Born, Elizabeth Cochran, near Pittsburgh in 1864, Nellie Bly (her pen name) was one of the first investigative journalists – formerly called “muckrakers” (figuratively meaning exposing the world’s evils and literally meaning scooping up the poop). She came of age in the Progressive Era when photojournalism, a genre began by Jacob Riis, graphically portrayed the disparity between the rich and poor and gave rise to various reformist movements.
Due to family poverty caused by her father’s early death, Nellie and her mother moved to the city to run a boarding house where she met young immigrant girls – many Polish and Irish girls who, considered the hardiest of immigrants, worked as domestics in wealthy households.
NELLIE TAKES PEN TO PAPER – AN EDITORIAL THAT LAUNCHED HER CAREER
AT 18, Nellie wrote an impassioned editorial rebuttal to an article written by Erasmus Wilson, titled, “What Girls Are Good For.” He wrote that girls are good for staying in the home and doing domestic tasks. He further wrote that working women were a monstrosity.
Outraged, Nellie wrote an opinion editorial stating, “Someone has got to stand up and tell them what a girl is good for”. Soon thereafter she was hired by ThePittsburgh Dispatch where she wrote opinion pieces and detailed the lives of individuals and the plight of working class women – until she was transferred by the paper to cover traditional women’s matters such as fashion, gardening and society events so as not to raise such a ruckus.
EXPOSING CORRUPTION – Going Undercover and Writing Other Perspectives
Bored with covering “women’s” articles, Nellie moved to New York where she talked her way into the office of Joseph Pulitzer who ran the New York World– landing a job as a journalist. One of her most noteworthy articles was “Ten Days in a Madhouse” – an expose on patient abuse and neglect that she wrote after going undercover as a catatonic/amnesiac patient. It is absolutely incredible to know that while undercover, Nellie was certified as insane by numerous doctors. It’s heartbreaking to read about the abuse the patients suffered – being made to sit for hours tied to wooden benches in filth, with rats rampant and inedible and insufficient food.
Her story resulted in a grand jury investigation and significant improvement in the care of the mentally ill.
When the Pullman railroad car workers in Chicago staged their big strike to protest a lowering of their wages at the same time their rent was increased in the “company town” housing in which they were required to reside, Nellie was the only reporter telling the strikers’ perspective.
NELLIE THE ADVENTURER AND MARKETER
A multi-dimensional talent with a spirit of adventure, 25 year-old Nellie successfully pitched her editor to allow her to attempt to travel around the world in 72 days – to beat the 80 day record of the fictional Phileus Fogg in the popular Jules Verne novel. She succeeded in circumventing the globe in only 72 days all by herself – setting a world record and in the process becoming an international sensation and making loads of money for herself and the publication.
MARRIAGE – NEW CAREER – BACK TO REPORTING
At 31, Nellie married 73 year old, Robert Seaman, who was a wealthy manufacturer of steel containers. Nellie became the president of her husband’s company and one a very few women industrialists. Her career in business was successful until employee embezzlement caused the company to go bankrupt.
She was a pioneer woman journalist and an original investigative journalist. Her work exposed corruption and injustice. She was an adventurer and risk-taker. She was courageous and provided a role model for many to follow.
MUSINGS ABOUT MODERN DAY “NELLIE BLYS”
First, it is important to understand that “investigative journalism” is deep reporting on a single topic – often taking months. Its reports are considered primary source.
In researching contemporary women investigative journalists, I’m sorry to say that this profession is dominated by a 4 to 1 ratio of men to women.
Also, since the cost of investigative journalism is high given the time it takes to research and write a report, it is disappearing from mainstream media. Moreover, since such media requires advertising revenue to survive and since these advertisers do not want exposes that might impact their bottom lines, this type of in depth reporting called “muckraking, investigative journalism, and watchdog journalism” is becoming less available in the media. Books are replacing media for today’s muckraking.
Examples of such books by women authors are: Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” – an expose on the working poor and Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side – an expose on Bush’s questionable tactics of his war on terror.