Doris Kearns Goodwin Investigates the Birth of Activist Journalism

Doris Kearns Goodwin/Photo © Helga Esteb

In the twenty-first century, we tend to take investigative journalism for granted. Every year, documentary filmmakers expose corruption around the world in Oscar-winning movies like “Taxi to the Dark Side” and “The Cove,” while authors like Barbara Ehrenreich and Eric Schlosser reveal the exploitative underbelly of the American economic machine in bestselling books such as Nickel and Dimed and Fast Food Nation. But the birth of the form took place more than a hundred years ago, as outlined by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (No Ordinary Time) in her new book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, which hits shelves Tuesday, November 5.

The early activist journalists Goodwin highlights have their spiritual descendants in filmmakers such as Michael Moore and Alex Gibney, but they haven’t much gotten their due as characters on the big screen despite the many depictions of journalism in the decades since their muckraking heyday. The Fifties saw movies such as “Sweet Smell of Success” and “Scandal Sheet” that focused on the seedy gossip-rag version of journalism, while the post-Watergate Seventies and Eighties spawned “All the President’s Men,” “The China Syndrome,” “The Killing Fields” and “Salvador” — films that depict journalists exposing the brutality and malfeasance of governments and corporations. Journalism took some knocks in the late Nineties and Aughts, but for every “Contagion” and “Shattered Glass” that showcased an unscrupulous reporter Hollywood bolstered the image of the prototypical righteous journalist in movies such as “Blood Diamond,” “State of Play,” “The Insider” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

Anyone wanting to take his own tour through the history of journalist activism could start with one of the classics written by the muckraking progenitors — Ida Tarbell’s The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), Lincoln Steffens’s The Shame of the Cities (1904) or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) — then move on to the resurgence in the Sixties represented by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death (1963) and Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965). In addition to biographies of Sinclair and Tarbell, there are several books that provide a broader look. Until Steven Spielberg decides to take a crack at an adaptation of Bully Pulpit, as he did by turning Goodwin’s Team of Rivals into the Oscar-winning “Lincoln,” these will have to do. Given that his studio, DreamWorks, bought the film rights to the book last week, it may just happen.