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

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Rand Paul, the libertarian U.S. senator from Kentucky, gave fresh meaning to “libertarian” when it turns out he or a staffer took liberties with Wikipedia entries by passing them off as his own. MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow described the plagiarism on her program the other night, to which Paul responded with lame references to “footnotes”, as though he had simply omitted credit that properly belonged in a footnote. Not so; the use of Wikipedia’s entries, without credit, borrowed important themes from what the online encyclopedia had published about a couple of films – “Gattaca” and “Stand and Deliver.”

That said, it’s not always clear when and how to cite material from reference sources. But it is generally regarded as a no-no to borrow verbatim chunks of language, without attribution, as Paul or his speechwriters did.

As surprising as the plagiarism, is the source. Movie films? And not notable or authoritative movies, at that. Paul and his staffers must have been shocked that anyone even noticed this petty theft.

If Paul even had anything to do with it. Political candidates usually are too busy to craft their own speeches. Rand Paul may have been as much of a victim in this plagiarism incident as Wikipedia and members of Rand Paul’s audience.

Speechwriters labor in the shadows and do not usually get the credit or blame they deserve. Rand Paul’s reliance on a couple of movie scripts happened to be picked up by Rachel Maddow (or by one of her writers) and then was reported in the New York Times. Who was Paul’s nameless speechwriter and how did Wikipedia get into the act? It would be interesting to know, if the press would only identify the actors.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: TED CRUZ, MEET BOB RAY

Texas Senator Ted Cruz is widely regarded as super-smart, and he has the academic credentials to prove it: an undergraduate cum laude degree from Princeton, and a Harvard law school degree, where he was editor of the Harvard Law Review. Alan Dershowitz of the law school faculty, no admirer of his ideology, pronounced him “off-the-charts brilliant.”

If Cruz is so smart, why is he spending so much time in Iowa, where he visited three times in recent months? The state has practically no electoral votes and little clout at the Republican national convention. Of course, its caucuses lead off the presidential nominating parade, and the press gives that inordinate attention. But the press is bound to realize one of these days that hardly anyone attends the caucuses and those that do are not of the caliber you would want to recruit for a gene pool.

Some of the same Iowa Republicans who attend the caucuses adopted not long ago a Republican Party platform that called for shipping the United Nations out of the United States, abolition of the Internal Revenue Service and ridding the country of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Iowa also is home to a proven statewide Republican vote-getter, Robert Ray, who was governor from 1969 to 1983. Ray is so popular Des Moines streets are named for him. But not once during Cruz’s visits to Iowa did he stop to pay his respects to Bob Ray.

My guess is that Cruz is not finished with visiting Iowa. If he is truly smart, he would make time for Bob Ray. He might learn from Ray that the way to win the affection of Iowans is to welcome all comers -- conservatives, moderates and even Democrats.

On his most recent visit to Iowa Cruz went pheasant shooting with Iowa’s extremist congressman, Steve King. Cruz should realize that King is an atypical Iowan. For a slant he won’t get by palling around just with right-wingers, he should try giving the unassuming Bob Ray a call. He is in the Des Moines phone book.

Monday, October 28, 2013


You can take a calculator to the ill-considered U.S. invasion of Iraq for the sickening numbers -- a cost of $1 trillion and nearly 5,000 American lives lost. No calculator, however, can add up the underlying losses. As Mark Danner wrote in the Nov. 7 New York Review of Books, "Before the war, Iraq was void of an anti-American Islamic jihadist movement; today Iraq is filled with thousands of motivated Islamic guerrillas, many of them veterans of the Iraqi army the United States dissolved, who have taken up arms not only against the Shia government the U.S. helped put in place but against the regime of Bashar al-Assad across Iraq's western border. Before the war Iraq served as a rival and geostrategic counter to the Islamic republic of Iran, for three decades the United States' main adversary in the Middle East; today 'liberated' Iraq is a staunch ally of Iran, the nation that, along with Russia, is now aiding most actively that same Assad government. Together, Iraq's Shia government and Sunni opposition are fueling both sides of Syria's civil war, and that civil war, in turn, through a perverse 'boomerang effect,' is further destabilizing Iraq -- all to the detriment of U.S. interests."

