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, December 22, 2014

Michael Gartner: KU KLUX KLAN

The University of Iowa, in its wisdom, a few days ago quickly removed from public view a faculty member’s sculpture made of newspaper clippings about the Ku Klux Klan. The seven-foot-tall sculpture was in the form of a cloaked and hooded Klansman.

The university called the display “divisive, insensitive, and intolerant.”

President Sally Mason apologized to one and all. 

“For failing to meet our goal of providing a respectful, all-inclusive, educational environment, the university apologizes,” she said.

An apology was indeed called for. 

Mason should have apologized for removing the statue. 

It is not the university’s role to shield or protect students from what most people view as unpleasant facts, unpopular causes or unpalatable ideas. Universities are supposed to expose and expound and explain the unpleasant as well as the pleasant, the unpopular as well as the popular, the unpalatable as well as the palatable — isn’t that what Mason’s “all-inclusive” means? And that statue provided a great opportunity to do just that.

For the Ku Klux Klan is part of the history of Iowa.  An unpleasant history, to be sure.  But history nevertheless.

As World War I came to an end, the Klan rose in power throughout the South, burning crosses, lynching black people and spreading fear and hate — hate of blacks, hate of Jews, hate of Roman Catholics and hate of immigrants. It spread north, and it gained many followers in Iowa, in both the cities and the towns. It held parades in Des Moines and Ottumwa and other cities — long lines of hooded and white-sheeted men carrying American flags and the occasional cross, often at dusk. 

A handbill for a Klan parade in Des Moines on June 12, 1926, noted it would be preceded by a picnic at the Fairgrounds. “The public is cordially invited,” the handbill said. And photos show a crowd watching the parade move through town. It included hundreds of sheeted marchers. Proudly among them: Police superintendent John W. Jenny.

Klan members were active in politics in the nation and in Iowa. They were heavily represented at the 16-day, 103-ballot 1924 Democratic convention — it was derisively known as the Klanbake — and they defeated a platform plank to condemn the Klan. 

All this could have been a great subject for a campus forum or a history class or a public-radio discussion. Instead, President Mason is appointing a committee “to advise me on options including strengthening cultural competency training and reviewing our implicit bias training, as we move forward.”

 I don’t know what that means. But it doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of free speech.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


The Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture has many virtues, not least its candor. The report is so upfront about intelligence agency misdeeds that it stands as a ready guide for war crimes prosecutions. In fact, the Senate Intelligence Committee should forward the report in its entirety to the appropriate international authority for action. Ideally, Congress itself should act on the report. However, Congress is so paralyzed by partisanship it’s unrealistic to expect Congressional action on the report’s findings.

The best hope for action, slim as the chances may be, is for an international body to follow the leads the committee has offered. The United Nations, after all, has an international convention banning torture. It makes sense for such an entity to follow up on the Senate Committee’s damning report.

John Brennan, director of the Central Intelligence Agency, commented Dec. 11 that it is “unknowable” whether useful information was obtained by torture. Brennan implies that if it could be known that torture does provide useful intelligence, then torture could be permissible. In other words, if torture works, do it.

That’s entirely the wrong test. Brennan should not be suggesting in any way, shape or form that the only concern with torture is uncertainty about its utility. Torture is immoral and illegal and should not be practiced by the U.S. government regardless of the state of knowledge of its effectiveness.

To act otherwise is to embrace the premise that the end justifies the means. To go down that road is to invite disaster. Once that philosophy is adopted, there is virtually nothing the U.S. could contemplate doing that would be considered off–limits.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report should be considered a warning about the hazards of ends-justifying-means thinking. The proper reaction to the report should not be philosophizing about unknowables, but a resolve: never again.


One of the newspapers I buy and read daily, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, recently changed hands. The changeover was announced in a story that had the most significant feature of the sale buried deep in the story. That feature: the new ownership would be a publicly traded newspaper company listed on the New York stock exchange.

Newspapers have long been described as a public service or public trust. When they become public companies their character changes drastically. They become entities not beholden primarily to serving the interests of readers but the interests of investors. A public company is required, as a matter law, to give priority to what is in the best interests of stockholders.

It is simple for the owner of a newspaper to shortchange readers and for them not to be aware of it. The new publicly traded owners of my former paper, the Des Moines Register, decided to improve the bottom line by dropping the New York Times and Washington Post News Services. Although the cuts seriously diminished the editorial quality of the paper, I was told that no readers ever complained about loss of the news services.

Deterioration of quality at many newspapers has multiple causes. Not least is the passivity of readers. When a newspaper company scraps news services solely to fatten the bottom line, readers should not simply swallow it; they should squawk. They should demand to know how large the profits are at the papers they read, how much space is devoted to news compared to advertising, the size of the newsroom budget, the nature and extent of staffing and everything else that bears on the paper’s quality.

Newspapers are fond of talking about the public’s right to know. Seldom, though, will they disclose the information the public needs to know to make informed judgments about the publications. It’s time that readers became activists on behalf of their right to know more about their local newspapers.

Saturday, December 6, 2014


Tale I: Next to the Biblical “In the beginning…,” the best-recalled opening line in literature likely is, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” from Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities.

Given today’s “times,” if you believe the recent campaign ads, we might shorten that to “It was the worst of times.”

Granted, we’re all enjoying a respite from awful political ads — at least until caucus time.

But the relief from campaign ads is like feeling good because you no longer have symptoms of a terminal disease, even though the prognosis has not changed. You’re in trouble; the absence of symptoms doesn’t change that.

Bad as the ads were, it’s even worse that they are the symptoms of an awful sickness in the body politic.

Among other things, those ads of the recent past:

• Testify to how dysfunctional our government is.

• Are evidence of how polarized our society is, and how we may opt for the worst in us.

