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

Friday, May 31, 2013


What do news organizations and physicians have in common? Both are reluctant to apologize for their mistakes. 

As for physicians, the president of the American Medical Association wrote May 24 in a letter to the New York Times, “The current system creates such a contentious atmosphere that some physicians are discouraged, even by their own attorneys, from offering an honest apology to a patient when a mistake occurs.” Ditto for journalists and their lawyers. 

Newspapers are rife with errors. Corrections are common, but seldom are they accompanied by apologies. James Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, once told the American Society of Newspaper Editors, ”We correct errors. But we have a terrible problem saying we are sorry or explaining our actions. One of the reasons is in Chicago, if you admit something, the opposition will take out an ad and put it on the Kennedy Expressway pointing it out. We have done that in the past to the Sun-Times and they have done it to us. So in Chicago if you made an error you correct it without admitting that you made it, and without being the least bit sorry for it. That’s a terrible policy. That is the greatest threat to our credibility, it is a great danger to our public image.” 

Squires could have added that newspaper lawyers frequently caution against apologies because they may be used against the publication in a subsequent libel suit as an admission of fault. Some states have sensibly passed laws barring the use of apologies in litigation. 

A heartfelt apology is a wonderful therapeutic device. It costs nothing and can make both parties feel better. It’s ironic that the healing professions especially don’t routinely include it, when warranted, as part of patient care.

Sunday, May 26, 2013


The issue of a federal shield law is back on the front burner in light of the government’s surveillance of the Associated Press. News organizations are hot under the collar about the effort to get to the bottom of news leaks by surreptitiously spying on AP reporters and editors. President Obama gave a boost to chances for federal shield legislation when he asserted May 23 the need to “pass a media shield law to guard against government overreach.”      

Some 40 states and the District of Columbia have such laws, but they are no protection when the federal government is the overreacher. I know first-hand the value of media shield legislation. A few years ago I fought a pitched battle with local Iowa officials over a money-losing horse track they insisted on subsidizing with tax funds. When I disparaged them and their plans in articles I wrote they retaliated with a subpoena demanding to know my sources. I would have gone to jail rather than reveal them, but the Iowa Shield Law squelched the inquiry. 

Naturally, I’m a fan of shield laws, but I have to admit they are problematic. The Iowa officials in my dispute with them fought to keep me from invoking the state’s shield law by arguing to the court that while I was once a journalist, my retirement from the Des Moines Register ended my status as a journalist. The presiding judge read many of the articles I had written post-retirement and declared me to be a journalist covered by the Iowa shield law. 

I was thrilled to be one of a very few court-certified journalists, but also troubled by it. We do not have government licensing of the press in this country nor government certification of journalists. Both would be clearly incompatible with the First Amendment. But shield laws inevitably require identification of the protected persons. That means lawmakers deciding who is a journalist. 

Congress will find itself enmeshed in this issue as the federal shield proposal works its way through the legislative process. It will be interesting to see how the nation’s media lawyers reconcile their support for the First Amendment with what looks uncomfortably like a form of government certification of the press.


How stupid is the Republican Party? On the available evidence, very. Recall that the party fought Medicare tooth and toe nail, earning it the lasting enmity of seniors. Unfortunately for the GOP, Medicare turned into, by far, the most popular of all federal programs. So when the Affordable Care Act came along to pick up where Medicare left off, instead of seeing it as an opportunity to mend fences, the GOP turned on it with a vengeance. So having antagonized the elderly on health care, Republicans now seem poised to tick off much of the rest of the electorate. According to a New York Times count, the Republican-controlled U.S. House has voted 37 times since January 2011 to cut off funds for the Affordable Care Act. 

Why such single-minded hostility? The Act was a signal accomplishment of President Obama’s first term. The more the GOP conducts its vendetta against the Act the more it earns the title the Party of Spite. 

That’s preferable, though, to another title Democrats could well hang on it: the Party of Lowered Life Expectancy. The Affordable Care Act is a huge benefit to the many millions in this country without health insurance, the people whose only access to care is the emergency room. Anyone who has received medical care in the ER knows it to be stopgap care at best. The physicians and nurses encountered in the ER usually are caring but rarely is there continuity of care. If the patient has a chronic condition, the Emergency Room can’t, or won’t, provide care on an ongoing basis. 

