Anya Schiffrin’s interest in journalism was sparked by her history thesis on the New York City newspaper PM. 
Anya Schiffrin’s interest in journalism was sparked by her history thesis on the New York City newspaper PM
Arts & Humanities

Muckraking through the Ages

An anthology of investigative reporting shows the power of journalism to expose injustice.

By Katelyn Best '13 | December 1, 2015

Antwerp, late 1890s. Edmund Dene Morel, a young employee of the British shipping company Elder Dempster, stands on the docks, supervising the unloading of ships arriving from the Congo. One ship arrives carrying a load of ivory, the next is packed with rubber—lucrative commodities, particularly for Morel’s employer, which enjoys a monopoly on shipping to the colony. In the course of his duties, however, Morel begins to sense that something is amiss: while the ships that arrive in Antwerp are filled to the gunwales with valuable cargo, the ships that sail back to the Congo are loaded with soldiers and guns.

From thousands of miles away, Morel had caught a glimpse of an unimaginably brutal system of forced labor. In short order, he quit his job and dedicated himself to exposing the atrocities taking place in the name of profit.

Morel’s intrepid reporting on the Congo is the starting point for Global Muckraking, an anthology of bold, insightful, and impassioned investigative reporting edited by Anya Schiffrin ’84. Many of the writers in this collection risked their lives and reputations to expose corruption, labor abuses, and environmental destruction throughout the developing world.

Included here are some familiar stories, such as Liu Zhiyi’s undercover exposé of life at a Foxconn factory, or the 1999 National Enquirer report on Salvadoran sweatshops producing Kathie Lee Gifford clothing. Others, such as a report on corporate malfeasance in the construction of a Brazilian railroad, will be new to most readers. Some pieces, such an exposé on footbinding, veer from investigative journalism into political advocacy. What unifies all the work in this volume is each reporter’s recognition—like Morel’s revelation at the docks in Antwerp—that an injustice was occurring, and that they had the power to show it to the world.

Beyond being a compelling study of journalism itself, Global Muckraking neatly illustrates how various issues faced by the developing world perpetuate one another. Global hunger for Peruvian rubber, West African oil, or Indonesian sneakers enriches first European colonizers, and later on corrupt local officials, while workers suffer poverty, abuse, and displacement. Ethnic tensions, stoked by a conflict over oil rights, erupt into conflict in Nigeria, while in Equitorial Guinea, a president builds a personal fortune with his country’s oil wealth. Political murders from Argentina to South Africa allow the beneficiaries of these inequities to keep benefiting from them. And all the while, journalists are working to expose these issues, risking—and sometimes losing—their lives.

Schiffrin says the intellectual origin of her book springs from her days on campus. Reed’s intellectual atmosphere was “liberating, because it was a place where the only thing that really mattered was intellectual pursuits,” she says. For the first time, “all I had to do was read and write.” Prof. Bill Lankford [English 1977–83] and Prof. Gail Kelly ’55 [anthro 1960–2000] were important influences, but it was Prof. Richard Fox [history 1981–90] who urged her to write her thesis on a short-lived, left-leaning New York newspaper called PM. Schiffrin examined both the paper’s business model and the historiography of subsequent writing about it, an experience that sparked her interest in journalism. Reed “completely formed me, really” and “laid the foundation” for a career in the media.

After Reed, Schiffrin interned at the Nation, then worked as a business reporter for various papers, living in London, Istanbul, Amsterdam, and Hanoi. She finally landed at Columbia University, where she teaches and directs the International Media Advocacy and Communications program.

Much of the reporting in Global Muckraking was first published in obscure newspapers or magazines, and one of the book’s themes is that the proliferation of small media outlets, which modern readers associate with the rise of the internet, is by no means a recent phenomenon. When it comes to the predigital era, she says, “we always imagine enormous media houses that last, but actually, it was much more like today. There were millions of startups . . . millions of passionate people who said, ‘This is an outrage, I’m going to set up a newsletter.’”

One publication featured in the book, a colonial-era revolutionary leaflet from coastal Bengal called Biplabi (“rebel” in Bengali), was smuggled to Calcutta in vegetable carts. Many were self-published newsletters. Schiffrin compares the vast world of short-lived media startups she encountered while researching the book to today’s blogs: “lots of funny, random stories, hilarious announcements, stuff that wasn’t really sourced.”

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the book is how the same stories recur many times, separated by decades and continents, a pattern Schiffrin highlights through thoughtful selection and juxtaposition. A 1895 article on footbinding precedes a 2012 piece about female genital cutting in Liberia. A 1906 exposé of slavery on chocolate plantations in São Tomé and Príncipe is followed by a 2008 article exposing West African chocolate as a conflict resource produced by underage workers. 

It was at the urging of her publisher that Schiffrin turned Global Muckraking into an anthology, each article introduced by a journalist, academic, or activist. The introductions help to contextualize the pieces, and the context is often bleak. In some cases, the journalists were expelled or even murdered. In others, the reporting had little impact. In the words of Nigerian journalist Ken Saro-Wiwa—who was hanged by the military government on trumped-up charges in 1995—“Is anyone listening?”

It’s a difficult question. These days, Schiffrin says, “measuring impact is really fashionable . . . there are way more philanthropists funding journalists, and donors want to see an impact.” In her mind, however, the impact of journalism is impossible to quantify and sometimes takes decades to be felt. Rather than being a direct force for change, good investigative reporting can reframe “the way we think about something.” Like E.D. Morel in Antwerp, reporting the news often involves seeing a story that others have chosen to ignore—and having the courage to stand by it.

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