It is kind of interesting to see the little rift within the journalism community over shale gas development. The Philip Lee / Halifax Media Co-op dust up is a good example.
I wrote a bit about this a while ago in a column in the TJ (below). All you have to do is read one page of the Halifax Media Co-op and it is clear they see themselves as the new muckrakers fighting for justice and the little guy. I’m just not sure the narrative works the same way as it did in the day of Ida Tarbell and S.S. McClure. The vast majority of economic benefit from the natural gas industry will accrue to average New Brunswickers – workers and the public through taxes and royalties - not to some cartel of Rockefeller billionaires. These days Tarbell could just as easily be fighting in favour of an exciting new industry and the opportunities it might bring to the province.
One thing is for sure. If this nascent industry is brought to its knees – it will cost the province several thousand good paying jobs and tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue every year. That may be acceptable if we deem the environmental risks too high. I’m not the guy to weigh in on environmental issues – but I am the guy to weigh in on economic issues and the province will be kiboshing the highest potential industry to come along in a long time. The way it looks now, I am pessimistic that any natural gas will flow from New Brunswick wells any time soon other than Corridor Resources, of course, and its 38 fracked wells that get rarely any mention in the press, I don’t see any other new companies having the stomach to invest here.
Anyway, here’s the column on the muckrakers.
In my opinion, Doris Kearns Goodwin is rapidly becoming one of the best political history writers of our time. Her latest offering, The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, weaves together the stories of the former U.S. presidents and the muckraker journalists of the early 20th Century in a compelling tale of the emerging age of progressivism.
The muckrakers were a group of investigative journalists in the early 1900s that were determined to use the media to expose the broader public to serious challenge with the emerging economic and social order and to advocate for reform. They saw their role as reshaping the moral compass of the day.
The muckrakers exposed the pernicious influence of the trust companies which had consolidated whole industries – and even groups of industries – into enormous monopolies that distorted the principles of market competition and enriched few at the expense of millions of workers.
They wrote about the misery of early 20th century industrial workers in coal mines, meat processing plants and other manufacturing industries.
They uncovered the corruption of politics and showed how this distorted economic and social progress.
Some muckrakers got it wrong. They took on fights that were sensational but not grounded in facts. They played on fear and anger and ended up only hurting the people they were claiming to defend.
In the end, however, the muckrakers were making the case for economic justice.
Just about every issue they investigated was meant to improve the economic fortunes of everyday Americans and the local communities in which they lived. It wasn’t some abstract concept of justice – it was about ensuring the vast economic expansion of the United States economy was benefiting all Americans.
As I read Goodwin’s book, I couldn’t help think about journalism today – particularly in New Brunswick.
Our province is facing serious economic and demographic challenges. We have achieved enormous progress over the past 50 years, raising living standards around the province, fostering a stronger environment and investing in community infrastructure.
But that progress is in jeopardy. We face weak economic growth, a stagnant labour market and a high level of pessimism among business leaders combined with a challenging political environment. Throw in public apathy toward development and we end up with a toxic situation not conducive to entrepreneurialism and economic progress.
I’d like to see a new round of muckrakers emerge in New Brunswick tackling the biggest economic challenges of our time.
In my opinion, seeking economic justice today is not about bringing down titans of industry or exposing political corruption. Today it is about enlightening the public on the challenges of this slow economic decline and exposing us to ways other jurisdictions have broken out.
Imagine feature-length stories on how small cities such as Boise, Idaho have bucked the trend and built dynamic urban economies revealing a pathway for New Brunswick’s small urban centres.
It would be nice to see investigative reports on how rural communities across North America have leveraged natural resources to revive struggling communities. Rural decline is not inevitable. Many have got their mojo back and offer great examples for New Brunswick.
My own interest is in how communities rally together to foster economic development from the ground up rather than having it imposed (or not) from above.
New Brunswick journalists would argue they don’t have the time to do real muckraking. Besides, many would say I am just dressing up a ‘pro-business’ agenda in the language of the noble journalist.
But I am pro-community and pro-economic development, not pro-business. Businesses will, and should, invest where they determine there is potential to make a return on that investment.
We want them to invest here, create good paying jobs, generate more taxes and help us achieve our community and social objectives.
If muckraking can tell the stories that help us build a stronger economy, I’ll advocate for it even if it looks like a case of really strange bedfellows.