People treasure health care. They realize that it’s their ticket to a better, more comfortable, life. If Republicans were smart -- a very big if -- they would want to be associated with providing care that enhances life expectancy. Instead, they seem to be doing their best to make people’s lives shorter. 

My question at the outset was “How stupid is the Republican Party?” My answer: Exceedingly.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Not long ago my urologist seemed a bit insistent, or so I thought, that I try a particular medication for enlarged prostate. Almost immediately after taking the drug my vision deteriorated markedly. It returned to normal when, on my own, I stopped the prostate medication. Coincidence or cause and effect?

My physician, who practiced in an academic setting, seemed only mildly interested when I reported my experience.

All of this flooded back to mind when I read in the May 14 New York Times about how “gifts and payments to physicians from drug and medical device companies have been rampant in medicine for decades.” Could gifts to my physician have made him defensive about a benefactor’s product and explain his indifference to my complaint about it?

Those are reasonable suspicions that might also be totally unfair. When I had reported my experience to the Food and Drug Administration, the agency sent me pages of reports it had received from patients of adverse experiences with the same medication. Some of the complaints about the product were plainly preposterous. Perhaps my urologist knew that he should not take too seriously the report from a lay person about an adverse drug reaction.

Still, it would have been helpful to know if my physician had been on the take from a drug company when he prescribed that company’s product. Helpful not only to patients but also to physicians. Next year when the federal Physician Payment Sunshine Act goes into effect nationwide patients won’t have to wonder, as I did, because payments to doctors will be on a searchable record. That will be wonderful protection for patients and doctor alike.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Michael Gartner: A VERY STRANGE “IF”

The Iowa Supreme Court last week ruled that the non-birthing mother in a married gay couple has the right to have her name automatically put on the child’s birth certificate. The Attorney General of Iowa, in his wisdom, had argued that the non-birthing mother should have to adopt her own child.

For the record, that mother is my daughter, that child is my granddaughter.

The decision, carefully and gracefully written by Justice David Wiggins, was based on the equal-protection clause of the Iowa Constitution. The decision was unanimous from all six justices who participated. But Justice Ed Mansfield, joined by Justice Thomas Waterman, added a one-paragraph concurring opinion. It said:

"The Iowa Department of Public Health accepts the decision in Varnum v. Brien, 763 N.W. 2d, 862 (Iowa 2009) for purposes of this appeal. I agree that if Varnum is the law, then Iowa Code section 144.13(2) cannot be constitutionally applied to deny Melissa Gartner's request to be listed as parent on the birth certificate of the child delivered by her same-sex spouse. Accordingly, I concur in the judgment in this case."

IF Varnum is the law?


1. Two justices on the Iowa Supreme Court are doubting the authority of the very court itself; or

2. Two justices on the Supreme Court do not understand the role of the Supreme Court; or

3. Two justices on the Supreme Court are politically pouting or politically posturing; or

4. Two justices on the Supreme Court are taking a not-very-subtle cuff at their colleagues past and present; or

5. Two justices on the Supreme Court farmed out their concurring opinion to Iowa Tea Party activist Bob Vander Plaats, who famously has said: "Varnum is just an opinion. We all have opinions. It's not the law.” 

Varnum v. Brien was the 2009 case in which the Iowa Supreme Court unanimously said the Iowa Constitution guarantees people of the same sex the right to marry one another. That decision led to the ouster of three Supreme Court justices in 2010. Indeed, if Varnum were not the law, Justices Mansfield and Waterman would not be on the Iowa Supreme Court today.

They’re smart guys. You’d think they’d have figured that out.


The Brooklyn District Attorney is wisely reviewing every conviction obtained with the help of a suspect veteran detective, Louis Scarcella. The New York Times says it examined a dozen cases worked by Scarcella “and found disturbing patterns," including the detective’s reliance on the same eyewitness, a crack-addicted prostitute, Teresa Gomez, for multiple murder prosecutions, "and his delivery of confessions from suspects who later said they had told him nothing.” A New York judge told the Times it “was near folly to even think that anyone would believe Gomez about anything, let alone the fact that she witnessed the same guy kill two different people.” 

