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

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


The New York Times gave a generous sendoff to Al Neuharth, who died April 19 at 89. The longtime Gannett newspaper executive did a lot of good for journalism and some things not so good. 

Among the latter, surprisingly not mentioned in the lengthy Times obituary, was the way his success at building Gannett into a publicly-traded powerhouse encouraged copy-cat newspaper owners to go public. The move was highly consequential for the newspaper business, so much so that it may well be a major reason for decline of the press in this country. 

Not long ago I interviewed all of the most influential stock analysts who follow the newspaper business. The interviews were for a book, “Taking Stock: Journalism and the Publicly Traded Newspaper Company,” I co-authored with a couple of University of Iowa colleagues. I asked each of the analysts whether going public had been good or bad for journalism. The unexpected near-unanimous response: bad!! 

I was taken aback. After all, the analysts made their livings following the publicly traded newspaper sector and advising investors whether to buy, sell or hold newspaper company stock. Analysts could be expected, therefore, to be unabashed boosters of the “going public” trend in newspapers. Here is why they typically said they took a dim view of it: 

“It’s hard to make a case that it’s a positive for journalists or journalism, because it forces a focus on financial objectives” .…”Going public forces management to tighten the belt, to come out of the ivory tower, to invest less in editorial. Staffs are leaner and there is less investigative reporting. The quality of newspapers has degraded, and part of that is due to going public.” 

Almost none of the analysts I interviewed had a good word for the “going public “ craze in newspapers Al Neuharth more than anyone helped create.

Newspapers unquestionably are a business, but also a different kind of business, one that is a public trust and public service rolled into one. When newspaper owners decided to sell stock to the public and list it on stock exchanges they declared in effect that they wanted to be measured in the market place, by the standards of any other business. It’s almost poetic justice that a speculator like Sam Zell would be attracted to the Tribune Company as a business and it would soon be driven into bankruptcy.

Under Neuharth, Gannett did a lot to promote minorities and women. The company also acquired very good newspapers and turned them into mediocrities while newspaper executives hummed happily all the way to the bank. That’s not what’s usually said about the departed in the newspaper business, but in the case of Al Neuharth it’s the truth.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


The Republican Party owes a monumental debt of gratitude to the Tsarnaev brothers, the terrorist pair who detonated bombs at the Boston marathon. The bombings and ensuing manhunt deflected attention from Republican responsibility for the tawdry filibuster tactics that defeated efforts to tighten the nation’s notoriously permissive gun laws.

A measure for improved background checks was approved 54-46. But under the anti-democratic requirement championed by Republicans, and enthusiastically urged by the party’s Senate leader, a super-majority of 60 votes actually was needed to cut off the GOP filibuster and for the vote to count. Public opinion polls showed that the measure was popular with voters, who should have been enraged by the outcome, and would have been had the Tsarnaev brothers not taken center stage.

Republican responsibility for killing the background check bill is unmistakable. The GOP vote against the measure was nearly unanimous—41-4. Americans were so preoccupied by the drama playing out in Boston they barely noticed.

But facts are stubborn and can have a long shelf life. It’s not often that a political party can be blamed for the loss of human life. It was a fluke that spared the GOP for now, but sooner or later there will be a price to be paid for irresponsibility.


Thursday, April 18, 2013


A new flock of Pulitzer Prize winners was announced recently. True to form, Gannett publications drew a blank. Now and then the chain with the largest number of papers will snag a Pulitzer or be a top-three finalist, but most often Gannett publications are also-rans. That’s in keeping with the chain’s reputation for excelling in making money rather than for its journalism.

A telling example: In 2011, Gannett laid off 700 U.S. employees after upping executive salaries and bonuses. The income of the head of the newspaper division was $3.4 million in 2010 up from $1.9 million the previous year. Nevertheless, in a tin-eared memo to staff, the head of the newspaper division wrote, “While we have sought many ways to reduce costs, I regret to tell you that we will not be able to avoid layoffs.” 

Readers are not powerless to influence policies at the papers they buy. Newspaper subscribers are customers. No business can afford to ignore the wishes of its customers. A single subscriber can be brushed off, but if enough of them voice the same complaint, they have to be paid attention. 

Readers have a big stake in their community’s newspaper. They depend on it not only for information but to ride herd on their elected officials. 

A missing ingredient in virtually every community is organized readers determined to safeguard the quality of the community’s newspaper. If corporate headquarters wants to cut the size of the news hole, it should have to count on doing it only after consulting with the local organization of readers. The same would apply to staffing levels, profit margins and other policies with a bearing on a paper’s quality.

When Gannett's Des Moines Register not long ago dropped both the New York Times and Washington Post-Los Angeles Times news services, there wasn't a peep of protest from readers.  They should have been up in arms and their voices heard as far away as corporate headquarters in Virginia.  For much too long readers have been much too passive about the quality of the papers they support. They need to become activist readers who speak up and demand a voice on matters that affect their community’s paper.


