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Originally published Friday, April 11, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Putting Standard Oil over a barrel

"Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller" by Steve Weinberg Norton, 304 pp., $25.95 Ida Minerva Tarbell grew...

Special to The Seattle Times

"Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller"

by Steve Weinberg

Norton, 304 pp., $25.95

Ida Minerva Tarbell grew up in the shadow of eastern Pennsylvania's oil derricks. Her father and brother, both involved in the 19th century's infant oil industry, each suffered at the hands of the all-powerful Standard Oil trust.

But Ida grew up to become a journalist who took on the trust. Her exposé of Standard Oil and its corporate chief, John D. Rockefeller, published in McClure's Magazine between 1902 and 1905, ultimately led to the U.S. Supreme Court's breakup of Standard Oil. It also established what author Steve Weinberg calls "a new form of journalism," now called investigative reporting. This book is Tarbell's story as told by Weinberg, a University of Missouri journalism professor and former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Piecing together Tarbell's tale was obviously a labor of love for Weinberg, who spent a decade researching her life. Others may find it less interesting; in fact, to borrow some oil-industry terminology, this book is something of a dry hole — a lengthy recitation of a rather dull life. Even Tarbell's revelations about Standard Oil don't make very lively reading.

Samuel Sidney McClure, publisher of McClure's Magazine, assigned Tarbell to investigate the oil giant. Rockefeller had built Standard Oil into a vertically integrated company that controlled all aspects of the petroleum industry, including extraction, shipping, refining, distribution and marketing. He also organized the company as a trust, with separate corporate entities in different states, all connected through a management structure to the top.

"Because Standard Oil was expanding so rapidly, Rockefeller used its volume and efficiency to squeeze down railroad shipping rates," Weinberg writes. "Understanding that lower rates could serve as a decisive competitive advantage, Rockefeller insisted on shipping at a discount, and brazenly also received a separate, secretly negotiated, unpublicized rebate from the railroads for every barrel of competitors' oil they carried."

Tarbell dredged up 30 years' worth of court testimony and other statements from independent oil producers, plus information from Standard Oil insiders, to reveal a corporate espionage saga "perhaps greater than anything previously perpetrated by a government," Weinberg says.

"I did not take the matter seriously at first," Tarbell said. But as documented problems multiplied, she found the espionage theory difficult to rule out and eventually uncovered "unimpeachable proof of a conspiracy."

Tarbell charged that Standard Oil had "used the railroads illegally; that it controlled the great pipeline system for gathering and carrying crude oil ... that it organized and reorganized the multitude of companies of which it is made up to evade the laws ... that it did all of these things in secret, by connivance and by bribery, for the purpose of limiting the trade of its rivals."

Her series, later published in book form, prompted litigation culminating in a 1911 Supreme Court decision that "effectively ended the existence of the trust and its quasi-monopolistic practices." But "Standard Oil had prepared itself for the eventuality and took painless steps to comply with the ruling," Weinberg says.

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Indeed, 12 years later, Tarbell wrote: "The price we pay for gasoline is the price fixed by the Standard Oil Company. Although the components of this company were segregated by the U.S. government in 1911 with the expectation that there would be open competition, its control over the production and price of oil is as great as ever."

Now, nearly a century later, Standard Oil's corporate descendants — Exxon/Mobil, Sohio and other petroleum giants — still maintain a stranglehold on the oil market, while profit-oriented media conglomerates threaten the extinction of investigative journalism.

So one might well ask: Where is Ida Tarbell now that we really need her?

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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