The people who talked the U.S. into invading Iraq -- and remember, it was both parties and some of the country's best foreign-policy thinkers who supported the war -- couldn't possibly have anticipated the complicated outcome. Which remains the best reason for the U.S. to keep to the sidelines in Syria's convoluted civil war. Memories of the ill-fated invasion of Iraq have contributed to the paralysis of U.S. will, as it should. Irony of ironies, George W. Bush's biggest blunder might well have been keeping Barack Obama from making one of his own.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


I listened with amazement as Rachel Maddow of MSNBC read the Newark Star-Ledger’s editorial denunciation of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then, in the same editorial, the paper’s endorsement of Christie for re-election. I wondered what kind of dishonesty this was. Until I read the editorial. Seldom have I read a more deeply forthright editorial endorsement than the Newark Star-Ledger’s Oct. 20 left-handed tribute to Christie.

The paper dug a hole for itself at the outset when it described Christie as “much better at politics than he is at governing”, and then lamented how the property tax burden “has grown sharply on his watch,” how he is “hostile to low-income-families” ,“sabotaging efforts to build affordable housing.” There was more: “A catastrophe on the environment,” he called “a cease-fire in the state’s fight against climate change.” And oh, yes, the governor’s claim to have fixed the state budget is “fraudulent.” For good measure, “By removing two qualified justices from the Supreme Court without good cause, he threatened the independence of judges at all levels, and provoked a partisan stalemate that has left two vacant seats on the high court. This was a power grab gone wrong.”

“Why then, are we endorsing him for a second term? Because his challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono, is a deeply flawed candidate.” Rachel Maddow neglected to mention Buono or why the Star-Ledger swallowed its considerable misgivings about Christie. I admire Maddow’s commentaries a great deal, but the piece about the Star-Ledger’s endorsement was not her best work. It was, in fact, as unbalanced and misleading as the Star-Ledger’s editorial was fair.

There are at least a couple of ways to go on endorsements: pretend the election is a contest between good and evil, or present the candidates as they impressed you, warts and all.

The Star-Ledger’s warts and all approach deserves to be taught in journalism schools as a model. It’s especially admirable in light of Christie’s refusal for four years to have anything to do with the paper’s editorial board, the first governor in the state’s history to do so.

(Editor’s Note: The Newark Star-Ledger editorial is reproduced below.)

Newark Star-Ledger Editorial Board
on October 20, 2013 at 12:01 AM, updated October 20, 2013 at 12:03 AM

 Gov. Chris Christie is the most remarkable political talent America has seen since Bill Clinton. If you haven’t witnessed his performance at a town hall meeting yet, make a point of it. You will come away convinced there is a sensible middle ground in America after all.

Equally impressive is his skill at playing Trenton’s inside game. Faced with Democrats in solid control of the Legislature, he’s managed to split them down the middle by seducing a handful of pliant party bosses whose self-interest compelled them to hitch their wagons to his.

The surprise is that his achievements have been only modest. He signed an important reform to contain pension and health costs, but it was mostly done before he arrived. He signed a useful tenure reform last year, but it is a weak version that still protects bad teachers with seniority. His reorganization of the higher education system is promising, but untested.

Balance that against his measurable failures, and you have to conclude he is much better at politics than he is at governing.

The property tax burden has grown sharply on his watch. He is hostile to low-income families, raising their tax burden and sabotaging efforts to build affordable housing. He’s been a catastrophe on the environment, draining $1 billion from clean energy funds and calling a cease-fire in the state’s fight against climate change.

The governor’s claim to have fixed the state’s budget is fraudulent. New Jersey’s credit rating has dropped during his term, reflecting Wall Street’s judgment that he has dug the hole even deeper. He has no plan to finance transit projects and open space purchases now that he has nearly drained the dedicated funds he inherited from Gov. Jon Corzine.

His ego is entertaining, but it’s done damage as well. By removing two qualified justices from the Supreme Court without good cause, he threatened the independence of judges at all levels, and provoked a partisan stalemate that has left two vacant seats on the high court. This was a power grab gone wrong.

The public gives him top marks for his handling of Sandy, but the record is mixed. Why would his administration park NJ Transit trains in a low-lying area where they flooded, causing $120 million in damage? Why did the federal government have to strong-arm the state to include more relief for renters and Spanish-speakers than Christie had proposed? And why should anyone believe taxpayers got the best price on refuse removal when the governor awarded a no-bid contract through a political friend?

Our own view is that Christie is overrated. His spin is way ahead of his substance.


Why then, are we endorsing him for a second term? Because his challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono, is a deeply flawed candidate.

Begin with education. Buono’s close alliance with the teachers union is a threat to the progress Christie is making in cities such as Newark and Camden. She is hostile to charter schools, which now educate nearly 1 in 4 kids in Newark.