I had lunch the other day with Marlow Cook, the former U.S. senator from Kentucky. Cook, a Republican, posed a troubling and profound question: “Why haven’t I seen photos of the crime scene in Newtown, Connecticut where 20 grade school children were shot to death?”

The answer, of course, is that editors try to shield readers from gruesome images. In the case of the Connecticut massacre, editors also may have wanted to spare the feelings of the victims’ families, though that would be a less compelling reason for papers distant from Newtown.

Whatever the reasons, the effect of the self-censorship was to make it easier for senators to vote the other day to effectively filibuster the background-check and other gun control measures they succeeded in sidetracking. Make no mistake, the press had a hand in that defeat by its failure to show, in full, the awful truth about the Newtown killings. 

It is in no way the job of the press to sugarcoat the news. When it assumes that role, invariably in the name of “good taste”, it does so by shortchanging the public, which is entitled to an unvarnished picture of the world. 

I often defend the press against charges of bias, but in at least one respect there is bias in the press. That bias is defined variously by editors -- the bias against poor taste. Because the bias is exercised by keeping things out of the papers and off the airwaves, the public isn’t even aware that paternalistic editors and news directors have been protecting them. And from what.

It was a mistake, several years ago, for editors to go along with the government’s effort to shield the public from pictures of returning caskets from Iraq. Just as it was a mistake in more recent days for editors to refuse to show graphically the horror of the gun violence in Newtown.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: NRA NEEDS TO BE CANDID

If authorities could predict the onset of a mass murder spree, that would be an invaluable contribution to public safety. The National Rifle Association made a stab at doing that in its recently issued report, “The National School Shield.” Unfortunately, the NRA tiptoed around the subject of weapons, and larded the report with gobbledygook. Here, in its entirety, is how the report dealt with what it calls “pre-incident indicators.”

“Active threat multiple casualty events, often referred to in law enforcement as “Active Shooter”, are rapidly evolving and dynamic criminal acts that vary distinctly from one to the next. Simply defined, an “Active Shooter/Active Threat” is an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill. Since the shooting at the University of Texas in Austin (1966), an estimated 117 school shootings have occurred across the US leading up to the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary on December 14, 2012. The psychological and sociological impacts of such tragic events are felt universally throughout the country. These events must serve as an impetus for change and adaptation of our school safety procedures and protocols in order to minimize the likelihood of history repeating itself and our communities must remain vigilant against this seemingly unpredictable threat.

“There have been numerous attempts by law enforcement, universities, focus groups and organizations, all of which have fallen short, in establishing a clear or reliable profile of such offenders. With that said, it is becoming increasingly prevalent to identify offenders retrospectively, that displayed common traits such as a long history of mental illness with an obsession with or proclivity towards violent behavior, prior to his/her final decision to progress from planning to initiation of the violent act.

 “Based on these studies, the law enforcement community has identified a wide range of exhibitive behaviors and characteristics commonly attributed to offenders as they transition from the planning phase to the execution phase of the violent act itself. Collectively we refer to these early warning signals as Pre-Incident Indicators (PII). The identification of PII is reliant on strong and perseverant situational awareness on the part of the school staff, resource officers, volunteers and the general public alike. The challenge of how to raise public awareness of this topic can be daunting. It is critical for law enforcement to have a means to receive information and to evaluate reports as possible PII prior to the initiation of the violent act.

“It is difficult for law enforcement to measure the success of early identification and interdiction of possible active threat events. This is largely due to the challenge of developing tangible evidence or accumulating behavioral indicators to support that the suspect would have actually carried out a multiple casualty event absent the intervention of law enforcement. It is simply difficult to quantify “what might have happened”, making conclusions largely subjective. Elements commonly shared in perceived interventions, include the presence of a mitigation program designed to raise public awareness and the willingness of citizens to report. Successful communities were able to implement clearly established Community Awareness Programs (CAP). The goals behind the CAP were to raise public awareness and establish simple public reporting procedures in conjunction with local law enforcement in order to take measures to use the information in the intervention process.

 “The communities where our schools reside should be empowered with the understanding that PII are more likely to be identified by friends, associates and family members of the offender. The key to success in establishing such programs is the emphasis placed on training the public to observe and report. More specifically, ‘process what is observed’ and ‘to whom do they report the observation’. In the tragic events of Virginia Tech (2007) the offender was seen days before the event at a local gun range shooting at targets lying on the ground. In afterthought, the individual that observed the actions of the offender felt it was ‘odd’ but did not feel compelled to report to law enforcement.

“Unfortunately, there is not a steadfast and concise set of guidelines to follow regarding what behaviors are reliably indicative of imminent aberrant or violent behavior and observations must be viewed in context of each individual situation. This fact, however, should not deter citizens from remaining vigilant in the effort to disseminate information to law enforcement when they observe something that gives cause for concern just because it is technically absent any actual illegal activity.”