• Reveal how short-term hot button issues are politicians’ escape hatches from addressing long-term problems.

• Should warn us that the great experiment in self government envisioned by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson has been corrupted by moneyed interests and factionalism. Self-interest and folly trump pressing societal concerns.

So, enjoy the respite, but we have to be concerned that the symptoms will return; the illness will continue its dreadful ways.

The language of political ads calls to mind George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” He wrote, seemingly about the ads of 2014: “…the English language…becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Orwell was frustrated because he saw “…language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”

Author Gore Vidal lamented, “As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: You liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests.”

Tale II: If you think Orwell’s or Vidal’s concerns about abuse of language should not apply to bare-knuckle political brawls, consider the language atrocities in sports, particularly in the NCAA.

The Big 10 athletic conference has 14 teams; the Big 12 has 10 teams; the Atlantic 10 has 14 teams. And everyone has only “student athletes,” a characterization the NCAA insists upon. And that’s even at North Carolina where as Business Week summed it up: “The latest in a series of university-sponsored investigations revealed that over 18 years—from 1993 through 2011—some 3,100 students took ‘paper classes’ with no faculty oversight and no actual class attendance. Almost half the students enrolled in the phony courses were athletes.”

Awash in such hyperbole and deception, small wonder you can fall into Orwell’s vicious cycle of foolish thinking leading to ugly language leading to more foolish thoughts leading to…

Leading to, ahem, the “vice president for strategic communication” at the University of Iowa.

In defense of the Hawkeye athletic director and his firing of a field hockey coach, the strategic communication was: "This is the only coach he has removed for reasons other than a winning record." (Which finally explained the Hawkeyes’ 1999 firing of basketball coach Tom Davis because of his 269-140 record.)

And of course, the sports rhetoric about courage is “ugly and inaccurate,” as Orwell would have it. Is there any doubt about this: You will find more courage in one day at a children’s hospital, cancer center or similar facilities than you will find in a season of Big 10/14, Big 12/10 or Atlantic 10/14 football.

You can’t excuse the nonsense under the escape hatch of “Well, you know what they mean.” As Orwell and Vidal suggest, even “they” have no idea what they mean, and that is at the heart of the tale of two atrocities. That and this line from Edmund Burke (1729-1797) (given the almost record low voter turnout this November): "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


Paul Krugman, the Nobel-Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, made the startling accusation Nov. 10 that members of the U.S. Supreme Court acted “corruptly” in agreeing to review a case concerning the Affordable Care Act, the Obama administration’s signature legislative achievement. According to Krugman, the Supreme Court’s action could have “grotesque” consequences in a case that deserves to be laughed out of court because it involves nothing more than a typographical error in drafting.

The votes of four justices are required for the Supreme Court to agree to review a case. By custom, the votes of the justices are secret. If Krugman is correct in characterizing the high court’s action in the Affordable Care Act case as corrupt, then we have the cover-up of dishonesty at the highest levels of government.

And all without the slightest expression of concern by the press. The secrecy that surrounds Supreme Court justice votes on whether to accept cases for review has never been a cause of concern by the press as a whole even though the decisions on the composition of the high court’s docket are of the utmost importance. The press ought to wake up and quit passively tolerating this unnecessary government secrecy. Perhaps Krugman’s courage in taking the unprecedented action of labeling a high court vote as corrupt will encourage further press coverage of the court’s untenable secrecy policy on certiorari votes. It has been allowed to go unchallenged far too long.

Michael Gartner: BRUCE BRALEY

From the beginning, Iowa and national Democrats thought Bruce Braley was a shoo-in to win the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin.

He wasn’t.

He wasn’t because he isn't Tom Harkin — and smart as he is, he apparently never really studied how Harkin stayed in Congress for 40 years, ten years in the House of Representatives and then 30 years in the U.S. Senate.

In the 168-year history of the state, there have been only ten Democratic Senators, and two of those were George Jones and Augustus Dodge, the two men Iowa’s new legislature sent to the United States Senate when Iowa entered the Union. (There have been 24 Republicans.)

Harkin is the only Democratic Senator from Iowa ever to be elected by the people to serve two full terms, and he was elected five times. He was elected and re-elected for these reasons: He is an old-fashioned Upper Midwest Populist who is passionate in his beliefs. He cares about the ordinary Iowans and is comfortable with the farmer and the druggist and the teacher and the body-and-fender man (as well as with high-profile businessman Bill Knapp). He listens. He fights. And he throws body-and-soul into his campaigns. It helps, too, that he sleeps with his strategist.

Even with that passion, that drive, that wife-enforced discipline and a vast knowledge of the state, he never was known as Landslide Tom. He went to the Senate in 1985, beating incumbent Republican Roger Jepsen, a flawed candidate who had served one term. Harkin got 55% of the vote.

In the next three elections, the Republicans threw everything they had at him. In 1990, Harkin beat Congressman Tom Tauke, with 54% of the vote. In 1966, he beat Congressman Jim Ross Lightfoot, with 52%. In 2002, he beat Congressman Greg Ganske, with 54%. Finally, the Republicans more or less gave up, nominating Christopher Reed, someone few people had heard of, in 2008, when Harkin got his biggest margin, getting 63% of the vote. (In his career, he beat more sitting members of Congress than anyone else in history.)

He never got the big margins that Iowans have given Republican Chuck Grassley, whose winning percentages were 53 (in 1980, when he beat incumbent John Culver), 66 (over John Roehrick), 70 (over Jean Lloyd-Jones), 68 (over David Osterberg), 72 (over Art Small) and 66 (over Roxanne Conlin). Iowans have always felt more comfortable with Grassley than with Harkin. Grassley makes us feel comfortable about the world; Harkin makes us think about the world.

Braley is a different sort, not Harkin and not Grassley. He’s a smart man, and he’s a nice man. He grew up on a farm and became a trial lawyer. In the end, the trial lawyer won out. In the campaign he sometimes seemed arrogant — that fatal crack about farmer Grassley not being a lawyer was as snooty as it was snotty.

“Braley listens for a minute then sort of just continues back on his merry way,” a senior Democratic official told the Washington Post. “He comes across as arrogant, and I think it’s because he is.” (Of course, if he had won, senior Democratic officials would say he was forceful and determined, not arrogant.)

In public, he sometimes seemed dispassionate about issues and almost impatient with the process. His campaign had little discipline, and it ran against a candidate, Joni Ernst, who might be the most disciplined and programmed (and telegenic) candidate in the history of the state. He sometimes seemed at sea.

Yet he was anointed for the race by Harkin himself; it was understood that Braley was Harkin’s choice, and that scared off any would-be primary opponents. So Braley never even got to take the test drive of a primary, which is too bad. Primaries are great practice and testing grounds for candidates, as Senator-elect Ernst can attest.

Instead, Braley entered as the full-blown candidate, and having been anointed by Harkin he almost seemed to expect to be anointed by the rest of the state. And while the candidate himself lacked spark — he’s “a poor fit for the state [who] looks like he is more comfortable in an office building than on plowed ground,” a Republican strategist wrote in a memo quoted by the Washington Post — the organization lacked cohesion and strategy. Who was in charge? The Des Moines consultants? The folks from the Senate Democratic Campaign committee? Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer? The candidate himself? People close to the campaign say it was never clear.

In the end, it wasn’t even that close: Ernst 52, Braley 44.

It was, of course, a huge Republican year, and Braley faced a candidate who caught on like wildfire. Still, he had money, a name and experience, and he was Tom Harkin’s man. But he wasn’t Tom Harkin. While Harkin listened and fought, Braley seemed to have a sense of entitlement. While the Harkins carefully managed campaigns, Braley let others fight over control. And while Harkin was disciplined, Braley went off on his “merry way.”

And unfortunately for Democrats, that “merry way” led back to Waterloo.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


An inmate at Iowa’s Maximum Security state prison once posed for me a simple but profound question: “Why are there only poor people here?” The question ought to preoccupy daily the best minds in criminal justice, including every member of the U.S. Supreme Court. A day shouldn’t pass without the justices pondering why the poor are so disadvantaged by the system and what can be done about it.

Not long after my encounter at the prison I found myself in a courtroom in Des Moines where decisions were being made on pre-trial release for those arrested overnight. Ordinarily judges required arrestees to post cash or work out deals with bail bondsmen to do it for them for a fee, despite the fact that Iowa law provides for pre-trial release without bail when an arrestee's community ties make it unlikely he or she will fail to appear at trial. On this particular day the presiding judge recognized me in court and motioned me to sit beside him on the bench. I explained I was there to observe the pre-trial release system and he offered to share with me whatever information he had when he made a release decision.

Before long, we settled into a routine; I questioned his reasons whenever he required money bail and he would almost always reconsider and allow release on the arrestee’s promise to appear.  In that one court then, the ideal of equal justice for the poor -- that is, justice divorced from ability to pay -- was realized however fleetingly and briefly but successfully.

There is no reason why what the judge and I worked out on the fly cannot be made part of the judicial system nationwide.

Decisions on pre-trial release should be explained to the public and not, as now, made overly dependent on money. It’s a scandal, too-long tolerated, that every day large numbers of poor people are imprisoned in this country, without being convicted of any crime, solely because of their poverty.


“Lie and Buy!”

How’s that for a sound bite?

Pretty good, I’d say, even discounting pride of authorship.

“Lie and Buy!”

What’s good about it? Well, you have to admit it’s memorable, if not catchy.
It rhymes, too.

But, you might ask, what does it mean, connote or describe?

Well, if you have to be picky or critical, here’s one take on “Lie and Buy!”:

Like all good sound bites it pulls together emotions, point of view, reinforcement of existing beliefs and, among other things, a statement that almost defies rebuttal or rational discussion.

“Lie and Buy!” for me is the sound bite that summarizes the 2014 political campaigns in Iowa and, I expect, elsewhere around the nation. So many candidates have ads that mislead, misinform, hoodwink, deceive and, well, lie.

So many big spenders want to buy candidates, buy power in legislatures and the Congress, buy influence and shape government policy so that they’ll have even more money in 2016 to buy still more influence.

Hence, “Lie and Buy!” overcomes wishful thinking or Polyanna prose like that of Adlai Stevenson who may have lost his 1952 and 1956 campaigns for the presidency because he urged candidates:

“Let's face it. Let's talk sense to the American people. Let's tell them the truth, that there are no gains without pains, that we are now on the eve of great decisions, not easy decisions, like resistance when you're attacked, but a long, patient, costly struggle which alone can assure triumph over the great enemies of man — war, poverty, and tyranny — and the assaults upon human dignity which are the most grievous consequences of each.”

Sadly, nowadays, candidates don’t seek triumph over assaults upon human dignity. Instead, under “Lie and Buy!” their campaigns themselves are assaults upon human dignity.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Michael Gartner: THE REGISTER

The Des Moines Register is failing to cover the most important story in central Iowa:

Circulation is plummeting. Ownership is changing. Coverage is scattershot. Morale is rock-bottom. Readers, advertisers — and, especially, employees — have no idea what’s going on.
Nor, apparently, do the Register’s leaders.

“Believe me, [publisher Rick Green] and I wish we did have more details to provide to everyone,” Amalie Nash, the new editor and “vice president for audience engagement,” said in a fact-free memo to the staff recently.    

[Example: “We are committed to proceeding in a thoughtful, clear-minded manner that takes into account our local mission and what we hear and learn from others. That is non-negotiable.” What does that mean?]

She sent the memo from a Gannett newspaper in North Carolina, “which is giving me a first-hand look at what is unfolding here, which is very valuable, but we don’t yet know whether what’s happening here will happen there or that it will be the same process in Des Moines.”

She added: “We will learn more when we head to corporate next week…and what we may or may not do here.”

So the publisher and the editor are awaiting instructions from “corporate.” “Corporate” is in suburban Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, everyone in Iowa is in the dark — and groping around. Business leaders are wondering if a group could be put together to buy The Register, but no one is stepping forward. Judges and politicians and municipal officials are wondering where the reporters are; two top county officials told Cityview newspaper last week they can’t remember the last time a reporter showed up to cover their doings.

Editors are assuming they are going to lose their jobs; the evolving Gannett template seems to be one without sub-editors — the unsung men and women who shine and polish the stories, chop out the mistakes and write the headlines. Reporters are wondering if their pay will be cut — it appears folks will have to reapply for their own jobs, but the job descriptions might call for less pay.

And everyone is mailing out resumes.

If this were the Iowa Juvenile Home or Polk County or the state Department of Administrative Services, the newspaper would be all over it. But it’s the Register, so nothing is being written. When Gannett announced it was spinning off the newspapers, the Register wrote that story and included a bit of pablum from the publisher. But there was no talk of what actually would, or might, happen.

Where is Clark Kauffman when the readers need him? (Actually, Kauffman, the well-regarded investigative reporter, is getting ready to join the editorial-page staff, where he will take up duties early next month.) Where is the reporting asking questions about the unbelievable drop in circulation, the screwed-up pricing schemes, the cutback in coverage, the stream of layoffs, the goofy web site that one person likens to Hollywood Squares?

It’s one thing to devote hundreds of inches and five front-page stories to the plight of a couple trying to have a baby. It’s another thing to cover the news.

And, these days, the Register is the news.

 * * *
Nash’s memo to the staff said, “I’ve seen the stories coming out locally from other sites and the speculation (some of it incredibly false and incomplete) about what will, won’t or has unfolded at The Register. Our newsroom team will be informed first of any strategic initiatives, new approaches or staffing moves — not Michael Gartner, Dave Elbert or the Business Record.”

Question: If “we don’t yet know whether what’s happening here will happen there” and if “Rick and I wish we did have more details to provide to everyone” — if that’s the case, then how do they know that the information in Cityview and the Business Record “is incredibly false and incomplete?”
Just asking.

 * * *
 “Transparency is essential,” Nash said in her memo.

Gilbert Cranberg: CANDOR BY THE TIMES

When a star reporter writes a book that turns out to be less than praiseworthy how is the reporter’s paper supposed to review it? If the paper is the New York Times it tells readers all of the book’s pluses and minuses, as the Times did in its Oct. 13 review of James Risen’s “Pay Any Price: Greed, Power and Endless War.”
The Times in its review is unsparing of its reporter, saying at times that he exaggerates. More seriously, the Times accuses Risen of ethical lapses by obtaining interviews through misrepresenting himself, a practice that the Times presumably considers a firing offense.  Risen apparently did not engage in misrepresentation while working for the paper.
The New York Times is a great newspaper, probably the world’s greatest. One of the burdens of working for it is how, when staffers write books, they must be prepared for no-holds-barred criticism from colleagues. The candid treatment of James Risen’s book is among the many reasons why those of us who subscribe to the Times are fortunate to have it on our doorstep daily.

Saturday, October 11, 2014


The Iowa Senate mid-term election is shaping up as one of the more consequential of the year’s election contests. Iowa Senator Tom Harkin’s decision to not seek another term has put an otherwise sure Democratic seat up for grabs. At this point, Republican candidate Jodi Ernst is making a spirited bid for the seat against Bruce Braley, a two-term Democratic member of the House. Republicans see the Senate contest as a way for them to make headway in their drive to take control of the Senate by replacing Harkin’s reliable liberal vote with Ernst’s much more conservative outlook. Look for Republicans to make Iowa a battleground state for conservative convictions.

Making Iowa still more of a wild card than usual is the announced decision by Randy Evans, the Register’s editorial page editor, to retire. In my experience as editorial page editor the editor’s input on endorsements carries considerable weight. With a new publisher running things at the paper, that may no longer be true. If the publisher, who leans conservative, elects to throw her weight around on endorsements, the influential Register could well endorse Ernst.

If I were still giving advice to Register readers I would tell them to pay scant attention to the paper’s endorsement this year. Register readers are perfectly capable of making up their own minds about who should represent them in the Senate. Unless the paper is prepared to open up the endorsement process to reader access at an open meeting, readers should skip what the paper has to say to them on the subject and simply ignore this year’s endorsement editorial.

A newspaper’s endorsement traditionally is given weight because supposedly it is the considered judgment of the institution. The Register states that its endorsement of major candidates represents the consensus view of its editorial board, the half-dozen or so staffers whose names are on the masthead. But if, in fact, it represents the choice of a single individual, the publisher, it is entitled to no more weight than any one person’s opinion. Journalism would be performing a public service by clearly disclosing to readers whose views are being expressed in endorsement editorials.


When Florida’s leading climate scientists left a meeting not long ago with Governor Rick Scott they could be pardoned for believing they had been insulted. The scientists had told Scott that Florida is “one of the most vulnerable places in the world” to the threat posed by climate change, with one of its cities (Miami) at the top of the list of the world’s communities most endangered by rising sea levels. Scott’s reaction: the equivalent of a big fat yawn. He asked no relevant questions and made no promises. It was as though the governor was incapable of grasping the gravity of what the scientists were telling him.

Granted, that could well have been the fault of the messengers. If the delegation had included coaches or athletic directors worried about the havoc caused by messed up athletic schedules due to unprecedented weather patterns, the governor might have accorded concerns about climate change the respect they deserved, especially if a national football ranking were at stake.

Florida is unusually dependent on the weather. When its leading scientists warn about an impending weather-related calamity, only reckless fools can turn a deaf ear to their warning. Yet, by his example, that is exactly what its governor is asking Floridians to do.

Scott should invite the scientists to another meeting with him to apologize for his seeming indifference to their warnings. He should set aside sufficient time for each of the invitees to air the concerns in depth. And he should promise to convene a follow-up to report on what his administration is doing to address the concerns.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Michael Gartner: THE BAR EXAM

A committee of the Iowa State Bar Association has proposed that Iowa change its rules so that graduates of the law schools at Drake and the University of Iowa be admitted to the practice of law in this state without taking the bar exam.

That is not a good idea.

The Supreme Court, which sets the rules, has been taking comments from lawyers and others, and it has set a public hearing for August 27. Twenty-three persons are scheduled to appear and comment, including the deans of the two law schools, Attorney General Tom Miller, former Attorney General Roxanne Conlin, a handful of judges and others who have strong feelings on the issue.

The Bar committee’s argument is as simple as it is flawed: If admitted upon graduation, the young lawyers would be able to start practicing immediately and begin paying off their college and law-school debts. The average four-and-a-half month delay between graduation and admission to the bar costs the would-be lawyer an average of $29,000 in lost income, the committee says.

And that four-and-a-half month retention of debt and loss of income keep young lawyers from hanging out their shingles in small towns, serving “historically underrepresented communities” or entering public service, the argument goes.


That seems a stretch.

You learn a lot in law school — I am a graduate of the law school at New York University — but you learn the broad brush-strokes, not the fine details. Mainly, though, you learn how to think. You learn how to look at an issue from all sides, take it apart and put it back together, consider how it fits into historical patterns, and ponder how it fits into society today. You learn some principles from famous cases and some basic truths from the Constitution — and then you learn that those principles change and those truths aren’t always basic.

The bar exam tests your grasp of these principles and truths — as they are interpreted today — but it’s also a test of your ability to think and analyze and look at an issue from all sides. It’s a test, in other words, to see if you have learned anything in law school.

For some, the answer is no. Nationwide, 83,986 persons took bar exams last year; 26,960 of them — 32% — flunked. In Iowa, 377 persons took the exam and 46 — 12% — flunked, according to the National Conference of Bar Examiners. According to the report prepared by the Iowa bar committee urging an end to the exam for Drake and U of I grads, 996 graduates of Drake and Iowa took the Iowa bar exam for the first time in the five years from 2008 through 2012, and 68 of those — 6.8% — flunked. The annual flunk rate for first-time takers was as high as 24% for Drake grads, as high as 15% for Iowa graduates.

So the exam does weed out the slow-learners.

Further, Iowa would keep the exam for graduates of other schools —for instance Yale or Harvard or Stanford or Columbia or the University of Chicago, which are ranked as the top five law schools in the nation. So it sets up a two-class system, which could discourage non-Drake and non-Iowa graduates from wanting to come here. And, without casting any aspersions, that might lower the quality of lawyers in the state. According to U.S. News and World Report, Iowa’s law school is ranked 27th among the 194 law schools in the country; Drake’s is ranked 113th.

There was a time — from 1873 until 1884 — when Iowa recognized this so-called diploma privilege, granting automatic bar admission to graduates of the in-state schools. Most states had similar rules. But most dropped the rule in the 1800s, according to a report from the staff of the Iowa Supreme Court, and today the privilege exists only in Wisconsin. What’s more, the American Bar Association opposes the practice.

So it boils down to this: Dropping the bar exam would be a nifty recruiting tool for Iowa’s two law schools, might keep out some very talented young lawyers from very good law schools elsewhere, and would increase the risk that when you hire a lawyer you might end up with a person who might better have been a steamfitter.

It’s not a good idea.

* * *

If the state’s legal establishment is truly worried about the debt law-school students pile up, there’s a simple solution: Cut a year out of the three-year curriculum. President Obama — a lawyer — has suggested it, and some law schools are trying variations of it.

Of course, that would mean laying off some professors and seeing a drop in revenue.

So scratch that idea.


Consider yourself cursed for the next 825 days or so.

With the November election 90 or so days away and the 2016 election adding 735 more to the total, you’ll be cursed with tens of thousands of messages of hate, lies and stupidity — all appealing to the worst that is in you.

Yep, campaign ads.

My optimistic nature leads me to expect only the worst in campaign ads — and yet a voice within and the evidence so far suggest that even “the worst” understates the abominations in store for us. Nothing is sacred. And to make that point, consider what campaign ads we’d be subject to if Jesus Christ were running for office and the opposition dug up the dirt on Him. (Aristotle and Buddha would be as vulnerable to attack ads, but we are more familiar with the teachings of Christ and many in the US consider it to be a Christian nation.)

So here are some 15-second anti-Christ spots. Consider the opening few words emblazoned across your TV screen and the lines intoned by that hideous voice that finds employment every election cycle. The accompanying video, of course, is likely a still shot of a bearded and long-haired creep. Every ad carries the required attribution.

IS HE A PEDOPHILE? Judge for yourself, but don’t say we didn’t warn you about a single man who has a penchant for being surrounded by little children. You can look it up, Matthew 19, but happily, you can vote it down. Protect our children! I am Satan and I approve this ad.

SOFT ON CRIME! What is Christ’s answer to crime? He says, Let he who is without sin cast the first stone or serve the first sentence. Been beaten up? Christ says to turn the other cheek. You can look it up, John 8:7, but you’ll want to vote it down. Send criminals a message. Vote NO! on Christ. I am Satan and I…

TAX AND SPEND! Jesus Christ wants you to pay more taxes. Render unto government whatever government wants. You can look it up, Matthew 22. Say NO! to taxes. I am Satan...

REDISTRIBUTE WEALTH! You’ve worked hard for your money, the vacation home, security for your family. Christ says forget it, sell all you have and give it to the poor. You can look it up, Mark 18, but you must vote it down. I am Satan…

CLIMATE CHANGE ACTIVIST. Don’t let Christ near nature’s thermostats. He says man controls the climate; He calmed a stormy sea. Don’t let him try to soak you. Look it up, Luke 8, and tell government to keep its hands off the weather or they’ll foul that up, too.

SOFT ON IMMIGRATION. He says, “In my Father’s house are many rooms.” Sure and who will foot the bills for the illegals and welfare kings and queens who will occupy those rooms? You can look it up, John 14.

A VOICE FOR THE LAZY! Forget about a minimum wage for a full day’s work. Jesus Christ says it is just fine to pay a person for one hour of work the same as you would pay another person for eight or 10 hours of work. Look it up, Matthew 20, and vote NO! on Christ, the lazy man’s candidate.

THE JOB DESTROYER! If elected this November, Christ would put wineries out of business and threaten private health care with his so-called miracle cures. Non-partisan think tanks estimate his election would cost America 5 million jobs and even more in Iowa! His quackery riddles Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Protect your right for a “great physician” of your choice, not His.

A PIG IN A POKE: Christ managed to infuriate both the pork industry and PETA by having 2,000 head of swine jump off a cliff. Look it up in Mark 5. He’ll go after soybeans next! I am Satan and I approve this ad.

That’s the curse in store for you for the next 825 days or so.

What’s even worse is that ads like that work.


The New York Times Aug. 3 Sunday magazine featured Iowa governor Terry Branstad atop a tongue-in-cheek headline that told how “one state turned its adorable little caucus into a year-round tourist destination.”

The piece was about Branstad’s longevity in office (he’ll soon be the longest-serving governor in the nation’s history) but nowhere did the Times mention a single Branstad accomplishment during that span. He has, in fact, been a colorless time server who, after years of practice, still can’t read a speech without stumbling.

The big question after Branstad finished his first term was what next? Influential friends had gotten him the job of running a local osteopathic college, but Branstad had no scientific training and little apparent interest in health care. An acquaintance described him, accurately, as suffering from a deficiency of competence.

The Iowa caucuses are still months away. The last time they were in the spotlight they were marred by misreported results. If Iowa is not again to be a laughingstock it had better get it right this time. Can Branstad and his osteopathic buddies make the necessary adjustments?

Michael Gartner: NAMING NAMES

“The Register’s policy is to not identify accusers in sexual-assault cases without their permission,” the Des Moines newspaper noted recently.

So the paper did not name Hunter Elizabeth Breshears in the story about former Iowa State athlete Bubu Palo suing her for defamation, infliction of emotional distress and abuse of process.


In May of 2012, fellow Iowa State University student Breshears told Ames police that she was sexually assaulted by Palo, a friend from high school with whom she had slept before, and he then was charged with two counts of criminal sexual abuse in the second degree. He pleaded not guilty. Ultimately -- and after reams of bad publicity for Palo and after his removal from the ISU basketball team -- charges were dropped.

According to court documents, a key piece of evidence -- a torn blouse -- had been altered. And, according to court documents, the alteration was made while the blouse was in the possession of Breshears and her mother, Grace Breshears.

So the newspaper’s policy appears to be this:

-- It does not name accusers in sexual-assault cases.

-- It does not name accusers in sexual-assault cases even after charges are dropped.

-- It does not name accusers in sexual-assault cases even if those accusers themselves are accused of tampering with evidence.

-- It does not name accusers in sexual-assault cases even when those accusers are sued for defamation and other wrongs.

How unfair.

Sexual assault is a crime of violence, not a crime of sex. Convicted rapists should be sent to the penitentiary for a long, long time. Rape victims should get all the help they need from doctors and counsellors and prosecutors. But offering anonymity to adult accusers and victims -- as courts and prosecutors and newspapers regularly do -- is not a good idea. It bolsters the perception that somehow a rape victim did something wrong or should be ashamed, diminishing the heinousness of the crime. It reinforces the stigma rape victims often live with.

That stigma won’t be removed until rape is identified with violence, not sex. And that won’t happen until the crime -- with all of its facts and names -- is discussed openly. It’s true that some brave and terrified women may suffer doubly when their names are a matter of record, but their bravery -- and a change in policy by prosecutors and courts and newspapers -- will ensure that in their daughters’ generation men and women and editors and prosecutors and judges will treat rape as the violent crime it is, not one tinged somehow with the absurd idea that the victim shares the guilt.

But what if the accused is not guilty?

No paper withheld the name of Bubu Palo when he was accused -- unjustly accused, as it turned out. The stories are still one-sided -- with one party named, the other not. That seems to transfer the stigma to Palo. Indeed, Palo has “suffered severe and extreme emotional distress” because of the proceedings, according to the lawsuit he filed last month in Story County District Court. And win or lose, Palo -- by all accounts a fine athlete and a fine student -- will be remembered in this state as the basketball player accused of sexual assault by a fellow but anonymous student. That anonymity -- misguidedly offered to “protect” the accuser has instead damaged the accused.

That just seems unfair.

Footnotes: Palo’s suit names Grace Breshears, the accuser’s mother as a defendant, by name, but “out of an abundance of caution and given the nature of the events set forth herein,” it refers to Hunter Elizabeth Breshears by her initials. That’s also absurd -- and seems to offer sympathy of sorts to the woman being sued, the woman whose allegations were thrown out. At any rate, Hunter Elizabeth Breshears is identified by name for all to see in the docket listings available recently on Iowa Courts Online.

I e-mailed Register Publisher Rick Green asking what the newspaper’s policy is in the naming of accusers whose accusations are thrown out of court. He didn't respond.

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Is Glenn Beck a journalist? That can be debated endlessly. But if he is, he belongs in a select class of journalists who admit to having been wrong about supporting the war in Iraq.

The war was overwhelmingly popular with the press. But almost none has done as Beck did recently and declare forthrightly that liberals were right to oppose the war and conservatives mistaken for their support of it.

Press backing for the U.S. invasion of Iraq was nearly unanimous. It could almost be said that press support for the war was instrumental in taking the country into war. But the press has had a collective case of amnesia about its responsibility for the war. Read the post-war commentary and it is virtually barren of references to the role of the press in cheerleading for war. As for apologizing for its failure to alert readers to the consequences of a costly and unnecessary war, some of the biggest names in journalism who backed the war have remained mute.

The unprovoked U.S. attack on Iraq was a ghastly mistake. Both parties bear responsibility. And to its everlasting shame, so does the press.

Gilbert Cranberg: PACIFIST JAPAN

One of the most significant achievements of World War II was the decision by Japan to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. Article 9 of the country’s constitution was a direct outgrowth of the war and its renunciation of war is unequivocal. The constitution promises that land, sea and air forces “will never be maintained” and that the “right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”

Sounds as though Japan turned over a new leaf, except for the war-like noises now coming from the place. The country’s prime minister has made it his “life goal” to rid the constitution of Article 9. To make a rearmed Japan more palatable to the U.S., he talks about how readily it could come to the aid of this country in the event it is attacked.

The U.S. response should be thanks but no thanks. It should tell Japan it will refuse any military assistance provided in violation of the country’s commitment not to rearm. Article 9 of Japan’s constitution was an outstanding contribution to world peace. Under no circumstances should the U.S. acquiesce in the weakening of this historic achievement.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


Every year over half a million open-heart surgeries are performed in the U.S. Many are being done by foreign-born surgeons, physicians whose accents may have prevented them from flawlessly explaining the procedure to their patients.

I was one of their patients. Recently I underwent a cardiac catheterization by Dr. N. Mathew Koshy, an Indian-educated cardiologist. The results were alarming, and in the early morning hours, Dr. Atiq Rehman, a Pakistani-educated surgeon, recommended emergency triple coronary-artery bypass graft surgery. My physician son spoke on the phone with Dr. Rehman and consented to the surgery on my behalf, but there had been no time to verify the surgeon’s expertise.

Are patients putting their lives at risk when they turn to foreign-educated doctors? On the contrary, a Pennsylvania study of 244,000 hospitalizations found a lower mortality rate for patients of foreign-educated physicians compared to those of U.S.-educated physicians.

Why this counter-intuitive result? Perhaps because only the best foreign-educated physicians succeed at the rigorous examination and application process required for them to come to the United States, and then they usually get further training at U.S. hospitals. A case could be made that receiving care from foreign-educated doctors may be the most prudent course of action. For example, we later learned that my surgeon had graduated with honors from Aga Khan University School of Medicine in Pakistan and had done subsequent surgery training at four major U.S. hospitals.

Faced with a crisis, I had no other choice, and I am thankful that the choice I had was a top-notch surgeon.

A lot has been said about the country being flooded by immigrants. Not enough has been said about how the flood includes highly skilled immigrants who are saving American lives.

Friday, May 23, 2014


You know it’s going to be a great day for free speech when the Iowa Supreme Court mentions the Cherry Sisters.

And so it was last week.

The court ruled that Rick Mullin and the Iowa Democratic Party didn’t defame Rick Bertrand in a nasty political ad a couple of years ago. Mullin and Bertrand were running against one another for the Legislature, and the race got unpleasant.

Mullin then ran an ad implying -- at least to some people -- that in his role as a salesman for a drug company Bertrand sold a dangerous drug to children.

“Bertrand was a sales agent for a big drug company that was rated the most unethical company in the world,” the ad said. “The FDA singled out Bertrand’s company for marketing a dangerous sleep drug to children.”

The ad was true, but a possible inference --that Bertrand himself sold such a drug -- was not.

So Bertrand sued, and he won in state district court.

But the Iowa Supreme Court overturned that ruling and dismissed the case.

That was a good thing for the state of Iowa.

Political speech must be robust and free-wheeling, and therefore it must be harder to sue political figures for the careless remark, the inaccurate accusation or the nasty aside, courts have ruled. To win, a plaintiff must show that the speaker knew the remark was false or made it with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity.

Bertrand -- who ultimately won the election -- did not show Mullin violated either of those standards, the court said.

“More than a century ago -- and more than half a century before the Supreme Court [of the United States] decided [New York Times v. Sullivan, the case that established the “reckless disregard” rule] -- we recognized persons who place themselves in the public sphere are subject to a vastly greater degree of comment, criticism and even ridicule,” Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote for a unanimous court. And he cited Cherry v. Des Moines Leader.

The Cherry Sisters -- Effie, Addie, Jessie, Lizzie, and Ellie -- were from Cedar Rapids, and they were in show business. They couldn't dance, and they couldn't sing. In fact, they couldn't do much of anything. Their act exerted a ghastly fascination over its audiences.

And that was what the great Oscar Hammerstein was looking for. The year was 1896, and he was going broke. He was desperate. "I've tried the best," he said. "Now I'll try the worst." So he sent for the Cherry Sisters.

