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It was David meets Goliath in 1904 when Ida Tarbell published her groundbreaking exposé The History of the Standard Oil Company. Tarbell spent years researching how John D. Rockefeller’s mammoth trust gained control of more than 80 percent of the U.S. oil market by the turn of the century. Her articles in McClure’s magazine grabbed the attention of readers across the country with their descriptions of railroad kickbacks, price fixing and a ruthless determination to bury the competition. The federal government stepped up its rhetoric about the growth of monopolies, and the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the breakup of Standard Oil in 1911. (The trust’s spin-offs included the future Amoco, Chevron, Exxon and Mobil.) Steve Weinberg talks about his new book, Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller (W.W. Norton), which follows Tarbell from her childhood in Pennsylvania’s oil fields to her role in defining a new brand of journalism— investigative reporting—and writing what is considered one of the most influential books in American history.

What made Ida Tarbell different from other journalists at the time?

She wasn’t really trained as a journalist, and she didn’t have a lot of preconceptions about how to do the job. I’ve been a journalist for a long time. The No. 1 factor that determines success or mediocrity or outright failure as an investigative reporter is what I call relentless curiosity. Tarbell had it about everything, and it served her well. She was much more documents-based than other writers. She didn’t depend only on interviews or gossip. She was driven to find the highest and best evidence. She essentially invented what today we call exemplary investigative journalism because she went to the record. I don’t think anybody taught her that. It’s just something she did because she wanted everything to be as perfect as possible.

Standard Oil brought in PR people after the exposé came out. Was this also the birth of spin control?

I’m not an expert in the history of public relations, but I would say that Standard Oil made a bigger effort sooner than any other large corporation. It wasn’t done willingly; Rockefeller didn’t really understand the value of public relations, as far as I can tell, until it was too late for him. But others around him within Standard Oil understood the importance, and there were at least a few individuals holding themselves out as public relations experts.

What was the effect of the breakup of the trust?

I wouldn’t say that the average citizen won huge economic or political victories, but it had a very definite impact on the psychology of the nation. The Supreme Court hadn’t been particularly gutsy when it came to big business, but all of a sudden, the court is saying there’s something wrong here. I believe it gave the citizenry some confidence that those in government and in journalism were actually looking out for their welfare and trying to do something about gigantic corporations and the power that they wield.

Do you think being a woman reporter hurt Tarbell or helped her?

The fact that she faced discrimination, I think, made her more determined. Because of the way she was constituted, it drove her to do better than she might have otherwise. But in any objective sense, it hurt her. She had to work so much harder than a lot of the men who tried to do the same kind of journalism because she faced such skepticism. There’s not a lot of evidence that she faced meanness or rancor. It was more incredulity and condescension.

Rockefeller is so well known. Did you find anything surprising about him?

What surprised me most was his re – action to Tarbell. I’d read so much about him, and some of the biographies are very good. But the way he both avoided Tarbell and despised her didn’t fit with so much of the rest of his personality and his character and his actions. She really seemed to get under his skin. If I’d been in his shoes, maybe she would have gotten under my skin too.

Can journalism still have the kind of impact that Tarbell’s reporting did?

No question about it. I’ve done investigative reporting for 40 years, and I used to run the organization Investigative Reporters and Editors. I probably have as good an overview as anybody alive of investigative journalism and reporting in the last 50 years. Take the Enron scandal as an example. There was some suspicion about the way Enron was dominating and manipulating the energy markets before the journalists got involved in any significant way. But journalists are the main reason the Enron scandal came out as thoroughly and as relatively quickly as it did. They did a marvelous job of taking apart a really complicated entity and figuring out how it was hurting the public. Investigative reporting of the corporate sector is very strong in some newsrooms and at some book publishers.

As an investigative journalist, what stories interest you today?

I’ve been focusing very deeply on the criminal justice system, especially the causes and consequences of wrongful convictions. That’s my passion right now. There’s a fascinating history behind how we came to this point where wrongful convictions have become a plague in almost every jurisdiction in this country.


Originally published in the June 2008 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.