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, February 25, 2013


The recent 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s blockbuster, “The Feminine Mystique,” prompted me to revisit the saga of Mary Louise Smith. A product of small-town Iowa, Smith was a testament to the reach and power of Friedan’s message.

Mary Louise, as she was widely known, was leading a humdrum somewhat discontented life in Middle America when the local librarian asked her to advise on whether to put “The Feminine Mystique” on the library’s shelves. Smith credited the book with turning her life upside down. She went from stuffing envelopes for the local Republican Party to wanting to participate in the “men’s work” of formulating policy. She did that so ably that she eventually became national chairwoman of the Republican Party, rubbed shoulders with presidents and organized and presided over the party’s national convention.

Then Smith’s moderate Republicanism put her at odds with the party’s troglodytes who increasingly influenced the Iowa GOP. Despite her achievements, she was denied a place in the state’s national convention delegation. As a further humiliation, in an apparent effort to keep her from giving press interviews, she was kept from setting foot on the convention floor. She was reduced in the end to borrowing an usher’s credentials to reach the floor.

Mary Louise Smith died at 82 in 1997. Although the party deserted her, she remained loyal to it to the end of her life. As the party searches for a way to end its electoral doldrums, the experience of Mary Louise Smith could well be instructive. Her brand of moderate Republicanism would open the door to the party to many, especially women. Instead of turning their backs on the likes of Mary Louise Smith, party bigwigs should welcome them with open arms. That would both enable the party to make amends for its shabby treatment of her and allow her to make a posthumous gift to the party she loved.

Friday, February 22, 2013


Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC commentator, wrote in “Drift,” her 2012 book, that “Starting the war in Iraq took deceit and trickery on the part of the Bush administration (and severe chickenshittery on the part of Congress.”) The hour-long MSNBC documentary, “Hubris: The Selling of the Iraq War,” that aired February 18, is an elaboration of the deceit-trickery theme.

The program discloses nothing new or startling about the origins of the Iraq war. It’s nonetheless worth watching. If you missed it the first time, it can be seen when the network runs it again on the evening of March 15.

It can’t be shown too often. It’s not every day that our government lies the country into a war of aggression. Americans can’t be reminded enough of the need for skepticism and vigilance to prevent a recurrence. As a public service, MSNBC should re-run Hubris at least annually. In so doing it should re-work the material to eliminate weak spots.

Among them is the failure to emphasize the part played by the press in getting the country into war. Hubris gives a brief mention to the press but not nearly enough. And while MSNBC is at it, it should report how the network itself, including Rachel Maddow and its other journalists, covered the “deceit and trickery.” Were they, as were all too many news organizations and their reporters, simply conduits for misinformation?
Colin Powell, who was Secretary of State in the Bush Administration and who played a pivotal role in convincing Americans to support a war against Iraq, later admitted his culpability and called his speech to the United Nations laying out the trumped-up case for war “one of my momentous failures.”

There have not been nearly enough comparable mea culpas. If the press, as an institution, has done soul searching about its malpractice in covering the run-up to the Iraq war, it has been kept well hidden. So now, as MSNBC basks in deserved praise for Hubris, would be a good time for the network to look back at its coverage and let viewers know what it finds.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


The Supreme Court thinks Americans are too dumb to be trusted to watch the court on television. That’s the gist of a recent update by the New York Times on the prospects for televising oral arguments at the high court. Those prospects were dim to begin with, and have grown no brighter with new justices on the bench.

The Times reports that Justice Sonia Sotomayor has backed away from her pre-confirmation support for televising the court’s oral arguments. In 2009 she said she favored letting the public watch the court at work. Recently she said that most people wouldn’t understand the proceedings and she saw no reason for letting them try. Similarly, the newest justice, Elena Kagan, has gone from believing that televised proceedings would “be a great thing” to having “a few worries,” among them the possibility of grandstanding and misuse of the coverage.
Of course, many viewers would be confounded by the complexity of the cases before the court. But that in itself would be instructive. Americans might well withhold a rush to judgment about the court’s decisions if they had a better grasp of how mindbendingly complex are the issues the court wrestles with.
It’s safe to say that many people found the president’s State of the Union address hard to follow, but that was not a valid reason to bar them from watching it. Cameras are allowed in Congress despite the arcane nature of a lot of lawmaking. As for grandstanding, the court isn’t powerless to control the conduct of litigants as well as its own members.
It’s disappointing that Justices Sotomayor and Kagan have apparently been co-opted by their court colleagues on the issue of televising oral arguments. A camera at the high court would not corrupt the course of justice nor influence it. On the contrary, allowing the American people the opportunity to watch the court at work would enhance the system of justice by de-mystifying the court and making it less remote. 
Who knows, it might even encourage Justice Thomas to emerge from his shell and join in the give-and-take of oral argument. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Herb Strentz: USA, AUS -- MUCH IN COMMON

