Muckrakers and sanctimony

Muckrakers and sanctimony

by digby

I wonder if most people have heard of a book called The Jungle? Here's a little refresher:

The Jungle is a 1906 novel written by journalist Upton Sinclair. Sinclair wrote the novel with the intention of portraying the life of the immigrant in the United States, but readers were more concerned with the large portion of the book pertaining to the corruption of the American meatpacking industry during the early 20th century, and the book is now often interpreted and taught as a journalist's exposure of the poor health conditions in this industry.

The novel depicts in harsh tones poverty, absence of social programs, unpleasant living and working conditions, and hopelessness prevalent among the working class, which is contrasted with the deeply-rooted corruption on the part of those in power. Sinclair's observations of the state of turn-of-the-twentieth-century labor were placed front and center for the American public to see, suggesting that something needed to be changed to get rid of American wage slavery.

The novel was first published in serial form in 1905 in the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason. It was based on undercover work done in 1904: Sinclair spent seven weeks gathering information while working incognito in the meatpacking plants of the Chicago stockyards.

This was called "muckraking" in which progressive journalist reformers "deceitfully" went undercover in various industries to expose the bad practices and working conditions.It was never particularly popular with business, but it did create results.

Today we call this investigative reporting and some of the practices remain controversial. The government is trying to prosecute journalists who publish documents obtained by whistleblowers. And business fights back:

One hidden camera investigation, of Food Lion, backfired on ABC when Food Lion sued. Food Lion sued for trespass and breach of loyalty, claiming that the report was produced under deceptive pretenses, and ABC employees hired by Food Lion wearing hidden cameras filmed other Food Lion employees without following proper notification procedures. Food Lion did not sue for libel, as the one-year statute of limitations had already run by the time it received all the footage shot by ABC, and prior to receiving the footage, its attorneys believed it would be difficult to prove that ABC acted with actual malice. A jury awarded Food Lion $5.5 million, but later appeals by ABC to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals resulted in the damages reduced to $2.00.

So, considering this long history of investigative journalism and undercover activism, why in the world is everyone, including liberals and activists, coming down on the man who used a false name to persuade a conservative environmental think tank to give him internal documents? Here's the New York Times:

One way or the other, Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others. (Some of the released documents contain information about Heartland employees that has no bearing on the climate fight.) That is his personal tragedy and shame (and I’m sure devastating for his colleagues, friends and family).

Really? I guess Upton Sinclair should have jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge then. Here's Eric Loomis at Lawyers Guns and Money:

Imagine yourself in Gleick’s position. You are a committed activist with a long history taking on horrible people doing horrible things. You can be a feminist, gay rights activist, environmentalist, unionist, whatever. You are on these people’s e-mail lists. And suddenly they include you on an e-mail where they spill the goodies.

What are you going to do? “Oh, dear sir, I think you have made a mistake! These documents detailing exactly how you intend on destroying the world are not intended for me. Please remove me from your e-mail list!!!” Of course you aren’t. You are going to string this out to get the dirt. What do these people really do behind the scenes? And then you are going to give the information to your friends in the media and embarrass the hell out of these jerks...

See, I’d call using a false identity to get inside a diabolical organization “journalism.” It might not be respectable and won’t get you invited to fun corporate-sponsored events. But Gleick has thrown the curtain back. And of course, he’s at fault here. Even if he broke the law, is that the real issue here? What is worse, using a false identity or advocating for policies that will destroy the entire nation of Tonga? Using a false identity or lobbying the U.S. government to halt changes in mileage standards for cars so that we don’t become a bunch of hippie Europeans or something and continue to change the climate with ever-greater rapidity?

I think I know which side contains the moral monsters here. And it ain’t Peter Gleick.

Exactly. Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. Gleick has subsequently apologized for his actions, which I think is foolish. Putting this particular form of ethical consideration before the ethical consideration of saving the planet isn't really ethical in my book. By that logic everyone should have disavowed Upton Sinclair because he deceived the meat packing industry which was selling lard made of rendered human fat from the bodies of workers who'd fallen in the vats. Lying to an employer is apparently the worst sin imaginable, second only to giving a false name to an institution with which you have no affiliation at all.

It seems to me that muckraking is especially necessary when the malefactors of great wealth have decided that their financial interests have become so paramount that they are willing to put lives --- and even the planet --- at risk. It takes courage to do what that man did, particularly in this world of overweening sanctimony.

Unfortunately, because so many are anxious to prove their ethical superiority, it's highly likely that the real truths that were uncovered will be tainted and the conservative institutions will be strengthened by it. The lesson here is that if he hadn't done it the documents would not have been revealed --- but that it doesn't matter anyway because people are more concerned about the ethics of revealing them than what they contained. Sad.

Update:Now the conservative think tank in question is saying that the activist in question forged one of the documents. If so he obviously went a bridge too far. But if it's true, it's odd that any right wing organization would have a problem with it. Usually they fete such people like heroes.