Posted in theology

Did you know where the term muckraker came from? You might be surprised

By Elizabeth Prata

I am a former journalist. I was an investigative reporter and also a features writer for both weeklies and daily newspapers for ten years. I got out of journalism and went back to education in 2010, but the profession of journalistic integrity still speaks strongly to my heart. It is the Fourth Estate and foundational to a strong democracy.

There are unscrupulous writers who call themselves journalists. They use their bully pulpit, whether it’s the newsprint or screens of their online media outlets, to damage and destroy. Some do it evilly well. They delight to damage a lot of people and besmirch reputations and they do it with dastardly conviction. Some years ago, one such muckraker got me into journalism. I did it so I could combat their negativity with credible and decent writing that edified and informed, not harmed.

Theodore Roosevelt used the word “muck-raker” in a speech he gave regarding yellow journalism, a newspaper practice that was rampant at the time he was president.

Muckraker is the word used to describe any Progressive Era journalist who investigated and publicized social and economic injustices. Theodore Roosevelt applied the term in his important speech in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1906, entitled “The Man With the Muck-Rake.” Roosevelt disapproved of journalists whom he considered to be so overly focused on the bad that they failed to notice and report on the good. Source: Theodore Roosevelt Center

Hmmm, too entranced with the bad to notice the good. But the term didn’t originate with Roosevelt. He got it from John Bunyan’s wonderful book The Pilgrim’s Progress, part 2 (Christiana’s journey).

This done, and after these things had been somewhat digested by Christiana and her company, the Interpreter takes them apart again, and has them first into a room where was a man that could look no way but downwards, with a muck-rake in his hand. There stood also one over His head with a celestial crown in His hand, and proffered him that crown for his muck-rake; but the man did neither look up, nor regard, but raked to himself the straws, the small sticks, and dust of the floor. ~The Pilgrim’s Progress, Part 2

Journalists did not like being called muckrakers. It is a derogatory term, but an apt one. While the need still exists for good journalists to continue doing their jobs of exposing corruption and injustice, the practice is dangerous. Why? It’s seriously addicting. You puff up with power, you like the conflict, you surf the waves of scandal, hating the trough and needing the heights.

No matter how well-intentioned the journalist was when he or she began, the temptation to do evil is strong with that profession. Some succumb.

And observers also succumb to the spectacle before us, whether it be a championship sports game and its aftermath, a scandal, a jury trial, a mob scene or crime, whatever it is, we have to know when to stop raking it. Tony Reinke said in his book “Competing Spectacles, “Spectacles compete with God for attention.

The greatest spectacle of all is Christ. The muck-raker would not look up or regard the crown that was offered.

The men with the muck-rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society, but only if they know when to stop raking the muck.

[T. Roosevelt, quoted in “Cincinnati Enquirer,” April 15, 1906.]

Roosevelt was right. We read that-

In his speech, Roosevelt insisted that his “plea is not for immunity to but for the most unsparing exposure of the politician who betrays his trust, of the big business man who makes or spends his fortune in illegitimate or corrupt ways. There should be a resolute effort to hunt every such man out of the position he has disgraced….It is because I feel that there should be no rest in the endless war against the forces of evil that I ask that the war be conducted with sanity as well as with resolution.” ~Source

How well said. Let us perform our duties in the war with sanity as well as with resolution. Now, as Christians, let me switch from speaking of the journalistic war of exposing wrongdoing, to the spiritual war of exposing error and heresy. We must be measured, doctrinally sure, and sane. We have to know who the good guys are. We must discern who is in the sheepfold from those who try to enter the sheepfold as a thief.

Of all people on earth we should be grateful. Our joy should emanating from our faces as the light shone from Moses when he descended the mountain. We do not overlook injustice, error, or moral corruption. But we do not focus on it. We focus on Jesus. Let’s not look solely at the muck, eventually unable to raise our heads to gaze upon the righteousness and glory beaming down.

The cross is the unifying, horrifying, all-time beautiful spectacle all humans should gaze upon and regard. Muck is muck but Christ is worthy. The internet doesn’t fuel our longing for Christ, sports doesn’t fuel it, video games won’t help us be more like Christ. Christians need to resolve the difference between earthly and heavenly spectacles. Let us (and me too) spend our hours and days gazing upon, listening to, reading of Christ.

saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing.” (Revelation 5:12)


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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