Journalism as Dragon Slaying: On "The History of the Standard Oil Company" by Ida Tarbell

Journalism as Dragon Slaying: On "The History of the Standard Oil Company" by Ida Tarbell

Ida Tarbell | The History of the Standard Oil Company | Belt Publishing | October 2, 2018 | 400 Pages


Today, Belt Publishing published a re-issue of The History of the Standard Oil Company by Ida Tarbell (originally published in 1904), with modernized spelling, abridged sections, and a new introduction by public historian Elizabeth Catte part of their “Revivals” series. Belt’s Revival series publishes “unjustly forgotten, newly resonant” works on the Midwest. Certainly The History of the Standard Oil Company is unjustly forgotten: the exposé of the titular American oil monopoly helped define the field of investigative journalism and changed the course of the US oil industry. The History of the Standard Oil Company speaks to the consolidation of corporate power, the abuse of this power in business and politics, and its impact on the public. However, more than any particular theme within the book itself, what feels the most resonant today is how the book speaks to the role of journalism in American society. In an era where the label of “fake news” is used to describe both phony clickbait and serious journalism that challenges those in power, The History of the Standard Oil Company is a sobering, even hopeful reminder of where investigative journalism came from, what impactful journalism looks like, and what kind of changes it can lead to.

The book begins with an introduction by Catte, a public historian and author of the extremely well-received What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia. Catte provides a thoughtful, helpful, and well-researched overview of the context and reaction to The History of the Standard Oil Company. Catte discusses the duality of personal and scholarly motivations that Tarbell had for writing the work (her father worked in the oil industry and protested Standard Oil), as well as the impact of the work. Originally published as a serial in McClure’s Magazine, it inspired public outcry and led to charges being filed against the Standard Oil Company in 1906. Standard Oil lost their case in 1906, and the ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1911, leading to the dissolution of the company.

Tarbell aimed for the book to be a “straightforward narrative, as picturesque and dramatic as I can make it, of the great monopoly.” She begins with the Standard Oil Company’s context in the early petroleum industry, recounting the Pennsylvania oil rush of the mid-1800s. She then traces the history of the company, from its formative years in Cleveland, Ohio to its development into a monopolistic, international oil empire..

Tarbell’s ability to synthesize historical and journalistic styles is part of what makes the book so effective. Tarbell uses journalistic methods to find primary sources on the history of the Standard Oil Company, performing interviews and securing documents from employees of the company. She pieces these findings together, resulting in a sweeping narrative of how the Standard Oil Company brutally built its power. Tarbell paints a vivid picture of the company as unethical to its very core, pointing to a need for institutional change rather than atonement for individual misdeeds. Her boots-on-the-ground approach, which includes a fair amount of procedural details about the general development of the company and the industry, also lends additional credibility to the more controversial aspects of the story. Her journalistic methods justify her damning analysis, making her conclusions seem reasonable rather than sensationalistic.

As Catte notes in her introduction, Tarbell’s political views were disappointing to many progressives of her time. Tarbell disdained the suffrage movement and was, as Catte describes, “a reliable supporter of capitalists of a better sort.” Tarbell’s worldview, of course, influenced the conclusions she drew throughout the book. Although The History of the Standard Oil Company documents racism, harassment, and a slew of unethical business practices, these controversies are all framed around the central thesis that the Standard Oil Company played unfairly against its competitors. For example, in one case, Tarbell recounted the story of a competitor’s black employee, whom Standard Oil referred to as the n-word and lied to in exchange for intel on his employer, which was subsequently run out of business. In her analysis of this story, Tarbell directs her outrage is not at Standard Oil’s racist treatment of this black man, but at how Standard Oil’s corrupt business tactics harmed consumers by leading to higher oil prices. The book doesn’t critique or come close to fully addressing social issues in early 20th century American culture, nor does Tarbell necessarily recognize these issues as such: She emphasizes economic fairness within the existing capitalist framework. She writes, “When the businessman who fights to secure special privileges, to crowd his competitor off the track by other than fair competitive methods, receives the same summary disdainful ostracism by his fellows that... the athlete who abuses the rules, receives, we shall have gone a long way toward making commerce a fit pursuit for our young men.” Tarbell wanted competition to be as fair in capitalism as it was in sports, at least when the teams (Standard Oil) aren’t bribing the refs.  

Tarbell’s work and its legacy shows how journalists can have a tangible impact on the course of history, not just by exposing secrets, but by arguing for specific reforms. The History of the Standard Oil Company provoked a public outcry and government investigations into Standard Oil. In 1911, the Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil violated antitrust laws, and Tarbell’s political vision of a more just capitalism came closer to reality. But we must also note that the reforms the book helped bring about didn’t solve problems once and for all. Standard Oil was dissolved into 34 companies, which eventually became many of the oil giants that remain today, including ExxonMobile, Chevron, and various subsidiaries of BP. As Catte so eloquently put it, “The dragon was slain, but its offspring still thrived.” With the benefit of historical retrospect, we know that, even with fairer competition, these have been some of the most destructive organizations in human history, with an unmatched impact on the environment, not to mention a sizable toll on human health and life.

Tarbell became renowned for her balanced journalism, which tended to be as fair as the society she sought. However, journalistic integrity does not require timid conclusions. Readers today are regularly faced with major leaks and exposés, but, in response, even limited reforms like those that The History of the Standard Oil Company achieved tend to seem unattainable. The History of the Standard Oil Company spurs us to consider what we can achieve, and should try to achieve, whenever new abuses are exposed in our own age of information.

Overall, Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company is worth revisiting today. The Belt Revivals series rightfully recognized that the work had a renewed relevance. A deep look into both the abuses of the powerful and the potential of journalists and the public to shed light on these abuses is more than applicable to our present moment. Reading The History of the Standard Oil Company in 2018 urges us to both learn about the past and think about the present from new angles.

It is very popular in our own times to proclaim that “journalism is dead”, especially as regional, independent, and small newsrooms are frequently bought by massive media corporations, making massive cuts and layoffs, or shutting down entirely. Tarbell’s book does not prove that good journalism will always be relevant, or that this kind of journalism is a fundamental mode of political praxis. Rather, it shows that, when journalists go behind the curtains of reality, so to speak, and synthesize previously unknown facts with a compelling counter-narrative, they can spark important changes. De-constructing reality and the powers-that-be won’t always lead to positive constructions. But without this kind of work, which is often thankless, people with the power to change things would be deprived of the most important tool: information, which shines a light on problems and can potentially lead to serious reforms. The “revival” of The History of the Standard Oil Company re-emphasizes this all too often unnoticed and thankless work, and is an ode to muckraking journalists who tirelessly aim to hold power accountable through thoughtful, daring reporting.

Listening for the Heart: On Brian Phillips' "Impossible Owls"

Listening for the Heart: On Brian Phillips' "Impossible Owls"

The Myths and Lies of the Health Care Quality Industrial Complex

The Myths and Lies of the Health Care Quality Industrial Complex