An authoritative national study showed that students in the charters are learning more, which explains why 10,000 Newark families are on waiting lists. Yet Buono cannot bring herself to acknowledge that the charters have helped. She sponsored a bill that would basically slam the brakes on new charters by requiring voter approval of each one. She is making a status quo argument in the face of persistent failure.

Buono opposes the Newark teacher contract, which freezes the pay of the worst teachers and grants bonuses to the best. She wants a traditional union deal, in which no distinction is made. She would return control of the schools to Newark, which would spell the end of Superintendent Cami Anderson’s promising stewardship.

Understand that President Obama endorses the reforms Christie has pushed. This is not a right-wing conspiracy; it is a bipartisan movement that’s based on promising results for disadvantaged kids. Buono would stand in the way.

Her alliance with the unions would also threaten progress made in containing the cost of public workers. She voted against the pension and health care reform, and supports the practice of allowing public workers to accumulate pay for unused sick days. She would cap the total at $7,500, but even that reveals a mindset that is discouraging.

Another big concern: Buono lacks the strategic savvy to be a successful governor. She commands little respect among fellow Democrats, who have abandoned her in droves, with nearly 50 elected officials endorsing Christie. She is a loner in the Senate who derides political bargains as “back-room deals.”

She picked a pointless fight in June by choosing a party chairman who was vehemently opposed by most Democratic leaders, and she was then forced into an embarrassing retreat. Her choice as lieutenant governor is a little-known union leader with no experience in elected office, and a spotty voting record.

Down in the polls by 30 percentage points early in this race, Buono has made no adjustments. She is openly disdainful of party bosses like George Norcross, but lacks any plan to govern without them.

Her critique of Christie centers on property taxes and jobs, but she lacks a convincing strategy to do any better herself. She has a long list of expensive plans, from universal preschool to more aid for public colleges. But she can’t name a single spending cut beyond the traditional promise to attack “fraud and abuse.”

If this is the end for Buono, remember that she didn’t lose this on her own: The Democratic Party punted on this race.

Its major players were scared to challenge Christie, and only Buono showed the conviction to stand up to him. If anyone should be ashamed in the wake of the crushing defeat the polls predict, it is the lethargic and compromised party establishment, not the lone woman who took up the challenge.

Buono has long been a sturdy voice for progressive causes. She was a key player in establishing paid family leave, protections against bullying and revamping the school aid formula.

As governor, she would allow gay couples to marry, raise the minimum wage and stop the baseless attacks on the courts. She would raise taxes on incomes greater than $1 million, and restore at least some of the property tax rebates that Christie cut. She would also restore funding for Planned Parenthood, and sign strong gun legislation. On each of those issues, we are with her.

But our endorsement goes to Christie, despite the deep reservations. He has refused to speak with The Star-Ledger editorial board for four years, the first governor in either party to do so. But we are shaking off that insult because our duty is to the readers, and our goal is to help them decide which button to push.
In her editorial board meeting, Buono simply did not make the case.

The endorsement of Christie comes with the hope that Democrats hold control of the Legislature to contain his conservative instincts. It is especially important that Democrats hold the Senate to block him from remaking the Supreme Court in his image, a move that would doom urban schools and affordable housing efforts.

Christie has said little about his plans for a second term. Our fear is that he could veer rightward to impress Republican base voters in the 2016 primaries, by reviving his plan to cut income taxes for the rich, by escalating his campaign to strong-arm the Supreme Court, or by picking a fresh fight with the unions. Our hope is that he sticks to a bipartisan agenda, and we’d suggest he start by addressing his biggest failure: the rising burden of property taxes.

As for Buono, we can offer only this consolation: She had an impressive run in the Legislature, and deserves praise for being the only Democrat with the moxie to step in front of this train.


How much of the slow start for the Affordable Care Act was deliberate? That is, not computer glitches but sabotage by groups determined to make the government’s health care program fall on its face?

The Nation magazine reports that health insurance brokers have mobilized to create obstacles for community groups organized to inform the public about how to enroll in the government program. Georgia, prodded by insurance brokers, enacted a law to prevent individuals from providing advice “concerning the benefits, terms and features of a particular health benefit plan.” That sounds like an infringement on the First Amendment, but commercial speech has fewer safeguards than ordinary speech.

Look for critics of the Affordable Care Act to leave no angle uncovered as they seek to create an obstacle course for would-be enrollees. Consumers should not have to endure this simply to obtain protection against the high cost of medical care for their families. What’s needed is a strategy by consumers to counter the saboteurs whenever and wherever they strike. Organizations dedicated to gutting the Affordable Care Act should know that they are in for a battle when they seek to deny anyone access to health care.

