WELCOME to the debut of “The Truth Is!”, a blog of reporting and commentary that aims to be informative, thoughtful and provocative. At least initially, the blog will have a strong heartland flavor by virtue of the connection of a number of us to Cowles family journalism. I am former editor of the Des Moines Register’s opinion pages. Another contributor, Michael Gartner, is former editor of the paper; he later served as president of NBC News. Another former Register editor who has agreed to contribute, Geneva Overholser, is director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg school of journalism. Followers of the blog will have access also to the work of Herbert Strentz of Des Moines, a close Register and other newspaper watcher who once headed Drake University’s journalism school. Bill Leonard, a longtime Register editorial writer, will add insights.

“The Truth Is!” will be supervised by my daughter, Marcia Wolff, a communications lawyer for 20 years with Arnold and Porter (Washington, D.C.). Invaluable technical assistance in assembling and maintaining the blog is provided by my grandsons Julian Cranberg, a college first-year, and Daniel Wolff, a high school senior.

If you detect a whiff of nepotism in this operation, so be it. All of it is strictly a labor of love. —Gil Cranberg

Monday, September 30, 2013


I gave up writing satire years ago when I realized that the real world had become so ridiculous that it was indistinguishable from what I attempted to poke fun at. My decision to retire from satire was validated recently when I read in the local paper that Sean Hannity of Fox News was to be honored by the Sarasota County Republican Party with a “Statesman of the Year” award. This turned out not to be a one-time aberration; the Republicans who mistook Hannity for a statesman bestowed the same title last year on Donald Trump. I am not making this up.

A statesman is, by definition, a person who shows wisdom and skill in conducting public affairs. Only by twisting the English language beyond recognition can Hannity be considered anything more than a propagandist. As for Trump, it is charitable to describe him as a buffoon.

Sarasota is Florida’s cultural center. It has its own symphony orchestra, repertory theater and opera and dance companies. The community’s leaders can only hope the rest of the country did not notice the lapse in sophistication that led to designating the likes of Hannity and Trump as statesmen.

Satire is tricky. I learned that the hard way when government officials said they were on the lookout for innovative ways to cut costs and I suggested they consider renting out the armed forces. After all, I argued, the military is idle much of the time, so why not turn a drain on taxpayers into a profit center?

The first rule of satire -- also, the second, third and fourth-- is to be sure readers know that you are not serious. I thought I had left an unmistakable clue when I wrote that by hanging a for rent sign on the military it would give fresh meaning to the term “doughboy.” To no avail. I knew I was in trouble when a college professor working on a collection of innovative ideas requested permission to include renting out the military in his book.

Hannity and Trump statesmen? Maybe the joke is on me. After all, the local Republicans filled a large hall with paying customers to hear both men. Hannity told the crowd the government should be shut down because it would save money. This is a statesman? A rabbit does not become a cabbage by calling it one. Hannity and Trump are not statesmen no matter what their plaques say and how many seats they fill.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Another mass killing, this time in Kenya. Ho-hum, so what else is new? Massacres have become so routine that the dozen killings at the Washington Navy Yard scarcely stayed in the collective memory for more than a few days.

Why should it be otherwise when death by shooting is seemingly everywhere? Attend a movie and people are dispatched almost casually. You need not even venture from home; blood can be seen spilled from the comfort of one’s lounge chair without the nuisance of having to mop it up.

More stringent background checks and less lethal ammunition clips are among proposed remedies and are necessary. That doesn’t begin to deal with the underlying problem, though, which is the ubiquity of violence in the culture. Screenwriters and film makers need to be challenged about why they include scenes of mayhem in their work. Body counts need to be a part of every reviewer’s critique. Networks should voluntarily adopt codes of conduct that include quotas for scenes of violence. Oscars and Emmys should be awarded in part on the basis of avoidance of unnecessary bloodshed.

