WELCOME to the debut of “The Truth Is!”, a blog of reporting and commentary that aims to be informative, thoughtful and provocative. At least initially, the blog will have a strong heartland flavor by virtue of the connection of a number of us to Cowles family journalism. I am former editor of the Des Moines Register’s opinion pages. Another contributor, Michael Gartner, is former editor of the paper; he later served as president of NBC News. Another former Register editor who has agreed to contribute, Geneva Overholser, is director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg school of journalism. Followers of the blog will have access also to the work of Herbert Strentz of Des Moines, a close Register and other newspaper watcher who once headed Drake University’s journalism school. Bill Leonard, a longtime Register editorial writer, will add insights.

“The Truth Is!” will be supervised by my daughter, Marcia Wolff, a communications lawyer for 20 years with Arnold and Porter (Washington, D.C.). Invaluable technical assistance in assembling and maintaining the blog is provided by my grandsons Julian Cranberg, a college first-year, and Daniel Wolff, a high school senior.

If you detect a whiff of nepotism in this operation, so be it. All of it is strictly a labor of love. —Gil Cranberg

Monday, December 31, 2012


A December 30 New York Times editorial says that tax reform, “done right, could be a cure for much of what ails the economy.” The “done right “part includes “raising taxes.” The Times might just as well stop right there and save itself newsprint. The opposition to raising taxes has become so ingrained and intractable as to be almost impervious to argument.

The Times tries nevertheless, declaring that the “big obstacle to comprehensive tax reform [read, raising taxes] is the persistent Republican myth that spending cuts alone can achieve economic and budget goals.”

The “big obstacle” isn’t a belief in myths. Rather, it is that people basically are driven by self-interest. The key to Ronald Reagan’s popularity as president was his understanding of that basic political fact of life, in combination with his ability to articulate it in memorable phrases, as when he defined taxes as “your money.”

People simply are unwilling to spend “their” money for causes not of their choosing. Absent a compelling case, wars in general and World War II in particular, politicians are thrilled to indulge in the all-too human tendency of constituents to not readily part with their money. Recall that, despite Hitler’s atrocities and aggressions, many Americans opposed aid to Great Britain until the bombing of Pearl Harbor made U.S. participation in the war academic.

Politicians naturally shy away from calling voters selfish. But many obviously are. They disguise it well, citing philosophical beliefs in small government and the like, but at bottom it’s the “it’s your money “catch phrase that resonates. The difficulty of raising revenue is going to continue to be a problem until politicians and other public figures confront it head on and call greed what it is.

Friday, December 28, 2012


Joan Bunke died the other day. She was 78, the longtime arts critic for the Des Moines Register. That does not begin to describe her. I joked when she retired that the stock of the paper’s owner, Gannett, would take a hit as the company would have to hire so many to replace her. She reviewed books, concerts, drama, art, opera and dance, all of it knowledgeably. A former editor remarked when he learned of her death that the paper should observe five funerals in honor of the many hats she wore.

Bunke, pronounced Bunkey, was tall, awkward and shy. She wrote fluidly and with grace. She had marvelous taste. My wife and I never went to a film without first checking Bunke’s review, since she reviewed everything. We were never disappointed at anything she praised. And not just in Des Moines. She traveled to Minneapolis to acquaint Iowans with the Guthrie Theater season. She covered Broadway shows as well.

Although she was nominated for a Pulitzer, she was passed over for that prize. She deserved a Pulitzer for the breadth and high quality of her work. If ever posthumous Pulitzers are awarded, Joan Bunke should be high on the list of deserving recipients.

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association spokesman who delivered the organization’s reaction to the Newtown massacre – let’s put armed guards in classrooms – devoted much of his December 21 so-called press conference to bashing the press.  At times he addressed the press directly, as when he referred to “the shocking headlines you’ll print tomorrow morning.”  But mostly it was an all-out assault: “Rather than face their own moral failings, the media demonize lawful gun owners, amplify their cries for more laws, and fill the national debate with misinformation and dishonest thinking that only delay meaningful action and all but guarantee that the next atrocity is only a news cycle away.”

