fairness’ is basically to end each story with the same two paragraphs that describe the industry in the province, as though that were the same thing.

    And again, Mr. Campbell is BOTH a journalist AND a blogger. Some days he ‘reports’ various things, other days he offers a critical comment. One of the biggest differences the two gentlemen proclaim is that of ‘editing’ and ‘fact checking’, and that happens far more often on a blog with comments than with a standalone report.

  5. Chris Baker :
    Journalism is a profession that has standards and ethics.

    Really? Where are those standards? Is there a journalism professional society that revokes your journalism license if you breach the standards?

    If your cable package has Fox News then go watch that for 10 minutes and come back and tell me about the lofty standards of paid journalism.

    Anyone remember the big front page T&T headline “Lord predicted to win election”, and when you read the article it was a goddamn palm reader or something making the prediction.

  6. Anonymoose –

    NB has a good school of journalism at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. I suggest you begin your research there.

  7. I won’t comment on that (except to say that I’m a STU alumni and wouldn’t call ANY of their departments particularly good, but to be fair that was awhile ago). And in NB they are essentially training them for unemployment. I will note that many STU journalism students end up following around Charles Leblanc each year, and he used to give talks there. That has dried up somewhat now that his blog has turned nasty. To be fair though, the reasons to turn nasty are pretty justified. The main difference in that regard is that if what happened to Charles Leblanc or Miles Howe had happened to a CBC or Irving reporter, they would have whole organizations behind them.

  8. Chris Baker :
    Anonymoose –
    NB has a good school of journalism at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. I suggest you begin your research there.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, I’m not the one saying journalism is a profession with standards and ethics.

    Lawyers get disbarred, doctors/dentists/accountants can have their license revoked, engineers can loose their p. eng., those are all professions. Where’s the equivalent for journos?

  9. A good point, but keep in mind it says ‘good school’, which isn’t THAT glowing a recommendation. The equivalent for journalists would be lawsuits and firings, but that’s an interesting point. They may get fired from CBC, but who does? I haven’t read Irvings rags in awhile, but the CBC online has some pretty banal stuff that is no different than blogging. All you can say is that they simply don’t write in first person, and if that and ‘fact checking’ is all you have to back up your ‘profession’, then you’re on pretty shaky legs. Its no wonder that if you look at the CBC comments section on the radio show, they are almost uniformly critical of the critics. Its just another mark of their elitism that those interviewed simply chalk up their critics to what they said during the interview-that some writers simply have ‘groupies’ because they ‘believe the same things’. As for fracking, the CBC and even Irving have largely become irrelevant, and really have nobody to blame but themselves.

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