Journalists for a New Era:
Jacob Riis, Ida Tarbell, etc.

By Page Smith, 1984

This is Part Two of a Four-Part Excerpt

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Riis found it slow, hard work. Flashlight powder had just been invented, enabling photographers to take pictures indoors and in bad or uncertain light. The flashes were fired in a pistol-like instrument which frightened the subjects, but Riis realized at once how much pictures added to a merely verbal description. He got permission from his editors to hire a photographer to accompany him on his nocturnal expeditions through the Bend and along Mott Street, up alleys and into malodorous lodgings. When the photographer balked at such ungodly hours, Riis taught himself the new technique, including developing the plates. He devised a less threatening pan for the flashlight powder, and, as he had anticipated, his photographs gave a vivid reinforcement to his word pictures. “Twice,” he wrote, “I set fire to the house with my apparatus, and once to myself. I blew the light into my own eyes on that occasion and only my spectacles saved me from being blinded for life.”

Riis railed when reformers closed the houses of prostitution and drove the prostitutes off the streets; they took refuge in the tenements and plied their trade there to the demoralization of the younger inhabitants of both sexes and the shame of the older tenement dwellers. The Tenement House Building Company was financed with private capital in 1885 to build a series of model tenements, well lit and well ventilated. Two years later whole blocks of tenements were torn down. That was the year, Riis wrote, “I began to grow stout, and honestly, I think it was the tearing down of tenements that did it. Directly or indirectly, I had a hand in destroying seven whole blocks of them….I wish it had been seventy.”

He had his title; finally he had his book. “How the Other Half Lives” was published in 1890 and became an immediate best seller. Theodore Roosevelt called it “an enlightenment and an inspiration,” and young Frances Perkins, destined to become the first woman Cabinet member forty-odd years later, read it and “straightaway felt that the pursuit of social justice” must be her calling. Riis, with his arresting photographs and text had, in fact, produced the first American documentary, invented a genre that was to become universal; moreover, he had pioneered the new journalism that was to dominate the coming era of reform.

One of Jacob Riis’s junior colleagues among the police reporters of the city was Lincoln Steffens. Steffens’s own life was a kind of prolonged romance. Born and brought up in Sacramento of prosperous and cultured parents, he graduated from the University of California and then set out, like so many of his class, for a year abroad, with particular emphasis on Heidelberg and the “art student life” of Munich. Acquiring a wife and a mother-in-law in Europe, Steffens returned to the United States and settled down in New York, determined to be a journalist or, as he put it, “a reporter.” His ambition was to master the “theories of ethics” and contrast the theories with the “actual conduct of men in business, politics, and the professions.” Starting on the Evening Post, “a conservative three-cent evening newspaper,” Steffens was soon reporting the Wall Street news and, in the process, making himself an authority on the dealings of the nation’s money capital. He quickly learned that the master manipulators of trusts who frequently trespassed into criminal territory loved to boast of their exploits to awed young reporters. James B. Dill, who managed the merger of J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie into the United States Steel Corporation, gave Steffens “a picture of such chicanery and fraud, of wild license and wrong-doing” that he was too startled to write it all down. Dill pressed him to write it up – “it is your duty to describe what is done under these (laws, which Dill has pushed through the New Jersey legislature) and if your editor shows any hesitation, you may tell him to call me up on the phone; I will stand back of whatever you print.” Steffens had learned his first lesson in democratic politics. He found that the principal criminals were not only shameless but secure in the knowledge that most of what they told would never find its way into print because the readers of the nation’s newspapers did not wish to know it. Steffens also discovered that the politicians and businessmen who joined forces so readily to rob the public were, almost invariably, fine, cheery, friendly fellows who carried on their villainies with a disarming charm. When newspapers recounted the illicit transactions of such men as Dill, “you were advertising our business – free,” the irrepressible Dill gleefully informed Steffens.

From Wall Street, Steffens found himself drawn, rather unwittingly, into the reform efforts of the Reverend Charles Parkhurst and Jacob Riis. In Steffens’s opinion, it was Parkhurst, more than anyone else, who inaugurated the era of municipal reform. His exposures of police corruption forced the New York state legislature to appoint a commission, the famous Lexow Committee, to investigate his charges. The investigation “proved and exposed the police and Tammany corruption, caused the election of a reform administration, and led up to the whole period of muckraking and the development of the Progressive party….Such a service,” Steffens added, “is not the kind that is appreciated by public opinion and history….” To Steffens, Parkhurst was a far more interesting man than the stereotyped image of the grim-lipped reformer: “a man of strength, who was ‘wise’ in the slangy sense and otherwise wise. He never told or preached half of what he knew.” When disgruntled individuals came to Parkhurst with their stories of scandal and corruption, the minister set a team of attorneys and detective to work tracing down the leads; Steffens and Riis followed close on their heels to report to their readers.

One of Dr. Parkhurst’s agents was a young journalist named Frederic Howe. Parkhurst appointed Howe captain of an assembly district that included Greenwich Village, and gave him the mission of reporting vice, especially illegal hours in saloons. “The saloon,” Howe wrote, “was the source of political power. It bred the gang, was the training school of the boss. It gathered its tribute from the underworld and provided a club for the immigrant and the Irish leaders who ruled the city of New York.” Howe found in the saloons’ cheerful and sudsy environment a haven of friendship and boozy conviviality. He discovered, rather to his dismay, that he liked the saloonkeepers more than he liked Dr. Parkhurst and his lieutenants. The saloons gave “free lunches, salads, fried oysters, and other delicacies that went with a five-cent glass of beer.” The free food was much better than the food at Howe’s boardinghouse. He could study in a warm corner of the local bar better than in the law library. Jerry, the bartender, lent a kindly ear and provided free therapy for his regular customers. When Howe chided Jerry for breaking the law – for staying open after hours and keeping upstairs rooms for prostitutes – Jerry defended himself by asserting that if he kept the laws, he would be forced out of business. To survive, in the face of the heavy taxes imposed by the city, it was necessary to break the law. In order to break the law and operate, saloonkeepers had to pay bribes to the police. Persuaded by the arguments of Jerry and his fellows, Howe resigned his job as captain of the Vigilance League and wrote Dr. Parkhurst his reasons. “You and I,” he told Parkhurst, “are in partnership with the saloon.” By placing a punitive tax on the saloons, the lawmakers encouraged violations of the law. “The laws,” Howe argued, “make the police grafters. An honest policeman cannot keep his job. If a patrolman fails to come through to his sergeant at the end of the week, he is sent to the woods, to a lonely beat on the edge of town.” The people who made such laws, Howe continued, “are our kind of people. They are in your congregation. They take millions out of the saloon-keeper, and he in turn takes these millions out of the poor….He ruins homes. Finally, he corrupts the politics of the city as well. You and I profit out of the ruin….We don’t have to pay as much taxes as we otherwise would.”

Howe found the Irish the most congenial element in New York City. They lived in a world of “political reality,” far different from the world of idealistic illusion in which Howe’s Johns Hopkins teachers like Woodrow Wilson and Albert Shaw lived. “Here politics was part of everyday life, part of the family, of religion, of race. Politics was daily work.” Howe’s head was full of abstractions taught him at Hopkins. “To me,” he wrote, “politics meant disinterested service. To the people of the East Side it meant getting something for themselves and their friends….To the poor politics meant bread and a circus….The God the priest talked about was nearer the people than the God I would have had them worship….Betrayal of the boss or the clan was an unforgivable offense. Everybody, everybody understood it. The judge sympathized with it. The policeman was the creature of it….These practical East Side politicians….were kindly, tolerant; good companions. Their system was human and simple, something anyone could understand. It took graft and it gave graft. It took graft from the saloon-keepers, prostitutes, contractors and big business interests as naturally as its members took help and gave help to neighbors when sick or in need….“

The reformers, needless to say, were not of Howe’s mind. Dick Croker, the boss of New York, found to his honest astonishment that new forces were at work. Reform suddenly became fashionable. Arrayed against him were the “honest Republicans, the fine old aristocratic Democrats, the reformers called goo-goos after their Good Government Clubs, the ‘decent’ newspapers, and the good people generally.” William Strong ran on the reform ticket and was elected mayor in 1895. Now the question was: Could Strong withstand the ancient forces of corruption or would he, too, succumb? Everyone was aware that the most crucial appointment was that of president of the police board. Jacob Riis was confident that it had to be young Theodore Roosevelt, who had run for mayor on the reform ticket four years earlier. “God will attend his appointment,” Riis told Lincoln Steffens, who wrote: “Roosevelt it was. Riis came running out into the street shouting out the news and close after him came T. R., yelling, waving his arms to reporters and dashing up the steps of police headquarters.”

Like an excited schoolboy elected president of his class, Roosevelt held a hasty meeting with the other commissioners (one of whom was Frederick Dent Grant, son of the general), ushered them out, and then steered Steffens and Riis into his office, closed the door, and exclaimed: “Now, then, what’ll we do?” When the two reporters had gotten TR “calmed down, we made him promise to go a bit slow, to consult with his colleagues also.”