So the NRA bears no responsibility for gun carnage, it’s the media’s fault.
LaPierre exited the gathering as soon as he quit talking.  No questions allowed.  This is a press conference?  The press was present in large numbers.  It just wasn’t allowed to speak.  Among the questions it could have raised are the NRA’s ties to the video game industry, which glorify guns and violence.  LaPierre described the industry as “a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells and sows violence against its own people.”

The New York Times reported recently that the NRA benefits financially from contributions from the video game makers (as well as from manufacturers of firearms).  If true, LaPierre’s press conference would have been the ideal forum to address the issue.

It is dishonest to promote something as a press conference and then disallow questions by the press.  The press should have nothing to do with such charades.  It should refuse to lend legitimacy to them by attending.  By all means, report what is said and done at such gatherings.  However, when the press is prevented from raising questions, in no way can it be termed a press conference.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012


In the decade of the 1920s, journalist and muckraker Lincoln Steffens was much impressed by the Communist revolution in Russia. So much so that, until he soured on Russia in the early 1930s, he often said, “I have seen the future, and it works.”

Now almost 100 years later, New York Times columnist Gail Collins is as dead-right as Steffens was dead-wrong. Much depressed by the gun lobby and the GOP right wing, Collins wrote in her Saturday, December 22 column, “We have seen the future, and everything involves negotiating with loony people.”

The Steffens and Collins quotes came to mind, along with several others, as sort of déjà vu, “Been there, done that,” reactions to the recent slaughter in Newtown, Connecticut, and the response from the National Rifle Association and then the Fiscal Cliff political nonsense and the even more nonsensical responses from the GOP right.

After all, Wayne La Pierre, CEO of the NRA, declared that the answer to having too many assault weapons readily available was to make more assault weapons readily available. In response, could you top the quote from Attorney Joseph Welch at the Army-McCarthy hearings on June 9, 1954? Mr. Welch was talking to the junior senator from Wisconsin, but his words may as well have targeted La Pierre and the NRA:

“You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

That question likely would bounce off  La Pierre as it bounced off Joe McCarthy at the hearings; but at least it marked the beginning of the end for the Senator as a nation regained some of its sanity — something we can pray for today.

 But the problem comes back to Collins’ view of “negotiating with loony people.”

The comic strip Dilbert has had its hero cry out in anguish, “When did ignorance become a point of view?”

 A far more sobering perspective came from Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in 1943, two years before he was executed by the Nazis in their last paroxysm as Allied forces neared victory. Bonhoeffer wrote about dealing with evil and dealing with folly:

“Folly is a more dangerous enemy to the good than malice. You can protect against malice, you can unmask it or prevent it by force. Malice always contains the seeds of its own destruction, for it always makes men uncomfortable, if nothing worse. There is no defense against folly. Neither protests nor force are of any avail against it, and it is never amenable to reason. If facts contradict personal prejudices, there is no need to believe them, and if they are undeniable, they can simply be pushed aside as exceptions…We shall never again try to reason with the fool, for it is both useless and dangerous.”

That’s pretty heavy stuff, but again it ties in so well with the dysfunctional government and weird arguments confronting us today.

What to do?

One answer was offered by Gil Cranberg, and remains on this site in his “A Deathly Silence” post. You can look it up, but one point he made was that rather than having just a moment of silence in memory of the Newtown victims we should also have outrage, protest and indignation. Another way of saying that is that we should put democracy to work and pressure responsible political leaders to put an end to the folly. The truth is we must craft sane public policy when it comes to gun control and craft sane public policy when it comes to ending the widening gap between the haves and the have nots in our nation.

 At long last, have we no sense of decency?

Sunday, December 23, 2012


Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s chief executive, painted a scary picture of life in the United States at his December 21 press conference. In his apocalyptic view, the country is crawling with “an unknown number of genuine monsters – people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.”

Sound like the warm-up to an NRA plea for improved mental-health services? Rather, it was the prelude to LaPierre’s pitch for his proposal for armed guards in every one of the nation’s 99,000 schools.

