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Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2007 10:36 am

Dead man talking

I have seen the past, and it works

Untitled Document As a young reporter, Lincoln Steffens learned that successful police officers had a somewhat ambiguous relationship to the law. Here’s how it worked in some New York City precincts in the late 19th century: Criminal syndicates did a thriving business in age-old vices (gambling, prostitution, thievery) and the police protected them, as long as they stayed within certain limits. If rich man lost his wallet to pickpocket, a detective would call in a favor from his criminal associates, the victim’s goods were returned, and the cop looked like a crime-solving genius. Our hero detective, of course, looked the other way when people of no consequence — blacks, immigrants, the poor — were victims. And if his criminal buddies got competition — say, a new theft ring moved in — our man in blue was there to crack a head or two and restore “law and order.”
For Steffens, a college-educated naïf, learning how some cops worked their beats helped launch him on a lifelong quest to understand the difference between the righteous and the sinners.
Eventually he’d write “The Shame of the Cities,” a magazine series about municipal corruption that made him famous. He was a contemporary of such journalists as Ida Tarbell, who dissected Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, and Upton Sinclair, who sliced and diced Chicago meatpackers. I’m fascinated by Steffens and the other muckrakers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who showed what an aggressive, independent press could do. So imagine my delight when I recently found Steffens’ autobiography, published in 1931, on the Prairie Archives discount table. I’ve been reading it, in bits and pieces, ever since.
Steffens started his career, like many journalists, just plain curious about how things work. And he believed, as have many idealists, that simply exposing evil would be enough to kill it, like sunlight on mold. So he went about the business of exposing corruption and its consequences, and he named names.
And he tried to understand how corruption could become so endemic. At first he believed that the younger a city — a St. Louis or Chicago, for instance — the more prone it was to tolerating bribery, vote-stealing, and crime, but that notion vanished when he went back East, to such places as Philadelphia and Boston. The idea that corruption was an urban phenomenon faded as he probed state governments. The belief that business was somehow more ethical or efficient than politics evaporated when reform-minded good-government businessmen took charge of cities and things became worse. Stumped, Steffens sought to find out who was responsible, who really called the shots. What he found is that things were never really the way they seemed. On Wall Street, company presidents did not control — they were puppets of such tycoons as J.P. Morgan. In cities, it wasn’t the mayor who governed; he was a creature of the local political boss. And so it went with governors and congressmen and presidents and, yes, even newspaper editors and publishers. Steffens recounted what he told one boss about political corruption: “It is not a temporary evil, not an accidental wickedness, not a passing symptom of the youth of a people. It is a natural process by which a democracy is made gradually into a plutocracy” — government of the people becomes government for the wealthy.
He tried to understand the process, and what he found pushed him to probe more deeply. The gulf, he discovered, between the righteous and the sinners was not that wide — and that the sinners often had more of the truth to them, and a greater potential for good, than so-called pillars of society. It was not, he wrote, “a matter of men or classes or education or character of any sort; it is a matter of pressure. Wherever the pressure is brought to bear, society and government cave in.”
Steffens never figured out the world — he was often famously wrong — but he never stopped trying, either. He tested his assumptions, reexamined his prejudices, and challenged his own right to consider himself a good man.
As he grew older, he even wondered about the work he’d done. Some muckrakers, he wrote, were content to keep exposing bad deeds, but that wasn’t enough: “Some of the muckrakers had not been thinking at all; they had their profession or their principles to which they stuck throughout all their experiences. It’s amazing to me to hear how little the muckrakers had learned from their muckraking. No wonder our readers got only our facts and the thrills of our sensations.”
Steffens represents modern American journalism at its start, a time of hellraising and optimism and discovery. Sometimes I feel as though I’m witnessing the end.
Newspapers where I spent most of my adult life are circling the drain — the consequence of years of betrayal by owners who sucked ungodly profits from their operations. Most news organizations today are gripped by fear; if they’re not cutting back, they’re selling out. The Wall Street Journal was just acquired by the disreputable Rupert Murdoch; the Chicago Reader has been sold to an undistinguished chain of alternative weeklies. With retrenchment comes weaker journalism, coupled with a crippling timidity and incuriosity.
I’m still trying to figure out why — and so, like a true believer whose faith is tested, I find comfort and encouragement in the ancient scriptures and by reading about the lives of the early apostles. To find hope for the future, it doesn’t hurt to look back.

Contact Roland Klose at editor@illinoistimes.com.
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