Violence is a learned behavior. As the song lyric from South Pacific warned, “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” Or not so carefully. Simply being raised in a typical household surrounds individuals with massive amounts of violence. By the time an average child finishes elementary school, he has witnessed 8,000 televised acts of violence. By age 18, the number zooms to 200,000.

Much of this is for no more worthy reason than to sell products or services. Commercialized killing accounts for much of the violence that saturates our culture. It is, almost literally, blood money.

Consumers can quit subsidizing it by refusing to patronize those who peddle murder. Shareholders in companies that profit from anti-social programming should tell CEOs to find another line of work.

The public is much too passive in the face of the murderous assaults that have become everyday events. It needs to confront the respectable white-collar terrorists in our midst who contribute to an atmosphere of violence that ought to be regarded as intolerable.

Monday, September 23, 2013


On Feb. 19 MSNBC aired “Hubris,” its hard-hitting documentary about how the Bush administration hornswoggled the country into an unnecessary war against Iraq. Then on Sept. 20 there was “Hubris” once again. Overkill? Not in the least. The Iraq war was such an outrageous example of duplicity and deception that rerunning reminders is the least that ought to be done to prevent a repetition. MSNBC deserves credit rather than reproach for telling this sickening story once more. In fact, the network ought to show “Hubris” again and again as a public service.

More than the Bush administration was at fault. The Iraq war was not the instance of a heedless president singlehandedly taking the country to war. In a move reminiscent of President Obama’s recent effort to get congressional fingerprints on a strike against Syria, George W. Bush sought, and received, congressional approval for his phony case for war.

Much of the press was complicit. Almost all of the biggest names in journalism deluded themselves into endorsing the belief that Iraq’s nonexistent weapons justified going to war. The press failure to show even elemental skepticism was so gross that I suggested a panel of social scientists be organized to study how it could have happened.

Nothing came of the suggestion, but it’s still worth pursuing. The larger question is how the country as a whole came to wage a deadly, costly and unnecessary war. No one to my knowledge is bothering to find the answers. But MSNBC is at least not allowing the question to be swept into the dustbin of history.

Friday, September 20, 2013


Paul Krugman mused in his Sept. 19 column about whether the Republican party is crazy or stupid. Actually, it need not be one or the other. Just as it is possible to chew gum and walk, it is possible to suffer from insanity and stupidity simultaneously. In fact, I have coined a name for the condition: Insanpidity. Nowadays Congressional Republicans are exhibiting all of the signs of the malady.             

The party fought Social Security and Medicare so hard that it is indelibly imprinted on the public consciousness that the GOP is an enemy of social progress. Never mind that both programs are hugely successful and popular. Insanpidity renders the afflicted with an inability to absorb information that comports with reality so that victims are doomed to repeat their errors ad infinitum.

The country is witnessing now an episode of insanpidity in its most severe form. If Republicans were not in the grip of insanpidity, they would realize that reform of the health care system offered them a way to show that they are no longer so intractably opposed to improving the system that they are open to modifying it. Instead, insanpidity, in full flower, has the GOP dug in and threatening to inflict grave economic harm on the country unless the Affordable Care Act is undone.

Republicans keep bringing up repeal of the act, over and over. Their conduct would be laughable, if it were not so sick. It’s time that the country realizes that the behavior of one of its two major parties borders on the deranged. Let’s hope insanpidity is not incurable.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: How the Times Failed Its Readers

On Sept. 12 a New York Times editorial said that it “seems certain” that the government of Syria carried out chemical attacks on Aug. 21 that killed so many Syrians. Why then did the Times allow its pages to be used the same day by Russia’s President, Vladimir V. Putin, to declare “there is every reason to believe” that poison gas “was used not by the Syrian army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons….”?

The Times is a very good newspaper, but it is not perfect. Imperfection was vividly on display in the way it handled Putin’s op-ed article. Instead of rushing as it did into print with it, it should have asked Putin to explain his unsupported “every reason to believe” defense of Syria’s government.  

