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Taking on the Trust

By Chris Roush
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Famous muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell never considered herself a business reporter, and no one ever called her that. But her reporting and writing about the Standard Oil Co. more than 100 years ago provided the template for how thousands of business journalists have covered companies ever since.

That’s why Steve Weinberg’s latest book, “Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller,” should be required reading for anyone who has to report about companies. Weinberg, who teaches at the University of Missouri, takes readers through the backdrop of how Tarbell came to write about Standard Oil, her reporting and writing tactics and her motivations. He also presents the other side of the story – how and why Rockefeller refused to cooperate with the journalist.

For anyone unfamiliar with the story, Standard Oil Co. was the Microsoft of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Founded by Rockefeller, the company grew to dominate the oil industry, which at that time derived much of its revenue from providing lighting for homes and offices, much the same way Microsoft now controls the software business. Rockefeller was the richest man in the country for decades and likely the world’s first billionaire.

Tarbell grew up in Pennsylvania, where oil drilling first began in this country, and her family owned a business that was a competitor to Standard Oil. She eventually became a staff writer for McClure’s Magazine, considered one of the top publications of the era.

Tarbell’s coverage of Standard Oil was ranked No. 5 by New York University’s journalism department in a list of the top journalism of the 20th century, and after reading Weinberg’s book, it’s easy to see why.

Before Tarbell came along and started looking into how Standard Oil operated and competed against other oil companies, journalism about companies in the United States was a hit-or-miss proposition. For one thing, large conglomerates, or trusts like Standard Oil, were new to the country, so people were divided as to whether they were good for society.

Her writing began in the November 1902 issue of McClure’s and lasted for 19 issues. It was meticulous in detailing Rockefeller’s early interest in oil and how the industry began. After the series was over, she wrote a profile of Rockefeller – perhaps the first CEO profile ever written for a magazine.

Tarbell dug into public documents across the country. Separately, these documents provided individual instances of Standard Oil’s strong-arm tactics against rivals, railroad companies and other organizations that got in its way. Collected by Tarbell into a cogent history, they became a damning portrayal of big business.

Tarbell talked to people inside the company and those who had competed against Standard Oil. And she was successful in gaining their trust – a step where other reporters had failed. Such reporting tactics – particularly in relying on documents – was new to journalism at that time.

Tarbell’s reporting and writing of Standard Oil stood above everything else for two reasons. It was the first corporate coverage of its kind, and it attacked the business operations of Rockefeller, the best-known CEO in the country at the time. That a prominent person in American society could lead a company that was using unsavory operating tactics was eye-opening.

Tarbell’s writing also Standard Oil credit for its good aspects. It was balanced. She portrayed the company without the writer bias that crept into most journalism at that time.

In the book, Weinberg also documents how Rockefeller responded to the coverage. Rockefeller never publicly responded to Tarbell’s history, but he did pursue a tactic that all business journalists must now live with today – he hired public relations professionals to shore up his image.

The effects of the Standard Oil coverage are widespread in business journalism today. It’s common practice now to develop sources within a company, sometimes off the record. And it’s common practice to seek out documents such as lawsuits and regulatory records to uncover news about business.

And, thanks to Tarbell, it’s also common for business reporters to work with PR people at companies if they want to write about CEOs and their management style.

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Copyright © 2008 Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism