American history courses across the nation usually devote at least a few minutes to a group of journalists who wrote about 100 years ago and collectively became known as "muckrakers." The best-known of the bunch, then and now, are Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, David Graham Phillips, and Upton Sinclair.
Although Theodore Roosevelt had been friendly with many of these journalists, by 1906 the president believed many of them had become a menace to society. His term "muckrakers" was not meant as a compliment.
Cecelia Tichi, a professor of English at Vanderbilt University, noticed that a number of nonfiction books seemed to echo the old muckrakers' themes and techniques. For this study, she singled out five contemporary books: "Fast Food Nation," by Eric Schlosser; "Nickel and Dimed," by Barbara Ehrenreich; "Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health," by Laurie Garrett; "No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies," by Naomi Klein; and "Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation," by Joseph Hallinan.
Her discussion of the similarities and differences between muckrakers then and now provides an excellent analysis of how the early muckrakers changed magazine and book nonfiction for the better.
Before Tarbell and her colleagues became prominent, most of what passed for investigative reporting (a term unknown in 1900) was at best anecdotal, at worst fictionalized. In her exposé of the Standard Oil Company and its driving force, John D. Rockefeller, Tarbell reported meticulously, working with government documents, court cases, and massive interview notes.
The other attraction of Tichi's book is her account of the five contemporary books. She explains how these books, despite being written in isolation, form a pattern of investigative reporting that might lead to a better society. Tichi also includes transcripts of interviews she conducted with the authors that contain stunning insights into the craft of journalism.
The most surprising insight for consumers of journalism is that media critics who regularly and loudly proclaim the death of investigative reporting are wrong. Mainstream book publishers still go against the grain frequently. Furthermore, a large percentage of daily newspapers, alternative weeklies in big cities, and magazines, and a significant minority of television newsrooms and radio outlets conduct investigative reporting on a regular basis. And for many whistle-blowers inside powerful government agencies and corporations, investigative journalists have become the court of last resort.
Tichi makes it clear that she sometimes becomes depressed at the corruption and insensitivity raining down from the top of US society, including the White House, and would like to see more journalists exposing problems. But despite legitimate reasons for concern, her book is largely an affirmation of contemporary investigative journalism. And that's good news.
• Steve Weinberg is former executive director of Investigative Reporters & Editors, an international organization of journalists based at the University of Missouri.