A well armed journalist

One of the great muckrakers finally gets the biography he deserves

Charles Edward Russell has been dead six decades, but his investigative reporting still reads as if it were published yesterday. The relevance of history has rarely been more obvious than in Russell's words. Robert Miraldi, a journalism professor at the State University of New York, New Paltz, has resurrected this mostly forgotten journalist for a contemporary audience with a fascinating biography called "The Pen is Mightier."

Russell earned his fame primarily as a newspaper journalist, a magazine writer, and a book author. But he was an activist, too, running for political office four times as a Socialist (hoping to become a US senator or New York State governor); helping launch the NAACP; and serving the US government as a diplomat during World War I.

When Russell entered the world, Davenport, Iowa, seemed an unlikely platform for his later fame. Despite its small size, however, Davenport had formed connections to the wider world as a river city, a railroad hub, and an agriculture exporter. Russell's father, Edward, was a newspaperman, starting as editor of the Le Claire Republic in 1858, then becoming part owner and editor of the Davenport Gazette in 1862.

A fierce opponent of slavery and a strong supporter of Republican Abraham Lincoln, Edward Russell used his newspaper to advance causes as well as inform the community of births and deaths. He told his son that a newspaper must be "the guardian and nourisher of civic virtue," with a related goal of "terrifying evil doers and arousing the communal conscience."

Charles Russell loved those ideas. So, after finishing his formal education in Vermont, he made the long trek back to Iowa to help run the family newspaper. He did so with distinction for several years, until his ambition led him to St. Paul and Minneapolis to write about urban issues in a venue larger than Davenport.

In 1886, Russell left the Midwest, heading to New York City, where the national newspapers promised fame. But fame did not come right away. Despite Russell's newspaper experience, New York editors wouldn't hire him. So, he turned to freelance writing, hustling for stories he could sell to the newspapers and magazines where he wanted to be a salaried staff member.

The strategy worked. He ended up employed in several New York newsrooms, where his sharp intelligence and memorable prose helped him stand out. Eventually, he moved from telling slice-of-life stories to investigative reporting. Spending time in Chicago, Russell exposed the terrible working conditions and dangerous products of what had become known as the Beef Trust, dominated by the Armour family.

Later, Russell took on creeping corporate monopoly in a variety of industries. His exposés from 100 years ago sound a lot like today's exposés of amoral multinational corporations. He would have understood modern-day scandals at companies like Enron and Tyco just fine.

Among modern chroniclers of journalism history, there is agreement that Russell's pièce de résistance was his investigation of New York City's Trinity Church. In addition to serving as a prominent place of religious worship, the architecturally imposing church and its huge congregation also owned tenement houses in deplorable condition, which Russell brought to light.

He also focused on prison conditions that led to hardened criminals instead of rehabilitated sinners. And he told of railroads that placed profit ahead of passenger and freight service.

His passion for reform never ceased, but in his declining years, Russell turned away from the daily pressures of newspapering and magazine writing to write books on a variety of topics. One of the works, a decidedly noninvestigative biography of Theodore Thomas and his role in developing the American symphony orchestra, won Russell the Pulitzer Prize in 1927.

Miraldi feels enriched having tackled Russell's biography - and so will readers. "To trace Russell's life is to brush up against all the great reform causes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries - Populism, Progressivism, racial integration and Socialism. In the process, it becomes clear that many of the issues that engaged Russell are prevalent today ... inflated stock prices, corporate profiteering and political influence-peddling" among them.

Investigative journalism is far more common today than during Russell's lifetime. Judging by Miraldi's book, though, few of today's journalists are as skilled, persistent, and effective as Russell turned out to be.

Steve Weinberg serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.

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