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Taking on the Trust by Steve Weinberg

Aaron Barnhart
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

When Rockefeller met his match in the form of a 20-year-old woman.

Taking on the Trust

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Subtitle: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller
Author: Steve Weinberg
Price: $25.95
Length: 256
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0393049353
US publication date: 2008-03

When Ida Tarbell told her father that her employer, McClure's magazine, had assigned her to an expose of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Co. (which in 1901 was the biggest, baddest corporate trust the world had ever seen), he begged her to reconsider.

"Don't do it, Ida, they'll ruin the magazine," warned Franklin Tarbell, with good reason. For 40 years the Tarbells lived in the shadow of Rockefeller's expanding empire in the northwest region of Pennsylvania where oil was first struck. He had seen the trust ruthlessly drive independent oil operators into bankruptcy or force them to sell to Rockefeller. He had seen the area go boom, then bust, while oil men at Standard prospered.

Like many, he believed Standard's predatory prices and secret deals with the railroads had put an end to competition and hastened the region's demise. Franklin Tarbell thought the trust would stop at nothing to keep an account of its misdeeds out of the hands of McClure `s 300,000 readers.

Pops wasn't the only man to underestimate Ida Minerva Tarbell, a journalist whose revisionist takes on Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon Bonaparte had been serialized in McClure's and driven up its readership.

Rockefeller refused to talk to Tarbell. Unknown to him, two top men at Standard Oil, H.H. Rogers and Henry Flagler, were trying to spin Tarbell in off-the-record sessions. Not that it did them any good.

By piecing together congressional testimony from various investigations into Standard Oil over the years and doing assiduous reporting of her own, Tarbell produced nothing less than a brief for the breakup of the trust.

"The History of Standard Oil", as the McClure's series would be known when it was published in book form, was a sensation. It remains, as author Steve Weinberg is not the first to write, "arguably the greatest work of investigative journalism ever written."

Tarbell's work was met with silence at 26 Broadway, Standard Oil's headquarters in New York, which only magnified the PR disaster. His billions of dollars of philanthropy notwithstanding, Rockefeller's reputation never completely recovered from Tarbell's work. The coup de grace came in 1911, when the US Supreme Court broke Standard Oil into 33 separate corporations.

But how did she do it? This is the subject of Taking on the Trust by Weinberg, an investigative journalist and University of Missouri professor. Weinberg calls this a "capsule dual biography", though it's clear that Weinberg's heart lies with Tarbell.

He poured years of research into revealing her early life and has written a portrait of this ambitious yet personally modest muckraker. Her story is interwoven with a succinct early biography of Rockefeller and the building of the trust.

Rockefeller was in the right place at the right time, but Weinberg makes the case that Tarbell was, too. Thanks to the oil boom, her family could live comfortably in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and thanks to the women's rights movement, Tarbell was in the first generation of women who could pursue careers without having to plan for marriage and children.

Above all, it was an age of feisty journalism, as evidenced by the January 1903 issue of McClure's, where Weinberg found not only Part 3 of the Standard Oil expose but a report on municipal corruption by Lincoln Steffens and one on labor unrest in Pennsylvania. Taken together, they were "an arraignment of American character," declared its outsized Irish-born editor, S.S. McClure.

Taking on the Trust interweaves the early lives of Tarbell and Rockefeller, which I think was a mistake. They were born 18 years apart. This results in clunky formulations: "Tarbell's place in the world seemed uncertain. Rockefeller, in contrast, knew his place well." Given that he was 40 and she was just out of college, what would you expect?

Also, given the volume of letters and articles that Weinberg collected by Tarbell, surprisingly little of her voice is heard. I can understand why; even popular writers back then had a style that readers today would find hard sledding. Weinberg does quote the magnificent opening to "History of Standard Oil" intact, but I would've liked to read more of the professor's textual analysis of her writing and reporting.

Still, this is an important book because of what it tells us about the power of one journalist to effect monumental social change.


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