The review of the Brooklyn cases would be especially useful if it sheds light on whether the suspects Scarcella handled were represented by lawyers and if so, when, and how diligent they were. It is also important to know, given the corners apparently cut, at what stage the suspects were advised of their right of access to an attorney and their right to remain silent. 

The U.S. Supreme Court took a lot of flack for its rulings that are supposed to guarantee these rights. I say “supposed to” because what happens in practice may be very different from what’s written in the law books. A suspect of marginal intelligence can be no match for experienced, crafty Scarcellas determined to obtain convictions. Besides, many suspects are so unsophisticated they willingly waive their rights. 

The Brooklyn prosecutors reviewing the cases that may have been tainted by Scarcella are part of the same law enforcement team responsible for what looks like serious miscarriages of justice. For that reason, the inquiry should be enhanced through participation by members of the New York bar.

New Yorkers and their watchdogs in the press need to insist that all of the inquiry be impartial and thorough.


Americans know that if they are in a crowded theater and smell smoke and see flames they have a right under the First Amendment to shout “Fire!” They also know that if an obnoxious neighbor steps into their yard they have a Second Amendment right to shoot him. Less well known is that the Third Amendment gives them the right to be free of unwanted houseguests.   

That’s right, the seldom-mentioned Third Amendment says, “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.” 

And you wonder why the country struggles under a mountain of debt? Millions of half-empty private residences dot the land while the government pays a fortune to put traveling troops in motels. 

The folks who scream to high heaven about government spending and the deficit don’t utter a peep about this wasteful extravagance. It’s time they did and raise their voices in behalf of a movement to urge Americans to waive their Third Amendment rights. 

Despite the Third Amendment, troops were quartered in private homes during the civil war. All those who moan and groan about taxes and government spending should favor bringing the Third Amendment back into the conversation.

Saturday, May 11, 2013


Iowa Representative Steve King managed to worm his way into a May 8 New York Times story about the House investigation of the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi even though he is not a member of the committee conducting the investigation, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. 

The Times should have known better, but it fell for a typical King stunt. He is not a serious lawmaker, but rather a skilled quote maker. On Benghazi, here is how he seduced the Times:

“If you link Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it times maybe 10 or so, you’re going to get in the zone where Benghazi is.” 

The Times did not explain why it believed King to be an authority, but clearly the quote was too juicy to resist. 

A columnist in King’s home district has described him as “a master at finding or manufacturing controversy, issuing provocative statements, and reveling in the national media attention that follows.” King’s provocations, he wrote, are “carefully contrived for maximum effect.” 

The Des Moines Register inexplicably once endorsed King for his House seat even though the paper regarded him as abominable. The Register subsequently retracted the endorsement.

King recently announced that he would not seek the Iowa Senate seat being vacated by Tom Harkin and instead would run again for the safe seat he has held since 2002. The Senate’s gain, the House’s loss.

King remains an unabashed admirer of the disgraced Wisconsin demagogue, Joseph McCarthy. I find it hard to believe that Iowans as a whole, fair and thoughtful as they are, would want a bomb-thrower like King to represent them in the U.S Senate. Perhaps he wisely came to the same conclusion.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


A seemingly bloodthirsty Bill Keller, who once wanted the country to go to war against Iraq, now wants it to attack Syria. The former head news person at the New York Times, currently a columnist at the paper, wrote in a May 6 column that if Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad refuses to capitulate “we send missiles against his military installations” until he sues for peace.

Presumably no foxholes or bayonets or American blood spilled or arms and legs lost, just surgical strikes that take foreign lives and limbs exclusively.

Not convinced? Keller has a modern-day domino theory for you: if the U.S. chooses not to act, “a failed Syria creates another haven for terrorists, a danger to neighbors who are all American allies, and the threat of metastasizing Sunni-Shiite sectarian war across a volatile and vital region.” Keller wants President Obama to articulate “how the disintegration of Syria represents a serious danger to America’s interests and ideals.”

Keller worries this won’t happen because the Iraq war sapped the country’s will to fight. To which I say, “Let’s hope so.” The Iraq war was a disaster from which the United States should have learned to beware of military involvement in the region. Intervention in a raging Middle East civil war is the last thing this country needs.

The American press, including the Times, covered itself with ignominy in supporting the Iraq war. Keller seems not to have noticed or remembered. He concludes his column in the Times with this wayward advice:

“Whatever we decide, getting Syria right starts with getting over Iraq.”

