10 Press Exposés That Made a Difference

Helping to Bust a Monopoly (1902-04)
Ida M. Tarbell is shown at her desk in 1921. She was the investigative journalist and chronicler of American industry, famous for her classic "The History of the Standard Oil Company." Bettmann/Getty Images

In the late 1800s, John D. Rockefeller built the Standard Oil Co. into one of the biggest, richest and most powerful businesses the world had ever seen, one that controlled 90 percent of U.S. oil refining, as well as nearly all the oil pipelines in the nation. Rockefeller achieved that dominance with brutal hardball tactics, forcing smaller refining companies to sell out to him or else face the prospect of having their supply of crude shut off.

In one instance, when another oil company tried to build its own pipeline across Pennsylvania, Standard bought up all the land along the route to block it. Rockefeller even bribed state legislators to assist him in strangling competition [source: CRF].

Standard Oil met its match in a journalist named Ida Tarbell, the daughter of a small-time oil producer in northwestern Pennsylvania who'd been harmed by Rockefeller's ruthlessness. As a writer for McClure's magazine, Tarbell spent two years laboriously going through volumes of government records and court testimony. Her 19-part magazine series explained how Standard Oil built its monopoly, dissecting its complex business maneuvers in a way that ordinary readers could understand. Her work sparked a growing public outcry that eventually led to the courts breaking up Standard Oil in 1911 [sources: PBS, King].