Beef scare recalls 'The Jungle' of nine decades ago Upton Sinclair wrote of meatpacking horrors, but was largely ignored

September 14, 1997|By Norman Solomon

This summer, we've seen the biggest recall of beef in American history - nine decades after a famous book led the federal government to start inspecting meat. If the author were still alive, he wouldn't be surprised that serious problems remain.

Upton Sinclair's novel, "The Jungle," included sickening descriptions of Chicago meatpacking plants. Published in 1907, it jarred the nation and lifted hopes of major reform. But not for long.

Later that year, "the lobbyists of the packers had their way in Washington," Sinclair observed. "The meat inspection bill was deprived of all its sharpest teeth, and in that form [President Theodore] Roosevelt accepted it."

Sinclair, born and raised in Baltimore, warned that the government's failure to inspect meat rigorously was likely to continue. Most of all, he blamed the news media.

From the outset, the press gave "The Jungle" a rough reception. "Can it be possible that anyone is deceived by this insane rant and drivel?" one widely syndicated newspaper columnist scoffed. The meat industry mailed out a million copies of the article.

"Because of the kindness of American editorial writers to the interests which contribute full-page advertisements to newspapers," Sinclair wrote a dozen years after the 1907 law went into effect, "the American people still have their meat prepared in filth."

The Associated Press was one of Sinclair's most powerful adversaries.

"Throughout my entire campaign against the Beef Trust," he remembered, the national AP editors "never sent out a single line injurious to the interests of the packers, save for a few lines dealing with congressional hearings, which they could not entirely suppress."

To Sinclair, the situation was chronic. "American newspapers as a whole represent private interests and not public interests," he declared. Journalism operated as "a class institution, serving the rich and spurning the poor."

He despaired at the attitudes that held sway: "My main concern DTC has been for the fate of the workers, and I realized with bitterness that I had been made into a 'celebrity,' not because the public cared anything about the suings of these workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef."

In 1920, Sinclair finished a book of press criticism - "The Brass Check" - and published it himself. Sales were brisk, totaling 100,000 copies in less than a year. The book was a scathing attack on the media establishment.

"The Brass Check" said the press lords regularly prevented a free flow of information: "Journalism is one of the devices whereby industrial autocracy keeps its control over political democracy."

Such opinions, expressed by a tireless and renowned author, did not endear Sinclair to newspaper executives around the country. When he moved to Southern California and gave a speech to the Friday Morning Club of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times printed an editorial under the terse headline: "Upton Sinclair's Ravings."

The editorial lamented that the club's podium was used "for such ungodly purposes" by "an effeminate young man with a fatuous smile, a weak chin and a sloping forehead, talking in a false treble" and uttering "weak, pernicious, vile doctrines."

In 1934, Sinclair ran for governor on a campaign platform named EPIC - "End Poverty in California." When he won the Democratic primary, business leaders panicked and took the unprecedented step of hiring an advertising agency to smear Sinclair with huge quantities of negative publicity.

Despite an intense media battering that included constant denunciations by California's largest newspapers, Sinclair placed second in a three-way race with 38 percent of the vote.

Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lacks the legal authority to order tainted meat off the market, something that Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman asked Congress for late last month. And no big media outlet is really calling for an end to poverty in America.

The next time you wonder about the beef on your plate, you might think of Upton Sinclair - and ask yourself why it's still such a media jungle out there.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His book, "Wizards of Media Oz: Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News," co-written with Jeff Cohen, has just been published by Common Courage Press. He lives in Oakland, Calif.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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