SOLOMON: 90 Years Later, "The Jungle" Still Echoes
This summer, we've seen the biggest recall of beef in American history -- nine decades after a famous book led the federal government to start inspecting meat. If the author were still alive, he wouldn't be surprised that serious problems remain.Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle" included sickening descriptions of Chicago meat-packing plants. Published in 1907, it jarred the nation and lifted hopes of major reform. But not for long.Later that year, "the lobbyists of the packers had their way in Washington," Sinclair observed. "The meat inspection bill was deprived of all its sharpest teeth, and in that form [President Theodore] Roosevelt accepted it."Sinclair warned that the government's failure to rigorously inspect meat was likely to continue. Most of all, he blamed the news media.From the outset, the press gave "The Jungle" a rough reception. "Can it be possible that anyone is deceived by this insane rant and drivel?" one widely syndicated newspaper column scoffed. The meat industry mailed out a million copies of that article."Because of the kindness of American editorial writers to the interests which contribute full-page advertisements to newspapers," Sinclair wrote a dozen years after the 1907 law went into effect, "the American people still have their meat prepared in filth."The Associated Press was one of Sinclair's most powerful adversaries. "Throughout my entire campaign against the Beef Trust," he remembered, the national AP editors "never sent out a single line injurious to the interests of the packers, save for a few lines dealing with the congressional hearings, which they could not entirely suppress."To Sinclair, the situation was chronic. "American newspapers as a whole represent private interests and not public interests," he declared. Journalism operated as "a class institution, serving the rich and spurning the poor."He despaired at the attitudes that held sway: "My main concern had been for the fate of the workers, and I realized with bitterness that I had been made into a `celebrity,' not because the public cared anything about the sufferings of these workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef."In 1920, Sinclair finished a book of press criticism -- "The Brass Check" -- and published it himself. Sales were brisk, totaling 100,000 copies in less than a year. The book was a scathing attack on the media establishment.According to "The Brass Check," the press lords regularly prevented a free flow of information: "Journalism is one of the devices whereby industrial autocracy keeps its control over political democracy."Such opinions, expressed by a tireless and renowned author, did not exactly endear Sinclair to newspaper executives around the country. When he moved to Southern California and gave a speech to the Friday Morning Club of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times printed an editorial under a terse headline: "Upton Sinclair's Ravings."The editorial lamented that the club's podium was used "for such ungodly purposes" by "an effeminate young man with a fatuous smile, a weak chin and a sloping forehead, talking in a false treble" and uttering "weak, pernicious, vile doctrines."In 1934, Sinclair ran for governor on a campaign platform named EPIC -- "End Poverty In California." When he won the Democratic primary, business leaders panicked and took the unprecedented step of hiring an ad agency to smear Sinclair with huge quantities of negative publicity.Despite an intense media battering that included constant denunciations by California's largest newspapers, Sinclair placed second in a three-way race with 38 percent of the vote.Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lacks the legal authority to order tainted meat off the market. And no big media outlet is really calling for an end to poverty in America.The next time you wonder about the beef on your plate, you might think of Upton Sinclair -- and ask yourself why it's still such a media jungle out there.