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, August 27, 2013


By all accounts, the United States, either alone or with allied assistance, is planning a military response to the chemical warfare assault by the government of Syria on its own people.

Attacking Syrian targets might be satisfying retribution for Syria’s unconscionable conduct, but it almost certainly would lead to the maiming and death of people who had nothing to do with the resort to chemical arms. Syria committed a war crime by its use of chemical weapons, and the way to deal with criminal conduct is by judicial procedures. The United States should do everything in its power to bring Syrian government officials who had anything to do with Syria’s sickening conduct before an international tribunal to face charges.

The international court at Nuremberg showed that there is a civilized way to deal with officials who violate the norms of civilized conduct. So let’s bring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his responsible lieutenants into court and let them face the families of their victims.


“Partner” is a versatile word that can mean several different things, from a business relationship to a personal one. Sometimes it means opposite things, as in “marriage partner” and when used to describe an extra-marital arrangement.

Lately, the New York Times used “partner” in a way so confusing it’s impossible to divine the paper’s meaning. In referring to David Michael Miranda as Glenn Greenwald’s “partner,” the Times leaves readers with no clue to what it is describing. 

Greenwald is the journalist who has been involved with Edward Snowden in disseminating secret government documents. Miranda, who lives in Brazil, figured in the news recently when he was detained for questioning in London by British officials. 

If Miranda’s questioning related to the illegal release of documents, his tie to Greenwald took on a legitimate news angle. But what precisely is that tie? Describing Miranda as Greenwald’s “partner” leaves open the possibility that he, too, was engaged in possibly illegal conduct. But if the relationship is purely personal, the press has no business prying into it. In that case, “partner” is a perfectly acceptable way to describe it – except for the question of clarity. News organizations are in the business of clarifying issues not obfuscating them. Thus Greenwald may be in the uncomfortable and unexpected position of having to reveal his private life because of the journalistic imperative to leave no loose ends uncovered.

If Miranda is going to continue to be in the news, the Times probably has no choice but to refer again to his relationship to Greenwald. But describing the pair simply as “partners” is uninformative and potentially misleading. The Times needs to clarify what it means when it uses the word “partner”. 

Greenwald may have anticipated complications by getting involved with Snowden in the release of secret documents but he probably did not foresee that the nature of his relationship with some guy in Brazil would be one of them.

Friday, August 23, 2013


Yemen is one of the world’s poorest countries and doesn’t have much going for it except for being the first country in the Arab Peninsula to grant women the right to vote. That said, the U.S. can learn a thing of two from Yemen, a place that recently publicly apologized for wars waged by the country’s former president. Would that this country follow Yemen’s lead and apologize for the needless slaughter we inflicted on Iraq by invading that country in 2003. The U.S. military suffered nearly 4,500 deaths but caused more than a million total fatalities by initiating the conflict.

Why we started the war never has been adequately explained, except for the erroneous claim that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction. Once that claim proved to be groundless, you would have expected the country’s leaders to admit the error and beg forgiveness. No such thing. Nor has the U.S. press, which enthusiastically backed the war, apologized for misleading the country and getting the Iraq war so terribly wrong.

It’s one thing to misspell a name or get an address wrong. The press readily corrects these errors. But to get a whole war wrong? And to not confess to the error? That borders on arrogance or willful blindness.

The New York Times buried the Yemeni apology on a back page in a single paragraph. The story needs to be resurrected and contrasted with the absence of a comparable apology for the Iraq war. It’s never too late to correct an error. The Iraq war was a monumental blunder and one that should not be forgotten.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Chad Brown, co-chairman of the Republican party in Iowa’s most populous county, has quit his post and changed his party affiliation to Independent to protest the Iowa GOP’s takeover by the Christian right and the National Rifle Association. Brown described himself in an interview with the Des Moines Register as a lifelong Republican and financial contributor who became disillusioned with the party at the national, state and local levels for having “declared war on science and common sense” by denying global climate change. He said it was increasingly “difficult to defend issues and statements” made by party officials at all three levels. He was irked, in addition, that the county’s GOP had no paid staff, no headquarters and lacked even a working telephone number.

This, mind you, in the Republican party that plays a key role in the national party’s nominating process. Even now would-be presidential nominees trek to Iowa to cash in on the attention lavished on Iowa by virtue of its first-in-the-nation caucuses.

Chad Brown’s defection might cause some politicians to have second thoughts about investing heavily in Iowa. If the GOP in heavily populated Des Moines doesn’t even rate a telephone listing, candidates have to wonder, “What kind of bush league place is this?”