To the paper’s credit, it gave prominent coverage to the findings of the United Nations inspectors that discredited Putin’s defense of Syria’s government. In a Sept. 18 front page story headed “Data in Gas Attacks Points to Assad Top Forces”, the Times reported, “details buried in the United Nations report on the Syrian chemical weapons attack point directly at elite military formations loyal to President Bashar al Assad, some of the strongest findings to date that suggest the government gassed its own people.”

In addition, the Times conducted “independent and separate calculations” that show it was government and not rebel forces that were responsible for the chemical attacks.

If readers followed the Times closely, they would realize that it was contradicting Putin’s Sept. 12 piece in the Times. But readers should not have to connect the dots on their own. The paper, having carelessly run Putin’s unsupported allegations, should have cited his claims and then noted how the findings of the UN inspectors disproved them.  

Monday, September 16, 2013


Did Vladimir V. Putin, who wrote a by-lined op-ed piece for the New York Times Sept. 12, receive favored treatment from the Times? He certainly seems to have.

In my experience, when contributors submit a piece to the Times, before it is published they are required to justify the accuracy of everything in it. The Times has demanding copy editors who go over every word with a fine-tooth comb.

But Putin was allowed to write, without contradiction or elaboration, that “there is every reason to believe [that poison gas] was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists.”

The Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, questioned the Times editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, about that very passage. Rosenthal justified using it, saying “it falls into the category of opinion.”

Factual statements, unlike opinion, are verifiable. If Putin believes that the Syrian government did not use poison gas, what is the basis for his belief? Did the Times ask him? After all, the Obama administration was preparing military strikes against the government of Syria and asking for congressional approval of the strikes because of its certainty that Syria was responsible for the use of poison gas.

The Times had a huge scoop when Putin’s unsolicited article came in over the transom. By the Times’ own account, it “quickly decided to publish it” and it was posted on the paper’s Web site by the evening it was received.

Why the rush? There is no indication that Putin was shopping the piece around. The public would have been a lot better served if the Times had not short-circuited its procedures and instead required of Putin what it requires of all other contributors –namely, proof of accuracy.


When I saw that Michael Kinsley, who has a deep journalism resume, was doing a take-out on the New York Times for the New Republic, for which he is editor-at–large, I put the magazine on my to-read list. Kinsley’s piece ran in the Sept. 2 issue and took up oodles of space. Mostly it was about Jill Abramson, the top editor at the Times.

For me, the surprise in Kinsley’s piece was its brush-off of the Times editorials. Kinsley wasn’t tasked to tell the Times how to economize, but he went down that road anyway. He wrote, after noting that the Times has a staff of about 50 putting out its opinion pages, that “the paper need not invest so heavily in anonymous editorials that -- with rare exceptions -- would not be widely missed.”

The surprise in Kinsley’s comment was on two levels. First, he is a former editorial page editor himself. Second, as such, he should be aware that the Times approach to editorial writing is high-cost. Its staff does not simply regurgitate the facts on a news subject but does lots of original reporting. That produces more knowledgeable writers and a pay-off for readers in informed commentary.

The country’s editorial pages are plagued by skeleton staffs too short-handed to do serious research. The Times is a wonderful exception. Instead of celebrating its willingness to invest in quality, Kinsley, who assuredly knows better, takes a superficial potshot at the paper in what amounts to a lapse into a cost-accounting approach to journalism.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


My fellow Americans:

 At the outset I want to thank the networks for granting my request for time to respond to critics of my handling of Iraq during my term in office. My initial reaction was to let it go, but I see now there has been no let-up; the events in Syria have given my critics a fresh excuse to heap abuse on my conduct of the war against Saddam, so I have decided to way (sic) in and share with you my reasons for this country’s decision to wage war on Iraq. 

But first, I want to share with you what I learned in Washington. It’s a place where folks will look you square in the eye and lie, lie, lie. My big regret is that I did not learn the cardinal rule of Washington life until I trusted what the liars told me about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction and allowed Colin Powell to fall into the same trap.

