Jacob Riis’s book How The Other Half Lives, written in 1890, remains an outstanding example of the importance of investigative journalism and the continued vitality of the Fourth Estate.


Jacob Riis was among the earliest of what Theodore Roosevelt later termed ” muckraker”, “taking the rake to uncover the most unpleasant conditions in American society.”  In Riis’s case, the issue was the plight of thousands of immigrants living and working in horrid conditions in the New York City tenements of the late 19th century. How The Other Half Lives is not a historical novel but rather a work of non-fiction, well researched reporting, personally witnessed by the journalist.

Riis was himself an  immigrant, born in Denmark among a family of fifteen children. He apprenticed as a carpenter in Copenhagen but discouraged by job availability he immigrated to the United States in 1870 at age  21.  Having caught a brief glimpse of the squalid living conditions among immigrants in New York’s tenement district, he left for western Pennsylvania and found work there as a carpenter. Perceived as being taken advantage of by his employers, he returned to New York as a salesman of flat irons whereupon he saw an advertisement for a Long Island newspaper looking for an editor. Thus, with no experience as a writer, he began his career in journalism.  He later accepted a position as a reporter for The New York News Association where he began writing with assignments covering both the rich and the impoverished. Riss was aware of conditions among the extremely poor in New York from his previous brief stay in and around the notorious Five Points. However, his job at the NYNA, the New York Sun and later in a big step up to the New York Tribune , he found a pulpit from which to begin informing the public on How The Other Half Lives .  Riis turned his print platform into a personal crusade, attempting  to alleviate the bad living and working conditions of the poor by exposing their horrid circumstances to the people who could make a difference, the middle and upper class of the city and its political establishment. Riis was perfectly willing to hold both the upper class and politicians accountable for the exploitation of men, women and children in both employment and housing. The pages of his early articles for Scribner’s Magazine and later in the complete volume How The Other Half Lives  are so vivid that uninformed critics, in disbelief, termed the details of his reporting an exaggeration and sensationalism.

Surely this work is an early reformist look at income inequality but  Riis referred to this large percentage of the New York City population as a class  unto itself, literally without identity or voice, enslaved by landlords who exploited their fears. The same people were recruited as the machinery of piecework in the early garment and cigar making industry at wages below any standards of decency.  The tenement  districts in New York exploded with thousands of men, women and children crowded into one or two rooms often without ventilation, sanitation or running water. Riss estimated that at one fifth of the city’s population lived under these conditions.

There is a major difference between Riis’s reporting and sensationalism. Riis spent months in the tenements, which were factories by day and barely livable sleeping quarters by night.  His research was impeccable and he was among the very first reporters to incorporate photo journalism into his stories, utilizing the newly invented flash to photograph his subjects in their darkened rooms. His work was the beginning of photo journalism, adding documentation to the written word.  The photos and editorial content had dramatic impact with his readers  and ultimately gained the attention of New York’s newly elected Police Commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt.  Riis became an advisor to Roosevelt, escorting him on nighttime  tours for the commissioner to see for himself how the poor were forced to live.  Many credit this educational relationship with Roosevelt as the beginning of the Progressive Movement, a hallmark of TR’s future  presidency.

After Roosevelt’s election he wrote this tribute to Riis. ” Recently a man, well  qualified to pass judgement, alluded to Mr. Jacob Riis as  ‘ the most useful citizen of New York.’  The countless evils which lurk in the dark corners of our civic institutions, which stalk abroad in the slums, and have their permanent abode in the  crowded tenement houses, have met in Mr. Riis the most formidable opponent  ever encountered by them in New York  City.”

How The Other Half Lives was first published as an article in Scribner’s  Magazine in 1889, but  while working for the New York Sun, Riis expanded the work into the book, complete with his photographs and published it a year later.  A much less famous work by Riis, Children of the Poor was published as a sequel in 1892. In it Riis wrote of children he had encountered while researching How The Other Half Lives.


Riis was not alone among a new breed of investigative {muckraker) journalists.  In 1872 Julius Chambers wrote an expose of institutional horrors in Bloomingdale Asylum  and in 1887 Nellie Bly wrote Ten Days in a Madhouse a story of patient abuse in Bellevue Hospital.   By the turn of the 20th century McClure’s Magazine had assembled a group of new muckrakers including Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens and Ray Stannard Baker, exposing the Standard Oil Trusts and labor unrest in the coal mines and steel mills.

One wonders  how slowly  reform among the immigrants of New York’s tenements may have come without the reporting of Jacob Riis.  How The Other Half Lives  punctuates the importance of  investigative journalism in the fabric of a democracy. In the 20th Century we saw the results of the journalistic work of the Washington Post’s  Ben Bradlee, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their reporting of Watergate.  Currently we are witnessing excellent journalism in the New York Time’s recent series Invisible Child, the brilliant work of reporter Andrea Elliott and the ongoing reporting of Times business journalist Gretchen Morgenson,  together with her book Reckless Endangerment.  