Once, Republicans thrived where Chad Brown now has thrown in the towel. Bob Ray served as governor for 14 years. His brand of moderate Republicanism won him support from Democrats and Independents alike. He was so popular streets in Des Moines have been named for him. Then his party veered sharply to the right. Even venerated moderates like the GOP’s former national chairlady, the saintly Mary Louise Smith, was humiliated and virtually read out of the party. In the Stalin-like purge that ensued the party adopted positions that drove out the few remaining moderates. Among the party’ stances: abolish the Internal Revenue Service; eliminate Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid; and get rid of the United Nations.

Chad Brown’s resignation may wake the party of Bob Ray out of its nightmare. If it doesn’t, look for more looniness and decay from a once-proud and vibrant Iowa Republican party.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Following is Brown’s resignation letter to the Iowa Republican Party Executive Committee.]

Dear Polk GOP Executive Committee Member,

I am writing to inform you that I changed my voter registration to Independent today – severing all ties to the Republican Party. Having been a Republican all my life, I did not take this decision lightly.

 Having spoken with a pastor and having prayed about this for hours, I came to the conclusion that this is my only recourse. I’m disappointed with the Republican Party at the National level. I’m disappointed with the Republican Party at the Statewide level. I’m disappointed with the Republican Party at the Countywide level. I find it increasingly difficult to defend issues and statements made by Party leaders and officials from all three levels.

 I decided to get back in this arena following the “contentious” 2012 Polk County GOP Convention. I was upset by what happened at the conventions, and I entered into the arena with the intent to help fix the problems. However, I think this level of dysfunction is not going to be fixed any time soon.

I donated time and financial resources to the Polk GOP and haven’t had a good return on my investment. In the 2000 Presidential Election, the Polk GOP lost Polk County by about 16,000 votes. In fall of 2000, the Polk GOP had no headquarters. The Polk GOP had no paid staff. The Polk GOP didn’t even have a working telephone number. Fundraising was minimal.

In 2012, the Polk GOP lost Polk County by over 32,000 votes. Until 2002, Republicans were elected to the State House from Des Moines. In 2012, Republicans lost 2 State House seats in suburban, Republican-leaning districts and came two dozen votes from losing a third. Facts are stubborn things. I think we are now headed in the wrong direction on several fronts and regretfully must step aside.

It’s my opinion that rather than fix the problems that led to such a massive 2012 defeat, the GOP does not seem to seriously want to fix the issues. I think helping a dysfunctional Party that does not want to address its problems is enabling. I do not believe in enabling. I debated this for weeks and am certain this is the only course.

I wish you the best of luck,

Chad Brown

Monday, August 19, 2013


The Iowa Board of Regents last week approved the budgets for the three state universities for the fiscal year that ends on June 30. Included -- and passed without discussion -- were the budgets for the athletic departments at the schools.
Those numbers are worth pondering.

For once again, the departments at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University are budgeting big increases in revenue and, once again, they are finding ways to spend every new penny within the departments and not ship anything back to the schools’ general-education coffers.

And, once again, the University of Northern Iowa can’t make ends meet in its athletic budget. It’s going to have to take $3.8 million from student tuition or state appropriations to balance its $12.2 million sports budget.   

This makes no sense.

At the very least, the presidents of Iowa and Iowa State should be demanding that their athletic departments turn back $5 million to $10 million to the general-education fund -- which spent millions of dollars subsidizing sports at those universities for generations. Ten million dollars could provide full scholarships for more than 650 in-state students. And if Iowa legislators or Regents were thinking clearly, they’d tell the University of Iowa and Iowa State each to send $2 million to their sister school in Cedar Falls so that UNI wouldn’t have to cut into its desperately needed tuition and appropriations pots. The Regents and the Legislature have the authority to do that.

For it’s the luck of the draw, not bad management or bad teams, that causes UNI to come up short year after year. The University of Iowa and Iowa State get windfalls from television and their conferences. UNI gets pennies.
Some numbers:

Sports revenue at the University of Iowa for this year is budgeted at $84,293,331, up a bit over $4.5 million, or 5.6%, from the money taken in last year. As if by magic, the department has found ways to spend every penny of that extra $4.5 million.

Sports revenue at Iowa State University is budgeted at $60,055,784 this year, up a bit over $3.3 million, or 5.9%, from the fiscal 2013 budget. As if by magic, the department has found ways to spend all but $65,000 of that, which presumably will be kept under the athletic department mattress until it’s needed to send the wives and children of department strawbosses to a bowl game.

