Jacob Riis: “Why should a man have a better right to kill his neighbor with a house than with an ax in the street?”

Reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful new book, The Bully PulpitTheodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism I am struck by how powerful the relationship between a journalist and a political leader can be to create social change. The collision of a problem explained in a compelling manner with a political leader who is receptive to reform occasionally produces the nuclear fusion of social change.

Goodwin documents this phenomena in her description of the relationship of reporter Jacob Riis and Theodore Roosevelt…

The years [Riis] spent covering fires, murders and robberies in the immigrant slums fostered a keen awareness of the devastating conditions confronting families in these tenement districts. “The sights I saw there,” he recalled,”gripped my heart until I felt I must tell of them or burst or turn anarchist or something.”

In newspaper exposé Riis described overcrowded, unsanitary tenements with insufficient light and air, often the properties of absentee owners who neglected repairs and necessary improvements. …

“Why,” he asked, “should a man have a better right to kill his neighbor with a house than with an ax in the street?” “The remedy,” he concluded “must proceed from the public conscience.”

How The Other Half Lives, Riis’ first book, was published in 1890. This visceral account traced the daily struggles he witnessed in the Italian tenements, the Jewish quarters and the bohemian ghetto. …

Theodore Roosevelt had read How The Other Half Lives while he was Civil Service Commissioner, calling it both an enlightenment and an inspiration, he was convinced the book would “go a long way to removing the ignorance of comfortable New Yorkers about the hardships confronting their less fortunate neighbors.” Furthermore, he was hopeful that Riis’ disclosures would engender a new spirit of reform. Roosevelt found the tone of the book particularly admirable, lauding the manner in which Riis revealed social ills without stridency, never descending into hysterical negativity or sentimental excess.

When intrigued by the work of a writer or journalist Roosevelt often endeavored to establish a personal connection. He called on Riis at the Evening Sun, finding him out of the office, Roosevelt left a card with a succinct message that he had read the book and had “come to help.” …

“He had the most flaming intensity of passion for righteousness,” Roosevelt recalled. “Never a mere preacher he was among the few whose convictions proved a touchstone for action.” In Riis, Roosevelt found a man who looked at life and its problems from substantially the same standpoint as he did: a moderate reformer seeking to rectify social ills through moral conviction and suasion.