The NRA executive did not explain whether his guns-in-schools plan was intended to deter monsters in our midst from entering school houses or to outgun them once they arrive. If deterrence is the objective, putting armed guards in schools may have the opposite effect. People as deranged as LaPierre pictured are beyond reason, and thus deterrence. Those who are suicidal could well be drawn to schools with armed guards as a way to end their lives. Suicidal nuts trading gunfire in schoolhouses is the last thing the country needs.

LaPierre’s press conference obviously was not intended to make the case for gun control. But that was what he inadvertently succeeded in doing. His graphic description of real-life “monsters” was highly effective. The description amounts to a compelling reason for assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips to be kept from the people LaPierre so vividly portrayed.

His proposal to post armed guards in classrooms is a ludicrously feeble response to his own description of the problem. For starters, it does nothing to protect the multitudes who gather in crowds beyond schoolhouses.  The NRA proposal is so unrealistic and falls so far short of the nation’s public safety needs it forces me to wonder if the organization, if only to save face, has up its sleeve a gun-control measure with teeth. It better have.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


Maybe it’s over-exposure to Florida’s sun that explains the off-the wall ideas that flourish there. The bodies from the mayhem in Newtown are not yet buried, but already lawmakers in the Sunshine State are talking about getting more guns into the state’s public schools by arming teachers and principals.

That’s not the worst of it. The worst actually was enacted and signed into law last year by Governor Rick Scott. When I read the statute, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry -- laugh because the people who drafted the law could have been script writers for a show parodying craven lawmakers currying favor with the craziest of gun enthusiasts.

A sample provision: “A health care practitioner licensed under chapter 456 or a health care facility licensed under chapter 395 shall respect a patient’s right to privacy and should refrain from making a written inquiry or asking questions concerning the ownership of a firearm or ammunition by the patient, or by a family member, or the presence of a firearm in a private home or other domicile of the patient or a family member of the patient….”

Yes, here and there in the law are bows in the direction of public safety, but the overwhelming thrust of the legislation is to browbeat health professionals and to  threaten them with the loss of their licenses for being inquisitive about guns.

It’s unfortunate, to say the least, that there were no health care professionals asking questions about the disturbed behavior of Adam Lanza, and about the advisability of his living in a home crammed with guns and ammunition.

If Lanza lived in Florida, the law would be on his side and there would be few, if any, health-care professionals to pester him.

The law not only interferes with doctors’ ability to get information about their patients, it may also be squelching their their right to free speech under the First Amendment.

Florida’s “don’t ask “ law is an abomination and should be stricken from the statute books without delay.

Monday, December 17, 2012


The press has made Newtown, CT., the recent scene of mass murder, seem like an idyllic place where everyone is friendly, caring and treated with respect.

Missing from the word pictures is what life is like for Newtown youngsters who are “different” and, try as they might, do not fit in. “Different” people often are friendless, and, if they are young, either ignored or mistreated. Especially in school, the lives of “different” people can be a living hell, a daily form of state sanctioned torture.

By all accounts, Adam Lanza, the central figure in the Newtown massacre, was very different. Apparently, he harbored great anger. It may be significant that the main target of his anger was a place that presumably symbolized for him a source of much pain.

Diversity is highly praised nowadays. Seldom is the term applied to social misfits who, when not shunned, are mocked as oddballs. When the lessons of the Newtown tragedy are sorted out, it will be surprising if one of them isn’t the treatment of the “different” among us.


Note: What is it like for those parents of the slain children in Connecticut?  Michael Gartner, one of our contributors, wrote this letter several years ago as a member of the Iowa Board of Regents, in response to correspondence the Board had received from an Iowa parent.

[I have your letter] to the Board of Regents, and I asked that I answer it on behalf of
my colleagues on the Board.

We are tremendously saddened by Tyler’s death, and we join you in your grief for Tyler
and in your pride in the life he lived.

I asked that I answer you because I, too, lost a son. His name was Christopher, and he
died on June 30, 1994, at the age of 17. He was a big, funny, healthy boy one day; he
got sick the next; and he died the next.

