Media Beat, May 22, 1993
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon

Upton Sinclair, Media Critic behind "The Jungle"

This year, many news stories about tainted beef have credited Upton Sinclair's novel "The Jungle" with forcing the federal government to establish a meat-inspection program back in 1907.

It's true that the 1906 novel - with its nauseating depiction of Chicago meat-packing plants - quickly led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to begin inspections. But recent press accounts haven't mentioned key aspects of the author's battles with "the Beef Trust."

If he were alive today, Upton Sinclair probably would not be surprised that E. coli bacteria had harmed hundreds of people 87 years after his novel caused such a stir. As Sinclair saw it, the 1907 law never amounted to much: "The lobbyists of the packers had their way in Washington; the meat inspection bill was deprived of all its sharpest teeth, and in that form (President Theodore) Roosevelt accepted it."

Most of all, Sinclair blamed the news media. "Because of the kindness of American editorial writers to the interests which contribute full-page advertisements to newspapers," he wrote a dozen years after the law went into effect, "the American people still have their meat prepared in filth."

Sinclair recalled: "I was determined to get something done about the atrocious conditions under which men, women and children were working in the Chicago stockyards. In my efforts to get something done, I was like an animal in a cage. The bars of this cage were newspapers, which stood between me and the public; and inside the cage I roamed up and down, testing one bar after another, and finding them impossible to break."

Upton Sinclair came to see the problem as chronic. "American newspapers as a whole represent private interests and not public interests," he declared. "But there will be occasions upon which exception to this rule is made; for in order to be of any use at all, the newspapers must have a circulation, and to get circulation they must pretend to care about the public." To Sinclair, it was all too apparent that "American Journalism is a class institution, serving the rich and spurning the poor."

In May 1914, labor strife drew Sinclair to Colorado in the wake of the "Ludlow Massacre." Armed thugs working for the Rockefeller mining interests had killed women and children in a tent colony of striking coal miners and their families. Sinclair seethed at what he called a "concrete wall" that kept accurate information from the American people.

It was the Associated Press, the country's dominant news service, that infuriated Sinclair most of all. "The directors and managers of the Associated Press were as directly responsible for the subsequent starvation of these thousands of Colorado mine-slaves as if they had taken them and strangled them with their naked fingers," he contended.

Sinclair presented AP with evidence that Colorado's governor had lied to President Woodrow Wilson about the state's role in the miners' strike. When the news agency refused to report on the matter, Sinclair telegraphed the information to 20 of the nation's biggest newspapers.

He later observed: "There was no capitalist magazine or newspaper in the United States that would take up the conduct of the Associated Press in the Colorado strike."

Sinclair expounded on his media critique in a non-fiction book titled "The Brass Check," which he published himself in 1920. It went through six printings and 100,000 copies within a half-year - though the book is difficult to locate today.

"I do not expect to please contemporary Journalism," he wrote, "but I expect to produce a book which the student of the future will recognize as just." As far as Sinclair was concerned, "Journalism is one of the devices whereby industrial autocracy keeps its control over political democracy."

In 1934 - after more than a quarter-century of doing battle with the major news outlets in the country - Upton Sinclair almost became governor of California. Running on a campaign platform called "End Poverty In California," Sinclair won the state's Democratic primary.

State business leaders took the unprecedented step of hiring an ad agency to denounce the Socialist-turned-Democrat. In another innovation, Hollywood studios filled movie theaters with newsreels smearing Sinclair.

Despite the intense media battering that included constant denunciations by the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and other powerful daily papers, Sinclair was able to win 38% of the votes in a three-person race.

Today Upton Sinclair is known mainly for "The Jungle." But he should also be remembered as a courageous media critic and activist who took his lumps from the press lords for speaking his mind and his heart.

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