A potentially costly battle, at that. The saboteurs should be served notice that anyone denied access to health care – and thus to a potentially life-saving surgery – can seek compensation from those whose actions are knowingly and deliberately intended to bar them from coverage. The law has long recognized a variety of torts for wrongful interference with commercial transactions. These or other measures could provide the foundation for redress.  

Health care can well be regarded as a human right. The Koch brothers and others determined to prevent access to the right ought to be made aware that they may well be held accountable.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Physicians make plenty of medical mistakes; perhaps as many as one in five patients is misdiagnosed. Worse, each year an estimated 50,000 hospital deaths could have been prevented with proper diagnosis.

An article in the Oct. 20 New York Times suggests a way to minimize medical error: take a skeptic with you to the doctor’s office--yourself. “If we are to control our own destinies,” wrote the Times, “we have to switch our brains back on, and come to our medical consultations with plenty of research done, able to use the relevant jargon.”

In my experience, patients can contribute a lot to diagnosing their conditions. Not long ago, multiple neurologists diagnosed me with Parkinson’s, largely on the strength of my gait. After a lapse of many months, and having noticed no change, I questioned the diagnosis and wondered if there were a more objective way to spot Parkinson’s than by studying how a person walks. I was informed about a reliable non-invasive test that measures dopamine in the brain. I arranged for the test. Presto! No Parkinson’s.

Some time before, an acquaintance was diagnosed by a leading medical center with cancer of the spine. Extreme surgery that carried grave risks was recommended. Enter a maverick West Coast pathologist who studied the medical history and biopsy, disagreed vehemently with the cancer diagnosis, and argued strongly against surgery. Years later, the patient is still cancer-free.

Granted, this is anecdotal. But when a patient is told by the best brains in the business that his only chance is high-risk surgery, it’s time to switch our brains back on.


I was saddened that Iowa Senator Charles Grassley was among the 18 die-hard crazies to vote to support a continued government shutdown and threatened default on its debt obligations. Saddened because Grassley knows better. He pretends to be a hayseed, but is actually a reasonably sophisticated and well-informed lawmaker. Well enough informed to know that the cause he championed was disastrous for the country.

At one point it seemed that he would forswear far-right politicking in the interests of constructive bipartisanship. As the ranking Republican on the influential Senate Finance Committee, he was in a position to create consensus on health care and other important issues. And for a time it appeared that he would be a useful force for across-the-aisle cooperation. But that proved ephemeral. As the political lines hardened, Grassley reverted to his rock-ribbed roots.

Most Iowans are not so out of touch with reality that they favored continuing the government shutdown and defaulting on the country’s debts. Grassley’s vote amounted to support for both propositions. He even said that not paying some of the debt would not be all that bad. This is a fiscal conservative?

Grassley usually is considered a safe bet for re-election. His inexcusable vote to continue the shutdown and his cavalier attitude toward a government default ought to shake up Iowans into taking a hard look at Grassley’s fitness for office. Democrats ought not to take Grassley’s re-election for granted. They should field a candidate with appeal to the many independents in the state and spend the money to make Grassley sweat for a change.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: WANTED: A WAR ON PIMPS

Sarasota, FL is a city of 32,000 with eye-catching architecture, award-winning beaches and a rich cultural life. Into this idyllic picture on Oct. 13 intruded a 44-page advertising-free special section of the local paper, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune (daily circulation 118,000; Sunday 134,000), to tell a scuzzy story of life in Sarasota few Sarasotans knew existed.

The section, “The Stolen Ones,” was an often sordid account of how young women, children really, become trapped in lives of degradation as they are sold for sex. The centerpiece of the feature is Moe, whose downfall began with her rape by her stepfather when she was younger than 10. From there, she fell into a life of prostitution and drugs. There are references to pimps in this deeply reported account, but not enough. Pimps are the true villains of the sex trade, cunning psychologists who know how to prey on the insecurities of young women and, ultimately, to enslave them.

Admittedly, getting pimps to speak on the record would be difficult. Even so, I wish the Sarasota paper had turned a stronger, more piercing, spotlight on these key actors in the downfall of too many young women.  “The Stolen Ones” refers to an Eric Bell of nearby Bradenton, includes his photo and describes him as a pimp who “lured underage girls from bus stops and forced them into prostitution.” Bell ended up in prison, but how many more Bells are still prowling the streets of Bradenton and Sarasota? Police ought to have a good handle on the pimps in their towns, and the press ought to identify them, complete with addresses and where they hang out.

Libel suits you say? I say not. Pimps are libel proof. They are among the lowest forms of human life, and thus have no reputations that can be damaged. The press can afford to be fearless in uncovering and reporting the identities of pimps in their communities, complete with their photos.

It would be a real public service for news organizations to post “Not Wanted” photos of known pimps in their circulation areas, explaining the harm they cause and urging their removal in the interests of creating a “Pimp-Free” town.


Time magazine, or more accurately, one of its columnists, James Poniewozick, made an important journalism point in the publication’s Oct. 21 issue. Poniewozick observed that the habit of news organizations to seek to appear neutral sometimes leads them to twist the news. “This month’s fiscal crisis,” he wrote, “is one such situation. One party (in fact one wing of the Republican Party), seeking the delay or elimination of Obamacare, precipitated a government shutdown and threatened a default on U.S. debt. Period. There was no corresponding threat or demand on the Democratic or White House side."

“What do you do,” he asked, “when the facts of a situation are such that to describe them accurately will make you sound biased?” You do exactly what Poniewozick did, to his credit, and call it the way you see it.  

According to Poniewozick, “Much of the big-picture news coverage has been clear on this. But as the crisis dragged on, more news stories framed it as old-fashioned gridlock between two equally culpable, stubborn, useless sides.” Time cited stories in the Washington Post, CNN and Politico it said were in the latter category. Or as Time wrote in the head on Poniewozick’s piece, there are times “when blaming both sides isn’t accurate news.”

Time performed an important journalistic service in running Poniewozick’s column, giving it good play and putting a hard-hitting head on it.


The U.S. military isn’t often regarded as a model for child-rearing practices in this country, but that could change once the findings reported in the Sept. 26 New York Review of Books become widely known. The findings:

“….there is one group of Americans that receives high-quality government-subsidized child-care services, including day care, preschool, home-visiting programs and health care: the U.S. military….[T]hese comprehensive programs aren’t designed to create obedient little soldiers. Instead, they use a play-oriented approach to help bring out children’s individual cognitive and social capacity. This may help explain why military children score higher on reading and mathematics tests than public school children and why the black/white achievement gap is much lower than it is in the general population. Since the military child-care program was created in 1989, the government has repeatedly declined requests to fund an in-depth evaluation, perhaps because if the effects were known, all Americans would demand these programs for their children too.”

I was a military conscript for two and a half years during World War II and despised every minute of it. After all, the military is based on totalitarian values; obedience above all else. That said, for me, military service was a worthwhile experience, so much so that I have become a believer in compulsory military service. In my experience, the chief value of such service is the way you are compelled to associate with people from very different walks of life. Military service is the great leveler, where people from varying segments of society come to know, value and depend on each other.

The educational benefits to military families are an added value. The government may not want to measure and tout that value, but the nation is well served by it.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


Three physicists contributed to the work for which the Nobel prize in physics was awarded this year. They are Peter W. Higgs, Francois Englert and Robert Brout. However, only two of the three –Higgs and Englert – actually won the Nobel. Brout, poor fellow, won nothing, not even a slice of the $1.2 prize money. The New York Times, after describing Brout’s work, explained that he, a professor at Cornell University, “might logically have shared the Nobel if he were alive today; the prize is not awarded posthumously.” Brout died in 2011.

That makes no sense. The prize is awarded not for longevity but for work done during a professional lifetime, which can be over a period of years. Science celebrates human reason. It borders on the irrational for two scientists to co-discover a major breakthrough and if one of them dies prematurely, for the survivor to reap all of the rewards and honors while the deceased receives perhaps a footnote. Death should not be allowed to erase a talented person’s accomplishments. By all accounts, Brout’s contribution was Nobel-worthy and he, or his heirs, deserved the recognition, and his fair share of the cash.

Pulitzer Prizes are awarded more logically. Deceased persons are eligible for awards for the work they performed. Period. Death is not a disqualifier.

Nobel prizes are governed by the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will. It’s ironic that the brilliance of the work celebrated by the Nobel prizes is not matched by the thinking that went into Nobel’s will. By ruling out posthumous awards, the will denies recognition to some of the world’s most creative minds. In fact, both of this year’s Nobel Laureates in physics could well have been made ineligible by the passage of a bit more time, inasmuch as Peter Higgs is 84 and Francois Englert is 80.

So for what it is worth, let’s hear it for Robert Brout, who was cheated by death out of his fair share of the limelight.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: Steve King, The Flamethrower

Look who was all over the front page of the Oct. 5 New York Times: none other than that master manipulator of the press, Iowa’s Representative Steve King. The Times reporter who selected King’s District to profile said he “picked the district because its representative in Congress”, Steve King, “has been one of the most outspoken advocates for blocking Obamacare.” Not, mind you, the most thoughtful, but most outspoken. King could also have been accurately described as reckless.

The Des Moines Register, which knows the Iowa flamethrower well, once editorially endorsed him in a race for the U.S. House. The paper soon regretted the choice and retracted the endorsement, calling King an embarrassment. House Speaker John Boehner has described King’s comments on illegal immigrants as both “hateful” and “ignorant.” King did, however, once find positive things to say about the late senator from Wisconsin, the disgraced Joseph McCarthy.

King has an insatiable—some might say pathological-- need for the limelight, and a knack for self-promotion. The front-page Times story featuring King said, “Representative King has really come to the fore in the current debate about paying for Obamacare and the government shutdown, emerging as a leader of a hard-core group of about two dozen Republican representatives in pursuit of the holy grail of the ‘end of Obamacare’ as Mr. King puts it. He has seemingly been everywhere in the media in recent days, which has fueled talk among some conservatives of a possible presidential run. Mr. King has made visits to New Hampshire and South Carolina, both early primary states.”

A columnist in King’s district has described him as a “master of finding or manufacturing controversy, issuing provocative statements, and reveling in the national media attention that follows.”

Nowhere in the 28 paragraphs devoted by the Times to King and his congressional district did the Times ever explain King’s credentials for speaking out on health care, perhaps because they are non-existent. Typically, King spots an issue currently in the news and sounds off on it in pungent prose, whether the issue is Benghazi or the Affordable Care Act. That guarantees him plenty of column inches and air time.

If Steve King becomes a presidential candidate, the press will have only itself to blame by giving him the attention he craves but in no way deserves.

Gilbert Cranberg: Government Health Care With a Vengeance

The government shutdown is a protest against government health care, so why is the government’s most comprehensive health care program – its hospitals and medical clinics -- clicking on all cylinders as much of the rest of the government is shuttered? The fearless folks who brought the government to its knees simply wouldn’t dare to tamper with the health care services for veterans.

That benefit makes the Affordable Care Act so despised by right-wing Republicans look like nothing more than a band-aid. In-patient and out-patient care? Of course. Eye-glasses, walkers and hearing aids, too. Not to mention prescription drugs. Need to see a doctor? That can be arranged. You don’t need to be a war hero to qualify. Simply having worn a uniform gets you through the clinic door. Never heard a shot fired in anger? Just tell us the last four of your Social Security number, where it hurts and what you need.

In my experience, the Veterans Administration never makes you feel like a moocher for asking for medical help. Patients are treated with respect. Every time I go to the VA hospital or clinic I say to myself, “If this is government medicine, let’s have more of it.” 

Unlike Medicare, which provides health care-services through existing providers, the VA is the provider. It pays its own doctors for hands-on care. That should send the government-haters through the roof; somehow they don’t seem to notice, or pretend not to. That leering caricature of Uncle Sam peering up the legs of a patient? That’s not real life except in a VA facility. But the ad isn’t mocking veterans health care. It wouldn’t dare.

From the fuss being made about the Affordable Care Act you would never guess that this country has a mixed and vibrant health care system, in which the government plays a significant part. Uncle Sam is not the enemy. The enemy is the nay-sayers who shut their minds to the vast amount of good the government does.

Friday, October 4, 2013


(Note: With the Presidential election barely more than three years away, and with the Iowa caucuses a scant 28 months away, it’s time to check what the folks in first-in-the-nation Iowa are up to. Here’s some of the stuff being dealt with by those delighted to hold the nation's political choices in their hands.)
“I give myself very good advice, but I very seldom follow it.”

That’s the opening line of a song sung by Alice in the musical about her Wonderland adventures. It resonates with me because, a generation ago, our daughter Tamra was Alice in the Valerius Elementary School (Urbandale) production of that musical. (Daughter Laura was the Mad Hatter.) 

The line also resonates because the bizarre nature of Wonderland fits Iowa so well today.

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”? Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, of course, whose state-trooper driven vehicle routinely exceeds the speed limit as TD and TD go from one ribbon-cutting to another.

The Jabberwocky? That’s Iowa’s free press, which insists on putting Iowa at “The Center of the Political Universe,” which makes as much sense as the Jabberwocky poem:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe..:

The Queen of Hearts? Who else but conservative activist Robert Vander Plaats and his “Off with their heads” approach to the Iowa Supreme Court, after the court found a ban on same-sex marriages to be unconstitutional.