So my family has lived through what you, Tyler’s mother and his brother Joe and his
sisters Kaitlyn and Lacey are living through. The first thing I want to tell you is that you
will live through this. You will survive. You will survive with a hole in your heart, but you
will survive. And, eventually, the happy memories of Tyler will shove aside the horrible
memories of March 13. You will remember the times you tossed a football or went
hiking or changed a diaper or just sat and laughed and laughed and laughed. You will
remember how he learned to ride a bike or tie a tie or throw a ball. You will remember
his smiles and his kindnesses and all the reasons you loved him so very, very much.
And you’ll continue to love him just as much, probably more. He is not going away.

The day will come when there will be more smiles than tears when you think of Tyler.

The day Christopher died, I received a call from Tim Russert, the NBC newsman who
was a friend of Christopher’s. He, like all of us, was in tears. But he said the only words
that helped on that awful day in that awful year. “If God had said to you, ‘I’m going to
give you a big, cheerful, wonderful boy for 17 years and then take him away,’” Russert
said, “you would have made that deal.” He was right, of course. We just didn’t know that
was the deal, and neither did you. But now we look back on those years with great joy,
and I know that eventually you will be able to do the same with your son’s 19 years. I
assure you again that eventually – but it will take time, perhaps a long time – the happy
memories will outnumber the sad ones.

I read about everything you could read about the death of a child after Christopher
died. The most helpful book to me, oddly enough, was a book by a great author named
Reynolds Price, called “A Whole New Life.” He was struck with cancer of the spine in
mid-life and confined to a wheelchair. It was a tragedy, and he was depressed and
morose. Finally, he determined that he would never be who he was, but he should
decide who he was becoming and then be the very best new person he could become.
That was a great lesson to me: After a tragedy like this, a person is never the same.
First, you have to come to realize that, and then you have to decide who you have
become and how to make the best of that “whole new life.” It’s a long, long process, but
it’s important. Reynolds also wrote that the answer to “why me?” is “why not?” No one is
immune to tragedy, unfortunately.

Let me add something else, which you probably already know: People can be
insensitive. Many think that this is something you will “get over.” You won’t, of course,
and you don’t want to. You want to cherish memories, look at pictures, tell stories, talk
of Tyler. Many people will try to avoid the subject, which is too bad. You need to talk
about Tyler -- the way you wrote the beautiful letter to the Board -- to keep him vibrant in
your memory and in the memories of those who knew him.

It has been nearly five months since Tyler died, and I’m sure they have been months
of pain. I hope the pain is beginning to diminish. But I want to tell you that it won’t ever
disappear. Years from now you will hear a voice, smell a smell, see a shadow, and
you will be doubled over from the lightning-bolt that that voice, that smell, that shadow
strikes in you. But those also serve to keep alive the memory of Tyler, the great young
man who did so much and brought you so much joy and pride in his 19 years.

The tears will never go away, and they shouldn’t. The haze of these past few months
will lift, though. And the smiles will return. I know so.

Once again, my colleagues and I thank you for the kind and moving letter. You have
etched into our minds the story of a great young man. Thank you.


Michael Gartner

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Gilbert Cranberg: A DEATHLY SILENCE

Residents of the retirement facility where I live observed a moment of silence at dinner the other evening to pay respects to those who died during the December 14 massacre of innocents in Connecticut. I joined in the observance but not without misgivings and reservations.

My hesitation was due to the inappropriateness of silence to mark the occasion. A more apt response would have been very loud cries of indignation, protest and outrage.

Silence contributed to the mass murders in Connecticut and in the many other locales that preceded it -- the silence of spineless members of Congress who cannot even voice support for the modest step of curbing access to high-capacity ammunition clips, the silence of a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court in the face of efforts to prevent curbs on gun ownership.

I once thought that it would take mass murder in House and Senate chambers to induce Congress to act to prevent gun violence. That may still be true. But maybe, just maybe, the horrific deaths of 20 or so kindergarteners will break the silence.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


The greatest show in Iowa last week wasn’t in any of the state’s theatrical venues. It was in the Des Moines courtroom of Federal District Judge Robert Pratt. Gerry Spence, probably the greatest trial lawyer of the past 50 years, was summing up his argument in what he has said is his final case. Lawyers had flown in from all over the country to hear the legendary lawyer from Wyoming, the lawyer who represented Karen Silkwood and Imelda Marcos and who provided the TV commentary during the trial of O.J. Simpson. It was standing-room-only in Judge Pratt’s courtroom.

