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Investigative Journalism and the JFK Assassination

John Simkin

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Part 1:

Investigative journalism began in the late 19th century. Most of these journalists were in favour of social reform. A common theme was the power of major corporations to corrupt democratic politicians. America was at the forefront of this type of journalism.

Writers and publishers associated with this investigative journalism movement between 1890 and 1914 included Henry Demarest Lloyd, Nellie Bly, Jacob A. Riis, Frank Norris, Ida Tarbell, Charles Edward Russell, Lincoln Steffens, David Graham Phillips, C. P. Connolly, Benjamin Hampton, Upton Sinclair, Rheta Childe Dorr, Thomas Lawson, Alfred Henry Lewis and Ray Stannard Baker.

By 1906 the combined sales of the ten magazines that concentrated on investigative journalism reached a total circulation of 3,000,0000.

President Theodore Roosevelt responded to investigative journalism by initiating legislation that would help tackle some of the problems illustrated by these journalist. This included persuading Congress to pass reforms such as the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1906) and the Meat Inspection Act (1906).

Roosevelt was seen to be on the side of these investigative journalists until David Graham Phillips began a series of articles in Cosmopolitan entitled The Treason in the Senate. This included an attack on some of Roosevelt's political allies and he responded with a speech where he compared the investigative journalist with the muckraker in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress: "the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth on the floor."

These investigative journalists objected to being described as muckrakers. They felt betrayed as they felt they had helped Theodore Roosevelt to get elected. Lincoln Steffens was furious with Roosevelt and the day after the speech told him: "Well, you have put an end to all these journalistic investigations that have made you."

After Roosevelt's speech these investigative journalists became known as muckrakers. David Graham Phillips believed that Roosevelt's speech marked the end of the movement: "The greatest single definite force against muckraking was President Roosevelt, who called these writers muckrakers. A tag like that running through the papers was an easy phrase of repeated attack upon what was in general a good journalistic movement."

Some of the magazines such as Everybody's, McClure's Magazine, and the American Magazine continued to publish investigations into political, legal and financial corruption. However, as John O'Hara Cosgrave, editor of Everybody's admitted, the demand for this type of journalism declined: "The subject was not exhausted but the public interest therein seemed to be at an end, and inevitably the editors turned to other sources of copy to fill their pages."

In his book, The Era of the Muckrakers (1933), C. C. Regier argued that it is possible to tabulate the achievements of investigative journalism during this period: "The list of reforms accomplished between 1900 and 1915 is an impressive one. The convict and peonage systems were destroyed in some states; prison reforms were undertaken; a federal pure food act was passed in 1906; child labour laws were adopted by many states; a federal employers' liability act was passed in 1906, and a second one in 1908, which was amended in 1910; forest reserves were set aside; the Newlands Act of 1902 made reclamation of millions of acres of land possible; a policy of the conservation of natural resources was followed; eight-hour laws for women were passed in some states; race-track gambling was prohibited; twenty states passed mothers' pension acts between 1908 and 1913; twenty-five states had workmen's compensation laws in 1915; an income tax amendment was added to the Constitution; the Standard Oil and the Tobacco companies were dissolved; Niagara Falls was saved from the greed of corporations; Alaska was saved from the Guggenheims and other capitalists; and better insurance laws and packing-house laws were placed on the statute books."

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Part 1:

Most of these journalists were in favour of social reform. .... "The list of reforms accomplished between 1900 and 1915 is an impressive one. race-track gambling was prohibited;

Now hold on a cotton-pickin' minute here. This one sounds like a forerunner of prohibition: Mint Juleps and the Kentucky Derby are outlawed, and that is called progress?

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Part 2

During the First World War saw the emergence of journalists like, John Reed, Dorothy Day, Louise Bryant, Randolph Bourne, Crystal Eastman, Max Eastman, Upton Sinclair, Mary Heaton Vorse, Alexander Berkman, Waldo Frank, Michael Gold, Brand Whitlock, Theodore Dreiser, Emma Goldman and Floyd Dell. Most of these worked for The Masses.


