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, November 25, 2013


Critics of the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program are so cocksure they know what’s wrong with the deal they even know what went on in the minds of John Kerry and Barack Obama when they negotiated it. In the view of various talking heads, the Obama administration wanted, more than anything, to distract attention from the mishandling of the Affordable Care Act. In other words, the agreement with Iran gives the administration relief from its health-care critics. Except that it doesn’t.

It would be interesting to know whether the administration took its European Union negotiating partners into its confidence about the so-called Affordable Care Act strategy. Likely not -- it seems far-fetched that the administration would tie the unrelated health care and Iran negotiations together. But when speculating about motive, anything is possible.

That’s the difficulty with attributing motive. It simply is impossible to know a person’s motive without cracking open the individual’s head and examining his lobes. In other words, there is no way to divine motive. You can know what a person means from what he says and does but speculating about motive is just that – speculation. And fruitless. But too much of journalism consists of discussion about motive. Witness the talk about why the administration concluded the negotiations with Iran the way it did.

The agreement the parties hammered out is complex. So let’s hear what disinterested experts think about it. But spare us more talk about what John Kerry and Barack Obama secretly had up their sleeves.


This caption, in its entirety, accompanied a photo in a recent edition of the New York Times: “Geno Smith was sacked by Jairus Byrd and had a passer rating of 10.1 in the Jets’ loss to the Bills on Sunday in Buffalo.”

No clue of whether a rating of 10.1 is good, bad or indifferent. For that matter, no clue to the meaning of “passer rating.” If you Google passer rating, you encounter mumbo-jumbo complete with equations, mathematical symbols and unenlightening text.

I once asked a professional football coach to explain the finer points of the “quarterback rating,” a close cousin of the “passer rating.” The coach evaded the question. The Times ducked the question in its caption, too, presumably either because no one in the office could explain it or because it would take so much space it would send the sports department over-budget.

I learned from an ESPN web site that there is such a thing as the Total Quarterback Rating and that ESPN “dedicated 2011 to examining one of the most crucial positions in all sports – the quarterback.” The entry reports that “each play has a different level of contribution to winning and each play illustrates a different level of quarterback contribution to winning in each situation. Coaches want to know this; players want to know this; and fans want to know this.”

Only if they have an incurable addiction to filling their minds with meaningless trivia. Most fans seem to understand that they can live rich and fulfilling lives without the ins and outs of passer ratings and even the Total Quarterback metric.

Here’s hoping the press doesn’t sense a void here that it intends to fill.

Monday, November 18, 2013


Oh, if David Belin were alive this week!
There he’d be -- brilliant and earnest and sort of awkward -- on the Today Show and Face the Nation and CNN and maybe, even, the Daily Show. Still sharp and bow-tied at 85, with his off-kilter little smile and distinctive voice and odd tic in his eye, he’d in his lawyer-like way cite fact after fact to prove that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone on that awful day 50 years ago when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas.
David Belin was sure about a lot of things -- that children were to be nourished, that friends were forever, that education was everything, that music soothed the soul, that women had equal rights -- but he was most sure of this: That there was no conspiracy to kill the President. Period. Absolutely. For certain.

And if anyone knew the facts, it was David.

David Belin -- my lawyer, my business partner, my friend -- was in 1964 appointed assistant counsel for the Warren Commission, which President Lyndon Johnson established to investigate the shooting of Kennedy. David’s assignment was specific: Determine if the president was killed by a single gunman; determine whether there was a conspiracy to assassinate. He interviewed everyone, went over every detail, looked into every background and concluded Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone. And that was the finding of the commission. That job finished, in 1975 he was appointed executive director of The Rockefeller Commission, which investigated CIA doings in the United States -- including any CIA knowledge of the assassination.

So David Belin knew more about the death of John F. Kennedy than any other person except Lee Harvey Oswald. And Oswald was dead.

He certainly knew more than Oliver Stone. David was infuriated by Stone’s “JFK,” the 1991 movie that implied the killing was part of a conspiracy. The mention of Stone would make his blood boil and send him into a monologue about truth. He said there were at least 100 mistakes in the movie, errors of omission and commission, and he chronicled them all. In testimony in 1996 to the U.S. Assassination Records Review Board, he called the movie “the greatest electronic cover-up fraud ever perpetrated on America’s movie screens.” He called it “a hoax, a smear and pure fiction that rivals...Nazi propaganda films.”

