Modern Muckrakers

Article excerpt

From the penitentiary to the pigpen, certain stories inspire a special breed of writers to dig deeper. These journalists spend years, sometimes even decades, reporting and writing a story that won't let go of them. They're inheritors of a tradition that's over one hundred years old. They are MODERN MUCKRAKERS

IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT CAROLYN JOHNSEN THINKS ABOUT PIGS. Hundreds of them, row upon row, every pig the same strange and perfect pink, in identical pens, all facing the same way in a low white building more factory than barn. Lying awake, Johnsen thinks about topping a hill on a gravel road and seeing ten or twelve such buildings, with long lines of opened windows, lacing the Nebraska breeze with an acrid stench. She recalls a farmer who sold some land to a pork company, took the money and then, when a few thousand hogs came in and his old friends complained, shrugged and said, "What smell? It doesn't smell so bad." Tossing and turning, Johnsen ponders state legislators who lend a sympathetic ear to big businesses like Progressive Swine Technologies but have a harder time hearing a ninety-four-year-old widow trying to live out her days on land that's been in the family for more than a hundred years. With 36,000 hogs a half-mile away, she, too, wakes in the night. "Her eyes are burning and her throat is burning and she gets sick to her stomach and she says, `I've been through a lot in my life, and I think I deserve more consideration,'" says Johnsen. "And you know, it just broke my heart."

Johnsen wouldn't mind breaking your heart as well. She doesn't put it quite that way, of course. On the contrary: If you press her on why she's writing a book about industrial hog farms in Nebraska, she talks a lot about the issues--ecological, social, political--and only a little about her own views and goals. Doesn't she think that traditional farms, like the one she grew up on in the 1950s, are a better setting for raising pigs? "I would just as soon let the evidence speak for itself," she insists. "I just want to show people where their pork comes from."

If they only knew! When a stranger beside you on a plane unwraps this exclamation, you reach for your earphones. And yet a similar sentiment has driven some great writing over the past century: Think of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, even Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's All the President's Men. Think, more recently, of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, a look at "the dark side of the all-American meal," which became a surprise bestseller last spring. And think, just maybe, of Carolyn Johnsen's work in progress. Currently on leave from a public-radio job in Lincoln, toiling along on a token $500 advance from the University of Nebraska Press plus a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, Johnsen is a long shot for fame, at least outside Nebraska. But then again, ambition isn't what accounts for her ten- to twelve-hour days at zoning meetings, in libraries, on farms, at the legislature; the thousand miles she might add on her car in a week, with overnights in places like the Super 8 in Imperial, Nebraska; and the many long, solitary days of writing, with a manuscript due by the end of October. No, all that effort stems from a kind of faith: Dig and dig some more. Do your job, pile up the proof, believe that if you can simply speak the truth, people--maybe lots of people--will see it your way. That's the creed of the muckraker.

Muckraking sounds messy, and it is. Also backbreaking, troublemaking and--if practiced by a writer with just the right mix of skill, timing and topic--even earthshaking. It is work that is deeply researched, revelatory and almost always finds serious fault with a big chunk of the status quo. It has a glorious past, dating back to the early twentieth-century work of novelist Sinclair and his journalistic contemporaries. And here's a surprise: It has a vigorous present, even in an age when newsmagazines are charged with going soft and the bestseller lists are studded with memoirs from World Wrestling Federation characters. …