[Spence’s website says he “spent his lifetime representing the poor, the injured, the forgotten and the damned,” but it’s hard to figure out where Imelda Marcos fits into that.]

Looking like a wise and crafty, old lawyer straight from central casting, with his longish gray hair and slightly rumpled suit, the 83-year-old Spence could be halting of speech and halting of gait, then erect and booming as he mesmerized the courtroom. The 12 jurors, four men and eight women — a diverse group of all-white citizens drawn from central Iowa — didn’t take their eyes off him as he talked of the horrors faced during 25 years of wrongful imprisonment for his client and of what that should be worth in money from the city of Council Bluffs and two policemen there who helped send him to prison.

The trial had gone on since Oct. 31, and it was contentious. There had been more than 100 objections, scores of bench conferences with Judge Pratt and the lawyers. At times it was as if the two plaintiffs — the two who spent all those years in prison — were being tried again for the 1977 murder that the Iowa Supreme Court said in 2003 they were wrongly convicted of, wrongly convicted because the state had withheld evidence.

But the issue was: Should they be compensated, and, if so, by how much?

Spence started out by talking about himself, about how this would be the last time he ever speaks to a jury. “What should your last words be after over 60 years?” he asked himself as he began on Thursday morning what would be a two-hour summation and rebuttal spread over two days. “And then I realized that this case isn’t about me, it isn’t about my life, it isn’t about the end of my professional life. It isn’t about anything except the most important power that our forefathers gave to you, gave to us, and that is the power to get justice and to stop terror, to protect us against a police state.”

“Now I want to tell you something,” he said as he moved to his full-court press. “We haven’t talked about what this case is really about ultimately. How do you get justice in a case like this? What is it? Nobody goes to jail. Those men over there do not go to jail, their lawyers do not go to jail, nobody is strung up, nobody is hung up. This is a civil cause to get justice for the likes of Terry Harrington and Cub McGhee. And the law, if it could empower you, would give you the power to remake history, to remake their lives, to cut from the history the 25 years five months they spent in this horror.”

Then, he got to the money.

“If the law could, it would give you the power to give them back their lives as they were. If the law could, it would make these men whole again and reverse history. But the law is only the response of human beings. We do not have that power. And the only power that is given to a juror in a case like this is the power of money. That’s all there is. You can’t give them their lives, you can’t take away the pain, you can’t replace 25 years and five months in hell, you can’t — you can only give justice in money.”

Ultimately, he asked for $63 million for Harrington, his client in the civil trial. That’s $2 million for every year spent in prison and $13 million for the pain of living with ailments he contracted in prison. He picked up a big box — one like reams of paper come in — and said that that represented “full justice,” and then he picked up a little tissue box, a box that represented “less-than-full” justice. Time and again he went to the boxes, lifting the big, all but sneering dismissively at the little. He planted in the jurors’ minds that the little box represented just $25 million — leaving them with the idea that $25 million is a paltry sum.

He was masterly.

“If I haven’t been fully cognizant of the value, you want to add more, you can,” Spence told the jury as he was wrapping up on Thursday. Or, he said, “You can say, ‘We don’t agree with you, Mr. Spence. You are greedy.’ Once again I say to you, indeed I am greedy for justice.”

And the next day, at the end of his rebuttal on Friday afternoon, the great lawyer, looking worn and tired after a vigorous half-hour of deploring the “lies” and circumstances that sent his client to prison, he pulled up a stool in front of the jury box and quietly talked. He wanted to tell them a story, he said, and he told it to them slowly. The transcript of that wasn’t available at press time, but this is the story:

There was a smart-alec kid and an old man. The kid was going to show up the old man. His plan was to catch a bird in his hand, and cup it. He then was going to go to the old man and say, “Old man, what do I have in my hand?” And the old man would answer that it was a bird.

