Bloomberg News

When Rockefeller and Standard Oil Met Their Match: Echoes

March 02, 2012

Standard Oil's tentacles wrap around industries and government, Puck magazine, Sept. 7, 1904. Illustration by Udo J. Keppler
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Standard Oil's tentacles wrap around industries and government, Puck magazine, Sept. 7, 1904. Illustration by Udo J. Keppler Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

After the 2008 financial collapse, a few congressional panels, executive-branch agencies and journalists tried to find out what really happened at the predatory banks and lenders that created so much havoc.

But the whole truth has so far failed to emerge. And now, with Wall Street lobbyists and lawyers fighting the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul at every step, and the new responsibilities for government regulators seeming ever more daunting, it looks as though true financial transparency is as far away as ever.

In this context, the story of Ida Minerva Tarbell may be instructive. Tarbell was the inventor of investigative reporting, and she took aim at what appeared to be the most impenetrable corporate giant of her era: the Standard Oil Company of John D. Rockefeller.

Tarbell followed an unlikely route to greatest investigative reporter of all time. She was reared in the remote oil fields of northwestern Pennsylvania. Despite the long odds against women obtaining a degree in the 1870s, Tarbell graduated from Allegheny College and landed a job editing and writing for a magazine aimed at lifelong education.

She grew restless and soon settled in Paris, where she began selling articles to magazines and newspapers in the U.S. Her writing caught the attention of S.S. McClure, an Irish immigrant to America who raised enough capital to start an eponymous general-interest magazine based in New York. McClure persuaded Tarbell to join the magazine's staff.

It was in that atmosphere, circa 1900, that McClure, Tarbell and their colleagues concocted the idea of investigating the Standard Oil behemoth.

At the time, Standard Oil operated a massive oil-and-gas oligopoly, aided by burgeoning energy demand from the spread of automobiles and home electrification.

Nobody -- and certainly not a journalist -- had ever tried piercing the corporate veil like Tarbell did. Calculating that, roughly speaking, Time Equals Truth, Tarbell spent month after month, year after year, digging into the origins, operations and accumulation of power by Standard Oil. That necessarily led her into the remarkable life of Rockefeller, the most powerful person within the world’s most powerful enterprise.

Rather than relying on gossip and innuendo, Tarbell gathered Evidence, with a capital E. She located corporate filings in state capitals and in Washington. She tracked down lawsuits in remote courthouses. She studied congressional hearings. She interviewed hundreds of current and former employees, Standard Oil competitors, government bureaucrats, academic experts, friends and enemies of Rockefeller. She attended Rockefeller’s church to observe him directly, given that he had refused to cooperate with her. She immersed herself in the culture of Cleveland, where Rockefeller had obtained his business acumen and begun building a corporate empire. She cultivated one of Rockefeller’s renegade brothers, and discovered that Rockefeller’s father had been a con man and philanderer.

The investigation began as a serial in McClure’s Magazine, running month after month over a four-year stretch. As the magazine serial wound down, Tarbell incorporated new information into one of the most compelling, impressive investigative books ever published. The understated title was “The History of the Standard Oil Company.”

Tarbell’s main finding was that Rockefeller had used predatory tactics (some of them legal in the most narrow sense of that word) to create an unlevel playing field. That occurred mostly in Rockefeller’s dealings with the railroads crisscrossing the U.S. to haul freight. Although the railroads had been aided extensively by government and were therefore in theory a quasi-public utility, Rockefeller treated them like his private transportation company, using his vast influence and shrewd negotiating skills to extract favorable rates that no competitor could match.

Tarbell’s expose led to public outrage, permanent stains on Rockefeller’s previously exemplary reputation and a Supreme Court antitrust decision in 1911 breaking up much of Standard Oil -- although not destroying its reach in the oil industry.

During the first decade of this century, bankers, lenders and stockbrokers created a similarly unlevel playing field mostly outside the understanding of journalists. Inadequate reporting contributed to the painful economic collapse that continues to harm tens of millions of hardworking people.

It is not too late, however, for a modern-day Ida Tarbell equivalent to appear.

(Steve Weinberg is the author, most recently, of “Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller." The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this post: Steve Weinberg at weinbergs@missouri.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.


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