In this readers view, Television, the 24-hour cable news cycle and the endless world of blogs have a long distance to travel before coming close to the credibility and impact  of the work of Jacob Riis and those following in his footsteps.  If you are a  student of New York, treat yourself to a journey back to the nineteenth century and read How The Other Half Lives.  It will make you want to keep buying a newspaper, print or digital!


Neil Barofsky’s book  BAILOUT An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street while rescuing Wall Street, leaves no doubt that in his mind the American taxpayers have struck out and the big banks continue their winning streak. He also casts a large vote of no-confidence in Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.


From December 2008 until March of 2011 Barofsky served as the Special Inspector General in charge of the oversight of TARP ( SIG-TRAP).  The primary purpose of  SIG-TARP, created by an act of Congress, was to monitor the flow of TARP funds to prevent fraud and misuse of the appropriations.  Barofsky,  appointed by President Bush was later re-appointed by President Obama. His three years of overseeing and reporting to Congress on the administration of TARP played out in an almost daily adversarial relationship with Treasury Secretary Geithner.

In a book, the first chapter of which is titled  Fraud 101! , Barofsky’s conclusions come as no surprise to the reader.  In a prescient view on the day that he accepted the assignment he writes, ” I had no idea what I was in for and what I’d learn. I hadn’t yet understood the degree to which the entire crisis was unleashed by the greed of a small handful of executives who exploited a financial system that guaranteed that no matter what risks they took, they’d be able to keep the profits and lavish pay those risks generated with the assurance that if their outsized bets went wrong, the U.S. taxpayer would cover their loses. ” 

BAILOUT  is well written, to the point and Barofsky  successfully reduces complex issues in layman’s terms.  The book is also a lesson in how Washington insiders operate and why the system is broken. It is a disturbing read, not only because of  enlightenment about what went wrong with TARP, but moreover, Barofsky makes a case that nothing has changed and that the banking system is heading back down the same disastrous road. It is important to remember that the author resigned from his position and was not fired, which adds objectivity to the writing

Barofsky holds out little hope that the watered down Dodd- Frank legislation will make a difference. “As recent history has repeatedly shown, through massive campaign contributions, relentless lobbying, and multi-million dollar payouts awaiting government officials who join Wall Street firms, no legislation can confer the necessary fortitude upon the regulators. ”

Not an optimistic outlook for the nation’s ability to deal with financial institutions that are “Too Big To Fail,” particularly when some used TARP money to purchase additional banks!

BAILOUT is an important read, particularly during this election cycle.   Ironically TARP is not a campaign issue but Barofsky leaves little doubt that ” To Big To Fail” remains a looming disaster for the U.S. economy and American taxpayers.

Another important book on this general subject is Reckless Endangerment by Gretchen Morgenson and Joshua Rosner. See gordonsgoodreads October 19, 2011.







Reckless Endangerment-Excellent Reporting-Pulitzer Worthy

Gretchen Morgenson has again distinguished herself as the finest reporter of financial matters in the  American free press.  The added research of Joshua Rosner raises the new book RECKLESS ENDANGERMENT to an even higher level of excellence and credibility. Recognition of the full title of this work is essential. RECKLESS-ENDANGERMENT, HOW OUTSIZED AMBITION, GREED, AND CORRUPTION LED TO ECONOMIC ARMAGEDDON.

Morgenson’s  and Rosner’s  investigative reporting and writing ( an appropriate description) ) not only tells this nearly unbelievable story but it is a statement about the importance of newspapers and journalists who are committed to upholding the tenants of a free press in a democracy.

The following paragraphs from  RECKLESS ENDANGERMENT  preview the depth to which the book travels to tell the story leading up to the  economic meltdown of 2008 and more disturbingly raises the prospect that at this very moment it may well be happening all over again.

“Just as drug lords know that their products pose hazards to their customers, the Wall Street firms packaging and selling mortgage pools to investors knew well before their customers did that the loans inside the securities had begun to go bad. But with the mortgage mania raging and profits still flowing the investment bankers had no interest in coming clean.”

“The Incident was the first of many times that the heads of organizations accused of improper conduct were not held accountable for the damage they did to shareholders and , later, to taxpayers.”

“Will a debacle like the credit crisis of 2008 ever happen again? Most certainly, because Congress decided against fixing the problem of too-big-to-fail institutions when it had the chance.”

Page by page with incredibly impressive detail , facts and substantiation, Morgenson and Rosner describe  the lead-up to the carnage to the American economy and citizenry, and to the financial crisis that the government is still facing.

There are pages in this book that you simply will not want to believe. However, you will! All of the economic meltdown characters are there with the ironic twist that nearly all of them are still controlling the levers of economic power. The list of key players in the meltdown who are still  on stage  spans pages 305-308!