Academic journal article Journalism History

From the Jungle to Food Lion: The History Lessons of Investigative Journalism

Academic journal article Journalism History

From the Jungle to Food Lion: The History Lessons of Investigative Journalism

Article excerpt

In a brief essay celebrating more than 100 years since the publication of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, I would like to defend several of the techniques used by investigative reporters, suggest ways in which investigative journalism and literary journalism often overlap, and propose a few questions for future research. To put this study in context, I should say that although I teach literary journalism, I do not teach The Jungle. And although I teach classes in newswriting and newsgathering and often include novels, I do not teach The Jungk in these courses, either. I do, however, rely upon Sinclair's 1906 classic when I play a video about the 1992 Food Lion case-and my students usually mention the novel first before I use the video.

The Jungk raises a series of important questions about literary journalism, and it does not matter whether we believe it is an example of one genre of literary journalism that I would argue includes books by Willa Cather, Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, and others. Like the ABC News "PrimeTime Live" broadcasts in 1992 (and again in 1997) about Food Lion, The Jungle is both a failure and a success.

As we know, after the unexpected critical success and social import of The Jungle, Sinclair said, "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach." What he intended when he published The Jungle was to alert the nation to the conditions under which immigrants and others worked and lived in a capitalistic state, but he had no intention of inspiring public health reforms such as the Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspection Act of 1906.1 According to Bryan Hayes, who compiled "Sinclair's "The Jungle' Turns 100," the "graphic details of the slaughter of diseased animals, chemicals used to cover the smell of spoiled meat, and worker's [sic] using the workspace as a bathroom all led to public outrage." Following the book's publication, domestic and foreign purchase of U.S. meat was cut in half, and Americans began to "clamor for government action."2

As we also know, ABC News did not intend to lose the Food Lion lawsuit and most certainly did not intend to lose it for the reasons it did. Producers of the news program did not plan for the jury (or the public) to focus almost exclusively on the way they got the story but on the story public good that was accomplished by re- vealing unsanitary food practices at one of the nation's largest grocery store chains. Charges of trespass- ing and fraud and the resurfacing of public concerns about newsgathering practices-in this case using hidden cameras and falsifying job applications-were again on the front page and on the airwaves. Although the jury cared less about the use of hidden cameras than it did about the false information on job applications, jury members, media critics, media practitioners, journalism professors, and attorneys weighed in on both media practices.

The Jungle was accused of being sensational. Sinclair was criticized for pandering to the public by writing a fictional account for entertainment purposes when he could have written serious news. ABC News was accused of tabloid journalism, of sensational news reporting, and even of planting ignoring evidence, although it won an appeal in 1999.

I would like to argue that The Jungle and the ABC News program were significant, albeit flawed, contributions to the public good and to our desire to protect ourselves. That both dealt with food production and food handling should be no surprise, and the tradition continues with programs and documentaries by Michael Moore and others. I also would argue that The Jungle-in addition to being a text produced with the best of motivesincludes prose worth reading again. An example is the description of Ona and Jurgis Rudkus as they gaze at the Chicago skyline and dream of a better life:

The line of the buildings stood clear-cut and black against the sky; here and there out of the mass rose the great chimneys, with the river of smoke streaming away to the end of the world. …

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