Good books are hard to find. One of my favorites for several years is a book I bought at a furniture store. It was being used as a prop on a bookcase or an end table or something. The store workers seemed weirded out after I thumbed through it and offered to buy it. I think they charged me five bucks. I may devote several blogs to it, as it is as relevant as ever for an old book.
The book is THE MUCKRAKERS, 1902-1912. It is an anthology of articles by journalists who delved pretty deeply into the issues of their day, which are eerily similar to the issue we currently face. Notes and editing were by Arthur and Lila Weinberg.
What initially drew me to the book was a description of a savage coal mining strike which occurred back then in Northeastern Pennsylvania. I’ve been getting some insights into the evolution of Mass Media from it which might be of interest.
*Note-I have nothing to note about Brian Williams or Bill O’Reilly being exposed as serial liars and embellishers. These men are entertainers, as is Hillary Clinton, another liar. THE MUCKRAKERS is giving insight into how the disease gestated, and the symptoms are less interesting to me. I do think their every utterance should be questioned, especially their Neocon stance on 911.
Again, it may take a few blogs to do the book justice, but let’s start with the patent medicine industry of the period.
The USA has had a troubled relationship with alcohol and other mind altering substances. There is a social stigma attached with the purchase and consumption. Several religions frown upon its use.
Patent medicines were a workaround. They usually had a pretty high alcohol content and also contained a variety of wildcards, such as opiates. Some apparently even had some hemp oil in them. These were unregulated by any ruling agency such as the modern FDA. I was always led to believe this was the major deficiency with patent medicines, but THE MUCKRAKERS has set me straight.
Manufacturers of patent medicines formed a consortium to assist each other called The Proprietary Medicine Association, led by an F.J. Cheney. In unity there is strength. This snake oil dealer club was pretty clever. I will explain one of their best tricks, and I think it provides insight into our modern Mass Corporate Media.
Newspapers of that time, and of today, get their money through paper sales and ad sales. Patent medicine companies bought a lot of ads, which were required since whiskey was as effective as most of them and much cheaper. The genius of the patent medicine cartel was shown in the contracts they formed when buying ads.
In each ad contract, it was stipulated that if patent meds were outlawed, the dealers would have no legal obligation to pay for their ads. So whenever hostile regulatory legislation was introduced, the snake oil peddlers would send a terse reminder to the papers they were not bound to pay if the law turned against them.
At their annual conference, Cheney exulted in how quickly editorials and newspaper commentary friendly to patent medicines would start appearing in the wake of such reminders. Legislators would come home and be confronted with reams of newspaper copy encouraging them not to restrict patent medicines. In essence, these legislators were being bought for a song.
The beauty of this was the papers did not realize they were being manipulated as a whole industry. Individual papers were dealt with by the local industry. It was a plot, but only the cartel had the bigger picture. It shows the power of organized thought and team effort.
Point is, I’d be surprised if this lesson was lost in history.
So, the lesson of patent medicines is the FDA was created to regulate them, but would not have been needed if the newspapers had told the facts without being influenced by the ad revenue. A lot of people got hooked on patent medicines and it would have been instructive if their testimonials had been logged in some newspaper of record. People were left with the glowing endorsements of patent medicine ad copy.
Now, consider who buys ads today. The military buys a lot. Alcohol, cars, frozen foods, etc. The list goes on. Each industry could yank ads and hurt Media outlets antithetical to them. Could this explain a lot of editorial content? Certainly.
One raging debate on patent medicines involved labeling. That is, people wanted a list of ingredients placed on the bottles, and this provoked legislative battles. Most of us moderns might be surprised by this, but we shouldn’t be. The same kind of debate currently rages on labeling GMO foods.
I hope to revisit this book in this blog, and here is a link to it on Amazon: