Eric Schlosser’s "Chew on This" – The changing zeitgeist, the impact of corporations on contemporary American society and the role of journalism

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Eric Schlosser’s Chew on This

The changing zeitgeist, the impact of corporations on contemporary American society and the role of journalism

“I’m not trying to write agitprop, telling people exactly what to think. I’m just trying to make them think”, says Eric Schlosser about his aim and style of writing, which he intends to be emotionally calm, straightforward and deliberately simple.[1] Part hereof is moreover a modest authorial presence in the text – most of the time going without a narrative –, the very rare use of quotations and the avoidance of polemics, all of this aiming at a reading experience where facts and evidences are recognized before style and literary flourishes.[2] Most of this comes, as Schlosser stresses himself, from reporter John McPhee, whom he praises as “a master craftsman with integrity in every detail” and who was his teacher when studying at Princeton University.[3]

Even though Schlosser himself, who worked as a script reader and story editor before becoming a full-time journalist for The Atlantic Monthly and the Rolling Stone magazine, points towards the argument put forward by Barbara Fairchild, editor of Bon Appétit magazine, that “there are two things about American [book] culture today: It's all in the timing and it's all in the title",[4] he is seen in line with America’s most influential contemporary non-fiction writers and often – due to his investigations into the meatpacking industry – as a modern Upton Sinclair.[5] His 2006 book Chew on This is a variation of the very successful 2001 Fast Food Nation,[6] intending to inform especially adolescents. It utilizes the same style, though simpler vocabulary and sentence structures; and covers basically the same topics, while concentrating more on the fast food industry’s efforts on children and teenagers and shortening the space devoted to the meatpacking business, as well as leaving out more complex issues such as the franchise business system and the relationship between politics and lobbyism.

Literary Journalism

Schlosser, who sees Fast Food Nation as one part of ''a history of America of the last 25 years”,[7] says he is interested in “subjects that are timely and that aren’t adequately reported in the mainstream media”.[8] Moreover he is particularly interested as soon as social justice is involved, stating more generally that “there were periods in our history when journalism was concerned with exposing injustice, and I think we are entering one of those periods now.”[9]

One of the periods – more likely the period – he is alluding to is the Gilded Age, named after Mark Twain, at the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twentieth century, which saw the so called “Muckraking” movement. Authors like Riis, Steffens, Crane, Tarbell and the earlier mentioned Sinclair published essays in magazines, most notably Mc Clure’s Magazine, and sought to expose injustices, especially in the fields of business and politics.[10] Their reports readily found their readership, for the Gilded Age, though witnessing an accelerated pace in scientific inventions, growth of population and the creation of wealth – and therefore being “gilded” on the surface –, was accompanied by rigorous capitalism, growing social inequality, an increasing concentration of influence and money among the few and a decline in the standard of living of the many.[11]

As Tichi (2004) points out, the Muckrakers, who owe their name to Theodore Roosevelt, were most influential at the very beginning of the early twentieth century, but lost reputation in the mid-1910s and 1920s.[12] While Sinclair’s The Jungle, published as a book, became a bestseller in 1906 and caused the enactment of two laws to improve meat safety and quality (instead of improving the working conditions of the meatpackers, which Sinclair actually had aimed at),[13] the movement’s “own decadence weakened it”, with some writers relying “increasingly on emotional appeal at the expense of factual accuracy”[14] and stereotypically echoing the always same accusations.

As Tichi (2004) furthermore points out, it is not foremost the writing style, or the choice of aspects focused on in their exposés, which connects the Muckrakers a la Sinclair with contemporary journalists like Schlosser – it is rather their commitment to social change, to a fairer, more democratic society.[15] Moreover it is the way of presenting facts with the help of fiction by framing them with and conveying them through stories. This tradition reaches back until the Penny Press of the 1830s and is seen as an exclusively American genre of literature.[16] It prospered especially from the 1880s until the first decade of the twentieth century, when the sales of journals and newspapers reached new heights.[17]

Boynton (2005) differentiates between Joseph Pulitzer’s “New Journalism” of the 80s and Lincoln Steffens’s “literary journalism” of the 90s, both reporting facts via stories that were aiming at the masses and whose publication was intended to contribute to social change. Yet where the former describes “the blend of sensationalism and crusading journalism – muckraking on behalf of immigrants and the poor”, literary journalism uses “artfully told narrative stories … about America’s most important institutions (business and politics).”[18] Thus, where nineteenth century New Journalism represents the popular-culture branch of combining reports with fiction, literary journalism rather represents the high-culture one.

Equally to a more elevated section of American literature belongs the Mailer, Capote and Wolfe New Journalism of the 1960s and 70s, which Boynton (2005), besides muckraking journalism,[19] sees as the second ancestor of contemporary muckraking journalism – consequently referring to the latter as “New New Journalism.”[20] The New Journalism, however, was proclaimed by Tom Wolfe in his 1973 book The New Journalism,[21] which sought to redefine the relation between fiction and nonfiction and declared that journalism had become “literature’s main event”.[22] After the Gilded Age, journalism in general – and especially muckraking journalism – had lost status to fictional texts. While the latter established themselves as high culture, journalism was pushed back to the daily newspapers and was expected to report as objectively as possible, with little room for literary journalism.[23] Muckraking often became identified with anachronistic romanticism or socialist and communist activism, was denigrated, rejected or ignored and only survived in niches.[24]

