Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: In Iowa, a Bitter Clash over Vivid Writing

Posted at 12:20 pm, December 27th, 2011
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

As night follows day, Iowa’s precinct caucuses bring in their wake a raft of features about hard-working productive Iowa and its salt-of-the-earth citizens who welcome candidates into their homes with perceptive questions and thoughtful comments about affairs of the day. Perhaps as an antidote to such pap, University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom recently presented in the Atlantic a contrasting picture of Iowa that earned him death threats, a rebuke from the university’s president and from four of his journalism school colleagues. The latter lectured Bloom on what constitutes “good journalism.”

University of Iowa president Sally Mason said she was “offended” by Bloom’s piece and assured Iowans that “he does not speak for the University of Iowa.” The journalism profs distanced themselves from any work, presumably Bloom’s, “riddled with inaccuracies and factual errors and based on sweeping generalizations and superficial stereotypes.”

The educators cited journalists they admired and implied that Bloom failed to measure up to the standards they followed. Among the exemplary journalists cited by Bloom’s academic critics was “Walter Rideau” in his “prize-winning chronicles from the heart of the Angola prison.” Rideau’s name is “Wilbert,” not Walter,” but that error is no more consequential than the one Bloom made when he said, to much ridicule, that Iowans hunt turkeys with rifles when he should have written shotguns.

The journalism educators included in their critique of Bloom’s work a passage so ambiguous it was hard to tell whether they were praising Bloom or dumping on him. In any event, as a six-decade transplant to Iowa, I read Bloom’s take on the Hawkeye state with more than casual interest. On initial reading, I thought that he presented a too-bleak picture of Iowa. In the wake of the bellyaching, I re-read the article ; the second time around it still seemed overly negative, but well within the bounds of fair comment.

Journalism is art, not science. Subjective judgments are unavoidable. If I had written the Atlantic piece, I would have included material about Iowa Bloom chose to omit. The folks who are giving Bloom such a hard time should be less harsh and more understanding of the limits of journalism.

After all, his article basically did no harm, except perhaps to the feelings of Iowans grown accustomed to uncritical praise. The press is capable of inflicting real and lasting damage; witness the sycophantic way journalists helped pave the way for the Iraq war. Now, that’s journalism to be outraged about.

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