Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Muckraking: A Disappearing Form Of Journalism?

Posted by Tom Foremski - March 9, 2011

The term muckraker has some negative connotations today but it used to be a noble term applied to a form of journalism that railed against injustice, corruption and the excesses of the high and mighty.

From Wikipedia: Muckraker

A muckraker is, primarily, a reporter or writer who investigates and publishes truthful reports involving a host of social issues, broadly including crime and corruption and often involving elected officials, political leaders and influential members of business and industry.

...The term eventually came to be used in reference to investigative journalists who reported about and exposed issues such as crime, fraud, waste, public health and safety, graft, illegal financial practices...


As the journalist profession continues to suffer in the train wreck of the media industry, the amount of muckraking appears to be diminishing as quickly as the number of journalists.

And there are seemingly few in the "new media" that want to be muckrakers, preferring instead to speculate about future iPhones or rewrite product press releases.

Robert Scoble recently pointed out some muckraking he did when at Microsoft:

I once took on Microsoft WHILE I WORKED THERE because of an injustice I felt was happening at every level. The execs had decided to pull support for an anti-discrimination bill due to pressure from a local church. I thought that was horse shit and wrote about it continually for a few days. Within a week Ballmer had reversed himself and within a year that bill passed for the first time in eight years of tries.


In my own small way I've done my share of muckraking over the past few years. When Yahoo! fingered its own users to the Chinese authorities, which resulted in a lengthy prison sentence for a Chinese journalist, I wrote many articles highly critical of the company's management. Here are some of them:

Despicable behavior by Yahoo management - Shi Tao gets ten years


Would You Work For Moral "Pygmies?" - The Costs Of Yahoo's Actions In China

Needless to say I wasn't popular with Yahoo for a long while and some execs would hide from me at various events. But I knew from my contacts among the rank and file of Yahoo that they were embarrassed by the company's actions. I even tied Yahoo's fall from grace and its long slide in stock market value to its actions in China - the cost of unethical behavior can be very high.

Yahoo's China "police informant" role sparked a $47.5 billion slide in market value | ZDNet

I've also taken on Google and other US firms.

US Tech Firms Lame Excuse on China Business


Dissidents within YHOO and GOOG will make ethical companies


Yahoo and Google and China - it's time to Do Some Good


Lately I've been sniping at the heels of Twitter over its despicable actions in San Francisco. Twitter threatened to leave San Francisco unless it got big cuts in paying local taxes. Yet this is a company whose founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone regularly trumpet the company's strong focus on corporate social responsibility, on TV, radio, and public speaking events.

How do they square that saintly position with aggressive attempts to remove resources from the very community where they work, and where many of their staff live? Hypocrites.

Very few journalists covered this story. Eve Batey and her team at SF Appeal tackled it, and so did the SF Bay Guardian but the rest of the local press corps were satisfied with swooning over Twitter and elevating it onto a pedestal where it gained credit for the revolts in the Middle East -- as if they couldn't have happened without the brilliance of Twitter (and Facebook). Ugh.


Here is some of my Twitter coverage:

Corporate Blackmail? - San Francisco Offers Tax Break To Twitter - SVW

Corporate Social Responsibility In Action - Twitter Might Not Be Satisfied With SF Tax Break - SVW

I can think of plenty of other subjects to muckrake. But I'm just a guy with a laptop sitting in a coffee shop. If I had the resources of a team of reporters then you would see more -- there are plenty of great stories to crack into.

On a couple of occasions I've tried to rally my colleagues in the local press corps to take on some key subjects but the response has always been lukewarm.

"Every company is up to something bad, what's the point?" was one response from a senior writer at a national newspaper.

Apathy is what keeps muckraking at bay and it's understandable: journalists are having to work three times as hard with little to look forward to.

Also, the companies themselves seek to control the press by inviting, or not inviting media to their press events. Many journalists are concerned about losing their relationship with key companies and that concern moderates their work.

I don't care if I'm not invited to Twitter events, for example. They are all usually webcast anyway and the information doled out is not exclusive.

I prefer to be outside the tent than inside. I'd rather not be controlled with the carrot and stick of access.

There is a lot that journalists can do for social good. Digital ink is cheap and companies don't like bad publicity.

Hopefully, muckraking will make a comeback.


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