The Best Muckraking Booksby Richard Davies
Ten years ago, on January 17, Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser was published. Key parts of Fast Food Nation had already been serialized in Rolling Stone magazine a few years earlier but Schlosser's book was to have a huge impact on how America's fast food industry was perceived by consumers.
Fast Food Nation is a classic muckraking book. In fact, it might be one of the best muckraking books ever written and proudly sits alongside The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Why is Fast Food Nation so good? It tackled a key social issue (eating), it revealed many facts unknown outside the fast food industry, it made people angry (consumers felt duped and massive corporate felt exposed) but none of the book's content has ever been challenged in court.
That Schlosser has never been hauled before a judge is amazing as he offers a relentless stream of frightening factual information rather than assumptions, guesses and half truths. It's also impressive because the author exposed the practices of global corporations who possess armies of lawyers, public relations people, political lobbyists and friends in powerful places. They could have tried to crush him but a prolonged legal fight would simply have further publicized the parts of their businesses they would rather keep out of the public eye.
Many people cannot look at a hamburger now without considering where the beef came from, the number of preservatives, its product's smell, the small plastic toy that accompanied it, the spotty mumbling teenager who served it and the adverts that promoted it. It used to be just a hamburger.
Muckraking books are fairly common but really good ones are few and far between. The Jungle, which exposed the horrors of the American meatpacking industry, is probably the best of the lot and that gem is still worth reading even though it is more than 100 years old. Silent Spring, published in 1962, sparked the environmental movement by revealing the dangers of pesticides and pollution. DDT was banned thanks to this book. Muckrakers have helped to bring down politicians (All the President's Men) and huge corporations (The History of the Standard Oil Company), but they can also pay heavily for their work – Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down in 2006 for exposing Vladimir Putin's strong-arm tactics.
Although muckraking is a worldwide phenomenon, America's investigative journalists have particularly embraced the genre with the golden age of muckraking being around the start of the 20th century when Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell were making headlines.
Some books can be tossed back onto the bookshelf as just another novel or just another biography, but the best muckraking books continue to make an impact long after the reader finishes the final page. Happy 10th birthday to Fast Food Nation and long live the muckrakers.
The Best Muckraking Books
Published in 1906, exposed appalling work practices in the meatpacking business.
Published in 1964, exposed the dangers of pesticide to the environment.
The Shame of the Cities
Published in 1904, exposed high-level corruption in America's major cities.
The Bitter Cry of the Children
Published in 1906, exposed the awful working conditions of child laborers.
The History of the Standard Oil Company
Published in 1904, exposed the ruthless practices of Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company.
How the Other Half Lives
Published in 1890, exposed, using photojournalism, New York's impoverished slums.
A Century of Dishonor
Helen Hunt Jackson
Published in 1881, exposed the US government's mistreatment of Native Americans.
The American Way of Death
Published in 1963, exposed the unscrupulous practices of funeral businesses.
Unsafe at Any Speed
Published in 1965, exposed the automobile industry's reluctance to introduce safety features.
Hunter S. Thompson
Published in 1967, exposed, for the first time, what motorcycle gang culture was really all about.
The Saturday Night Special
Published in 1973, exposed the facts behind America's legal and illegal gun culture.
All the President's Men
Carl Bernstein & Bob Woodward
Published in 1974, exposed the Watergate Scandal.
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Published in 2001, exposed the grim lives of American workers on the poverty line.
Published in 2004, exposed Vladimir Putin's use of the secret police and his tactics in Chechnya.
Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army
Published in 2007, exposed the practices of an organization that is essentially a private army.
Tulia: Race, Cocaine and Corruption in a Small Texas Town
Published in 2005, exposed the stitch-up behind the arrest of 39 black people in 1999.
Getting Away With Torture
Published in 2009, exposed the interrogation practices under the Bush-Cheney administration.
Published in 2008, exposed the effects of West Virginia's coal mining firms on the environment.
Imperial Life in the Emerald City
Published in 2006, exposed the surreal life inside the American controlled Green Zone of Baghdad.
It Takes a Pillage
Published in 2009, exposed the illegal and underhand practices of Wall Street.
Five Books about Muckraking & Muckrakers
Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking
Upton Sinclair: American Rebel
Leon A. Harris
Muckraking: The Journalism That Changed America
Judith & William Serrin
Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker