This paper was originally written for a journalism history course At OWU.
It is logical to assume David Graham Phillips’ “Treason of the Senate,” published in 1906 in Cosmopolitan, was subject to the same trends as the rest of journalism during that period. This is a hollow statement, however, without examining what those trends are and how they are illustrated in the article. It is not enough to merely label Phillips a muckraker and be done with it; for although muckraking was an important movement at the time it was not the only theme or method to writing. It is my belief that “Treason of the Senate” is a good example of more than just muckraking.
I will break up my discussion into sections talking about the examples and influences of story and information journalism, muckraking in general, the national scope of the article and professionalism in “Treason.” Though each represents a different way of looking at the article, my discussion will tend to interrelate them, just as they were often interrelated through history.
Story and Information Journalism
Two divergent but not mutually exclusive trends in journalism, story and information journalism reached their height in the 1890s but are fairly visible in “Treason.” According to Schudson, story journalism emphasized entertainment and interpretation whereas information journalism came closer to the concept of objectivity we have today, emphasizing unframed, verifiable facts that are understandable in and of themselves. Schudson, however, concedes that reporters believed in both tenets and used both methods in their writing together. As did Phillips-we see examples of both kinds of journalism in “Treason.”
“Treason” can be called sensational because of its stated goal-to cause a movement among the public to end the corruption (specifically by voting Depew out). That leans toward story journalism by itself, but the angry, indignant tone of the article as well as the narrative style are essential elements of story reporting. For example, Phillips uses Depew’s ties to the Vanderbilts and the “plutocracy” as a way of separating him from the reader and creating the impression that he is against democracy. There are numerous more examples: Phillips does not say Depew was adaptable, but says “Depew lacked that courage which never goes with such adaptability, such timidity of soul as his. He would do anything, and do it thoroughly, as a lieutenant; but as and initiator, he was always worthless.” There are often colorful metaphors: “Depew understood the ‘cattle business,’ Vanderbilt did not;” refers to Depew herding legislators for Vanderbilt like they were cattle. Phillips writes as though he is talking to you specifically (see specific example under muckraking below), or in the least is giving a speech and not a detached paper. Even the use of a chronological structure implies a story rather than an inverted pyramid, “just the facts” approach toward reporting. The candid photos could hardly create a worse picture of the man; the article begins with a picture of him laughing apparently in our (and therefore the working class’) faces. This was one of the first uses of non-posed pictures in Cosmopolitan, and it was effective in giving us the context about the man Phillips wanted us to have. The rest of the images are hardly flattering, and the choice to show pictures of his apparently expensive houses and automobile provide more background to the impression the article tries to create.
But at the same time we find very thorough use of information journalism tactics. Phillips is extremely attentive to detail-often quoting exact figures in dollars and cents and quoting directly from letters and court transcripts. Rather than just opine on Depews corruption, he quotes a report: “It cited one building ‘made entirely of brick, stone and iron,” yet against which bills of $59,129.64 were charged for lumber and $100,215.25 for carpenter work!” The article is Phillips’ opinion, but it is constructed out of verifiable facts and figures and would hold up against close scrutiny. He ends the story not with a flowery emotional appeal, but with facts that speak for themselves about Depew’s character. “…suits for seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars are now pending against him-seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars of the money of the Equitable policy holders whose trustee he was for twenty-eight years.”
I opened by saying “Treason” was definitely a piece of muckraking but I did not give a clear definition of muckraking is. In Civic and Anti-Civics of Muckraking it is defined as the political journalism of the Progressive Era, “a way of waking people up to their political deresponsibilities.” It was a movement to get the voters involved in economic and political reform, taking on and exposing monopolies, trusts, Senators and party bosses alike. Common themes of muckrakers included both the extension of direct voting and the laying of fault on the uneducated voter who chose based on vote buying or emotion. We see this several times in “Treason.” Phillips argues early on, “Because the people have neglected politics, have not educated themselves out of credulity to flimsily plausible political lies and liars, because they will not realize it is not enough to work, it is also necessary to think, they remain poor, or deprived of their fair share of the products, though they have produced and incredible prosperity.” Phillips speaks directly to the working class reader, attempting to educate not only about the evils of Senator Depew but also the spread of the corruption and it’s cause. “The United States Senate is a larger factor than your labor or your intelligence, you average American, in determining your income.”
