Journalists are sometimes accused of being too timid when writing about industrial behemoths, perhaps because most major news organizations are part of giant corporate empires that are reluctant to tackle one of their own.
In light of this, it is helpful to place the modern relationship between journalists and business leaders in historical context. A great place to start is with Ida Tarbell's comprehensive and controversial work investigating the Standard Oil Co. and its founder, John D. Rockefeller.
Veteran investigative journalist Steve Weinberg (who often reviews books for the St. Petersburg Times) has done just that in his informative and readable Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller.
Tarbell, one of the first prominent female reporters and a pioneer of investigative journalism, examined Rockefeller and his company in a series of articles in McClure's magazine that became the basis of a bestselling book. Her work contributed to a political climate that triggered a U.S. Supreme Court decision breaking up Rockefeller's holdings.
President Theodore Roosevelt, a relentless foe of corporate abuse and government waste, nicknamed Tarbell, and her fellow investigative journalists such as Lincoln Steffens, muckrakers.
Those reporters were among the first in their profession to make extensive use of archival research and narrative storytelling techniques to gather and convey information. Weinberg clearly admires (sometimes uncritically so) their efforts in general, and Tarbell's in particular.
Much of the book is structured as a dual biography. We learn that Rockefeller was driven by trying to overcome his past, characterized by a dysfunctional family and a father who was a failure in business.
Tarbell came from a functional family but saw her father's work in the oil industry and much of northwest Pennsylvania's livelihood undermined by what she saw as Rockefeller's predatory business practices.
Weinberg breaks little new ground when discussing Rockefeller, the subject of many previous books. Far less has been written about Tarbell, and Weinberg makes judicious use of her papers and those of her contemporaries to bring her to life.
As a result, Taking on the Trust helps readers examine the past in an informative way that can also teach important lessons about the present.
Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist.