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

Saturday, June 29, 2013


Now that Edward Snowden has been formally charged with violating the Espionage Act, maybe people will quit erroneously accusing the fugitive whistleblower of treason. That crime is mentioned specifically in the U.S. Constitution, which says, “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” This is essentially the definition of treason in the applicable federal statute as well.  

Snowden obviously did not take up arms against the U.S., nor did he aid or comfort any enemies. His actions discomfited the U.S. government because he revealed that it was spying on its own people. The country’s enemies didn’t learn anything from Snowden that they didn’t already suspect—namely, that the U.S. has an active electronic surveillance program. The surprise in Snowden’s revelations was the extent to which it intruded on the communications of American citizens. In no way is that treason.

Yet when my local paper reported on the appearance on “Meet The Press” of an ally of Snowden, it wrote that he was “asked about treason” for having supported him. Go figure.

Snowden is charged with stealing government property and improperly disclosing classified information. He can and should stand trial for that. Those are crimes for which the government can properly pursue him. Snowden hurts his own cause by becoming a fugitive and forcing the government to track him down and go through extradition proceedings.

Snowden was employed by a government contractor, which gave him access to classified information. He took an oath to protect that information. Violating the oath can be regarded as an act of civil disobedience. Willfully breaking a valid law may be justified, but only if the lawbreaker is prepared to suffer the consequences.

Snowden would be smart to end his flight and plead his case in a court of law. He may be able to make a powerful case to mitigate punishment. The longer he behaves like any other fugitive from justice the harder it will be to make that case.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: BACK TO THE STREETS?

Remember Viola Liuzzo? She was among those murdered in the violence that preceded passage of the 1965 voting Rights Act. Congress acted to secure the right to vote after people took to the streets to protest the wholesale denial of voting rights in the South.

Now the Supreme Court has turned the clock back by invalidating a key part of the 1965 law. Will Americans again have to take to the streets for Congress to sit up and take notice? It could well happen.

Liuzzo was a civil rights activist from Michigan gunned down by Ku Klux Klansmen as she drove local volunteers from a protest march. It was revulsion from the Liuzzo murder that helped propel passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in the court’s majority opinion overturning the requirement for Justice Department approval of changes in voting laws in specified jurisdictions, declared “our country has changed.” Indeed it has, but not always for the better. If anything, Congress has become more partisan and prone to obstruction. The high court’s June 25 voting rights ruling puts Congress in the driver’s seat when it comes to the law’s future. Meanwhile, election strategists and lawmakers have become ever more creative and cunning in devising ways to keep people from the polls.

Elections are critical in this country, not least because of the part they play in keeping the peace. Elections allow people to let off steam. They give people confidence that change can be accomplished by peaceful means. Deny people that confidence and they search for outlets. The turmoil of the 1960s that led to passage of landmark civil rights legislation was a consequence.

If Congress fails to act to protect the franchise, it could well be taken as an invitation to heed the lesson of the 1960s and return to the streets. If so, look for “Remember Viola Liuzzo!” as a battle cry.



The Des Moines Register will soon vacate the building it occupied in downtown Des Moines since 1918. I spent all of my 33 years at the paper in that building. What is most memorable to me about the place, however, was a co-worker who never had a byline, whose office was on an upper floor and who I came to know well only after we had both retired.

Lyle Lynn was the Register’s advertising director. He had been around a long time and seemed to know everybody. He knew especially what made the community tick, and I could have learned a lot from him, except for his habit of keeping his distance.

Lyle was decent, warm, smart and generous. I asked once why we had not been better acquainted while we were both at the paper. He explained that he stayed away from the newsroom on the fourth floor, where my office also was located, because he didn’t want anyone to think he was trying to influence news coverage on behalf of an advertiser.      

Lyle was that kind of person. And the Register was that kind of an institution. The Cowles family, which founded the paper, had instilled and maintained admirable journalistic values all the time they retained control. Lyle Lynn personified those values.

Years later, after the paper changed hands, an editor told me how he visited advertisers when he made rounds with the company’s ad salespeople.

In the popular imagination, that sort of thing goes on all the time as editors are seen as extensions of the advertising department. It would be worth knowing whether Lyle Lynn’s refusal to set foot in the Register’s newsroom has its counterpart at newspapers today or whether editors accompanying ad salesmen are more the norm. Journalism schools would perform a useful service if they put students to work researching the subject.

Sadly, the family-owned newspaper seems largely a thing of the past. As I mourn the padlock on the door of the Register’s building, I mourn even more the passing of Lyle Lynn and what he stood for.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: WHO IS FRANK BRUNI?

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni is gay. I know because he said as much in his June 16 column in the Times. He wrote: “…many people who say they have no problems with gays and lesbians and no intent to discriminate against us also say that we shouldn’t be allowed to marry because, well, that’s the tradition, and marriage is an accommodation too far.” 

If you missed the inclusive “us,” a few lines later Bruni made his meaning unmistakable: “And so we gay and lesbian people will be told: you’re O.K. but it’s up to states to decide just how O.K.” 

If I were editing Bruni’s column, I would kick it back and tell him to soft-pedal the up-front reference to his sexuality and first put it in context by telling readers more about himself – things such as where he was raised, how he came to journalism, where he worked prior to the Times and how he became a Times columnist. As it is, the sole personal reference in the piece is to his sexual orientation. 

Perhaps Bruni has previously written on the subject, but even careful readers of the Times, myself included, may not necessarily be familiar with this side of Bruni; each piece should stand on its own. 

Bruni’s sex life may create buzz around water coolers in New York, but you expect more from the New York Times. I for one would like to know a whole lot more about Frank Bruni.  

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


David Carr, media writer for the New York Times, contends in the June 17 edition of the Times that the recent disclosure of government snooping reveals not only a lot about the government but also about journalism. Writes Carr: “News no longer needs the permission of traditional gatekeepers to break through. Scoops can now come from all corners of the media map and find an audience just by virtue of what they reveal.”

So can we cancel subscriptions to the Times and Washington Post now that we know any outlet can produce blockbuster news? Not really. Carr mentions, but downplays, the part played by the Post in the surveillance story. For me, the Post’s role was pivotal. It told me that serious journalists had given credence to whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s evidence. That meant I could trust the story and should pay attention to it.

 The public needs the press not just for scoops, but for in-depth day-to-day coverage. And when the occasional scoop comes along, the public needs news organizations with the requisite journalism skills to validate it.         

The journalism establishment did the country a major disservice by failing to pay attention to the outstanding work of the Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau on the build-up to the Iraq war. That lapse led the country to go to war on hyped evidence that demanded tough journalistic scrutiny. Instead, it got herd journalism at its worst.

The willingness of the press to pursue the surveillance story despite its somewhat untraditional sourcing helps partially redeem it for its indefensibly shoddy performance on Iraq. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Karen Harris: WORDS TO GROW BY

[Editor's Note: Following are excerpts from remarks by English teacher Karen Harris at the recent graduation ceremony for Brookline (MA) High School's "School Within a School".] 

To the class of lucky 2013…In addition to this being a strange and dreamy time in your life, it is also, as you know, a very strange moment in the life of the culture. As we’ve talked about plenty in our various classes, the temptation to construct a tidy and flawless--and phony-- self, both online and off, is an everyday siren song for you in a way that it never was for, say, me and my graduating classmates in the 1980s. Back then, constructing a self was pretty straightforward: you were either freaky-or geeky-or maybe a jock. And we were so much less cool than you are-- with our mullets, feathered bangs, payphones, legwarmers, and Ronald Reagan. True-- we also had Metallica, The Clash, The Pixies, and Nintendo. But I digress. We weren’t as cool as you. Trust me on that. And unlike you, we had to pretty much stake out a persona and stick with it.

But these days, you can be- or seem to be- almost anyone you want. You can carefully curate the self you share with the world, adjusting and tweaking until you get it just so. You can embrace nuance and paradox in your identity. You might be a little freak, with a dash of geek. You can like heavy metal and High School Musical. You can cut class, be on crew, AND be vegan. You can sing acapella in a boys’ choir, play football, and recite William Blake.

You can-- in other words-- keep them guessing.

The somewhat dicey part of all this is that this plugged-in world of endlessly curating the self can seduce you into thinking of yourself as a version of yourself—instead of your Self. Put plainly, the opportunity to b.s. our way through—and to be b..s’d by others—is huge. And it threatens to make cynics out of us all. As Lisa Simpson laments to Bart about a poseur frenemy: “I’m exactly the kind of kid he’s pretending to be.”

So what can we do to avoid this exhausting pretending? It seems to me that a good antidote is to not just lead with your confusion and imperfection, but to treasure your confusion and imperfection. And to be a bit suspicious of anyone who seems just a little too sure of themselves.