Powell was a four-star general. I was a lowly member of the Texas Air National Guard. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to the Guard for allowing me to serve. Whenever I hear the term boots on the ground I am reminded all over again of the fine young men and women who serve their country in whatever role fate decrees for them. As for Powell, for the life of me I can’t figure out how he failed to question the lies he was fed and then embarrassed hisself (sic) at the United Nations before a worldwide audience. Colin deserved much better and for any part I played in the disgraceful treatment of him, I hereby apologize.

Now, why did we declare war on Iraq? That’s a very good question. I think about it a lot, especially when I lie awake in the middle of the night. To be honest, I’m not rightly sure. It made sense at the time. I was showed (sic) a map. Iraq and Iran were very close together; both began with I and each had four letters. And one of them had plans for a new-caler (sic) weapon.

Every now and then I wake from a nightmare about starting a war with the wrong country. But I shouldn’t burden all you fine folks with my problems. May the good Lord shine his countinence (sic) upon you.

Friday, September 6, 2013


Even critics of President Obama’s plan to punish Syria’s Bashar al-Assad for killing hundreds of Syrians with poison gas concede that his criminal conduct calls for a response. Among the suggestions: Invoke the International Criminal Court. Tom Friedman, the foreign affairs commentator for the New York Times, wrote of Assad and his collaborators, “We need to bring their names before the United Nations Security Council for condemnation. We need to haul them before the International Criminal Court.” A few days later, another Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof, also mentioned the court, but said that while invoking the court “sounds wonderful” it would complicate getting rid of Assad.

Neither columnist noted the gaping hole in the court proposal: the U.S. is no fan of the International Criminal Court. It signed the statute creating the tribunal, but subsequently backed away, notifying the U.N. secretary general that it no longer intends to become a signatory or to have legal obligations arising from its initial signing. The U.S. retreat was due to fears of lost sovereignty and to worry that we would be targets for prosecution in the new body.

That is shamefully shortsighted. The court was created to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. It is tailor made to deal with such an offense as the Assad regime appears to have committed. Having made it awkward to invoke the jurisdiction of the court in a legal proceeding, the U.S. is left with threatening military action, an option that critics have been quick to point out can punish innocent bystanders but not Assad.

The U.S. unilaterally disarmed itself when it withdrew support for the International Criminal court. It needs to remedy the error. The difficulty the Obama administration is having in rounding up support for action against Assad illustrates the need to rectify this mistake. Unilateral military responses to war crimes are fraught with peril. They can lead to unexpected consequences. They can cause more problems than they solve. The public is rightfully suspicious of military steps, sold as measured and limited, but that can spin out of control into all-out war.

The option of resort to the International Criminal Court is an alternative with none of the downsides of military force. The Obama administration ought to take the need to withdraw U.S. objections to the International Criminal Court as among the lessons learned from the tangle we are in over how to respond to Assad.      

Gilbert Cranberg: SYRIA IS NOT IRAQ

Some things keep giving and some keep taking. A prime example of the latter is the way the bad taste in people’s mouths left by the Iraq war keeps getting in the way of a response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Congress and the American public surely would have supported by now punishing Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad if not for lingering skepticism of government claims left in the wake of the Iraq war. The U.S. intelligence community has “high confidence” that Syria used chemical weapons? Well, so did it have “high confidence” that Saddam Hussein stockpiled chemical and other weapons of mass destruction, but none ever materialized.

It’s healthy that Americans, bamboozled once, have their guard up against being bamboozled once again. But it would be decidedly unhealthy if the determination not to be fooled leads to paralysis in the face of real provocation that warrants response.

President Obama had absolutely nothing to do with the Iraq war deceptions, but he is saddled with them nonetheless. It would be salutary if those responsible for the deceptions – from President Bush, and on down a very lengthy list – stepped forward to admit responsibility and to remind Americans that Syria is not Iraq.


