Occasionally, a colleague of mine, Marianne Konior, “Doc” to anyone who knows her, will drop off something she’s read that might spark a column or two on my part.
Recently she gave me a clipping on the amazing life of Ida Tarbell, the woman who brought down John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company. In my additional research I have come to the conclusion that Tarbell’s kind of tough, accurate reporting is as needed now as it was in what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age.
Tarbell grew up in Titusville and was witness to Rockefeller’s efforts to corner the oil refining market. Her father, an independent oil man himself, refused to give in to Rockefeller’s tactics and paid a very high financial price for that decision.
In an article in the Smithsonian Magazine, writer Gilbert King notes that in 1872, working in collusion with the railroad companies, Rockefeller managed to leave Cleveland owning “85 percent of the city’s oil refineries.” Many independent oil companies in the region, including the Pennsylvania oil fields around Titusville, were forced to sell or face an uphill battle against Standard Oil.
After making a name for herself as a writer, Tarbell decided to expose Rockefeller’s practices. Using her skill as a researcher, she put together a 19-part series on Standard Oil for McClure’s Magazine. In 1900, the series appeared and later became a book, one of the most influential journalism books of the 20th Century.
King states that Tarbell’s series and book exposed Rockefeller’s business practices and eventually led to the application of the Sherman Antitrust Act, breaking up Standard Oil into smaller companies, including ExxonMobile and Chevron.
Today’s world is in desperate need of women and men like Ida Tarbell.
I once believed that censorship would be the biggest problem facing future journalists, something like Orwell’s 1984, but I no longer believe that. The Information Age has bombarded us with so much information that we can’t sort through what is true and what is false.
Those who would sway us to their way of thinking have used this overload to their advantage. Instead of restricting our access, they throw out as much as they can, obfuscating the truth and convincing us they are right.
This shift began back on the 1980s when the FCC ended the Fairness Doctrine. Before that, broadcasters were encouraged to present controversial issues to the public but they had the responsibility to do so in a fair and balanced way. If one side was presented, equal time was given to the other side. When that ended, a proliferation of radio talk shows took off providing unbalanced points of view presented as truth.
The propaganda (which is really what it is when only one side is presented) then spread to TV news. From the national spotlight, it eventually bled down to the local information channels.
As the deregulation continued, media companies began buying other media companies in a mega-merger frenzy. According to Business Insider, 90 percent of American media was owned by 50 companies in 1983. As of 2011, that number is down to six. Only six companies own and control almost all the media you and I hear, see or read. Forbes magazine goes even further and states that media control is in the hands of 15 billionaires who have the money and the power to take down any information outlet they don’t like. Just research what happened to Gawker.
Does all of this sound familiar? It should. It was standard business practice during the Gilded Age. In fact, Rockefeller could not have done it better, using money and influence to change regulations and then corner the market. The only problem is this market is where we, the people, are supposed to be informed so we can make important decisions, like who to elect to the most powerful position in the world.
Our era needs as many Ida Tarbells as it can get, but it also needs something else – a way for their voices to be heard. Crowd-sourcing journalists has allowed investigative reporting to go on and bypass the controlling companies. Demanding all sides of an issue be presented would also help, which is why I believe the FCC should reinstate the Fairness Doctrine.
Ultimately, though, despite the continued efforts of real journalists, we are duped because we are easy to dupe. With the truth at our fingertips we prefer to believe the lie because it fits our preconceptions. It is one of the saddest things I see as a teacher – ignorance by choice. Unless we are willing to support real news efforts and call out the manipulative money-driven fake news, the John D. Rockefellers of the Information Age will win.