Lincoln Steffens was the first American investigative journalist to attain celebrity status. Curious, audacious, and charming, he rarely met a person who didn’t interest him, nor many people whom he did not eventually befriend. Small in stature, almost impish, eccentric, yet always “dressed to the nines,” he could disarm the worst curmudgeon.
Steffens was born into wealth and used his talent, energy and resources to expose the greed and corruption of those who exploited the working poor. He was one of the early “muckrakers” who chronicled the plight of the people whose muscle and sweat built America into an industrial powerhouse. Their life struggles were the subject of his career.
The subtext of most of Steffens’ investigative reports for the leading publications of the day was civilization’s age-old dilemma, central to organized society, a quandary often termed “the social question.” Steffens spent his career grappling with the eternal conflict arising from what founding father James Madison termed the “distinct interests in society.” Steffens sought to solve the puzzle of how are we to live together, and fairly share the profits generated by a prosperous economy? His goal was to educate his readers on the social dynamics and the tensions inherent in a growing economy, together with the resulting battle lines between the haves and have-nots. He tried never to demonize anyone.
Steffens was out of the country, traveling in Europe, when the Times’ building was destroyed, yet he quickly concluded that organized labor was responsible. When he learned of the arrest of the McNamara Brothers, he instinctively assumed they were guilty. With the meager facts available in newspaper reports and his own knowledge of the American Labor Movement, Steffens concluded that his old friend Clarence Darrow faced long odds against an acquittal of the two young brothers. This was the story Steffens wished to dig into: Why would workers blow up the steel structures they had built? His imagination was ignited. Steffens was on a mission. From his perspective, “labor had done it and capital and the world should learn why,” in order to prevent such calamities in the future.
Though he believed that the McNamaras were guilty, Steffens hoped to delve into something the robber barons had refused to acknowledge, namely that their hands were as bloody as labor’s. Thousands of employees had died in needless construction accidents caused by unsafe working conditions, and in violent confrontations instigated by employers through their agents provocateurs. Upon arriving in Los Angeles in the summer of 1911, Steffens hoped to conduct a “parallel trial” of the actions of labor answering capital, then urge the two sides to declare a truce. His goal was reconciliation. Within a short time, Steffens found himself deeply involved in plea bargain negotiations, aiding Darrow in settling the charges against the McNamaras, avoiding the hangman’s noose. Not long afterward, Darrow himself was charged with jury tampering.
Steffens was witty, wise and most importantly, loyal to his good friend, Clarence Darrow. One of the most entertaining scenes in Darrow’s Nightmare is the cross-examination of Steffens by District Attorney Fredericks at Darrow’s bribery trial.