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Ida Tarbell: Hysterical Woman vs. Historical Facts

Day 1

On the board or projected transparency:

"Hysterical Woman vs. Historical Facts"


"The Lion and the Mouse"

Tell students both of the above designations were referring to one woman - the investigative reporter, Ida Tarbell.

  • Ask which one is complimentary to the reporter.

  • Tell students, after learning a little more about Ida Tarbell, they will be asked to explain the perspective of the person who created each of the designations.

Ask students to work in triads to develop a definition of "investigative reporter." (10 minutes) Have each group report its definition to the class. Students should consider the following elements in their definitions (written on the board):

  • What sources might an investigative reporter use for information?

  • How should an investigative reporter judge the credibility of his/her sources?

  • How could the reporter determine if what he/she was finding was the truth?

Can you name any investigative reporters? Can you name the two investigative reporters (and the newspaper they worked for) who helped to bring down a president in the past twenty years? (The reporters: Woodward and Bernstein. The paper: The Washington Post. The president: Richard Nixon) How about the book they wrote or the movie that was created from the book? (All the President's Men)

Share background information with students:

In the late 1800's and early 1900's entrepreneurs like Rockefeller, Carnegie, etc., were building huge business empires and making fortunes. By shrewdly taking advantage of opportunities and sometimes making secret deals that were unfair to others, not only did they make millions of dollars for themselves, but they helped to build the nation into an industrial giant. When the companies they created became so powerful that people were being cheated out of fair wages or opportunities to compete, investigative reporters wrote magazine articles and books that exposed the unfair practices. At its best, that journalism led to legislation and court actions that brought the most powerful companies under some control. This journalism was also criticized for being sensationalist, for slanting facts, for trying to bring down the pillars of American business.

Because of the exposes written by some investigative reports, Teddy Roosevelt supported legislation to control some of the most blatant misuse of corporate power. But in response to some of the journalism which was attaching members of Congress, in a speech to the House of Representatives (1906), Roosevelt figuratively slapped the reporters on the wrist by calling them muckrakers: "In Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-rake, the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth on the floor."

In 1870 the Standard Oil Trust was created by John D. Rockefeller. For years it was suspected that company practices were hindering free trade and that the company was receiving rebates from the railroads. In 1882, federal legislation forced the Standard Oil Trust to separate into its components. The Interstate Commerce Commission was created in 1887 to attempt to control what was happening with the railroads. Ida Tarbell's work helped push the situation into the courts where, in May, 1911, the US Supreme Court finally forced the corporation to divide into more than 30 companies.

Discussion of the following in triads (10 minutes), with one student reporting for each group (5 minutes):

  • Name some of the wealthiest people in the world today. [Chances are good that someone will name Bill Gates.]

  • What qualities enabled those people to acquire such great wealth and business power?

  • Which companies would you consider to be monopolies today? [Students may be aware of the government court battles with Microsoft.] Do you believe that all monopolies are bad and should be outlawed? If so, why? If not, how would you distinguish between a good monopoly and a bad one?

As they are reported, record group information on the board.

Homework: Have students read excerpts from Ida Tarbell's John D. Rockefeller: A Character Study, published in McClure's Magazine, 1906, and complete Worksheet 1: Excerpts from Ida Tarbell's "John D. Rockefeller: A Character Study", McClure's Magazine, 1906

Day 2

Have students pass in homework, then discuss responses to the worksheet. (10 minutes) Discuss how the muckraker often tried to motivate social action on the part of government or citizens. The muckraker's tools were language, heated up by choice of words that promoted a certain perspective.

In groups of four, have students use Worksheet 2: US National Archives and Records Administration's "Cartoon Analysis Worksheet" to critically examine political cartoons that were created in response to Tarbell's exposés.

Set up the activity by sharing the following information:

Political cartoons such as these appeared in newspapers after Ida Tarbell's "History of the Standard Oil Company" articles began to appear in McClure's Magazine in November, 1902. Monopolies were depicted as evil creatures taking on many forms. The most common was that of an octopus, with its eight tentacles entwined through every aspect of an industry, or strangling the competition.

Provide each group with one of the cartoons and ask them to identify (on board, transparency, or Powerpoint):

  • The issue on which the cartoon is focusing

  • The main characters in the issue

  • The time frame

Also, ask the groups to brainstorm and identify as many contemporary rich and powerful businessmen/women or very powerful businesses as they can. [Martha Stewart, Adelphia (John Rigas), Enron, Microsoft (Bill Gates), etc.] Have each group choose one and brainstorm once again to identify a public perception about that person/company or a government action against that company to make it less of a monopoly or to force more fair business practices. If students have trouble with this effort, the teacher may assign a current government action against a company or individual.

After 15 minutes, groups should report to the class. (Each cartoon should be projected using Powerpoint or a transparency.)

Have teams begin to research their situation using news sources from the Internet. Teacher should highlight criteria for judging a news web page. (Check the guidelines from Widener University, Wolfgram Memorial Library):

The following are possible web news sources with search capabilities:

Assignment (in class or as homework): Ask each student to identify the website of a good news stories pertaining to his/her team's chosen business or person. The story should include enough background information to give the reader a sense of the problem and be credible according to the guidelines for judging a web news source. (If this is done as homework, students should communicate with each other via phone or email so that team members finish with four different news sources.)

Day three

Share news stories and brainstorm ideas for an editorial approach either via cartoon or written expose. (The final outcome of this lesson can be done in class or as homework.)

Assignment: Each student should either write an Ida Tarbell style expose or sketch a political cartoon in the style of the cartoons featured in newspapers during the early part of the 20th century.

  • Written article: length – one page. It should contain a perspective similar to the articles written by muckrakers at the turn of the century, with words and phrases chosen to elicit an emotional response from the reader.

  • Political cartoon. This should be a visual statement with a perspective that is critical of a company or business figure. It can include text as a statement by a figure within the cartoon or a caption under the cartoon.

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