Journalist and activist Barbara Ehrenreich died on September 1 at the age of 81. Author of books and magazine articles over a long career that began more than 50 years ago, Ehrenreich is best known for her 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed: We (don’t) get by in America. In this book, she recounted her experiences working undercover in a series of low-paying blue-collar jobs. His story of workers struggling to make ends meet in precarious times was published two decades ago, but is readable and relevant today.
Ehrenreich had a lifelong affinity for American workers. “When I was born, my dad was a copper miner in Butte, MT,” she recalls. “It was a hardcore blue-collar situation.” The writer’s words should be remembered today by his readers and fellow journalists: “It doesn’t matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion and all-out hell remain the true duty of patriots,” she said.
America has a long history of dissenting, rebellious, and hellish writers, and Ehrenreich was part of that tradition. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech to the US Senate in which he scorned investigative journalists of the day, calling them “muckrakers”. The most famous of the muckrakers was the writer Upton Sinclair, whose novel The jungle exposed the horrific conditions of the American meat-packing industry. Published in 1906, the same year Teddy Roosevelt denounced the muckrakers from his presidential bullying pulpit, the book led the president to push for needed reforms in this country’s food industry. Sinclair’s book was a huge success, but the author had hoped readers would sympathize with the plight of slaughterhouse workers. Instead, readers worried more about tainted food. “I aimed for the heart of the audience, and by accident I hit him in the stomach,” he lamented.
Vance Packard was a needed journalistic voice in postwar America of the 1950s and early 1960s. Packard challenged that nation’s complacency and materialism in books with such moving titles as The hidden persuaders, Status applicants, The waste makers, The pyramid climbers and The naked society. A prolific and prescient writer until his death in 1996, Packard gave early warnings of the dangers of corporate power, pollution, and threats to privacy posed by computers and surveillance cameras.
Jessica Mitford’s 1963 book, The American Way of Death, was a bestseller that gutted the American funeral industry. In 1969 she wrote The trial of Dr. Spock on the legal saga of pediatrician and anti-war activist Benjamin Spock. She published The prison affair in 1973. That same year, Nora Sayre wrote a beautiful history of the glories and follies of the American left in The sixties continue the seventies.
Molly Ivins combined hard-hitting commentary with a Texas-sized sense of humor. Before her death in 2007, she skewered fellow Texan President George W. Bush in columns that appeared in more than 300 American newspapers and magazines.
Ben Bagdikian was a longtime journalist with The Washington Post until his death in 2016. “Never forget that your obligation is to the people,” he said. In his 1983 book The media monopoly, Bagdikian warned of the dangers of media ownership by a handful of powerful corporations. For his 1972 book The shame of prisons, Bagdikian arranged to spend a few days in a Pennsylvania jail while posing as a convicted felon. Prison guards and inmates had no idea that the newcomer to the cellblock was actually a journalist who was taking high risks to get a story literally “from the inside”.
Barbara Ehrenreich lived and died long after the nosy writers who exposed corporate corruption in the early years of the 20th century, but she pursued their brand of journalism for justice. In his 1972 book The Muckrakers, author Fred Cook posed questions that still need to be answered today: “Can America survive long as a democracy without its muckrakers? Can a society in which power becomes more and more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands survive in complete freedom without its watchdogs?
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