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Communication & Media

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Miraldi's new book is biography of once-famous reform journalist

02/05/2003

Journalism Professor Robert Miraldi's new biography of a turn-of-the-century investigative reporter recreates the turbulent and controversial life of a forgotten but once-famous reform journalist. But it also finds remarkable similarities in problems found in 1903 that still plague America in 2003.

The book, The Pen Is Mightier: The Muckraking Life of Charles Edward Russell, was published this month by Palgrave/St. Martin's Press. It is Dr. Miraldi's second book. He has also edited one volume of essays.

The Russell biography grows out of Miraldi's long-time interest in the muckraking journalism movement in the early years of the 20th century, a time when a group of magazine and book writers exposed many of America's corporate and governmental scandals.

The Pen Is Mightier traces the life of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Russell (1860-1941) from his action-filled reporting days in New York to his controversial investigative reporting or muckraking after the turn of the 20th century to his tilting at windmills and injustice as a political candidate and crusader for social justice. Russell wrote 31 books and hundreds of magazine articles in a career that involved him in many of America's most important reform movements.

The overarching theme of the book is Russell's long struggle with whether an economic system that encouraged cooperation -- and not competition -- would better solve American social problems, especially poverty and disparities in wealth. Many of the problems that Russell wrote about persist today.

In reviewing the book, Sydney Schanberg, himself a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist while a reporter at the New York Times in the 1970s, called the book "a light bulb for everyone, and certainly for any soul in America who has followed the current Big Business scandals that started with Enron and now fill the headlines." Schanberg added: "This important book is not about dry and antiquated matters. It will seize you."

Russell wrote about corporate abuses that are very similar to ones found today. He investigated and exposed overpricing and monopoly in the meatpacking industry; fraudulent corporate activity in the building of America's railroads; and scandalous prison conditions all over the nation. He also wrote about and exposed New York City's Trinity Church, which was the city's biggest slum landlord.

Miraldi describes Russell as the "most prolific and most passionate" of all the famous muckraking journalists, including Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell and Upton Sinclair. In reviewing the book, Publishers Weekly commented, "In Russell, Miraldi has found a rare subject: a man of large historical importance about whom very little has been written. Russell's accomplishments as a muckraking journalist and social activist in many ways surpass those of his better-known colleagues, but this is the first biography of him."

"Like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, he warned Americans about the dangers of a profit-driven world," commented Miraldi, who has taught journalism at SUNY New Paltz for 20 years. "His expose of Trinity led the church to completely change its housing policies while his attack on the beef industry also led to considerable reform."

And in the end, Miraldi points out in his book, Russell felt the muckrakers had helped society. "Slowly, but surely," he wrote, "the world gets better."

Russell's 40-year career as a journalist began in the Midwest as a reporter but then moved to New York where he became a famous reporter. In the 1890s he edited America's two largest newspapers under Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. In 1910 he became one of three founding members of the National Association of Colored People, America's foremost advocacy group for the rights of African Americans.

Dubbed "the chief of the muckrakers," Russell spent his entire life in pursuit of social justice, Miraldi points out. That included his final years when he fought for the formation of a Jewish state in Israel in order to help Jews leave Europe and flee Germany's persecution.

Russell won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1927 for his life story of the founder of the American orchestra. Russell not only closely followed politics, but he loved music and Shakespeare, and wrote four books of poetry. "He had remarkable energy and wide interests," said Miraldi. When Russell died at the age of 81, Miraldi noted, one newspaper said he died from "overwork."

Miraldi teaches a course on investigative journalism for New Paltz. Prior to coming to New Paltz in 1982, he taught at St. John's University in New York City. In 1992 he was a Fulbright Scholar in the Netherlands. Miraldi also worked for a decade as an investigative reporter for the Staten Island Advance in New York.

For eight years he wrote an award-winning column in the Poughkeepsie Journal on freedom of speech. Miraldi has written numerous scholarly articles on press history. His first book, Muckraking and Objectivity: Journalism's Colliding Traditions, was published in 1991. He also edited an anthology, The Muckrakers: Evangelical Crusaders, which was published in 2000.

Miraldi lives in Stone Ridge, N.Y., with his wife Mary Beth, and two children, Sara and Robert.

Note to editors: A photograph of Robert Miraldi can be downloaded from the SUNY New Paltz Web site at http://www.newpaltz.edu/news/images/miraldi.html