Sports revenue at the University of Northern Iowa this year is budgeted at $12,921,197, up about $600,000, or 4.8%, from the year-ago figure. But that revenue this year includes $2.9 million from the university for general athletic operations and another $1.2 million to subsidize athletic scholarships. (At Iowa and Iowa State, the athletic departments fund their scholarships out of department money.) This year’s UNI subsidy is identical to the numbers budgeted for last year.

This is loopy. The University of Northern Iowa in recent years has gone through drastic cost-cutting, has closed departments, trimmed majors and laid off faculty and staff as it struggled to balance its budgets. Its troubles have two roots: First, about 90% of its students come from Iowa, where the number of high-school graduates is declining each year and where competition is particularly stiff from the state’s 30 or more private colleges. Second, the legislature short-changes UNI in its appropriations formula, basing it mainly on total enrollment (which greatly helps the University of Iowa and slightly helps Iowa State) and not on undergraduate, in-state enrollment -- which is what the taxpayers should be subsidizing.

It was not always thus. Ten years ago, the athletics budget at the University of Iowa was about $42 million -- exactly half of what it is today. But the department didn’t take in that much money, so the university shipped $2.4 million to the sports people. It had been subsidizing athletics for years and continued for a few more years until the Big Ten hit the television jackpot. It’s the same at Iowa State. Ten years ago, its sports budget was around $27 million -- less than half of what it is today -- and to meet expenses it took $3.1 million from the university’s general fund. At UNI, the athletic budget 10 years ago was $7.8 million, and that was subsidized with $3.8 million from the general fund.

Isn’t it time that Iowa and Iowa State start paying that money back?

The increase in spending on sports at all three state universities is far outpacing the increase in spending on general education. At Iowa, the general education budget has risen 60% in the past decade; the sports budget is up 100%. At Iowa State, the general education budget is up 44%; the sports budget is up 114%. At UNI, the general education budget is up 25%; the sports budget is up 64%.

This is, as I said, loopy.

There are four ways to fix this.

The first: The athletic directors could budget responsibly, and voluntarily return millions to the general fund, in effect paying back some of those millions from earlier years. This would be easy.

The second: If the athletic directors didn’t do that, the presidents of Iowa and Iowa State could step in and force the issue. This would be somewhat easy.

The third: If the presidents didn’t act, the Board of Regents could mandate either a number of millions to be shifted or a cap on the year-to-year increase in spending. This would be controversial.

The fourth: If the Regents didn’t act, the Legislature could step in and do what the Regents failed to do. This would be traumatic.

Sooner or later, the issue will have to be addressed.

Why not sooner?

And why not take the easy way out? 

Gilbert Cranberg: THE HILLARY BEAT

Hillary Clinton has a fabulous resume for the presidential candidate she is reputed to be – former first lady, former U.S. senator, former Secretary of State. Now she also has a New York Times reporter she can call her own, Amy Chozick, described in the Aug. 18 Times by the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, as having been “moved to the political desk to cover the Clintons—particularly Hillary—as a full-time beat.”

The position of public editor was created to provide a platform for free-wheeling in-house criticism of the Times. For the time being, Sullivan is not sharing with readers her own take on the decision to create a full-time “Clinton beat.” Her Aug. 18 column was a classic on-the-one-hand-on-the-other piece that kept her own opinion to herself.

My feeling, for what it’s worth, is that the Times is owed credit for sharing information with the public that is not ordinarily disclosed. Chozick could simply have been advised, “From now on, we want you to pay special attention to Hillary,” and no one would have been the wiser. As it is, the Times opens itself to critics who can read whatever they want in Chozick’s work.

That said, I wish the Times had not chosen so early in the campaign to focus on a single candidate. That tells me that the paper is making an unusually heavy investment in campaign coverage. Politics is interesting, but not nearly as interesting to ordinary readers as to the political junkies who populate newsrooms.

There’s a long campaign ahead, and lots of candidates to be heard from. The challenge to the press will be to do justice to the parties and the candidates without forcing readers to despair, “Enough already!”


Representative Steve King, the oft-quoted congressman from Iowa, knows how to get his name in the newspapers. His strategy is simple: make outrageous statements. The press falls for it every time. Never mind that King has no qualifications to sound off on a particular subject -- if the quote is snappy enough, you can count on King collecting another clipping for his scrapbook from a gullible press.

Thus, when Benghazi was in the news, so, too, was Steve King, pontificating that “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.” King has no special knowledge about the events in Benghazi, but that didn’t keep him from pretending otherwise and the press from abetting the pretense.