And the kid’s plan then was to ask the old man if the bird was alive or dead. If the old man said “dead,” the kid planned, he would open his hand and the bird would fly away, and he’d show that the old man didn’t know what he was talking about. But if the old man said “alive,” the kid would crunch his hands and kill the bird, then open his hands and show that the bird was dead and, again, the old man didn’t know what he was talking about.

So the boy caught the bird and went to the old man. “Old man,” he said, “what do I have in my hands?” And, yes, the old man said “a bird.” And, “Is it dead or alive?” the smart-alec kid asked. And the old man looked at him and said, “The bird is in your hands, my son.”

And as he looked at the jurors, he said, “And, ladies and gentlemen, justice, full uncompromised justice, is in your hands. Thank you.” The trial was over.

A verdict is likely in a few days.

Epilogue:     The case ended in a mistrial on Friday, when the jurors said they had a unanimous decision, but then three disavowed the verdicts when polled in open court. The"unanimous" verdicts — subsequently denied — were said to be for the defendants, but attorneys for Harrington and MGhee thought that jurors were confused by instructions as to whether they had to find the defendants guilty in all instances at issue or just in one. The Des Moines Register story is at http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20121215/NEWS01/312150034/1002/Mistrial-declared-jurors-disavow-verdicts


Among the more biting assessments of the damage inflicted upon the GOP in the 2012 election was this from Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, chair of the Republican Governors Association:

“We need to stop being the dumb party.”

His target was, in part, the anti-intellectualism of the far right of his party — typified by the religious zealots who control the Iowa Republican party.

Iowa may well serve as a bellwether for how well Jindal and his cohorts “stop being the dumb party” — particularly since so much of the campaign for the party’s presidential nomination begins with the Iowa caucuses in January of 2016.

To get a handle on the task facing leaders of the GOP if they are to take back control of the party from the far-right fringe, consider that the political and religious right in Iowa have waged campaigns figuratively akin to General Sherman’s March Through Georgia.

And consider some of the best aspects of Iowa over the past century or more.

Here are four:

1. The Iowa judiciary led the nation by decades in decisions that breathed life into the state motto “Our Liberties We Prize, Our Rights We Will Maintain.” In the 19th century the Iowa Supreme Court issued decisions on women’s rights, freedom for Negroes and access to public accommodations that presaged national events by as much as a century.

2. An outstanding public education system has been capped by state universities of which the state is justly proud.

3. The Iowa environment and countryside have been captured and glorified in iconic images by artist Grant Wood.

4. Until the takeover by the religious right the Iowa Republican Party was best embodied in the public service of Robert D. Ray, governor from 1969-1983, and recognized as a world leader when it came to rescuing desperate and despairing people. In the 1970s, thanks to Ray, Iowa became home to thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia.

Almost makes you want to sing the Iowa Corn Song!

That is, until you consider the damage done by the religious and political right. Iowa suffered when:

1. Enough Iowans joined a religious crusade against the Iowa Supreme Court in 2010 to vote off the court three justices who were part of a 7-0 decision that read the Iowa constitution correctly and found that the state legislature could not legally ban same-sex marriages.

2. In what we can only hope is a brief relapse, Iowa State University apparently would assure that research at ISU either extols how hog lot odors strengthen our pulmonary system or heralds the loss of top soil as a way to refresh Iowa farmland. That is how one might characterize the desires of the recently ensconced right wing of the Board of Regents of the university system. They want to allow ISU to control or prohibit any anti-Iowa research that might be undertaken by a campus institute established in recognition of Democratic U.S. Senator Tom Harkin.

3. At the same time, Iowa is fashioning a two-pronged effort to end awful pollution of Iowa lakes and rivers and to curb poisonous chemical runoff from farmland. One prong would make the efforts voluntary and provide little or no funds for enforcement; prong two would empower the Farm Bureau and others who have caused the problem in the first place to oversee prong one.

4. Meantime, if you are looking for knowledgeable, public-spirited people who can address the above and other problems, you will find many of them in the legions of Iowans who used to be Republicans in the spirit of Bob Ray. But they have been driven from the party by the right wing and evangelical zealots.

