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Russian-American activist/author Masha Gessen investigates power and corruption

Gessen appears at Carnegie Music Hall as a part of Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures' Ten Evenings series on November 6.

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Ida Tarbell's groundbreaking expose of Standard Oil, published in McClure's Magazine in 1904, led many to consider her one of the first and most influential muckrakers of her time. But that's not how she saw things. Tarbell, who was born south of Erie, bristled at the label of "muckraker," a term coined by President Teddy Roosevelt referring to journalists who exposed corruption or scandal.

 “She did not see herself as a firebrand or a muckraker,” says Anne Trubek, the publisher of Belt Publishing, which is reissuing The History of the Standard Oil Company, adding that Tarbell considered herself to be a historian.

Tarbell may not have been the first female investigative journalist – Elizabeth Catte, in her introduction, notes the contributions of Ida B. Wells, an African-American journalist who wrote about race and discrimination. But Tarbell may have been the most accomplished, regardless of gender. 

“There was a strong muckraking movement at the turn of the last century,” Trubek says, “which we would now call investigative journalism. And it was extremely powerful. But nothing came close to what Tarbell did, which was an in-depth investigation that ended up bringing down Standard Oil.”

If there's a modern counterpart to Tarbell, it might be the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, who appears at Carnegie Music Hall as a part of Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures' Ten Evenings series on November 6. 

Gessen, like Tarbell, has written extensively about corruption and abuse of power. She's covered the regime of Russian president Vladimir Putin both as a staff writer for New Yorker, and in her books The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin and Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot. Her latest is The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, which traces how the Putin administration came to power in the wake of a post-Soviet Union generation hoping for change. 

“[Gessen and Tarbell] are both not only not afraid of the repercussions of those in power, but not afraid of those who side with them or like them,” Trubek says. “They have strong convictions. … They do the work they want to do, they're secure and confident in it, and they're fearless.”

Between the Lines

City Books in North Side will present a memorial reading honoring the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. Poets and writers Jennifer Bannan, Tuhin Das, Kevin Haworth, Tereneh Idia, Joy Katz, Adriana Ramirez, and Shannon Reed are scheduled to appear, along with erhu soloist Mimi Jong. All proceeds from the $5 admission will benefit the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). 7 p.m. Sat., Nov. 10. City Books, 908 Galveston Ave., North Side. 412-321-7323 or citybookspgh.com

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