Bookmarks Issue: 

A-Taking on the TrustSteve Weinberg, an investigative journalist and author (Armand Hammer: The Untold Story [1989]), teaches journalism at the University of Missouri. In this paean to Ida Tarbell, he sheds light on one of the great conflicts of the early 20th century.

The Topic: More Americans probably recognize the name John D. Rockefeller, the oil magnate and philanthropist, than Ida Tarbell, the journalist whose pioneering reporting led to the government breakup of Rockefeller’s company, Standard Oil. Weinberg attempts to restore the balance by casting the pair as the villain and heroine in a story of early 20th-century big business, progressive reform, and investigative journalism. He explores the early lives of both figures, explaining how Rockefeller came to dominate the oil business in America and how Tarbell came to invent modern investigative journalism despite working in an age of discrimination against women. The final part of the book examines the promised battle, which left its mark on both American business and journalism in the century to come.
Norton. 304 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0393049353

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Steve Weinberg has created a perfect interdisciplinary mash-up. … History, economics, and gender studies collide in this brisk narrative tale of the birth of investigative journalism and the first corporation brought down by its scrupulous use." M. E. Collins

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"The stories of Rockefeller and Tarbell have been told before, but Steve Weinberg’s Taking on the Trust is the first book aimed entirely at narrating their epic clash and their surprisingly intertwined personal histories. The book’s timing could not be more apt." Paul E. Steiger

Cleveland Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Weinberg] writes parallel biographies of Tarbell and Rockefeller while illuminating their intersection with America’s rapid industrialization, the creation of the modern corporation and the Progressive Era. … Weinberg’s readable book celebrates the merit of Ida Tarbell speaking truth to the powerless, which helped the nation to rebalance the scales." Alan Cate

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Taking on the Trust may be an important read, but it is not an easy one. Weinberg spends more time explaining how Rockefeller spun his monopolistic web than he does explaining how Tarbell unraveled it." Tom Abate

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Steve Weinberg, who worked as an investigative reporter before entering academia, chooses to downplay the muckraking narrative itself. Instead, he offers a modest, if reliable, dual biography of Tarbell and Rockefeller." Michael Kazin

Chicago Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Taking on the Trust is] a breezy if not always substantial account of the lives of Tarbell and Rockefeller and their eventual clash. … Weinberg succeeds in offering ‘a hybrid of biography and dramatic narrative’ but falls short in exploring the rich and complex intellectual and political currents animating the Progressive reform movements of the early 20th century." Eric Arnesen

Critical Summary

Several critics were impressed by Weinberg’s dual biography of Rockefeller and Tarbell. However, some found the book’s hybrid format of dramatic narrative and biography a limitation; since readers can already find excellent biographies of both figures, they argued, Weinberg should have devoted more of the book to their conflict and its context. Nearly all reviewers, however, recounted the lives of Tarbell and Rockefeller and their clash in their reviews and felt that the origins of investigative journalism and the trust-busting era were worthwhile subjects. Thus they felt that Weinberg’s book is certainly worth reading, even though he did not find quite the right form for his story. Of course, many of the critics have already read biographies of both subjects—readers who have not may appreciate getting both in one well-written package.