This past spring former NBCC board member Steve Weinberg published Taking on the Trust:The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller, an account of the clash between one of America’s greatest entrepreneurs and one of its first true investigative reporters. A distinguished investigative reporter in his own right, Weinberg was uniquely qualified to tell Tarbell’s story. He spoke with NBCC intern and University of Memphis MFA student Pat Walters in May.
An investigative reporter once told me there are good guys and bad guys. “Our job is to get the bad guys,” he said. You’ve written lots of profiles and a couple biographies, in addition to a book about biography. Do you believe in heroes and villains?
Reductionism worries me a lot. So many writers try to write a compelling story, and so they’ll say, well, the theme driving this person’s life is greed or altruism or fame, and then they construct the story around that narrative thread. But I’ve never met anybody who’s that simple. Most of the time, I don’t think you’re gonna find a hero or a heroine or a villain who is just 100 percent that way. People are complicated. I try to fight reductionism, both in my own work and when I’m reviewing the work of others. There was one time I got an assignment from the Washington City Paper to review four new biographies of J. Edgar Hoover. Each one of the biographies had a different theme the author used to explain his life. Here are four different biographers, looking at the same individual, and coming to four different conclusions about what really drove him. They couldn’t all have been right.
Did you struggle with writing about Tarbell as a heroine?
I think I struggled with reductionism in the Tarbell book, because it did seem like she was motivated almost entirely by wanting to make the world a better place. The book that I wrote is not the book I wrote on the first go-round. I wrote a cradle-to-grave biography of Tarbell. That was the assignment. That was what I handed in. Only later, at the suggestion of my editor, did it become something else. After a lot of rethinking and rewriting and new research, it became a dual-narrative of a collision course between two people. But when I wrote it as a cradle-to-grave biography, there was a lot about the second half of her life, and it went deeper into some of her motivations and some of her shortcomings. But quite a bit of that got cut out. The book essentially ends with the Supreme Court case in 1911, which means I gave very short shrift to the last 33 years of her life. If the book had stayed the way I originally wrote it, I think you’d find her to be a little more complex of a character.
What do you think Tarbell would make of today’s corporate landscape?
I doubt if Tarbell would be surprised. Giantism was growing quickly when she was still alive. She lived until 1944. She saw a lot more giantism after the break-up of Standard Oil Company. I’m certainly not trying to be reductionist and say all business is bad. I think big business has a very serious impact on our society and I think we need writers like Tarbell to raise the questions about whether it’s the direction we want to be going in. I would never say Starbuck’s is all bad or Microsoft is all bad or McDonald’s is all bad or WAL-MART is all bad. There are virtues in those big dominant corporations. Some of the smartest people I know shop at WAL-MART all the time and contribute to the growth. I never shop there. It’s just a matter of choice. But I don’t think Tarbell would have been surprised. I think what she would do is what I’m trying to do and what a lot of other writers are trying to do. Understand it and explain it and help people be more informed about whether that’s what it is they want.
Some people say there are fewer journalists doing that today than 30 years ago, that newspapers aren’t funding investigative journalism, that it’s dying. What’s your take on that?
This is probably the only time in the interview that I’m going to assert some expertise. Most of the time I’m very humble. But when it comes to the state of investigative reporting right now and in the past, I probably know as much as anybody who’s alive, not because I’m so smart, but because I’ve been at it a long time. Investigative reporting has not diminished. There are a lot of news organizations, both print and electronic, that have never done investigative reporting and never will. But starting in the late 60s, hundreds of news organizations, and I would include book publishers in that, began to do it regularly and have never stopped. Anybody who says investigative reporting is diminishing doesn’t know what they’re talking about. My main evidence would be the annual conference run by Investigative Reporters and Editors. If you look at the entries in that contest, from newspapers, from magazines, from radio, from television, from online-only publications, you will see that investigative reporting is incredibly healthy at hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of outlets across this country. That’s the end of my tirade.
With this project finished, what’s next?
For the foreseeable future, my professional life will be devoted almost entirely to trying to understand and write about and expose the flaws in the criminal justice system. I’ve been doing that off-and-on now for 20 years, but in the last 10 years or so I’ve begun focusing especially on wrongful convictions. I’ve helped start an Innocence Project here in the Midwest and I’m helping train law students, journalism students and others on how to think about the criminal justice system, how to look for the flaws and how to investigate specific allegations of innocence. I hope whatever book I write next will have something to do with the whole wrongful conviction phenomenon in this country. I’m deeply into that and I don’t expect to give up on that until I die. I think I’ll spend the next 30 or 40 years working on that.