Three weeks in Australia — visiting one of our daughters — offered a respite from the Iowa winter, but not from the issues that trouble the state, as well as our nation.

Reading Australian newspapers was like reading newspapers here. It wasn’t that international crises — like those in Syria, Israel and Algeria — dominated the news, but rather that local or state concerns in, say, Melbourne or Perth were like those in Des Moines or Columbus, Ohio, or any one of our Springfields.

For example, the Des Moines Register has been running a lot of articles about the need to reform the state‘s juvenile justice system. Similar concerns vex the folks Down Under.

The Australian, a national newspaper, had a story about juvenile justice, quoting Northern Territory Chief Magistrate Hilary Hannam: “It’s a non-system that’s collapsing or broken… There’s no one agency responsible for youth justice… There’s a real paucity of people with the right expertise” and kids in trouble suffer as a result.

You could have lifted that right out of many U.S papers.

High on the agenda of the Iowa governor and legislature is education reform in terms of attracting better teachers and improving student classroom performance.

A headline in Melbourne’s The Age reported “Teacher Entry Ranking Tumbles” over a story about how college admission standards for teacher education had dropped despite government reform efforts. Other stories were on how Australian students should be held accountable for being able to read and count before moving beyond certain grade levels.

Americans who say government services are mis-directed would sympathize with Margaret Guthrie, chair of the Public Tenants Association in the state of Victoria. When it comes to government aid, she said in the Melbourne Herald Sun, “If you don’t have drug and alcohol issues, if you don’t have mental health issues… If you’re just an ordinary person who has lived a good life and don’t have much money, you are at the bottom of the line.”

Those concerned about how the religious right has captured the Iowa GOP or how nationwide religious institutions want the freedom to discriminate against non-believers would say “Amen” to a column in Melbourne’s Age.

The columnist —Joumanah El Matrah, director of the Australian Muslim Women’s Center for Human Rights — criticized government for allowing such discrimination by religious organizations. She said Australians were in danger of undermining “the substance and integrity of religion by reducing it to a collection of petty bigotries.”
For many in Iowa and across our nation, opposition to gay rights or to medical insurance benefits that include contraception reflect Ms. El Matrah’s concerns about “petty bigotries” becoming the substance of religion.

In terms of culture, language and history, Americans have much in common with Australians. So maybe it should not be surprising that we are trying to cope with similar social issues. What is surprising, and dismaying, is how we address those issues in parochial, provincial ways, as though we couldn’t find common cause with people beyond our borders.

This called to mind the weird vote in the U.S. Senate in December when that body failed to muster the two-thirds vote to sign on to a United Nations treaty that aids people with disabilities. Iowa’s Senator Chuck Grassley was among the 38 votes against the measure. Opponents said it might infringe on U.S. sovereignty. But who wants sovereignty over problems faced by the disabled or problems in juvenile justice or teacher education?

Apparently, many in the U.S. do. The Australian press and people we visited with also made a point that Americans refuse to learn anything from reasonable gun-control laws in other nations.

On the other hand, the U.S. events during our visit to Australia included the inauguration of President Obama, producing this comment from a correspondent for The Australian:  “Any firsthand experience of American life can only elicit amazement at this remarkable democracy. Despite its imperfections, the US system somehow works in holding together a nation that is politically polarized and culturally diverse.”

A nice note to end on, if only we could hold together with other nations, too, in coping with common issues.


While many people watched President Obama as he delivered the State of the Union address, my gaze was fixed on House Speaker John Boehner. The GOP leader gave a spot-on impersonation of a man whose hemorrhoids were killing him. The condition, caused by swollen blood vessels, afflicts many people in their fifties. It makes them grouchy and explains why Boehner had that I-wish-I-was-somewhere-else look much of the evening. If a proctology practice wanted to prepare a brochure advertising its services it could well choose a photo of Boehner in the throes of his ordeal to illustrate the suffering the practice relieves.

