• TLDR: In his famous speech on muckrakers (yellow journalism), Roosevelt had to walk a fine line between criticizing the free press and demanding that it cease its critical coverage of political coverage.
  • So What? Freedom of the press is essential to American political life, and by demanding more favorable coverage, Roosevelt risked seeming a tyrant. But, by threading a rhetorical needle between responsibility and positivity, he could make his point without squelching political news coverage.

President Theodore Roosevelt’s speech on “The Man with the muck-rake” is one of his most famous addresses, delivered on April 14, 1906. In this speech, Roosevelt drew upon the character of the Man with the Muck-Rake from John Bunyan’s 17th-century work, “Pilgrim’s Progress.”

In his speech, Roosevelt used this allegory to criticize journalists and others he felt were overly focused on scandal and corruption to exclude positive aspects of society. He acknowledged the necessity and usefulness of exposing wrongdoing to reform society but cautioned against excessive negativity that could be counterproductive.

In doing so, he showed us what it means to bridge the gap between opposing ideas to respect one while advocating for the other.

Creating Context by Connecting Ideas to Well-Known Stories

We regularly advocate that marketers tell stories. In some cases, it’s worthwhile to reference those stories as well.

Roosevelt mentions two stories that his audience would be nominally familiar with. The first is his mention of Pilgrim’s Progress and the story of the “Man with the Muck-Rake”:

“In Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress you may recall the description of the Man with the Muck-Rake, the man who could look no way but downward, with the muck-rake in his hand; who was offered a celestial crown for his muck-rake, but who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth of the floor.”

Additionally, he tells the story of Bishop Hooker, and quotes him:

“He that goeth about to persuade a multitude that they are not so well governed as they ought to be shall never want attentive and favorable hearers, because they know the manifold defects whereunto every kind of regimen is subject, but the secret lets and difficulties, which in public proceedings are innumerable and inevitable, they have not ordinarily the judgment to consider.”

This approach is an excellent example of using shared cultural knowledge to build a context for what is being said. In this case, Roosevelt’s use of religious parables and sermons connects to the audience in a way that streamlines some of the rhetorical work he must do to get his ideas across.

Using Compare and Contrast: Navigating Controversial Stances

drawing of roosevelt

Roosevelt’s move to paint investigative journalism negatively was, and still is, controversial. An independent press must be free to report on those in power without coercion. At the same time, so-called “yellow journalism” (what we might label as tabloid literature or outright misinformation in modern times) was also a problem.

The president parses out that conversation in terms of contrasting ideas, each of which falls into competing ideas about the press:

Negativity vs. Positivity

In the titular paragraph, Roosevelt labels “the man with the muck-rake” as one who only sees the bad rather than the good:

“Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck-rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck-rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.”

Here, he has to top-toe around the idea that journalists must focus on the good and the bad… which, depending on your perception, seems also to be a call to avoid discussing corruption if there is simply too much of it.

Realism vs. Idealism

Following this, Roosevelt seems invested in the idea that while journalism should cover what is happening, citizens should understand this as part of their civic duty. It’s also critical to look up and onward to avoid stagnating:

“The men with the muck-rakes are often indispensable to the well-being of society, but only if they know when to stop raking the muck and to look upward to the celestial crown above them, to the crown of worthy endeavor. There are beautiful things above and round about them, and if they gradually grow to feel that the whole world is nothing but muck, their power of usefulness is gone.”

The tightrope walked here is a great lesson in communication because it shows how to make a point, even if you know that point may be challenging or contrary to a popular stance.

It’s important to state that Roosevelt’s calls for positive journalism are problematic and could be taken as the seat of power looking to stifle the press. Accordingly, he spends significant time stating that this is not his goal:

“At the risk of repetition let me say again that my plea is not for immunity to, but for the most unsparing exposure of, the politician who betrays his trust, of the big businessman who makes or spends his fortune in illegitimate or corrupt ways. There should be a resolute effort to hunt every such man out of the position he has disgraced. Expose the crime, and hunt down the criminal; but remember that even in the case of crime, if it is attacked in sensational, lurid, and untruthful fashion, the attack may do more damage to the public mind than the crime itself.”

What we can learn as marketers and communicators is twofold:

  1. Comparisons help flesh out ideas. In classical rhetoric, this is known as “antithesis,” or using opposing ideas to make a point. By comparing two opposite ideas (negativity and positivity, realism and idealism) you can acknowledge the necessity while introducing the importance of one or the other. Here, Roosevelt can state the importance of positivity in media without sacrificing truth. Likewise, you can acknowledge limitations or criticisms while highlighting essential aspects of a brand or product.
  2. Contrasts can create a challenging hole to dig out of. As evidenced by this speech, Roosevelt consistently reminded his audience that he didn’t want to limit the press. But, he has to keep performing this reminder because his comparison invites many problems that his audience isn’t likely to overlook.

Marketer’s Takeaway

Sometimes, it’s not easy to talk about your brand or product. People have complex ideas about things, and you cannot control how they might receive information about something they’ve already engaged with elsewhere.

But respect for those ideas and a willingness to respect them while advocating for your own can go a long way in building bridges between the marketer and the audience.

Do you need help to speak on complex topics with respect and care? Sign up for a free trial of the Media Shower platform to work with our AI Assistants and experts.