The respected Des Moines Register once made the mistake of endorsing King. It subsequently retracted the endorsement in an editorial calling for the election of King’s opponent and attacking King’s “divisive, fear-mongering commentary.”

Esquire Magazine once put King on its list of 10 worst congressmen, observing that “King believes himself to be clever, and his list of idiot declarations is probably the longest in Washington.” 

King is no dummy. He certainly knows how to fool the press into giving him space. He also had enough smarts to avoid running for Tom Harkin’s recently vacated seat in the U.S. Senate, apparently figuring that Iowans would not react favorably to his brand of demagogy in a statewide race.

But it’s long past time for the press to quit giving King a soap box for no better reason than an ability to churn out provocations that are better left unsaid.

Gilbert Cranberg: BARE FEET IN FLIGHT

The Florida retirement community where I live recently adopted a dress code. The code, which says “residents are expected to dress appropriately and in good taste,” among other things, “strictly prohibits” bare feet in common areas. The common-sense code was formulated by the residents. The professionals who administer the place had nothing to do with it. Why can’t the high-priced executives who run the nation’s airlines do as well as my elderly neighbors?

Once upon a time people dressed up to travel. Nowadays they dress down. Air travel is unpleasant and regarded as something to avoid in good part not just because of the crowding but because of the apparent belief that airlines will tolerate anything in the way of attire. I recently flew to the Midwest, spending the entire trip with a bird’s eye view of the calluses and bunions of the woman who removed her shoes the moment she took her seat in the row ahead of me. She propped her bare feet high up on the bulkhead. That afforded everyone on board the same unobstructed view. No airline personnel asked the unshod passenger to at least lower her feet.

The grungiest Mom and Pop diners post signs announcing “No shoes, no service.” Airline gates and flight attendants should likewise inform passengers that unshod feet are a no-no. If airlines won’t enforce a minimal dress code, the folks who regulate air travel should.

Friday, August 16, 2013


The sale of the Washington Post has brought in its wake a lot of second-guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking. Could the Post have managed things differently and avoided practically giving the paper away? Everyone in the newspaper business seems to have an opinion.

The most recent was offered in the Aug. 11 New York Times by columnist Ross Douthat in a piece headed “How the Post Was Lost.” Douthat’s take is that the Post’s dim future was foretold when Politico came on the scene. Founded by a couple of Post staffers, Politico specializes in political news and, according to the Times columnist, “Today, it’s Politico rather than the Post that dominates the D.C. conversation, Politico rather than the Post that’s the must-read for Beltway professionals and politics junkies everywhere, and Politico rather than the Post that matches the metabolism of the Internet.”

Where were Times editors when Douthat’s piece appeared? Not on the job apparently. If Politico is such a rip-roaring success and the Post a flop, what do the numbers show? Times editors should have insisted that he include in his column some sign of how Politico is doing in terms of profits and readership. There’s not a word about either.    

My own feeling is that newspaper readers are fed up with all the speculation about politics years in advance of the next election. They are turned off also by the excessive attention the press gives to news about government. Yes, government is important, but so is the private sector. The doings of private corporations have as much impact on the lives of people as the actions of some government agencies, but seldom are they made into regular beats and given in-depth coverage.

The Wall Street Journal has shown that coverage of the private sector has a big payoff in reader interest. Better the Journal’s model than Politico’s.

Friday, August 9, 2013


For all of the attention lavished on the sale of the Washington Post, much still is not known about the transaction. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is reported to have bought the Post for $250 million, but were there other bidders?

When my former paper, The Des Moines Register, was sold, the company’s board of directors first put up a for sale sign. That action followed receipt of an unsolicited offer for the paper. The directors figured that, in fairness to stockholders, it should open the bidding to all interested parties. (Incidentally, among the bidders for the Register was the Washington Post.) Was the Bezos bid for the Post also an unsolicited offer? What followed receipt of that offer? Did directors have it evaluated, and if so, by whom? What role did the Graham family play? And what did individual Graham family members make on the sale?

Was Warren Buffett consulted? Buffett is a former director of the Washington Post company. He recently was active in the acquisition of a number of newspapers for his own company and would have had a good feel for the value of the Post in the current market, but bringing Buffett into the picture might have raised conflict of interest questions. In any event, Buffett’s name has not figured in any of the commentary I’ve seen on sale of the Post. His take on the sale would be newsworthy at least.

The press does not generally do a good job of covering itself. But this was not that kind of close-to-home story, except for the Post. The sale was a major event in the history of the newspaper business that deserved comprehensive coverage. Perhaps the press will yet play catch-up and give the public a fuller accounting of the historic sale of the Washington Post.