Boehner could have obtained relief from the irritation and severe itching associated with hemorrhoids if he rose occasionally. Instead, he sat stoically through most of the State of the Union speech.  The president thoughtfully included several standing-ovation lines in his address. But in a show of willpower, the ever-partisan Boehner for the most part was glued to his seat.

Marco Rubio, the GOP’s designated rebuttal speaker, was seized by thirst during his talk and took frequent swigs of water. Of course, he was roundly mocked by critics for that. How they would have ridiculed Boehner if he attended to his hemorrhoids during the speech is unimaginable.

Historians tell us that Napoleon was so distracted by a severe case of hemorrhoids that it cost him  the Battle of Waterloo, along with his dream of conquering Europe.

So hemorrhoids are no small matter, but seldom receive the attention they deserve.  For example, Boehner's frequent bouts of tearing up are noted, but never the possibility that the cause is hemorrhoids.  It's time that the condition be given the recognition it merits.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


I have a suggestion for President Obama when he visits Israel March 20, including a brief stop in the West Bank. The West Bank of the Jordan River, that is, occupied by Israel after its capture from Jordan during the six-day war in 1967.

While in the West Bank, President Obama should request a map. His hosts may even give him one. If so, he’ll be better informed than I was when an Israeli guide drove me extensively around the West Bank during my visit there in 1971.

As we drove, I was curious about whether we were in pre-war Israel or in newly captured territory. The only maps I could locate showed all of the West Bank to be part of Israel. Even my well-informed guide could not, or would not, tell me where Israel stopped and previous Arab-owned territory began.

I left Israel believing that the West Bank, with millions of Arabs, would be a liability for Israel, which would be better off trading the land for peace. When I mentioned that to Israelis, a fair number seemed to agree. Since then, opinion has hardened, and the usual response when I suggest that Israel leave the West Bank is, “Since when do countries give back land they capture in war?” The correct answer: Since at least the end of World War II, when the Allies quickly got out of occupied Germany and the U.S. left Japan and the Philippines and much of the rest of what it captured during the war in the Pacific.

The Land of Israel is invested with so much emotion and history it’s almost pointless to talk about precedents elsewhere. Except it is not pointless to talk about revising Israel’s map of the West Bank. That is a concrete reality that can be discussed and bargained over. While in the region, Obama should break through the stalemate, pore over both Israeli maps of the area and Palestinan Authority maps and initiate discussion about what it would take to develop a common map.

That would turn a ceremonial visit into an historic achievement.


You can cross Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal off the list of potential GOP presidential or vice-presidential nominees for the 2016 election — at least in Iowa.  

That’s because Jindal wants to kill the Iowa Straw Poll — which has generated million$ for the Iowa GOP — and, likely, he would do away with the Iowa caucuses as well.  

It was in all the papers.  

Well, maybe not in so many words. What Jindal said last month about Republicans was “We must stop being the stupid party.”  http://www.businessinsider.com/jindal-gop-stupid-party-rnc-2013-1.   

Putting an end to GOP stupidity means putting an end to the Straw Poll and the caucuses, as now configured and controlled by the Christian right.  

Remember what the Straw Poll produced in 2011: The presidential candidacy of U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, who paid the most to win the Straw Poll, and likewise the bizarre self-destructing candidacies of pizza czar Herman Cain and Texas Governor Rick Perry. To top that off, the Iowa GOP declared Mitt Romney the caucus winner only to have a more certain loser, Rick Santorum, be declared the caucus winner two weeks later.  

That was in all the papers, too.  

Jindal’s call for an end to GOP stupidity likely extends beyond the Straw Poll and caucuses, as far as irritating Iowa is concerned.  

Consider House Study Bill 49 now in the Iowa Legislature. Introduced by Representative Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, the measure would make it a felony for a woman to give birth to a child who tested positive for drugs — with a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of $7,500. Never mind that — as some have pointed out — the newborn could test positive even if the mother were “clean.” Each year would cost the state at least $30,000 for incarceration of the woman and thousands more for care of the infant and any siblings. So you’re looking at bills of up to $250,000 or more per conviction — better that than spending less money on education and support programs.  http://www.radioiowa.com/2013/02/06/felony-for-women-who-deliver-drug-addicted-babies/. Not to worry, says Baudler “We know they’re not going to put ‘em in prison for something like this.”  

