Sumpter Essay: The Mutual Life Insurance Scandal

Making Public Opinion

Randall Sumpter

My study of the 1905 Armstrong Committee’s investigation of fraudulent practices in the life insurance industry incorporated an interesting debate about what constituted legitimate public relations practices and what their relationship should be to legitimate news. Large dailies in New York used sensational reporting to instigate the investigation. Corporate interests wanted public relations to be used to counterattack muckrake journalism.

Caught in the middle of the skirmish were journalists who worked both in news and in public relations. They responded to two definitions for news. They claimed news was what others failed to print. Charles Hughes, the chief counsel for the Armstrong Committee, believed news should be balanced and should be produced by those without conflicts of interest. He lashed out in particular against the publication of “reading notices.” In this practice, press agents paid for the placement of favorable stories generated by corporate “literary bureaus.”

Students who would benefit most from the concepts explored in this article come from my Cultural History of the Media class, but I have seen business, university studies, communication, journalism, and other disciplines represented in class enrollment. The class meets twice a week for 75 minutes in a lecture hall equipped with a “digital podium.” Enrollment can range from 75 to 125 students, and the logistics for innovative teaching can be daunting.

I try three approaches to explain concepts like those found in my article.  Besides the standard multiple-choice tests delivered by eCampus, I use the student demonstration, the student report, and the student journal to accomplish this task.

Student Demonstrations

The transcripts from the Armstrong Committee hearings still are available (see Students could use them to re-enact critical moments in the hearings, especially the moments when Hughes challenged the definition of news used by Mutual Life Insurance Co. press agents.

Demonstrations can be tricky. One semester, I had a student come to class prepared to demonstrate how to make paper. He had worked on the initial steps over the weekend, when he learned using a heat source accelerated the process. I intervened just before he demonstrated this shortcut for his classmates. On another occasion, I explained to a class how the number of messages exchanged between army units during the Spanish-American War exploded soon after they received their first shipment of typewriters. Predictably, the next three student demonstrations involved ancient, manual typewriters liberated from local pawnshops and parents’ attics.

The demonstrations for the Armstrong Committee likely would be harmless.

Student In-Class Report

Early 20th century New York journalism is saturated with editors and reporters who receive little attention from historians. Students could select one of those individuals from the Armstrong Committee’s witness list and then develop a biographical sketch for presentation to the class. A good example would be Charles Jeffries Smith, who spent 39 years at various newspaper jobs and created Mutual’s public relations apparatus. His career is a study in conflicting interests.

Student Journal Entry

I usually require three, 150-word long journal entries. The focus for the first two could be found in any media history course. Early in the semester, I try to give students a framework for understanding history. Calling it “theory” would be too strong a term, but the first journal entry tries to assess how much of this framework students have learned. In the second, I ask students to explore how historians err through reductionism, elite bias, and present-mindedness. The final entry could ask students to provide their definition of news. How does that definition match contemporary definitions? Did students think public relations and journalism matured at different rates?

Arranging these tasks requires effort. In a classroom with 75 students, you would need 25, three-student demonstrations delivered in 15-minute intervals. If you want much class participation, the presenters would need to provide their classmates with a presentation outline two days before they present. You would need to organize the class for this task almost from the first day, but it leads to interesting discussions like how old an event must be before it qualifies as history.

Featured image: Cartoon commentary on the 1905 life insurance scandal; Udo Keppler (artist), “Turn the Rascals Out,” Puck, Oct. 11, 1905. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

About the author: Randall Sumpter (Texas A&M University) is the author of “The Mutual Life Insurance Scandal: Making Public Opinion” in the June 2021 issue of Journalism History.


William J. Bernstein, Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History from the Alphabet to the Internet (New York: Grove Press, 2013).

W. Brands, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865—1900 (New York: Random House, 2010).

Patricia L. Dooley, The Technology of Journalism: Cultural Agents, Cultural Icons (Evanston, Ill., Northwestern University Press, 2007).

Randall S. Sumpter, Before Journalism Schools: How Gilded Age Reporters Learned the Rules (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2018).

David Traxel, 1898: The Birth of the American Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998).

—-, Crusader Nation: The United States in Peace and the Great War—1898-1920 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).

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