Note that while there are isolated references to shooting or shooters, no attention is paid to the role of weapons or how they were obtained. The FBI is less bashful about citing firearms as a major source of the school violence problem. In a 1998 report, “The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective,” the FBI reported on behavior it saw as the handmaiden to violence:

“The student appears to be increasingly occupied in activities that could be related to carrying out a threat –for example, spending unusual amounts of time practicing with firearms or on various violent websites. The time spent in these activities has noticeably begun to exclude normal everyday pursuits such as homework, attending classes, going to work, and spending time with friends…. The family keeps guns or other weapons or explosive materials in the home, accessible to the student. More important, weapons are treated carelessly, without normal safety precautions; for example, guns are not locked away and are left loaded. Parents or a significant role model may handle weapons casually or recklessly and in doing so may convey to children that a weapon can be a useful and normal means of intimidating someone else or settling a dispute.”

The National Rifle Association is so protective and defensive about firearms it seems to have difficulty using straightforward language about guns the way the FBI did in its report.

That’s too bad. The concept of “pre-incident indicators,” despite the bureaucratic ring to it, is a potentially useful way to save lives. After all, if a student has a morbid fascination with firearms and is using all of his money to stockpile guns and ammunition, those are warning signs that family, friends and school authorities should not ignore.

It’s probably too much to expect an organization with “rifle” in the description of its reason for being to sound alarms about firearms ownership. But if the NRA is going to be issuing reports about school safety, it needs to be candid. That means being upfront about the seminal role guns play in the
school violence problem.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Michael Gartner: THE OTHER GUY

Of course Tim Pernetti should be fired.

Think about it. The Rutgers athletic director knew last fall about the abusive tactics of the man he hired to coach basketball at the New Jersey state university, Mike Rice. Pernetti apparently saw the videos at the time. He fined Rice and disciplined him, but he didn’t fire him.

Then, this week, the videos became public. 

And on Wednesday, Pernetti fired Rice.

What changed between last fall and Monday? Just one thing. The public saw the video on You Tube. The physical abuse that Rice unleashed on his players was frightening. The verbal abuse was disgusting. 

But it was as frightening and disgusting last fall as it was this week. It’s just that we didn’t know about it.

So you have to conclude one of two things: Pernetti has bad judgment and was forced to change his mind by the higher-ups at Rutgers. Or he thought he could get away with keeping an abusive coach.

Pernetti is paid too much to have bad judgment. In 2012, he earned $508,710, and he was one of five finalists for “athletic director of the year” last year. So the only conclusion you can reach is that he thought he could get away with it.

“I am responsible for the decision to attempt a rehabilitation of Coach Rice,” said Pernetti said this week. “Dismissal and corrective action were debated in December and I thought it was in the best interest of everyone to rehabilitate, but I was wrong. Moving forward, I will work to regain the trust of the Rutgers community.”

Mike Rice acted like a bully and a jerk.

Tim Pernetti acted like a guy who protects a bully and a jerk.

The one guy is gone.

The other guy should go, too

Editors' Note:  Tim Pernetti resigned after this piece was written.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: GUNS IN SCHOOL

Let no one allege that lawmakers failed to respond to the murders at Newtown, Conn. that snuffed out the lives of 20 first-graders and six educators, as well as the gunman and his mother. In the wake of the mayhem, a Florida state representative has introduced legislation, HB 1097, that would do away with the designation of public schools as firearms-free zones and allow principals and school superintendents to appoint school personnel as authorized to be armed. Persons so designated “may only carry such weapon or firearm in a concealed manner. The weapon or firearm must be carried on the designee’s person at all times while the designee is performing his or her official school duties.” 

HB 1097 is silent about whether the designee’s gun is to be loaded. That’s an important omission. When Adam Lanza arrived at the Sandy Hook school, he carried with him 1,400 rounds of ammunition. He fired 155 bullets in less than five minutes. Unless the armed school guards are equally well supplied, and poised to swing into action, the next time a lunatic invades a school the guards will be grievously disadvantaged.

Not that armed guards carrying loaded guns are free of risk. I recall my days as a hired gunman in the South Pacific. All around me were nervous, trigger-happy GIs, and all around me GIs were felled by friendly fire. The battlefield was a hazardous workplace not so much because of the enemy as by the threat from my fellow soldiers. I became so fearful of the danger of accident we posed to each other that I kept my gun’s safety always activated despite being in a Japanese infested jungle.

It’s said that worry is an occupational hazard of parenthood. HB 1097 adds a new set of worries: will the armed guards in my grandkids’ schools be good with guns, will the guns in class be loaded, will they be accessible to the students, will the safety locks be activated, will the ammunition be ample.

It’s not reassuring that the approved guns in school must be carried “at all times.” That simply means full-time parental worry. Schools are no place for guns, and the best place for HB 1097 is back on the drawing board.