Phillips, like other muckrakers, both believes in the people’s ability and right to rule properly and chides them for not doing it. He borders on insulting, using language almost as harsh as his words against Depew. This may have served to alienate and discourage the reader more than motivate him, and the breakdown of such blind loyalties as muckrakers abhor could not have helped already confused voters choose.
The other main similarity among muckrakers, the exposition of corruption, quite obvious in “Treason.” The entire article is a well-researched report on Depew’s misdoing as well as an attack against him. The idea here is to show the public just how badly he is misusing the public trust and wallet so that they will vote him out and vote someone more ethical in. Class distinctions, are highlighted, for example-showing the opulence of Depew’s lifestyle coupled with his lack of hard work for it. There is no need to cite a specific example for muckraking; I could quote nearly the entire article.
One thing that needs to be mentioned is the scope of the article. Though “Treason of the Senate” concerned a New York Senator, it was meant to be read by the entire nation. Cosmopolitan, like many of the other successful muckraking publications, was not a local magazine. With the increasing dependence on the national government and the defeat of the southern states in the Civil War, the nation was becoming more nationally political, and many magazines’ large circulations reflected it. Not only could magazines use corruption from all over the country without worrying about localizing it, they could spend more time and write more in-depth articles than dailies. “Treason” is a good example of this-Phillips speaks directly to the American voter, not the New York voter, and the story is very long and extensively researched with excerpts from letters and transcripts. This was the first time that corruption could be seen as a pandemic on a national level or could be exposed nationally.
William Randolph Hearst’s yellow journalism would seem to have little to do with Phillip’s public-minded exposes, but there is one development of yellow journalism that can be seen extended in this piece, professionalism. Before 1880 bylines were a rare sight. Reporters were hired guns who wrote copy without renown-but with the sensational stories Hearst, Pulitzer and others assigned and the semi-famous figures they hired came some amount of public recognition of reporters. This, along with a general movement toward more educated journalists attempting to make themselves more valuable to their papers and society, led to a quest for professionalism and stature among reporters. This professionalism can be seen in “Treason” on several levels; if we look under the circumstances under which it was written, we see that Phillips was a celebrity journalist (something nearly impossible at an earlier age) who definitely considered himself among the upper class of society. The fact that he is so able to put down the public and the mass of voters as being uninformed and at fault for the corruption denotes a feeling of superiority in Phillips-he is not one of the unnamed working-class reporters from the age of the penny press. He is a professional on the level of a doctor or lawyer-high enough, even, to consider himself a Senator’s better. Another consequence of professionalism in the field was a greater reliance on facts. We see and have already seen examples of Phillips’ use of facts such as the use of court transcripts and even thought the article is clearly opinionated, it is backed by facts throughout.
Just as many past movements’ effects can be found in “Treason,” it and articles like it effected the future of journalism. Part of that legacy is the incorporation of objectivity into reporting. “Treason” as a whole is a good example of the muckraker’s ability to find rampant corruption in government. With so many magazines and newspapers finding so much wrong in every level, it is easy to see how people would start to lose faith in the democratic system that elected them. Objectivity was a way to ensure, at least, the public was not misled by reporters and it also took the responsibility (and also the fault) for motivating or leading them off the journalist. The muckrakers, though they tried to motivate the public, often failed, turning people off to the political; process completely. Also, this sort of call for action could be seen as biased and partisan-and there was a loss of trust in partisanship as the voters were seen as too easily blinded by party lines. The movements that “Treason” represents gave way to a movement that is still current, objectivity.