In July, 1917, it was claimed by the authorities that articles by Floyd Dell and Max Eastman and cartoons by Art Young, Boardman Robinson and H. J. Glintenkamp that appeared in The Masses had violated the Espionage Act. Under this act it was an offence to publish material that undermined the war effort. The legal action that followed forced The Masses to cease publication.

In 1919 Woodrow Wilson appointed A. Mitchell Palmer as his attorney general. Palmer, who had in his youth been seen as a progressive, was now an extreme right-winger. Soon after taking office, a government list of 62 people believed to hold "dangerous, destructive and anarchistic sentiments" was leaked to the press. This list included the names of journalists such as Oswald Garrison Villard. It was also revealled that these people had been under government surveillance for many years.

Palmer recruited John Edgar Hoover as his special assistant and together they used the Espionage Act (1917) and the Sedition Act (1918) to launch a campaign against those on the left. Palmer and Hoover claimed that Communist agents from Russia were planning to overthrow the American government. On 7th November, 1919, the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution, over 10,000 people were arrested. Palmer and Hoover found no evidence of a proposed revolution but 248 people were deported to Russia. This included journalists such as Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.


The "Red Scare" made it more difficult for investigative journalists. Anyone who asked awkward questions of the government were described as "communists".

Two of the most important crusading journalists now concentrated on writing novels: Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser. Others like Max Eastman sold out and joined the right-wing backlash.

The most important investigative journalists in the 1930s were Charles Edward Russell, Lincoln Steffens, George Schuyler, Drew Pearson, Heywood Broun, Edgar Snow and Ray Stannard Baker.


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  • 5 years later...

Women have played a very important role in the history of investigative journalism. One of the most important is Nellie Bly. She was born Elizabeth Cochrane on 5th May, 1867. Her father died six years later, leaving her mother, Mary Jane Cochrane, with fifteen children to raise. Elizabeth was not an impressive student at school but she did develop a strong desire to be a writer.

The family were fairly poor and when Elizabeth reached sixteen she moved to Pittsburgh to find work. She soon discovered that only low-paid occupations were available to women. In 1885 she read an article in the Pittsburgh Dispatch entitled What Girls Are Good For. The male writer argued that women were only good for housework and taking care of children. Elizabeth was furious and wrote a letter of protest to the editor. George Madden responded by asking her what articles she would write if she was a journalist. She replied that newspapers should be publishing articles that told the stories of ordinary people. As a result of her letter, Madden commissioned Elizabeth, who was only eighteen, to write an article on the lives of women.

Elizabeth accepted, but as it was considered improper for at the time for women journalists to use their real names, she used a pseudonym: Nellie Bly. She decided to write an article on divorce based on interviews with women that she knew. In the piece, Bly used the material to argue for the reform of the marriage and divorce laws.

Madden was so impressed with the article he hired her as a full-time reporter for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Bly's journalistic style was marked by her first-hand tales of the lives of ordinary people. She often obtained this material by becoming involved in a series of undercover adventures. For example, she worked in a Pittsburgh factory to investigate child labour, low wages and unsafe working conditions. Bly was not only interested in writing about social problems but was always willing to suggest ways that they could be solved.

Her editor later wrote that Bly was "full of fire and her writing was charged with youthful exuberance." However, it was not long before he was receiving complaints from those institutions that Bly was attacking in her articles. When companies began threatening to stop buying advertising space in the Pittsburgh Dispatch, the editor was forced to bring an end to the series.

Bly was now given cultural and social events to cover. Unhappy with this new job, Bly decided to go to Mexico where she wrote about poverty and political corruption. When the Mexican government discovered what Bly had been writing, they ordered her out of the country.

