Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Taking on the Trust

Today, I have Steve Weinberg, a University of Missouri School of Journalism professor and author of "Taking on the Trust, The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller," how an investigative journalist brought down Standard Oil.
The Summer Great Book Giveaway continues this week after a break for the holiday. Click on comments (you don't even have to sign in) and ask Steve a question before 5 p.m. CST today. If I randomly draw your question, you'll win a copy of Steve's book and he will answer your question on Thursday. Happy Reading and good luck!

Please tell us about yourself.
I started out writing for newspapers with a bit of freelancing on the side, then moved to magazine staff writing with lots of freelancing on the side, then became a full-time freelancer, with book writing in the mix. The common denominator: to gain time and word count so that I can tell in-depth narrative stories involving lots of complicated reporting. I have taught part-time at the University of Missouri Journalism School since 1978, with long intervals of not teaching at all. The students are superb and faculty colleagues are brilliant, but teaching has not been and never will be my primary calling. During seven of those years (1983-1990), I also served as executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a 5000-member group physically housed at the Journalism School but independent in every other way. Even during those seven years, I continued reporting and writing. To me, it's akin to breathing.

Tell us about your new book, "Taking on the Trust."
It is a dual biography of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller, a female journalist and a male industrialist, charting the unexpected collision course that changed history about 100 years ago. Tarbell's 1904 expose in book form forever altered the previously positive views of Rockefeller, as well as leading to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1911 breaking up the gigantic, powerful Standard Oil Trust (think of the word "antitrust" to put the old-fashioned sense of "trust" into focus.)

Tell us about the research process.
Researching the book involved immersion in the Tarbell archives (primarily at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.), the Rockefeller archives (primarily in upstate New York), and oil industry archives (primarily at the Drake Well Museum, Titusville, Pa.). Finding the material was generally no problem. Turning it into a compelling narrative with two main characters was a challenge.

What inspired you to write about the battle between Tarbell and Rockefeller?
I wanted to understand how Tarbell came to write her classic expose, The History of the Standard Oil Company, how she became the first modern investigative journalist while also overcoming gender barriers.

Is the market for the book limited? Who is your target market?
The market for the book does not feel limited. At minimum, it should appeal to those who care about general American history, corporate history, journalism, feminism, fame and the craft of biography.

In your book you make references to Wal-Mart and Microsoft. Are you hoping to inspire other investigative journalists to look into these corporations?
Of course I am. I hope I can find the time to do some of the necessary investigating myself. In general, investigative journalism is thriving at hundreds of newspapers, magazines, tv stations, radio stations and web sites. Unfortunately, hundreds of others do little or no investigating or even in-depth explanatory journalism.

What do you feel is the most important thing to keep in mind when writing a biography? Was it difficult to write about two opposite people and illustrate how their lives were intertwined?
The most important quality is to treat people as complex human beings, to avoid reductionism by understanding that no person is simple, is driven only by greed or love or whatever. Yes, portraying two lives in a parallel fashion is much more arduous mentally than focusing on one life.

Ok, Steve is awaiting your questions!


Blogger Life's Beautiful Path said...

Hi Steve, your book sounds intriguing. Do you do all your own researching and what is system to keeping your research materal organized?
Thank you

7:16 AM CDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,
What a fasinating subject! How do you tell the story in an age in the past. Do you include a lot of every day details(clothes, customs, food)? And where do you do most of your research?

7:56 AM CDT  
Anonymous Najua said...

Hi Steve,

How long did it take you to complete the research for the book and then how long did it take you to complete a first draft and the subsequent revisions until the final draft?

Thank you.


8:10 AM CDT  
Anonymous diana lambdin meyer said...

Steve - I was encouraged by your comment that investigative journalism is still thriving at newspapers big and small because it seems that too many journalists have wimped out in recent years. Do you really think as much in-depth work is being done as when Ida Tarbell was in her prime? I would like to hear more of your thoughts on that.

9:21 AM CDT  
Blogger Kristin Ohlson said...

I enjoyed reading this. Steve, how does your writing of books impact the rest of your writing life? Do you write articles related to the book topic? And what about your next book-- does it deal with similar matter?

2:36 PM CDT  

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