The way I see it, wonderful and quirky class of 2013, it is your imperfection, and your not knowing, that are your true superpowers. This is what we love about you. It’s what we hope you love best about yourself.

So, when in doubt, go with “I don’t know”….Treasure the paradox that is the hallmark of most important things: That life can be difficult and beautiful. Relationships heal us and knock us to the ground. Technology can connect us, and make us feel really lonely. High school was the worst, and it…maybe wasn’t so bad.

Whatever you do, just keep them- and yourself- guessing. Wear a kaftan, a tie, and some moccasins. Well-- actually you already do that. How about this: wear a polo shirt and cordoroys! And loafers! If you’re on the baseball team, trade clothes with Jake. Jake—wear a baseball uniform!

You can’t be all things to all people, it’s true—but you already are a lot of things, class of 2013. You are scholars and layabouts, unreasonable and mature, kind and hardworking and worried and relaxed and melancholy and happy. You’re a freak and a geek and a beauty queen and a dancing queen and a rock star and an extrovert and a wallflower. You’re 13 years old, and 18, and you’re also 45. You are humble and loveable and full of chutzpah and moxie. Thank you for keeping me guessing. I love all of you-- and all of your pieces- -to pieces.

Now, as Lisa Simpson also said, “Prepare to take an incredible journey across the room….”

Thursday, June 13, 2013


On May 26, Robert Dole, the former Republican presidential candidate, took a swipe at his party’s leadership by declaring it “ought to put a sign on the National Committee doors that says closed for repairs until New Year’s Day next year and spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas.”

I may have missed it, but no words of backing from like-minded Republicans have come to my attention. To draw a battlefield analogy, it’s as though Dole crossed a field under enemy fire while his fellow soldiers cowered in their foxholes, unwilling to cover his advance with supporting fire. Where have all the Republican moderates gone? 

My hunch is that they recalled the experience of Mary Louise Smith, a feminist and moderate from Iowa who was national party chair from 1974 to 1977. A long-time member of the Republican national committee, Smith’s close ties to Ronald Reagan did not prevent her from being targeted by conservatives when the party lurched to the right. In a purge reminiscent of Joseph Stalin at his nastiest, she was denied a place in Iowa’s delegation to the party’s national convention in San Diego and even barred from the convention floor. Smith, who once wielded the gavel at the GOP’s national convention, had to borrow an usher’s credentials to be allowed onto the floor. 

Republican moderates simply stood mute when Smith was humiliated. As Neville Chamberlain came to understand, appeasement doesn’t work. The appeasement of right-wingers in the GOP simply emboldened them. Nowadays the party marginalizes moderates and represents a narrow and increasingly strident base of zealots.

If the party hopes to become a force again in national elections, it needs to heed Robert Dole’s advice. It can start by putting the welcome mat out for moderates in the mold of Mary Louise Smith. In fact, it ought to dedicate the next national party convention in her honor to remind Republicans that they not long ago had an ardent feminist moderate at their head.


Anonymous personal attacks are supposed to be verboten in the New York Times. As recently as March 21, 2009, the paper’s then public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote that the paper “will not allow personal or partisan attacks from behind a mask of anonymity”, and affirmed, “I think it is time again for a forceful rededication to the newspaper’s own standards.” Agreed Bill Keller, then the top editor at the Times, “we need to do better”. 

So why, in a front-page story in the June 2 Times, were “some in the West Wing” allowed “to privately tell associates they wish” attorney general Eric Holder would step down? The nameless West Wingers were said to regard Holder as “politically maladroit.” Further, according “to some presidential aides” quoted in the same story, ”the White House is apoplectic” about Holder.

These are not even arguably neutral comments. Rather, they are clearly and wholly negative, and all uttered without benefit of attribution. 

It’s not as though the Times is without policy guidance. It has thought through the issue of anonymous sources and produced a set of excellent policies for its staffers. http://www.nytco.com/company/business_units/sources.html It’s just that, despite layers of editing, mistakes make their way through the filters and into print. 

It’s time that the Times ran out of patience and makes it clear to staffers that its policies are intended to be followed. A good way to impress staffers that editors mean business is to lift the veil of anonymity that protects those who fail to adhere to Times policies. 

The Holder story is a good place to start. The Times public editor should track the negative quotes about Holder to their source and identify, in house, those who enabled it to reach readers in the form it did. 

That would be the kind of “forceful rededication” Clark Hoyt must have had in mind. Otherwise, look for still more careless, and hurtful, editing in the Times.