One hundred years ago in America a group of investigative journalists nicknamed the Muckrakers opened American’s eyes to numerous injustices and bad practices by business and government through their fabulously well read exposés printed in books like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and popular magazines like McClure’s. If you remember Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes in its heyday, where if you saw him and his camera crew standing in your foyer you knew you were going to be grilled, it was like that. Reporters like Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens made it their mission to find the muck under the rocks of society and shine a light on the uncomfortable secrets of the rich, powerful and uncaring, comforting the afflicted and very much afflicting the comfortable.
The really remarkable thing is that things changed. Their work was effective. People read their articles and books, talked about the issues raised and a critical mass of attention to a hitherto unknown or unexposed problem became a cause for activists and politicians like Jacob Riis and Teddy Roosevelt to address. The Progressive Movement of the early 20th century was based largely on the outrage evoked by the work of the Muckrakers in calling attention to sweatshops, patient abuse, extreme poverty, tainted foods and medicines, monopolistic business behavior, etc. All based on the written word, no video, no TV images on the nightly news, no cell phone cameras capturing the horrors of tenements on You Tube.
Today it seems that the written word has been devalued. For example, reams of books and articles have been printed in the last 6 years on the abuses that created the Great Recession, but despite the best efforts of a crew of Elizabeth Warren’s to shine a light and re-regulate the financial services industry, little has changed. If only there was video of a collateralized debt swap screwing a homeowner, but alas.
You need video today to get people animated.
Not just today, of course, this isn’t really new. If not for TV reports on migrant workers in the 60s, Cesar Chavez’ cause would not have had broad support. If we hadn’t seen the Cuyahoga River explode into flame on film, the EPA might not have been signed into law. If Vietnam hadn’t come into our living rooms via Walter Cronkite each night, who knows how long the powers that be might have kept that debacle going?
It just seems really exaggerated today that if you have a story that is easily illustrated by video the TV outlets will show it over and over again and build that critical mass of outrage. And without that video, bupkis.
Here’s hoping that the video from Ferguson of a militarized police force terrorizing the people they’re supposed to be protecting, St. Louis police shooting a mentally ill man with a knife nine times, along with the video of Eric Garner’s senseless killing in NY will create the will to take a step back on the use of force by police.
Watch the entire video. I was amazed at how quickly the Officers started shooting. There was no time for a dialogue with the man, they just started shooting.