So, it’s a lose-lose or stupid-stupid situation. You have a stupid bill proposed because its author says it will not be enforced! And you wonder why legislatures are called dysfunctional.  

Not to be outdone, Iowa House colleagues of Baudler want to charge a physician and the patient with murder, anytime an abortion is performed or the person takes a so-called morning after contraceptive — House File 128. And a Senate colleague points out that, to the best of his knowledge, Jehovah has not rescinded His gift of the promised land to Israel so that settles any property disputes in the Middle East — Senate Resolution 2.  http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20130208/BASU/302080101/?odyssey=nav%7Chead   

Or consider whom the Iowa GOP has lined up to run for the U.S. Senate. The party of such former moderate leaders as Governor Bob Ray, Lieutenant Governor Art Neu, U.S. Representative Jim Leach and national party chair Mary Louise Smith now has its eyes on U.S. Representative Steve King.  

King’s credentials are mostly that he says outrageous or stupid things. Like two years ago in Congress when he praised GOP leaders for being liars. What he said was, “I would make the point that the leader and the speaker have established… their mendacity for years in this Congress.”  


In fairness to Jindal, the full text of his comments said that the GOP had to focus on important issues and not on hot-button social issues dear to the hearts of the party’s evangelical right wing — like opposing evolution, gay rights and abortion under any circumstances.  

"We must stop being the stupid party,” he said. “I'm serious. It's time for a new Republican party that talks like adults. It's time for us to articulate our plans and visions for America in real terms. We had a number of Republicans damage the brand this year with offensive and bizarre comments. We’ve had enough of that."  

Unfortunately, it’s not only the GOP “brand” that is damaged by party stupidity. Political dialogue and Democratic leadership become less than they should be — thanks to the problems that worry Jindal.  

In Iowa, on the Democratic part of the ledger, we have reports that former Governor Chet Culver is gearing up for a re-run — perhaps planning to set a record as the only person to be elected governor twice and not be re-elected either time.

It simply has to get better for us. Doesn’t it?

Gilbert Cranberg:  WHAT WAS THAT ALL ABOUT?

It says something about the culture that days after the Super Bowl the commercials shown during the game remain a lively topic of conversation. The way they are being critiqued and reviewed it’s almost as though they have achieved the status of an art form.

Would that the tycoons who sponsor everyday television commercials pay closer attention to what they are buying. Where I live, the usual comment after watching most ads is, “What was that all about?” The creative types who produce the ads seem too often to be attempting, and succeeding, in being cryptic and obscure. It is sometimes a challenge even to figure out the product being advertised.

The commercial that best exemplifies what I have in mind shows a man and a boy playing catch. The youngster’s form is terrible. The father’s is even worse. The ball rolls under a nearby car of indeterminate make. The ad may or may not be for the car, a Volkswagen? I cannot be sure. The only thing I am sure about is that the automaker, if the ad is indeed for a car, should withhold payment to the ad agency and send the ad-makers back to the drawing board.

The commercials that are most problematic feature verbalizing animals. Why would a person of normal human intelligence take guidance from a source of lesser knowledge, say a gecko? Yet a major insurer, Geico, saturates the airwaves with commercials that play on the similarity between Geico and Gecko. Get it? Geico is a Warren Buffet-owned company. You can be sure that Buffett did not become super-wealthy by consulting members of the animal kingdom.

I don’t mind commercial breaks. Ads are informational messages and the information can be useful. But when ads puzzle rather than inform they are a waste of the viewer’s time and the sponsor’s money.

So here’s for more ads that are at least intelligible. Clever is fine, but enough of leaving television viewers asking “What was that all about?”


“Reform” may be the most abused, most misused and sneakiest word in the English language. Its main meaning is “improve,” but if you want to dress up a proposition and give it a favorable connotation just tack on the word “reform” and any ugly duckling is magically transformed into something desirable.

Thus, immigration reform can stand for anything from shutting the nation’s borders to removing barriers entirely. The same with any issue currently in vogue, whether it be gun control, elections or taxes. What is one person’s reform is almost certain to be somebody else’s anathema.

In New York just now there is talk about bail reform. To some that means tightening pre-trial release to bar from release anyone who poses the least threat to public safety. To others it means ridding the system of bondsmen and any reliance on money bail. It’s as though while English is the nation’s common language, Americans can attach totally different meaning to the words they express it in.