In 1887 Bly was recruited by Joseph Pulitzer to write for his newspaper, the New York World. Over the next few years she pioneered the idea of investigative journalism by writing articles about poverty, housing and labour conditions in New York. This often involved undercover work and she feigned insanity to get into New York's insane asylum on Blackwell's Island. Bly later wrote in Ten Days in a Mad House (1888): "Excepting the first two days after I entered the asylum, there was no salt for the food. The hungry and even famishing women made an attempt to eat the horrible messes. Mustard and vinegar were put on meat and in soup to give it a taste, but it only helped to make it worse. Even that was all consumed after two days, and the patients had to try to choke down fresh fish, just boiled in water, without salt, pepper or butter; mutton, beef, and potatoes without the faintest seasoning. The most insane refused to swallow the food and were threatened with punishment. In our short walks we passed the kitchen where food was prepared for the nurses and doctors. There we got glimpses of melons and grapes and all kinds of fruits, beautiful white bread and nice meats, and the hungry feeling would be increased tenfold. I spoke to some of the physicians, but it had no effect, and when I was taken away the food was yet unsalted."

Bly discovered while staying in the hospital that patients were fed vermin-infested food and physically abused by the staff. She also found out that some patients were not psychologically disturbed but were suffering from a physical illness. Others had been maliciously placed there by family members. For example, one woman had been declared insane by her husband after he caught her being unfaithful. Bly's scathing attacks on the way patients were treated at Blackwell's Island led to much needed reforms.

After reading Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days in 1889, Bly suggested to Joseph Pulitzer that his newspaper should finance an attempt to break the record illustrated in the book. He liked the idea and used Bly's journey to publicize the New York World. The newspaper held a competition which involved guessing the time it would take Bly to circle the globe. Over 1,000,000 people entered the contest and when she arrived back in New York on 25th January, 1890, she was met by a massive crowd to see her break the record in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds.

Bly retired from journalism after marrying Robert Seaman in 1895. Seaman, the millionaire owner of the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company and the American Steel Barrel Company, died in 1904. Bly decided to take over the running of these two ailing companies. Recognizing the importance of the well-being of the workers, Bly introduced a series of reforms that included the provision of health-care schemes, gymnasiums and libraries.

Bly was on holiday in Europe on the outbreak of the First World War. She immediately travelled to the Eastern Front where she reported the war for the New York Journal American.

Nellie Bly died of pneumonia in New York on 27th January, 1922.


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  • 1 month later...

David Graham Phillips once wrote: "Such is the stealthy and treacherous Senate as at present constituted. And such it will continue to be until the people think, instead of shout, about politics; until they judge public men by what they do and are, not by what they say and pretend. However, the fact that the people are themselves responsible for their own betrayal does not mitigate contempt for their hypocritical and cowardly betrayers. A corrupt system explains a corrupt man; it does not excuse him. The stupidity or negligence of the householder in leaving the door unlocked does not lessen the crime of the thief." Phillips accused both main parties, the Democrats and Republicans, in Congress, of joining together to "advance the industrial and financial interests of the wealthy classes of the country". Phillips wrote this in 1906.

Phillips upset a lot of important people with his investigative journalism and he decided he would probably be safer to put his political points in novels. The Plum Tree and Light Fingered Gentry both dealt with political corruption, whereas The Second Generation (1907) looked critical at the issue of inherited wealth. Old Wives for New (1908) was a novel that considered the social and economic position of women. In other novels such as The Conflict (1911), Phillips returned to the subject of political corruption.

On 23rd January, 1911, David Graham Phillips was murdered by Fitzhugh Coyle Goldsborough, a violinist in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Goldsborough believed that the novel, The Fashionable Adventures of Joshua Craig, had libelously portrayed his family.


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In October 1921 Herbert Bayard Swope started a 21-day crusade against the Ku Klux Klan in October 1921, which won the newspaper the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1922. It has been claimed that this was one of the most important examples of investigative journalism in American history.


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