Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller

By Thornton, Brian | Journalism History, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview
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Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller


Thornton, Brian, Journalism History


Weinberg, Steve. Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. 256 pp. $25.95.

There is something about the golden era of muckraking (1902-12) that fascinates journalists and historians so much that it seems nearly every year there is another book about its history. Taking on the Trust by University of Missouri professor Steve Weinberg is the latest. And while offering little that is new, it provides a highly readable account of how a failed school marm, parttime historian, and free-lance journalist, Ida Minerva Tarbell, went up against Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller. She wrote a series of articles for McClure's magazine that caused the courts to break up Standard Oil's monopoly in 1911 and prohibit monopolies for years to come.

The book's subtitle describes this as an "epic battle" in which "an investigative journalist brought down Standard Oil." While it is true that Tarbell's expose represented Standard Oil's Waterloo, it also is clear that there was no battle in the traditional sense between Tarbell and Rockefeller since the two only met once (in a church) and never confronted each other directly. And Rockefeller never fought back. That bit of book-selling hype aside, however, this is a thoroughly researched book, one that brings the muckraking legend alive for a new generation.

Tarbell is portrayed as the mother of all muckrakers. She set the pattern of tireless research; she gathered hundreds of pages of documents; she scoured the most obscure court records from all across the country, combed local newspapers, and grilled former Standard Oil executives; and she studied the business records and correspondence of Standard Oil competitors, even examined Rockefeller's Baptist congregational records, and produced a mountain of evidence to overwhelmingly prove her points.

Perhaps this need to retell the muckraking legend is in direct response to the present diminishment of the press - reporters today are seen as junkyard dogs, who gleefully savage the reputations of vapid little blonde celebrities but never raise serious questions about the exploitation of women or the abuse of the poor and dispossessed. It is a sad state of affairs for reporters when "Saturday Night Live" comics find it necessary to implore journalists "to grow a pair" and start asking serious questions of the presidential candidates. The very existence of the muckraking period and muckrakers such as Tarbell shows that at least once upon a time journalists were heroes or heroines, brave enough to stand up to the powers that be.

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