With the convening of a fresh session of Congress and both parties pressing favorite issues, look for “reform” to receive a heavier than usual workout. So here is a modest proposal: let’s retire the word for any usage that expresses a sense of value. “Reform” in that sense has become so perverted that it misleads more than it informs. Who needs that kind of word? So goodbye “reform”, and good riddance.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Bona fide celebrities do not often play professional football, let alone in the Super Bowl. But that’s what happened Sunday when Michael Oher took the field as a lineman for the Baltimore Ravens. His job: to open holes for the running back and protect Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco when Flacco went back to pass, as he did often. Oher’s number, 74, was hard to miss, but the talking heads covering the game never seemed to notice Oher, the player who wasn’t there as far as they were concerned.

I saw the film “Blind Side,” which was all about how a big inarticulate black kid had been adopted by a well-to-do white family and how he had made it big in football. The very good book by Michael Lewis on which the film was based was widely reviewed and read, but the folks who put together the Super Bowl telecast seemed to be clueless about the book, the film and Oher. So I spent a frustrating Sunday peering at the TV screen trying to spot Oher and trying to figure how well he was doing in very fast company. I learned that television shows next to nothing about the players who protect quarterbacks, even when they are celebrities in their own right.

Talk about real-life drama! It was playing out Sunday right in front of a worldwide audience. Too bad the powers that be in television chose not to tell anybody about it.


Just when it seemed that Republicans were locked into fielding a succession of extremist embarrassments, along comes an organization intended to rescue the party from right-wing losers like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock. The Conservative Victory Project, backed by Karl Rove, wants to sideline conservative Republican candidates it believes are so far out of the mainstream that they are unelectable because they turn off Republican voters.

The New York Times reported February 3 that an early test of the strategy is likely to come in Iowa, where Iowa’s Republican congressman Steve King is believed to be eying the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Tom Harkin.

King is a provocateur who specializes in outrageous statements. The Des Moines Register, in a fit of temporary insanity, once endorsed him despite their divergent views and his extremist rhetoric, which included praise for the demagogue, Wisconsin’s Senator Joseph McCarthy. To King, McCarthy was “an American hero.” In fact, he was an out-of control bully censured by the Senate in 1954 for behavior “contrary to Senate traditions.”

Just as the Senate tired of McCarthy, the Register tired of King, and in an unprecedented move, retracted its endorsement. Rather than chasten King, the paper’s action seemed to spur him to new depths.

The trouble is, King seems to be perfectly in step with Iowa’s Republican Party, which has gone from electing moderate Governor Robert Ray for 14 years, to adopting wild-eyed platform planks calling for kicking the United Nations out of the U.S., abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and getting rid of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

The Conservative Victory Project has its hands full in Iowa, where, if it washes its hands of Steve King, it should also tackle the equally extremist state Republican Party.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: PRE-OBITUARIES

The New York Times these days is filled with stories about Ed Koch, the colorful former mayor of New York who died the other day. Most of the stories and commentaries are laudatory and respectful, but the Times did not whitewash him. In reviewing a new documentary about Koch, for example, Times columnist Joe Nocera noted that the writer and director of the film is “clear-eyed about Koch’s foibles. His lack of empathy. His contentious and at times ugly relationship with the black community. His slowness to react to the AIDS crisis.”

By all accounts, Koch was a publicity hound. In all probability, he would have loved the Times send-off, and would have devoured every word, negatives and all. Too bad the subjects of obituaries never get to read what’s written about them. That pleasure is reserved for survivors.

When I was an editorial page editor, I resolved to do something about that. If I learned that someone who ordinarily would have rated a laudatory editorial upon the person’s passing was seriously ill, I found an excuse to comment about the person so that he or she could appreciate it.

Nothing I read in the Times about Koch after his death could not have been printed about him prior to his passing. But that is not the custom. Obituaries are reserved for the deceased.

The press ought to modify the practice so that it becomes customary to run pre-obituaries. In fact, if the press promoted the feature and encouraged readers to submit them as paid ads it could be a tidy source of income.

So let’s quit forcing readers to die to qualify for obituaries. The lives of people are everlastingly interesting, and sometimes fascinating. The press ought to recognize and cash in on it.