Rudyard Kipling never would have penned the opening line of his poem “If” were he in Iowa when the press ballyhoos the state as “The center of the political universe” — as it does so routinely today.
Kipling begins his celebrated 1895 poem with the line “If you can keep your head when all about you (a)re losing theirs….” But that is well nigh impossible in Iowa in August 2013.
Subjected to the farce that Iowa makes of the presidential campaign in particular and sanity in general, Kipling would have returned his pen to its inkwell, forgotten about “If” and possibly seen the wisdom in Edgar Allan Poe and the line “Nevermore.”
The more Iowa botches its role in the presidential campaign, the more the press trumpets Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status as a bellwether, oracle and fount of wisdom. It’s almost insane.
Here we are 27 months from the 2016 election and we’re in mid-campaign form. Iowa and GOP candidates do dumb things and the press dutifully records it all; just as the press must have done in rave reviews of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” — to invoke a third literary giant, Hans Christian Andersen. 
How can one “keep your head” when, like water-drop torture, these items drip, drip, drip?
• News accounts routinely refer to the need for candidates to cater to the Republican Party “base.” But, at least in Iowa, the GOP “base” and “lunatic fringe” are one and the same. The press does not acknowledge that, although a lot of former Iowa Republicans do.
• One hopeful sign of sanity -- that the Iowa Straw Poll might be reformed -- has become an absurdity, if not a political obscenity.  The Iowa Straw Poll is a fundraiser held by the Iowa GOP in August of the year preceding a presidential election.  Whichever candidate contributes the most money to the Iowa GOP is crowned as the front-runner of the Republican Party presidential nomination.  The press embraces this scam by sagely noting that whoever can commandeer the most yellow school buses to ferry supporters to the Straw Poll plainly has demonstrated fitness to fill what Harry S. Truman called “the most important office of government in the history of the world.”  The Straw Poll process resulted in U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann winning the crown in 2011.  This spurred efforts toward reform. So who has offered to fill the gap should the Straw Poll be junked? Well, the Iowa Christian Right says it can screen candidates even better than the Straw Poll. The organization willing to do that, the evangelical non-profit Family Leader — which spearheaded the campaign to oust three Iowa Supreme Court justices for recognizing the right to gay marriage — has the apparent blessing of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad. The GOP nominee would not be the biggest spender, but would be the one who grovels best before the GOP “base.”
• The Iowa caucus and campaign process puts the emphasis not on issues or debate, but rather on who is ahead in the polls.  You see, it’s all a horse race, even though the horse race approach has long been criticized as a flaw in political news coverage.  So a measure of hope wafted into Iowa recently when the respected, but now retired, Associated Press political reporter Mike Glover created a website to offer some needed and solid insights and substance to the caucus folly.  His website?     http://www.iowahorserace.com
How do you “keep your head” amidst all this and still worse to come — even if you are in the center of the political universe?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


One plus in the sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos is the switch in its status from a publicly owned company to private ownership. That means Post stock no longer can be bought and sold by investors and the stock won’t be listed on any of the stock exchanges. That’s a plus because publicly traded companies too often are managed for the short term and managers judged by how successful they are in boosting the company’s stock price quarter-to quarter.

The Graham family was more mindful than most newspaper owners that fixating on quarterly financial results can be harmful to the long-term health of a company. But even the Post had to have one eye on its stock price. And that lagging price was a factor in its eventual sale. The stock’s price led also to newsroom cutbacks that diminished the paper’s quality.
Many years ago I interviewed a large number of stock analysts and asked them whether publicly traded newspaper companies were good or bad for journalism. They were nearly unanimous in saying it was bad because it forced the companies to pay excessive attention to the bottom line. (“Taking Stock —Journalism and the Publicly Traded Newspaper Company”, Cranberg, Bezanson, Soloski (Iowa State Univ. Press, 2001).) So, does that mean the era of a Bezos-owned Post will be good news for readers? Not necessarily. Bezos has never worked on a newspaper and has no tradition of family newspaper ownership. What he knows about the Post is only as a reader.

I say “only” but that stands for a great deal. What serious readers of newspapers treasure is their reliability and comprehensiveness. Compromise either and their value diminishes.

Jeff Bezos did not accumulate the wealth to buy the Post by being a stupid businessman. He would be that if he makes inroads in the quality of the Post for short-term gain.

Since Bezos has not worked in journalism he has none of the skills needed to manage a newspaper. But there are people with such skill and Bezos ought to know how to locate them. Above all, he needs to convince them of his vision that the best days of the Washington Post are ahead.