Though Boynton (2005) questions Wolfe’s definition of New Journalism as successor of eighteenth and nineteenth century literary realism, as well as its primary dedication to factual journalism (instead of to artful writing),[25] he points out two major aspects in which it influenced and contributed to the New New Journalism of Schlosser, Ehrenreich, Conover and others: it conquered ground from fictional texts for the acceptance of literary journalism in general, and its experiments with style, language and narrative form influenced the New New Journalism texts produced thirty years later.[26]

Apart from that, Boynton (2005) sees more differences than commonalities. While both highlight the importance of thorough research and deep immersion into their subjects, the New Journalism a la Wolfe is most concerned about status, appearance and behaviour of its characters; the New New Journalism about class and race.[27] While Wolfe values aesthetics in both, what is and how it is written about, Schlosser prefers the clear presentation of facts over style, tries to look beneath the surface and attempts to approach his topics from several angles. And finally – and this is why Boynton (2005) ultimately sees the New New Journalism more in line with muckraking journalism than with the New Journalism – writers like Schlosser want to do something about the bad state of affairs in society, want a fairer, more democratic society, whereas Wolfe “doesn’t have an activist bone in his body.”[28] Schlosser’s closeness to, as well as his orientation towards muckraking journalism and Upton Sinclair can be seen in Chew on This (and also in Fast Food Nation), in which he explicitly devotes some space to The Jungle.[29]

Having roughly outlined the tradition of American literary journalism and its influences on the New New Journalism, I want to devote the following pages more closely to Chew on This and the cultural dynamics it presents. Taking its major topics – entrepreneurship, the economical and political influence of corporations, advertisement, labour, the role of the consumer – as starting points, I will attempt to illuminate aspects of the changing zeitgeist of the last thirty years in American society. This shall be done under the thesis, that mechanisms which correct socially undesirable monopolist developments in contemporary democratic societies are thoroughly and effectively undermined by two phenomena: corporate free-market capitalism and the indifference of the individual – the latter very much resulting out of the former and both finding its prime ally in mainstream TV.

Freedom and politics

What do the MacDonald brothers, Ray Kroc, Walt Disney, J. R. Simplot and, last but not least, Hamburger Charlie have in common? All of them are covered in Chew on This and all pursued and achieved the American dream of ascending socially and economically through hard work, self-reliance and the adoption of entrepreneurial attitudes,[30] made possible by a traditionally rather egalitarian society that favours economic individualism and the free market while rejecting ample governmental regulations.[31] The establishment of this fend-for-oneself-preference is, as Ashbee (2002) points out, much due to the fact that the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth century in comparison to European societies represented “the purest form of middle-class in terms of both its social structure and its governing ideology.”[32] Accordingly, besides the appreciation of liberalism and equal opportunities it valued competition, which in economic terms translates into capitalism. This ideology – including scepticism if not hostility towards welfare and socialism[33] – could only be sustained successfully, as Ashbee (2002) continues, because through its moving frontier, its geographical expansion, the country was able to provide permanent economic growth and opportunities, also for political influence, beyond the traditional elites.[34]


[1] quoted after Boynton, 2005, p. 358; Boynton, 2005, p. 358

[2] Ibid.; MacDonald, 2003

[3] quoted after Boynton, 2005, p. 359; Boynton, 2005, p. 342

[4] see Schlosser, 2002, p. 271; Fairchild quoted in Severson, 2006

[5] Boynton, 2005, p. 344; Tichi, 2004, p. 2; Severson, 2006

[6] 1.4 million sold copies until 2006 (Severson, 2006)

[7] quoted in Schrambling, 2001

[8] Boynton, 2005, p. 345

[9] Ibid.

[10] Tichi, 2004, p. 3

[11] Encyclopaedia Britannica 2005

[12] p. 3

[13] Tichi, 2004, p. 2; Schlosser, 2006, p. 138-140

[14] Tichi, 2004, p. 3

[15] p. 14-15

[16] Boynton, 2005, p. xxi, xxiii

[17] Ibid., xxiii-xxvi

[18] Ibid.

[19] In order to avoid terminology confusion, especially with twentieth century New Journalism, I will – following Tichi (2004) – refer to the nineteenth and early twentieth century literary muckraking journalism described above in the following merely as “muckraking journalism”. The term “New Journalism” will exclusively be used for the 1960s / 70s genre.

[20] p. xi

[21] Ibid.

[22] Quoted after Boynton, 2005, p. xi

[23] Boynton, 2005, p. xxvi

[24] Tichi, 2004, p. 9-13

[25] p. xiii, xvii-xix

[26] Ibid., p. xi-xii

[27] Ibid.; p. xii, xvi

[28] p. xxviii-xxix, p. xiv

[29] Schlosser, 2006, p. 138-140; 2002, p. 152-153, 204-205

[30] For American dream see Ashbee, 2002, p. 33

[31] Ibid., p. 18-21, 33-34

[32] p. 9

[33] On the traditionally weak role of American socialism see Ashbee, 2002, p. 11-17

[34] p. 7-10

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Eric Schlosser’s "Chew on This" – The changing zeitgeist, the impact of corporations on contemporary American society and the role of journalism
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Mathias Wick (Author), 2008, Eric Schlosser’s "Chew on This" – The changing zeitgeist, the impact of corporations on contemporary American society and the role of journalism, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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