Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Muckraking Journalist's Work Revived in Biography

Magazine article Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal

Muckraking Journalist's Work Revived in Biography

Article excerpt

Muckraking journalist's work revived in biography AMERICAN PROPHET: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams By Peter Richardson University of Michigan Press, 334 pages, $35

When investigative journalism took ill around the time of World War I, the recovery proceeded poorly. Many journalists and scholars stood ready to pronounce the craft dead. Not until the late 1930s did promising signs of life appear. As much as any one person, Carey McWilliams deserves a commendation for his life-saving efforts - first as a writer, then as an editor.

McWilliams (1905-80) is nearly forgotten. A splendid biography by Peter Richardson will make forgetting him more difficult.

McWilliams' starting point was California. His magazine exposés, books and op-ed pieces shed light on race/ethnic relations, including the unconscionable Caucasian prejudices against Hispanic Americans and Japanese Americans; the exploitation undergirding labor-management workplace strife; the insanity of anti-Communist political purges; environmental degradation long before the invention of Earth Day; affordable housing shortages; and counterproductive immigration policies.

Occasionally, McWilliams' insights are mentioned today. The classic movie "Chinatown" derived its inspiration from McWilliams' 1946 book "Southern California: An Island on the Land."

Never heard of him

After being persuaded to leave California to become editor of The Nation magazine during 1952, McWilliams assigned memorable exposés about the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency and other violators of democratic principles. He encouraged, paid and helped train a new wave of investigative magazine writers, including Fred Cook, Matthew Josephson and Ralph Nader.

The lessons of McWilliams' career are straightforward and timeless:

* Train to understand how the institutions of society work and fail to work. (McWilliams earned a law degree as part of his understanding process.)

* Listen carefully and observe sources from all walks of life.

* Consult documents to supplement the careful listening.

* Prepare well to scrutinize society's sacred institutions.

* Forge ahead despite intimidation.

Despite McWilliams' remarkable, fearless journalism, Richardson believes his subject's efforts might be forgotten.

"Any attempt to assess Carey McWilliams' legacy must confront at least one hard fact - almost no one born after 1960 has heard of him," says Richardson, who is communications director of the California Budget Project.

Richardson himself knew nothing about McWilliams until 1999, when he asked Sacramento journalist Peter Schrag what to read about the state's history and politics. Schrag said something like, "Everything by McWilliams."

Muckraking revived

The biography concentrates on McWilliams' ideas and his reporting/writing methods more than on his personal life, a wise choice by Richardson. McWilliams, who had multiple marriages and children, acted impersonally in his private life for somebody so passionate about equality for all men and women. …

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