Journalists especially should never counsel getting over Iraq. Shameful episodes need to be remembered, not swept under the rug. “Never again!!” is far more appropriate advice than “Get over it!!”

Monday, May 6, 2013


The Tampa Bay (Fl.) Times, once known as the St. Petersburg Times, is a very good newspaper, but it is not free of error. A glaring one appears daily in its standing notice to readers about the paper’s policy on corrections. It says: “We correct errors of fact promptly and prominently. Readers who spot factual errors are encouraged to contact the news department by telephone, letter or e-mail so that we can address the mistake.”

“Errors of fact” are not the only errors that deserve to be corrected. Stories also can be marred by the omission of relevant facts or by otherwise being misleading or unbalanced. 

My former paper, the Des Moines Register, once ran a story about a local prosecutor that reported in the head line that he had “left his town and family.” The unmistakable impression created by the account was that the prosecutor had abandoned his family. When his wife and neighbors objected, explaining that the official merely had gone out of town for a job interview, the paper’s ham-handed defense was that its account was literally true. 

Yes, but the impression created by the paper was false. Its headline and story placed the account in the category of something the press should want to avoid, publishing material that’s true but false.

Instead of forthrightly admitting that its story was misleading, the Register compounded its error by blaming readers for construing the story to mean the official had abandoned his family.

The Tampa Bay paper should make it clear to readers that it corrects all consequential errors, whether factual or otherwise. It can be painful to admit that an account was misleading, but the press should not be in the business of covering up mistakes. Readers understand that mistakes happen. They should never have to accept that the people responsible for the papers they buy will refuse to own up to their mistakes.

Friday, May 3, 2013


Anthony Lewis, the former New York Times reporter and columnist who died March 25 at 85, belonged in the company of Walter Lippmann and other great American journalists. As the blurb on the cover of one of his books said, “No one writes more lucidly about legal subjects than Anthony Lewis.” 

He was not only lucid, but fair. He was a huge fan of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the decision that saved his employer’s paper from financial ruin, but he saw flaws in the ruling and wrote about them in depth. Even so, his cheerleading for the Sullivan opinion pretty much drowned out the reservations. And because he was so influential it may well have inhibited reform of libel law. 

The law badly needs reform, for it adequately protects neither reputation nor the press. 

Editors and news directors live in dread of libel suits, which can be costly, distracting and intrusive. The press wins most of the suits against it but in the process takes such a battering it’s difficult to tell winners from losers.  

I am a co-author of the book “Libel Law and the Press, Myth and Reality”. Our extensive interviews of libel plaintiffs established that correcting the alleged falsity of accounts about them is their chief concern. 

The New York Times v. Sullivan formula for resolving public figure libel suits, the actual malice rule, fails to address this central concern. Instead, it focuses on what was in the author’s mind at the time the disputed material was written – whether he or she knew it was false or had serious doubts about it. A libel action, therefore, sets off a far-ranging mind-search which would be intolerable if, say, a congressional committee attempted it, but which the government authorizes when it tolerates libel suits. Meanwhile, alleged falsity, the issue that most motivates plaintiffs to sue, most often goes unaddressed. This is also an issue in which the public may well have a stake.

Libel law answers the wrong question. Anthony Lewis’s perch at the Times uniquely positioned him to influence libel law reform. He had the powers of persuasion to get something done. Too bad he did not take New York Times v. Sullivan to the next level.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


I avidly read the very boring story in the April 26 New York Times: “Times Co. Profit Falls; New Subscription Model Is Set.” I pored over the account of the Times’s first quarter results from start to finish although I own no stock in the company and have no plans to invest in it. I am, however, invested in the Times in the sense that I read it seven days a week and would be bereft without the paper. 

The news in that story about the Times was bleak: ad revenue down from $215.5 million to $191.2 million; net income down from $42 million to $3.1 million. Could that be accurate? The company’s announced “broader growth strategy,”i.e., introducing “lower cost subscription models” was not encouraging. 

Nevertheless, so far so good with the Times. The biggest ticket items at a newspaper are newsprint and payroll. Hack away at them and quality suffers. Either the Times has been so shrewd in its economizing that it doesn’t show or the company hasn’t made the really big hits yet. 

