Remember, many of America's most notable journalists got their start by exposing malfeasance in state capitols. Modern investigative reporting dates to the 1880s, when Henry Demarest Lloyd showed how John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Company bribed and intimidated state lawmakers. In Pennsylvania, Lloyd famously wrote, Standard Oil "has done everything with the legislature, except refine it."
Today, we look back on Lloyd as America's first "muckraker." But the term was not coined until 1906, by Theodore Roosevelt, who complained about journalists who "could look no way but downward" and scraped up "the filth of the floor." Here he took aim especially at David Graham Phillips, whose nine-part article on "Treason in the Senate" condemned the undue power of rich campaign contributors in Congress.
But we often forget that Phillips's series also exposed corruption in state legislatures, which were still responsible for selecting US senators. As Phillips showed, large corporations paid off state lawmakers to choose senators who would be friendly to big business.
Phillips's articles helped spark a public campaign for the direct election of the US Senate, which took effect with a constitutional amendment in 1913.
It's hard to imagine a modern-day Lloyd or Phillips rampaging through American statehouses today, exposing greed and sloth, because the newspapers simply don't have the staff to conduct large-scale investigations there. And that's bad news for all of us — even for state officials, who need the press watchdogs as much as anybody else.