Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Dirt On Muckraking

OUR Prime Minister (for the moment) has thrown about the word muckraker during each of the last three Question Times, which all must agree have provided some of the best entertainment on afternoon telly since the sad death of Vi Greenhalf. Gillard spits the word at the Abbott with a theatrical venom, perhaps imagining it to mean something wholly repugnant -- what a cleaner might find limp, warm and rubbery, for instance, beneath a bed recently occupied by Craig Thomson.

If Gillard uses it again today, someone on the Opposition benches should thank her for extending such high praise, as muckraking has a brave and noble past. Indeed, many of the modern left's proto-heroes were muckrakers, and it was their efforts and intrepid investigations that exposed racism, mistreatment of children and lunatics, dire poverty, forced prostitution, diseased meat and, a favourite topic, corruption in government. You can read about some of the first muckrakers here.

When Gillard is gone from office and has quite a bit more time to fill, she might like to pick up a copy of Joyce Milton's The Yellow Kids. A history of so-called yellow journalism in the US at the turn of the last century, it is one of the most entertaining books about the period, its publishers and the politics of the Spanish-American war a reader can take up. Reporters didn't defer to authority figures back then. At the ceremony to mark America's victory in Cuba, one of Milton's subjects walked up the commanding US general and punched him in the nose.

As Milton explains, Theordore Roosevelt coined the term to describe reporters who were making his life difficult. They drove him to a greater fury by adopting it as a badge of honour.

So should the opposition, which deserves recognition for its ongoing determination to wring the truth from a congenital lawyer and liar.

Until the book becomes available in a Kindle edition, several chunks of the The Yellow Kids can be viewed here.


  1. "Until the book becomes available in a Kindle edition..."

    If you go to "Country Settings" under "Manage Your Kindle" and set your zone to USA you can get the Kindle edition for $3.99.

  2. One of the 20th century's great muckrakers was Jessica Mitford, the sister of Nancy, Deborah, Unity et al, firmly of the far left, in fact a lifelong commie, but wonderfully entertaining and a deadly enemy of the shonky, the dishonest and the meretricious. She single-handedly destroyed the "Famous Writers' School", to say nothing of her attacks on the funeral industry. She ought to be one of the PM's idols; she is one of mine, even if she could never turn the blowtorch on her own shabby ideological choices.

    Abbott should accept the title with pride.

  3. Leaving aside other howlers (think 'hyperbowl'), this is up there with 'rolled gold' which Rudd used to use, and still gets an occasional airing from some of the Luvvies. As in 'rolled gold guarantee'. Rolled gold is, of course, ersatz - cheap worthless metal coated with a thin layer of gold in order to deceive the observer into thinking it is solid gold. Rudd inadvertently was correct. His promises were rolled gold. But I think he meant solid gold. But then he also mangles sucks of savaloys and shakesof sauce bottles.

    1. O/T, but on the general issue of slovenly language, today's Australian quotes a Silly journalsit, one Jacqueline Maley, describing Peter Slipper as having 'the bearing of a Regency king".

      A 'Regency king' is surely someone who is either under age and/or incapable of carrying out their duties - Louis XIV and George III being the classic examples of the first and second types respectively.

      Slipper may well be incapable of carrying out his duties, but I don't think that's what Ms Maley meant, she seems instead to believe that the term somehow refers to an obsession with pomp.

      How can such a poorly informed and sloppy writer be employed by a 'quality' paper? The only consolation is that her salary isn't paid from our taxes, well, not yet, anyway.

      Consuela Potez

    2. I always thought the idiom meant the guarantee was printed on a fancy gold-embossed document.

      Sort of like "gilt-edged invitation". Gilt having an air of cheapness, but gilt-edged implying class.

      Anyway, when a politician has to embellish their given word with adjectives, you know it ain't worth nuffink.

  4. 'Lawyer'.... roll the word around on your tongue....'lawyer'. Say it a couple of times....'lawyer'. Just sayin'
    JakartaJaap (advocaat)

  5. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.February 16, 2012 at 11:25 AM

    While it is commendable that you wish to resuscitate the historical reference of the term 'muckraking', Professor, its other use predominates in the public mind: as meaning manure, something dirty or strongly disliked. The muckrake is thus an 'imaginary implement of scandal-mongers and indecent writers' OED.

    Our Prime Minister thus attempts to accuse the Opposition of unseemly intentions when they merely point out a few verities about her behaviour and activites. As we know and may infer, she is often a stranger to the truth and is indeed familiar with 'the gutter', a place to which in Banchee tone she falsely allocates the probes of the Opposition.

    It seems she rides a traditionally-defined rake rather than a broomstick.

    1. This guy knew how to muckrake!

  6. That said, Lizzie, and speaking as a one-time third combatant on several institutions' debating teams, the opportunity to remind our PM of the word's origins is, or should be, too delicious to pass up. Good heavens, even a half-gifted orator could have fun with this one.

  7. One of the strongest supported industrial actions post-war in Victoria was the strike by Werribee muckrakers (or shit stirrers as they were known locally). Back in the 1950s these honourable but odiferous chaps were charged with removing by rake foreign objects from sewage settling ponds. Their occupation rendered them so smelly they could be recognised a block away and were not permitted to enter the local public bar for their post-toil libation, instead having to be served through a back window. They went on strike in pursuit of a special payment to compensate for their stench-prompted ostracisation and the whole town applauded when the arbitration commission awarded them a 10 shilling addition to their award. Repulsive as it was, it could be argued that the stench emanating from these hardy workers came from honourable toil. Unlike the stink that oozes from every pore of this rotten, untruthful, inept excuse for a government.

  8. Consuela: Great catch! Then again, perhaps that is exactly what she meant. Let us give Maley the benefit of the doubt and assume she has unearthed a cache of George III's travel vouchers for midnight jaunts in a sedan chair about Whitechapel and similar locations. The Silly's reporters understand a regent's role, surely they do?

  9. Gillard is "a congenital lawyer and liar". Well said Prof, and this is true no more than in the workers' compensation jurisdiction. An alliance of dishonest trade union officials, lawyers and doctors operates to promote and even solicit false claims. Deception, lying and ambush are part of the game. The insurance companies and their tame lawyers and doctors do like battle on the other side. No wonder that such lawyers (and I suspect Gillard is one) gain skill in shaving the truth to a point where it hardly exists. (And of course there other other jursidictions where dishonest practices flourish.)

    Gillard's behaviour reminds me of a Clinton story. Asked how many people were in a room, he answered '20'. When confronted with evidence that there 40, he replied that 'Yes, so that were 20 in the room'.

  10. "Muckraking" - During Stalinist times really committed commie couple I knew very proudly proclaimed their whole existence was about "shitstirring"* but only "shitstirring" that would confront the "System" and aid the inevitable Revolution".

    *(someone please give Numbers a hyphen)