You can go on with the casting (U.S. Rep. Steve King as the “Mad Hater”?), but let’s stop with Alice. That is Attorney General Tom Miller, because of the line: “I give myself very good advice, but…”

Here’s why that casting is appropriate.

To begin with, Miller is at odds with advocates of openness in government.

Consider this secrecy hat trick:

• Des Moines Register reporter Clark Kauffman has reported on all kinds of problems in a government home for troubled juveniles. Information he got under Iowa’s public records law had many redactions by the Attorney General’s office. Those redactions were inadvertently disclosed, however, and the only apparent reason for the redactions was that the information made public employees look bad.

• Ruth Cooperrider, the state’s ombudsman, wanted access to tape recordings of closed meetings held by public agencies. The AG’s office said no, that such access would lead to “second guessing” government agencies. But second guessing is what Cooperrider’s office and voters, too, are expected to do when it comes to holding public officials accountable.

• The AG’s office years ago issued a “Sunshine Advisory” that government financial settlements with aggrieved parties are public records, and then in litigation related to public employees recently asked a court to ignore that advisory.

And here is where the line “I give myself very good advice, but…” comes in.

Some 17 years ago, the Iowa Freedom of Information Council produced a 15-minute video on openness in government. On that video, AG Tom Miller, who generally has served Iowans well, says:

“Sometimes public officials turn a minor problem into a much larger problem by trying to close things when they don’t have a right to. By closing…they create a bigger controversy and they make the situation much worse. We’ve seen that many, many times.”

And we see it again with Miller’s hat trick in 2013.

The fault isn’t all his. Iowa legislators, in crafting the openness laws, took a general approach, emphasizing the spirit, and not the letter, of openness. They trusted school boards, city councils, state agencies and others to do the right thing — without addressing every single opportunity for secrecy.

But some school boards, city councils, etc. have betrayed the trust that they would adhere to the spirit of the laws. Instead, they look for possible loopholes in the laws and the AG’s office — which represents the public agencies instead of the people in such cases — finds legal logic in the loopholes.

Time to look again at Miller’s advice in 1996, and maybe follow it. To quote Attorney General Tom Miller on that video:

Sometimes public officials turn a minor problem into a much larger problem by trying to close things when they don’t have a right to. And when they’re worried about how things might be interpreted or look.  By closing them they create a bigger controversy and they make the situation much worse. We’ve seen that many, many times. Well, Iowans really have a good knowledge of government and they’re interested in government and they want to know what’s going on. So, we’ve had this long tradition of openness in meetings and records and that’s really served the public interest both in terms of the public and in terms of the people in government. We have a better educated public, we have a public that is more aware and more involved in the process.

At least we used to; so it may be time to shape up, what with the world awaiting the caucuses in 28 months.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: A DAY AT THE BALLPARK

The Tampa Bay Rays recently swept a four game series from the New York Yankees and thereby crept closer to a wild-card spot in the American League playoffs. Don’t ask me to explain the wild-card. Suffice it to say that it’s a way for teams with pretty good records who don't finish first to have a shot at winning it all.

The Rays outpitched and outhit the Yanks and generally outplayed them. The only category in which the Yanks excelled was spending. New York outspent the Rays $203 million to $57 million for player salaries. The Yanks may also have been outsmarted. The director of baseball operations for the Rays, Chaim Bloom, is a Yale graduate. He majored in Latin. I heard him speak not long ago. He was articulate, knowledgeable and impressive. Can an Ivy League education translate to World Series success? We may soon see.

The Rays play in Tropicana Field, a domed stadium. It’s a reasonably nice place. From a distance it looks lopsided. Although the Rays field competitive teams, attendance is sparse. The really valuable thing that owners have is the franchise. Cities that covet Big League Baseball have to be eyeing the Tampa Bay Rays to relocate them. The Rays organization has shown that it knows how to develop baseball talent. That makes it an especially inviting target.

St. Petersburg, where the team actually plays, is hot and humid. You don’t notice it in the ballpark. The air conditioning keeps things comfortable. All in all, it’s a pleasant place to spend a few hours, especially when the team is winning, as it usually is.

The last time I watched the Yankees play, in the Bronx, it was an ordeal. I spent most of my time passing containers of beer to very thirsty customers. After a while, they turned loud and obnoxious and mean. I hadn’t heard language like that since I was in a military barracks. Most of the vituperation was directed at the Yankees. The fans seemed to resent the players’ fat paychecks, which may have been fattened to compensate them for putting up with all the abuse. Ironically, the more New York fans vented the more they justified the salaries they resented, and so on.