The arrival of Theodore Roosevelt on the scene seemed to Riis a kind of miracle. Roosevelt had an energy to match Riis’s, and the reporter became his guide and alter ego. Together the two men roamed the night city, catching policemen sleeping on duty or loitering in saloons, hobnobbing with known criminals. One night Riis took the new commissioner on a tour of the police lodging rooms for vagrants. It was two o’clock of a rainy night when they got to the Church Street station, the scene of Riis’s humiliation, the sore spot he had sworn almost fifteen years earlier to see obliterated. Riis led the president of the police board down the dank cellar steps. “It was unchanged – just as it was the day I left there. Three men lay stretched at full length on the dirty planks, two of them young lads from the country. Standing there,” Riis wrote, “I told Mr. Roosevelt my own story. He turned alternately red and white with anger as he heard it.” And then he “struck his clenched fists together,” and declared, “I will smash them tomorrow.” Within a week, the order was given to close the doors of the police lodging rooms on February 15, 1896, and never to open them again. For his midnight hours with Riis, Roosevelt was nicknamed Haroun al Roosevelt and more derisive names.

Riis was convinced that his friend’s destiny was to become president of the United States. When Steffens pooh-poohed the notion, the impulsive Riis burst into Roosevelt’s office to ask him outright. According to Steffens, “T.R. leaped to his feet, ran around his desk and fists clenched, teeth bared, he seemed about to strike or throttle Riis, who shrank away, amazed. ‘Don’t you dare ask me that,’ T.R. yelled at Riis. ‘Don’t you ever put such ideas into my head. No friend of mine would ever say a thing like that you- you- ’” Then, calming down a bit, Roosevelt told the two startled men, “Never, never, you must neither of you ever remind a man at work on a political job that he may be president. It almost always kills him politically. He loses his nerve; he can’t do his work; he gives up the very traits that are making him a possibility. I, for instance, I am going to do great things here, hard things that require all the courage, ability, work that I am capable of, and I can do them if I think of them alone. But if I get to thinking of what it might lead to-” Then, aware of how much his outburst had revealed of the nature of his own ambition, he stopped, “with his face screwed up into a knot,” and said slowly, “I must be wanting to be President. Every young man does. But I won’t let myself think of it; I must not because if I do, I will begin to work for it. I’ll be careful, calculating, cautious in word and act, and so – I’ll beat myself. See?”

Riis and Steffens were at once Roosevelt’s agents and preceptors. He often summoned them from his office window at police headquarters by giving his “famous cowboy, ‘Hi yi yi.’” What Roosevelt was really doing in his nocturnal jaunts, Steffens wrote, “was to talk personally with the individual policemen and ask them to believe in him, in the law, which they were to enforce. T.R. knew, he said, the power they were up against, the tremendous, enduring power of organized evil….”

“I loved him,” Riis wrote, “from the day I first saw him; nor in all the years that have passed has he failed of the promise made then. No one ever helped as he did. For two years we were brothers in Mulberry Street. When he left I had seen its golden age….That was it; that was what made the age golden, that for the first time a moral purpose came into the street. In the light of it everything was transformed.”

When Roosevelt resigned as police commissioner in 1897 to accept an appointment as assistant secretary of the navy, John Jay Chapman wrote in his “Political Nursery”: “He was false to his character as a fighter only in this, that he threw up the sponge eight months before time was called, and left the field to the knave who betrayed him and the fool who opposed him….His departure was the cowardly act of a brave man.”

“The effect of the exposure and reorganization by the Roosevelt board of police was to reform the methods of corruption and graft,” Steffens noted. “The reformers did not learn much, but Tammany and the vice interests did….” Moreover, the honest policemen were left to deal as best they could with their enemies after the reformers had withdrawn or departed.

Steffens’s first real opportunity to break out of “reporting” into “journalism” came with the purchase, by Henry Wright, of the Commercial Advertiser, the oldest newspaper in New York, a paper which, in Steffens’s words, “looked like a wretched old streetwalker….when ‘we’ got hold of it in 1897.” It had a circulation of some 2,500 at the time Wright acquired it. He staffed it with the brightest young men (and women) he could find – Stefffens, Hutchins Hapgood, Abraham Cahan (“an East Side Russian socialist”), and Neith Boyce, “an unsentimental, pretty girl, who ran a romance through the city room by editing Hutch and his copy till he fell in love with and married her” – Steffens called her “quiet, golden, sharp, quick and whimsical.” For the rest, Wright followed a policy of hiring out of the graduating classes of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia “not newspaper men, but writers….” Steffens wrote: “We preferred the fresh, staring eye to the informed mind and the blunted pencil.”