You knew where he stood.

 David wrote two books about the assassination -- “November 22, 1963: You Are the Jury” and “Final Disclosure: The Full Truth About the Assassination” -- and he asked me to read the manuscripts. The detail was mind-numbing, but always backed up by records and documents and witnesses. Anyone who plowed through the books would be convinced -- but it took a lot of plowing to get through them.

When he wasn’t dealing with the conspiracy-theory crowd, David was involved in everything in Des Moines. It was hard to find a place to sit in his large office at the law firm, where he padded around in his stocking feet. The couch, the chairs, the floor, his desk all were piled high with book chapters, legal briefs, files on the wealthy families he represented, correspondence, clippings on this and that, notes on ideas and politics and all the many things he wanted to talk about, often all at once. But ask him for something, and he could go to the right pile, dig down a couple of feet, and produce the paper. His office was a mess, but his mind was tidy.

But he would drop everything to lecture or argue or debate about the assassination. (After one of his books came out, he was on the Today Show and was interviewed by Bryant Gumbel. Gumbel welcomed him, and David responded. “May I call you Byron?” he said. “I guess so,” the usually unflappable Gumbel responded after a flummoxed pause. Laughing, Gumbel later told me, “What was I going to do? Take up half the time by explaining to him that my name is Bryant and then having him apologize?”)

David Belin died on Jan 17, 1999, at age 70. He had been at the Mayo Clinic for his annual physical, and in the middle of the night he fell in his hotel room and hit his head. He was in a coma for 12 days.

I immediately drove to Rochester with Gary Gerlach, the third partner in our company that owned the Ames (Iowa) Tribune and some other publications. David lay in his bed, hooked up to monitors and tubes, deep in that coma. Some were optimistic that he would awake, would recover, would live to argue another day.

“May I see him alone?” I asked a nurse.

She let me.

I walked in. I took his hand and held it firmly in both of mine. I leaned over to whisper in his ear. “David,” I said, “I think there was a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy.”

He didn’t rise up and smite me. He didn’t squeeze my hand. He didn’t blink.

I walked out knowing that he would not awake.


The press is fascinated by anniversaries, especially those that are divisible by five or ten. A 50-year anniversary is especially doted on, which may be why such a fuss is being made over the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The well-told story of his death at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald is being told again and again and again, although there is essentially nothing new to relate.

It’s understandable why the anniversary story is a press staple. It costs little to dust off old coverage and count on faded memories to make it seem fresh. Moreover, the facts about Oswald’s life are so out of the ordinary they make fascinating retelling—a father he never knew because he died months before his birth, a vagabond existence, 22 different home addresses and a dozen different schools by the age of 17, a three year defection to the Soviet Union, an apparently unstable mother.

Nothing has emerged over the past 50 years to challenge the basic fact that an unstable loser, acting alone, took Kennedy’s life. The press habit of observing anniversaries by rehashing the past does have the downside of reviving doubts about the facts of the assassination and giving credence to discredited conspiracy theories.

When the current revival of interest in Kennedy’s death fades, the press and the public should ask themselves: What news of significance has been revealed? That fundamental question deserves an answer that the press, in thrall to its habit of observing meaningless anniversaries, refuses to address.

Gilbert Cranberg: LESSONS FROM LEYTE

I was headed down a road on Leyte in the Philippines toward a firefight I could hear in the distance when I was surrounded suddenly by crowds of panicked GIs running in the opposite direction. They were in full-scale retreat in a route that ended only when officers ordered us to dig in in a clearing for the night. It was a night punctuated by rifle fire from unnerved soldiers convinced they saw Japanese snipers in the surrounding palm trees.

The incident was a momentary military setback in the fight against Japan during the Pacific war. There weren’t many such ignominious headlong U.S. retreats in the Pacific war, setbacks which had no lasting significance and did not affect the outcome of the Leyte campaign. But it certainly made a short-term impression on us, confident as we had been of our military superiority.

Looking back at that defeat, it occurs to me that it makes a pretty good metaphor for the current struggle over the Affordable Care Act.

The law is mired in controversy, and in the view of some, headed for a debacle. But just as we gloomily licked our wounds on Leyte and things seemed bleak, it’s clear now that we were victims of misleading short-term thinking. The next morning on Leyte, the troops who had looked so beaten and frightened drew on their underlying strength and went into battle with renewed purpose.

This country is resourceful and resilient. It knows how to overcome adversity. The problems to overcome with the Affordable Care Act are minor compared to obstacles we have conquered innumerable times. Providing affordable health care for Americans is a worthy objective, and we have the talent to do it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Gilbert Cranberg: TIME TO REPAY A DEBT

When Japanese forces captured the Philippines early in the Pacific war they forced General Douglas Macarthur to flee. When he did, in 1942, he melodramatically vowed, “I shall return.” He did, in 1945, and I was among the GIs who accompanied him.

Macarthur returned to the Philippines on the island of Leyte. He splashed ashore not far from Tacloban, the island’s capital, now mostly rubble from Typhoon Haiyan that devastated the place.

U.S. military forces routed the Japanese, but not without help. The Filipino men who assisted us were lean and fit and had remarkable stamina. They sure-footedly carried our heavy equipment on slippery trails that soon exhausted the much bigger men in our outfit. Never once did I hear a Filipino complain about the backbreaking loads they bore, which they seemingly did with ease.

I am not aware that we ever paid the people who helped us. Or even thanked them. Now it is payback and thank you time. Anyone who begrudges the help being given the people of Tacloban should remember how Filipinos pitched in to assist U.S. troops during World War II. It has taken some time to repay the debt, but we should do it gladly.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013


The mantra at “60 Minutes” in the wake of its botch of the Benghazi story is that “you have to take responsibility”. The program’s definition of responsibility leaves a lot to be desired.

A key part of being responsible is to make every effort to inform members of the public who were misinformed by a faulty news account that it was in error. CBS made a reasonably forthright admission Nov. 10 that its report on Benghazi a couple of weeks ago was not reliable. The admission, however, was at the very end of the Nov. 10 edition of “60 Minutes”. The retraction was not preceded by any notice to viewers that a correction was in the works and would follow. The public had to watch the conclusion of a couple of football games, at least 10 commercials and several segments of “60 Minutes” before the correction was aired. It’s as though CBS did its best to make sure that as few members of the original audience for the Benghazi misinformation would witness the admission of error.

“60 Minutes” severely damaged its credibility by relying on a source who fabricated information. Staffers should have done a better job of checking out the source’s veracity. The correction, however, was entirely in the hands of “60 Minutes” staffers. They controlled its content and when it aired. And on that score “60 Minutes” failed as miserably as it did when it failed to verify flawed information from a major source.

The public should not have to hurdle obstacles to obtain access to corrections, retractions and apologies. CBS News should have been far more upfront in its handling of the Benghazi misstep. Burying admissions of error is not the way to take responsibility.

Monday, November 11, 2013


Some things are true but false – that is, the facts are accurate, but the omission of essential information creates a misleading impression. A recent example: the report in the Nov. 7 New York Times about how the Iowa town of Coralville rebuffed an effort by Charles and David Koch to kick out of office the mayor and city council members of Coralville for amassing too much debt.

The headline, “Iowa Town’s Vote Delivers Rebuke to Kochs’ Group” was accurate as far as it went; the difficulty was that it did not go nearly far enough. It, and the accompanying story, withheld from readers the essential information that Coralville is not just any Iowa community, but as the accompanying map shows, it abuts Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa and of the most liberal electorate in the state. Many university faculty, staff and students live in Coralville. While technically a separate entity, Coralville is as integral a part of Iowa City as Greenwich Village is to New York City.

Coralville, in other words, is an atypical Iowa town, and its resentful reaction to the effort by the Koch Brothers to throw their weight around was to be expected. The surprise in the story was that the New York Times considered a predictable election outcome to be newsworthy.

Friday, November 8, 2013


I did a double-take when I read in the Nov. 5 New York Times that at the trial for the life of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, “Many of the Egyptian journalists who were allowed inside the trial chanted repeatedly for Mr. Morsi’s execution.”

That item appeared in the 13th paragraph of the 30-paragraph story. If ever a lead was buried, that was. Granted, the behavior of the press may have been normal for Egypt, but the Times is edited for an American audience and such behavior here is decidedly abnormal.

It is so beyond the norm that American news organizations should register their disapproval if only to show how a free and ethical press should conduct itself.

It wasn’t clear from the Times account whether the so-called journalists who demonstrated at the trial were on assignment or were spectators. If the former, that should be disclosed so that readers understand fully Morsi’s plight. If those who demonstrated did it on their own time they have a lot to learn about journalistic detachment.

Some journalists in this country have chosen to be propagandists rather than trustworthy reporters of facts. The sight of Egyptian so-called journalists clamoring for Morsi’s head is a useful reminder of where that kind of perverted journalism can lead.


To hear George W. Bush tell it, he is having a marvelous retirement—painting, bike riding, golfing, attending ball games, dining with friends. If he reflects on the carnage he left in his wake in Iraq, it doesn’t show. An article in the Nov. 3 New York Times on Bush in retirement mentions that Bush goes bike riding with wounded Iraq war vets but seems otherwise unmindful of the war. As a Bush friend told the Times, “He’s comfortable with the decisions he made. He doesn’t obsess about his place in history.”

Indeed, why should he dwell on the Iraq war? After all, it left only 4,486 American soldiers dead, 32,000 wounded and some 100,000 Iraqis killed. As wars go, there have been worse.

Many Americans seem to share that unconcern. The war was sold on a falsehood – that Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction – but instead of outrage that no weapons were there to be found, Americans simply shrugged and awaited the next scandal. Nor was there outrage when, instead of heads rolling at the Central Intelligence Agency for incompetence, the head of the CIA, George Tenet, was rewarded with one of the nation’s highest medals.

The two-party system and two houses of Congress are both supposed to keep the country out of unwise or unnecessary wars. But both parties and both houses were steamrollered into voting overwhelmingly to attack a country that had done the U.S. no harm. Worse, the case for war was based on misinformation. And to make matters worse still, the country’s press, which is supposed to smoke out deception, fell hook, line and sinker for the lies and heavily supported going to war.

The country too readily allowed itself to be hoodwinked into war. But it’s never too late to learn from mistakes. Congress needs to undertake a full-scale review of how the country got itself into the misbegotten Iraq war, and that includes the part played by the press. The families of the deceased and maimed should be demanding it. George W. Bush should be the star witness, to be followed by every member of his administration and leaders of the opposition party who favored the bloodshed: They need to explain themselves.


Between now and Dec. 7, when the current Medicare enrollment period ends, insurance agents will be trolling for customers hoping to snag unsuspecting seniors for their Medicare Advantage Plans. Medicare Advantage was created in 2003 by the George W. Bush administration as a step toward privatizing Medicare. Thus far, some 13 million seniors have been enrolled in the private plans.

The lure: more money. Medicare Advantage plans have been paid as much as 14 percent more per enrollee by Medicare, or about $1,200 per person per year, compared with what traditional Medicare pays for its beneficiaries. Some of the differential goes for perks like gym memberships, but also for higher profits for the insurance companies participating in Medicare Advantage.

The differential is being eliminated by the Obama Administration. And it’s about time. As David Lipschutz, a lawyer for the Center for Medicare Advocacy, has said, “These cuts are a matter of equity. Those 75 per cent of members in traditional Medicare should not be subsidizing the care of those 25 per cent of beneficiaries who are in MA plans.”

But don’t expect those who profit from the differential to go quietly. I listened the other evening to what seniors can expect from a salesman for a Medicare Advantage plan. To hear him tell it, Medicare Advantage is the only option available.

It is not. But the TV ads and speakers making the rounds of retirement homes would have you believe otherwise.

So hold on to your wallets and remember that traditional Medicare is a good deal seniors fought hard to obtain and that should not be jettisoned readily.