Any hope of turning the party around in Iowa?

One clue may be provided when the Iowa GOP decides what to do with the Ames Straw Poll conducted in the August preceding the presidential election year. The Straw Poll serves two purposes: 1. It raisers millions of dollars over the years for the state party; and 2. It keeps any sane candidates well away from the Iowa caucuses and Hawkeye consideration of who should be the party’s candidate. (The Iowa GOP got a black eye when U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann bought her way to victory in the Straw Poll in 2011.) Abandonment of the Straw Poll or at least radical changes in it would be wise.

Another clue will be provided when the Iowa GOP enacts its 2014 Platform. Will the platform return to conservative values and principles or will it continue to champion social agendas of the religious right?

Unfortunately, “being the dumb party” has paid off for those now at the reins of the Iowa GOP.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Years ago, a county supervisor in Des Moines complained to me about the local newspaper’s coverage. The complaint was not what I expected because it wasn’t about a parochial issue like how he had been misquoted. Rather, it was because the paper’s belt-tightening had made it more difficult for him to do his job. He explained that, as a formulator of public policy, he depended heavily on the paper to keep him informed about local needs and problems. As he saw it, the paper’s single-minded focus on profits undercut the coverage he needed.

Bill Keller, the former head news honcho of the New York Times, voiced essentially the same insight in his column of December 3. Keller wrote: “The price we pay for not being where news happens can be reckoned not only in less good journalism but in less good policy. Because, make no mistake, some portion of the information governments call ‘intelligence’ is nothing more than attentive reading of the news.”

Much of that news-gathering is by the New York Times. Its capacity to gather and intelligently process news from around the world is unmatched. So when I was interviewed recently about what in contemporary journalism needs to be preserved, I answered, without  hesitation, "The New York Times". I added that it would be catastrophic if the Sulzberger family splintered and the Times went the way of many other family-owned newspapers in this country.

Until now the quality of the Times has been protected by two classes of stock that effectively keeps the Sulzberger family in control. But other supposedly airtight family-ownership arrangements proved less than durable when stock was dispersed to shirttail relatives who tired of modest dividends. Who knows what will happen to the Times under that circumstance? The Times is much too important to readers and to the formulation of public policy for that to be left to chance.

 It is vital, before the horse escapes the barn, to create a Committee to Protect and Preserve the New York Times to assure its future. The committee would be open to ordinary admirers as well as to financiers with the know-how necessary to fashion arrangements to guarantee family members that they will be rewarded for their patience and support.

Journalism in this country is littered with the wreckage of family-owned newspapers torn apart by the lure of big payouts.  It should not be allowed to happen to the New York Times.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Gilbert Cranberg: HOW NBC FOULED UP

Winning a libel suit against the press is very difficult, so difficult that it seldom happens. But George Zimmerman, the Florida security guard charged in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year old he encountered on his rounds, is chancing it. Or rather, his lawyers are. Zimmerman basically is suing NBC for injecting a racial angle into the killing.

The crux of the libel complaint is that NBC’s “Today” show broadcast last March a portion of what purported to be an exchange between Zimmerman and a police dispatcher about the Martin-Zimmerman encounter. According to the broadcast, Zimmerman had volunteered to the dispatcher, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good…he looks black.” The New York Times reported that Zimmerman actually had said, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around looking about.” The police dispatcher then asks, “OK and this guy – is he white, black or Hispanic? Mr. Zimmerman pauses and replies, “He looks black.

So it was the police dispatcher, not Zimmerman, who brought up Martin’s race. NBC apologized for taking Zimmerman’s words completely out of context, and it took disciplinary action against six staffers for the editing blunder.  But NBC’s initial reaction to complaints about its Zimmerman story was uninformative and totally inadequate. In its statement, it said “there was an error made in the production process we deeply regret….We will be taking steps to prevent this from happening in the future and apologize to viewers.” Nowhere in its statement did the network suggest it had been unfair to Zimmerman by misattributing words to him that made it appear there was a racial motive for the shooting. And no one with responsibility for the Today show went on-air to apologize to him.

