A reporter reviews a David’s coverage of a Goliath.
A Contrary review by Thomas Larson

What we may not remember in a world saturated with a media hell-bent on outing every celebrity’s secret (Goodbye, John Edwards) is that serious investigative reporting about the money and influence of the privileged and powerful has an American Eve. Her name was Ida M. Tarbell, and she invented muckraking, a form of reportage marked by moral outrage, stringent research, and reformist zeal. Tarbell, who died in 1944 at 86, had one of the most successful careers in magazine journalism. She was the sort of writer that Pulitzer prizes were made to honor. As writer and editor, she blazed the trail for those rare authentic journalists, crusaders like Ray Stannard Baker and Lincoln Steffens in her time and Seymour Hersh, Robert Caro, and Jane Mayer in our own.
Tarbell’s ethical opposite—and her sparing partner—was John D. Rockefeller, the richest of the industrial barons. In the Pennsylvania oil boom of the 1860s, Rockefeller began by making a critical decision: he would forego drilling for oil and put his usurious wherewithal in refining and delivering oil, gas, and kerosene. He monopolized his products’ availability; he shipped and hoarded fuel as he saw fit; he manipulated prices; he took kickbacks; he eliminated middlemen; and he colluded with the railroads, his means of delivery, to insure preferential treatment. It was no accident that his tactics quickened the country’s industrialization.
The rest of the story is fairly well-known. With Standard Oil, based in Cleveland, Ohio, Rockefeller undercut the costs of rival refineries until they sold out—to Standard Oil—and, voilá, the refinery business had been entrusted to him. Tarbell’s reporting on Rockfeller’s predation led to federal antitrust legislation and the landmark evisceration of Standard Oil into thirty-three smaller companies. The exposé ended the era of trusts (Rockfeller’s was not the only one), but, unintentionally, showed management and investors how to profit from centralization, despite the law. When conglomerates break apart—in our time, we think of AT&T and the attempt to split Microsoft—the fines they face are minuscule in comparison to what can be earned with divestiture.
In each subsidiary, Rockefeller received commensurate amounts of stock, which, in turn, grew quickly as investors took advantage of the new, leaner companies. Paradoxically, the demise of his trust became a huge boon. Carving up Standard Oil quintupled his net worth, "making him," the author states, "almost certainly the first billionaire in America’s existence," perhaps in human history.
Steve Weinberg’s strongest suit is his parallel storytelling. He shows us how Tarbell became a conscience-prone journalist and how Rockefeller steered his cartel across the seas of deception and governmental noninterference. The subtitle, alas, is misleading—no doubt a publisher’s sales’ ploy to engage conflict. The book enjoins the battle only in the final chapters, when, in 1902, McClure’s Magazine first serialized Tarbell’s nineteen-part article, "The History of the Standard Oil Company," which later appeared in a two-volume set.
The opponents’ back stories are fascinating. Tarbell watched her father, an oilman himself, get squeezed between Standard Oil and wildcat producers. Pinched, he lost his joy in life, which radicalized his daughter to hate and go after privilege. Rockefeller watched his ne’er-do-well father drink himself into stupor, so at a young age, he took over the family’s welfare. Later, Rockefeller used his Christian charity as a screen to avoid government investigation and suspicions about his character. Tarbell used her affinity for Darwinian psychology to plumb the "Cleveland ogre." She slipped only once when, after her expose, she wrote a "mean-spirited profile" of the oil tyrant that turned part of the focus away from the magnate and onto the messenger.
"If the maxim is true," Weinberg writes, "that a biography reveals as much about the biographer as it does about the subject, then the character sketch of Rockefeller affords the reader a look into Tarbell’s psyche with every paragraph. For instance, Tarbell wrestled with traditional religion versus secular belief most of her life, so it is interesting how she presents the details of Rockefeller’s charitable contributions, then turns his philanthropy against him."
Weinberg quotes from Tarbell’s screed against Rockefeller’s piety as the worst of his bad traits: "The principles of the religion he professes are so antagonistic to the principles of the business he practices that the very world which emulates him has been turned into hypocrites and cynics under his tutelage." The thing Tarbell hated above all was that Rockefeller’s tactics were seen as inescapable to the prosperity of the nation. Greed rationalized into good.
Weinberg, known for his own muckraking, his books on investigating reporting, and his teaching at the famed University of Missouri journalism school, presents all this material with matchless evenhandedness. This is a fine book in which our sympathy for David over Goliath is elicited not from the author’s bias but from the factual reporting of the people and the events themselves.

Thomas Larson is a contributing writer for the weekly San Diego Reader and author of The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative, published by Swallow Press.

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Taking on the Trust

Steve Weinberg

2008, Norton

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