The big winner in the showdown with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad appears to be Secretary of State John Kerry, the administration’s chief spokesman for action against Assad. Kerry both looks and sounds presidential in making the case for doing-in Assad. Does that make him a viable presidential candidate? It certainly doesn’t hurt to have on your resume the enmity of a mass murderer.

Kerry ran for president on the Democratic ticket in 2004. He didn’t do such a hot job of it. Inexplicably, he allowed his exemplary combat record during the Vietnam war to be smeared without much of an effective response. In leading the administration’s attack on Assad, Kerry is showing that he can be an effective campaigner. Of course, Assad is not making television buys for rebuttal.

Harold Ickes, FDR’s Interior secretary, famously once said that the desire to be president is a disease cured only by embalming fluid. Kerry has not shown any sign of a relapse as yet. But that makes him all the more effective in his job of Secretary of State.

As Barack Obama looks forward to a future of polishing his three-point shot, Democrats are fortunate to have a veteran bench in waiting. Hillary Clinton not only has on-the-job experience confronting bad actors around the world, so now too does John Kerry. Republicans at this point have to offer only the butt of late-night jokes, Sarah Palin, and her clear views of Russia from Alaska.

Of course, the Mideast may yet explode in chaos and Kerry’s rhetorical heroics can well come back to haunt him. After all, his fingerprints are all over the administration’s efforts to punish the gasser of Damascus, where the outcome remains very much in doubt.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


Barack Obama has done Congress a huge favor by dumping in its lap the problem of dealing with Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, the Gasser of Damascus, who recently showed his contempt for his own people by killing more than 1,400 Syrians, among them at least 426 children, by spraying them with poison gas.

Congress in its own way is as unpopular as Assad. A recent Gallup poll shows that more than 80 percent of Americans rate it unfavorably. Gallup calls this “historic unfavorability.” Therein lies opportunity. Americans give Congress low marks primarily because of the childish partisan games it plays. The Syrian issue gives Congress the opportunity to show it can act responsibly on the world stage.

The partisanship in Congress is evident mostly on domestic issues, where Republicans try to lose no opportunity to make Obama look bad. How to respond to the Syrian civil war is not such an issue. In fact, congressional Republicans as well as Democrats have got a lot to both gain and lose by their conduct on the Syria question. Seldom does Congress grapple with an issue with the whole world watching.

President Obama has given Congressional Republicans the opportunity to redeem themselves by breaking their addiction to childish games and by dealing with the question of intervening in Syria with the seriousness it deserves. Democrats can do their part by reminding both parties that a war crime was committed for which Congress in a sense also is on trial.


Have Republicans lost their collective minds? It’s a fair question in light of Missouri’s embrace of “nullification,” the loony legal theory that says states can refuse to obey federal laws they dislike. Courts have rejected the theory wherever it’s been tested.

Missouri is trying for now to get away with nullifying federal firearms laws. In the unlikely event it succeeds, it will be a crime to enforce federal gun laws in the state. Federal agents even could be sued for doing their jobs in Missouri. Missouri Republicans in both Houses of the Legislature backed nullification almost unanimously.

Will the state’s lawyers? Judges in Missouri would be within their rights to discipline any lawyer who clutters the courts with discredited and untenable legal arguments. The judiciary should let it be known that while the legislature endorses nullification, respect for precedent requires the courts even to consider disciplinary action against lawyers who raise frivolous arguments that have no chance of success.

The Missouri bar, in fact, should refrain from defending any of its members disciplined for advocating nullification within earshot of a courtroom. This would be consistent with the Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct, which prohibit lawyers in the state from bringing or defending frivolous proceedings. 

It’s one thing to babble nonsense on a soapbox or in a state legislature. It’s altogether different to put nonsense in a statute and expect the state’s bar to cite it. The Missouri bar should announce that it will back any of its members who declare their refusal to have anything to do with nullification and it should denounce lawmakers for making a mockery of their responsibilities.