Would that have prevented Zimmerman’s libel action? Plenty of people who receive an apology or retraction go ahead and sue anyway, in part apparently to punish the media. Regardless of whether NBC could have forestalled Zimmerman’s libel action, it would have been prudent for the network to broadcast widely that it had been unfair to Zimmerman.

After all, the shooting of Trayvon Martin was widely reported and it was widely believed, or at least suspected, that it was racially motivated. NBC contributed mightily to that misperception. Somebody from the Today show should have stared into a camera and set the record unmistakably straight.

Sunday, December 9, 2012


Count the Des Moines Register, my former paper, among the losers in the recent election. The paper endorsed Mitt Romney. The Register, as is usual in the endorsing business, explained that its purpose was to contribute to conversation about the election. The conversation the paper triggered could not have been what it had in mind. The back and forth in a lot of Iowa households apparently went something like this: “Hon, how much do we pay for the Register and why do we need it?” The paper’s circulation director told me he estimated that the Romney endorsement cost the Register 140-150 subscribers.

The paper lost prestige as well as customers. Its October 27 editorial boiled down the election into a single issue-- the economy, claiming Romney’s business acumen would help unlock the nation’s economic potential. Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate in economics, devoted a portion of his regular New York Times column to the Register’s editorial, dismissing it as “remarkable in a bad way.” A longtime former editorial writer and sometime contributor to the Register told me he was reconsidering whether he wanted to continue to have his name associated with the paper.

A former Register publisher, Charles C. Edwards Jr., a member of the founding Cowles family, wrote in a letter to the editor that the endorsement “surprised and saddened” him.  The paper declined to publish similar letters from critical former staffers.

In backing Romney, the Register indulged in highly suspect reasoning. As David Stockman, Ronald Reagan’s budget director, pointed out recently, Romney’s private business experience is irrelevant to the nation’s economic problems because he was “a master financial speculator who bought, sold, flipped and stripped businesses….having a trader’s facility for knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ‘em has virtually nothing to do with rectifying the massive fiscal hemorrhage and debt-burdened private economy that are the real issues before the American electorate.”

I asked the Register’s publisher, Laura Hollingsworth, if the Romney endorsement was her call. She did not answer directly. Instead she sent me the following e-mail:

“Being a longtime journalist I know you know that no news organization, especially the Register, shares which board member supported specific issues, candidates or views. Our editorials -- not just the endorsement editorial from Oct. 28 (sic) but 364 others we write annually – are unsigned. That’s because while not every member of our five-person board may agree with every choice or decision we make, our endorsements reflect the thoughts and decisions from everyone at the table. That is why they are not signed by individual writers. Just like all of my predecessors, I have always insisted on a collaborative process that includes debates, thoughtful agreement and disagreement, and concessions between us all and that is what occurred in this process. We were thoughtful. We were deliberate. We took seriously our responsibility in making this endorsement. But we did so without regard to party, polling or the political winds blowing across the nation or Iowa or Des Moines. At the heart of every opinion we share and editorial we craft is the goal to advance the conversation in our community.  We’ve said repeatedly that our board focused on a very specific issue related to our endorsement: Reinvigorating the nation’s long-stalled economy. It wasn’t a surprise to us that voters said the same thing –restoring our economic vigor -- when they talked to exit pollsters. We felt Gov. Romney was best suited to accomplish that. The voters disagreed and offered support to President Obama. As our editor said in his column Sunday, “To the extent that our endorsement has made people think a bit more critically about the election and spawned reaction that has sharpened the debate, the endorsement performed the purpose of a newspaper editorial.”

Geneva Overholser, a former Register editor, told me she understood that the vote of the editorial board was 4-1 to support Obama. She emphasized that she did not have first-hand knowledge about how the board divided. My efforts to verify the vote drew a blank.

News organizations love to tout their support for openness. The public’s right to know is a favorite cliché. But try to find out what went into an editorial endorsement and you run into speculation, gossip and rumor.

It’s time to de-mystify endorsements. Here’s how: simply plunk down a tape recorder when the editorial board convenes, transcribe the discussion and print it in the paper. I did that once on a contentious abortion issue and even critics of our abortion position loved it.