The demographics of Times readers are priceless assets. The readership is well-educated and affluent. It would be tragic if the paper squanders the assets by allowing its quality to deteriorate so that it loses readers. The company should not be too proud to admit that it needs the help of its readers to stave off economies that diminish the quality of the Times. After all, the loyalty of its readership is directly related to the daily miracle the company delivers. 

The Times quit paying a dividend in 2009. That puts it in a better position to appeal to readers for help. Tomorrow I will put a check in the mail to the Times, over and above what I pay for my subscription, in appreciation for the quality the paper has maintained in tough economic times. 

Better yet, the Times ought to create an Appreciation Fund for contributions from similarly motivated readers and it should promote the fund heavily. 

The Times is a national treasure. It informs not only the public , but also the formulators of public policy. The country is more wisely governed because public officials have the benefit of the paper’s comprehensive news coverage and thoughtful commentary. 

It would be a serious error to wait until signs of deterioration are evident at the Times. The time for readers to rally to support this superb institution is now, before slippage shows.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


News coverage of breaking stories — such as the explosions at the Boston Marathon — are more miss than hit because of two fundamental flaws in such coverage. If you’re puzzled or confused by the breathless on-the-scene commentators, you should be.

For one thing, almost everything we know about such news coverage is that, at best, it is incomplete and often inaccurate. The first accounts of any fast breaking or developing story have to be incomplete or inaccurate because everyone — including the reporters — is essentially clueless as to the substance of what just happened or what’s going on now.

We know that something terrible has happened, but nothing beyond that.

For another thing, despite what you might be told at brainstorming sessions, there are such things as dumb questions — and, if not dumb, certainly futile. Want an example of a dumb or futile question — or one that certainly doesn’t merit an answer? Try this: Of your children or your parents, which one would you choose to die first?

This flaw in news coverage is that because we can ask a question we think there must be an answer — one answer, and the simpler the better. So now we seek the simple answer as to why Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, did what they did.

In the quest for coverage and answers, we are beset with incomplete and inaccurate coverage and unfathomable questions because of what is called the need to “Feed the Monster” — that is, the need to keep airwaves and news columns filled every second of the day. When solid information is lacking, rumors, gossip and hearsay will have to do to keep reporters occupied and viewers satisfied that they know what is going on.

It’s mass, and tacitly agreed upon, self-deception.

Thirty or 40 years ago, columnist Goodman Ace (1899-1982) wrote in The Saturday Review about how the press had to provide the public with a “daily dose of crisis” — some threatening news item to add adventure and fear to our humdrum lives. Nowadays, it is not a “daily dose” but a “nano-second dose” — accuracy be damned.

In the case of the Boston Marathon, we eventually learn that Dzhokhar, 19, apparently was unarmed when we had been told he was engaged in a shootout with police and may have fired a round into his mouth in a suicide attempt.

While the news media audience is being “informed” about all this, the cops and government are in a no-win position. If they don’t speak up because they don’t know what is going on, they are accused of a cover-up. If they make their best guesses in providing information that is later, and predictably, found to be wrong, they are accused of a conspiracy because they had “lied” to us.

Well, what we can we learn from all this?

 A flippant answer is that we now have a working definition of just who a terrorist is: Anyone whose name the press has problems pronouncing or spelling.

A better answer is that the audience has to wise up. Almost a century ago, sociologist Robert Park said you would not get better newspapers until you made some gains in getting the audience to be more intelligent, knowledgeable and critical.

Perhaps Frank Bruni provided the best current answer in his New York Times commentary, The Lesson of Boston (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/28/opinion/sunday/bruni-the-lesson-of-boston.html?ref=frankbruni&_r=0):

“The F.B.I. averted its gaze from the older Tsarnaev brother after it couldn’t find any conclusive alarms because that’s what the government is supposed to do, absent better information. We don’t want it to go too far in spying on us. That means it will fail to notice things. 

“While we can and will figure out small ways to be safer, we have to come to terms with the reality that we’ll never be safe, not with unrestricted travel through cyberspace. Not with the Second Amendment. Not with the privacy we expect. Not with the liberty we demand. 

“That’s the bargain we’ve made. It’s imperfect, but it’s the right one.”

Maybe the same has to be said about flawed news coverage in an open society.