A day at the ballpark in the Bronx is something to endure. In Tampa-St. Pete, it’s something to enjoy.


The on-again, off-again proposed federal shield law may be on-again now that the Obama administration has given its backing to protecting journalists from having to disclose their confidential sources.

As the one-time target of a subpoena to reveal all of my notes to a nosey prosecutor, I welcome the proposed protection. But I also have misgivings. If the government can define who is entitled to be protected, it is not a huge step for the government to say who can and cannot practice journalism.

The proposed Free Flow of Information Act of 2013 expansively defines a journalist as a person who regularly gathers news and information in order to disseminate it. I don’t want to be picky, but I have a problem with the word “regularly.” That implies a staff person. Why exclude from protection the free-lancer or citizen-journalist who is not on anyone’s payroll but is aroused by a perceived injustice and undertakes a crusade to correct it? He or she may write a single muckraking piece and never again engage in journalism but that person’s work ought to be deserving of protection. In fact, members of the non-institutional press may be the most vulnerable to intimidation and most need the protection of a shield statute.

Just because a person does not “regularly” exercise First Amendment rights is no reason to bar that person from protection when he or she does. The traditional press is likely to be deeply involved in lobbying for the Free Flow of Information Act. Here’s hoping they are not so deeply involved that they overlook the needs of the little guys.

Michael Gartner: What's In A Name?

Let’s say The Des Moines Register and pollster extraordinaire Ann Selzer decide to do a poll on professional baseball in Des Moines. But let’s say, just for the heck of it, that baseball here is also known as Gartnerball. And let’s say -- and this is obviously hypothetical -- that this person Gartner himself is somewhat controversial.

And let’s say the first question on the poll asks Iowans to “describe your view of baseball, sometimes known as Gartnerball.” And let’s say this is the answer: Forty-nine percent of the people say that professional baseball in Des Moines, also known as Gartnerball, is a very bad sport and should be abolished. Thirty-six percent like some parts of the sport. Just 9% think it’s a really neat sport.

Then let’s say the next series of questions asks people what they think of the most important and basic elements of baseball (it doesn’t get into the infield fly rule), but the introduction to these questions does not mention that baseball is also known as Gartnerball. And let’s say these are the answers:

            -- 85% like the fact that baseball is a game with nine innings and with three outs per half-inning.

            -- 74% like the fact that baseball has a rule that a batter is called out on three strikes and gets to walk to first base on four balls.

           -- 70% like the fact that baseball is a sport without a clock.

           -- 56% like the fact that baseball is played in the summer and the fact that there are nine positions on a team. (The poll wisely does not ask what people think of the “designated hitter.”)

           -- 52% like the fact that when a ball is hit over the fence the batter gets to trot around the bases unimpeded.

           -- 51% like the fact that in baseball a person can bunt and steal bases and hit sacrifice flies and -- unlike, say, in golf -- the fans have a choice and can stand and cheer or boo or go out and get a beer.

           -- But the nation is evenly split on whether you should add more cheap bleacher seats.

That’s in effect what last week’s fascinating Iowa Poll said about the Affordable Care Act, which, the poll noted in the first question, is “sometimes known as Obamacare.” Subsequent questions, in which Iowans gave high marks to the important and basic parts of the Act -- mandatory coverage of people with pre-existing conditions, mandatory coverage or penalties for companies with at least 50 employees, removal of lifetime caps on benefits, establishment of health exchanges -- were preceded by an introductory clause referring to the Affordable Care Act, but not Obamacare.

“The poll reflects highly partisan feelings about Obamacare,” reporter Tony Leys wrote in carefully dissecting the information. But, in fact, that is not what the poll shows at all. It shows that Iowans have highly partisan feelings about President Obama, not about the Affordable Care Act. (This summer, an Iowa Poll put Obama's disapproval rating at 54% in the state.) In fact, as you read through to the party breakdowns, there is quite a bit of bipartisan support for the Affordable Care Act.

The Iowa Poll is not unique. Poll after poll across the country shows the same thing -- people like the key provisions of the Affordable Care Act; they simply don’t like “Obamacare.” The “Obamacare” numbers are dragged down by Republicans, many of whom simply can’t stand the man.
All of this suggests a simple solution to the stalemate in Washington, where Republican House members keep insisting -- incorrectly, the polls would suggest -- that their constituents don’t want anything to do with the Affordable Care Act. Simply start calling the Affordable Care Act by something other than Obamacare.
Romneycare is taken.
So how about, say, Boehnercare?