They opened at the New Olympia Theater in New York on November 16, 1896. "Never before did New Yorkers see anything like the Cherry Sisters from Cedar Rapids, Iowa," the New York Times reported. "It is sincerely to be hoped that nothing like them will ever be seen again."

But the audiences loved them. Night after night, young men crowded the theater. Often, they brought vegetables: sidewalk vendors were said to do a brisk business every evening selling onions and rutabagas and melons. "There was scarcely a young blade in the late nineties," the Des Moines Register recalled in 1929, "but boasted he had heaved a cabbage or two at the Cherry Sisters."

Eventually, they went on the road, and they made some stops in Iowa. In 1901, the Des Moines Leader wrote:

"Billy Hamilton of the Odebolt Chronicle, gives the Cherry Sisters the following graphic write-up on the late appearance in his town: 'Effie is an old jade of 50 summers, Jessie a frisky filly of 40, and Addie, the flower of the family, a capering monstrosity of 35. Their long, skinny arms, equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and anon waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage, strange creatures with painted faces and hideous mien. Effie is spavined, Addie is stringhalt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs with calves as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle."

The ladies sued, and a lower court -- after watching them perform and after noting that the act was so bad the piano player left at intermission -- threw out the case.

They appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court, which ruled that ridicule is often a writer's best weapon. The case is considered a landmark of First Amendment law, for it upholds the notion that fair comment -- even intemperate comment -- is a valid defense of libel charges. It said, in effect, that anyone is entitled to his or her opinion without the threat of being sued.

As Justice Cady noted last week, that was more than 50 years before the Supreme Court of the United States came to the same conclusion.

And last week, the Iowa Supreme Court reaffirmed that principle.

Good for them. And good for Iowa.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


I learned from the April 4 New York Times that New Jersey’s largest circulation newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger, recently suffered severe newsroom cutbacks.

Here is what I didn’t learn from the Times: How profitable is the Star-Ledger and the chain that owns it?

Nor did the Times report how widespread were the cuts. For example, did they extend to top brass at the company? Did any of the company’s officers suffer a loss in salary or bonuses or was the pain confined to working stiffs in the newsroom?

The Times did not explain the ownership structure of the paper. A Google search discloses that the Newhouse family owns the privately-held publishing company, but the Times did not mention it. Nor did the Times seek comment from any of the Newhouses about the significant cuts at the Star-Ledger, or if it did seek comment, it didn’t say so. What was the reaction of the Newhouses to the evisceration of the newsroom at a significant holding?

All in all, the Times coverage of a major event at a leading newspaper in its own back yard is not what Times readers have come to expect of the paper. What they have come to expect is comprehensive coverage. What they got in this instance was superficial. Here’s hoping it’s no more than an aberration rather than a sign of things to come.

Friday, April 4, 2014


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had a terrible week. Fresh from a transparent whitewashing of him by a crew of lawyers of whom he was arguably the client, he flew to Las Vegas and promptly smashed to smithereens his dream of waddling into the White House when in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition he referred to Israel’s occupied territory as “occupied territory.”

A cardinal rule of politics: don’t tell audiences what they don’t want to hear. A roomful of check-writing Jews did not want to hear itself compared to World War II storm-troopers.

In Christie’s defense, he could point out, with some justification, confusion about the nature of the audience. After all, the Venetian Hotel where the speech took place did look Italian. For all he knew, the pilot took a wrong turn and deposited him where it wouldn’t matter much what he said.

To be on the safe side, and to recoup lost ground, Christie should take the advice I offered to Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign—namely, get yourself to Israel. There, I suggested, Romney should be circumcised to show his solidarity with the Jewish people. Not only that, he should take his five sons and include them in the deal. It seemed at the time a sure way to win vote-rich New York and Florida. To guarantee a national audience, I suggested that the event be televised.

Alas, that proved the idea’s undoing. In Israel, the thought of a mass televised circumcision was too much for some fussbudget Torah sages.

A solo televised circumcision featuring Christie is another matter, and has advantages he should explore.


Once again the Supreme Court has analogized money to speech and once again it has invalidated a law that limits how much private parties may spend on political campaigns. In so doing, the court’s plurality on April 2, in McCutcheon vs. Federal Election Commission, declared, “The government may no more restrict how many causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”

The plurality’s analogy of political spending to editorial endorsements is ludicrous. An endorsement does not bear even the faintest whiff of corruption, whereas the role of money in politics assuredly does. It takes colossal nerve, some may call it chutzpah, for judges who may not have ever raised a penny for a political campaign to lecture lawmakers on the subject of money in politics. Instead of showing deference to lawmakers with real-world experience in dealing with the corrosive effects of political fund-raising, the court cuts to ribbons efforts by lawmakers to put even modest controls on a runaway system.

The court concedes that curbs on campaign spending can be justified to prevent corruption, but it defines corruption in the narrowest of terms – donating to a campaign in direct return for a lawmaker’s vote. As was made clear in a lengthy Appendix to Justice Breyer's dissent, “the fact that Members of Congress are intimately involved in the raising of money for the political parties, particularly unlimited nonfederal money donations, creates opportunities for corruption.…[L]arge contributions… provide donors access to federal lawmakers which is a critical ingredient for influencing legislation, and which the Supreme Court has determined constitutes corruption.”

Consider the source is always excellent advice. But increasingly, the identity of the speaker is hidden. Lavish and secret political spending is a toxic combination that puts a for sale sign on too much of the public’s business.

If spending is the same as speech, it follows that, just as more speech is a public good, then the more that is spent on political campaigning, the better. But surely it cannot be healthy for the rich to dominate public discourse. The Supreme Court is on the wrong track in its campaign-spending jurisprudence and needs to correct course.

Gilbert Cranberg: CHRISTIE’S CHARADE

The report issued March 26 by the lawyers for Chris Christie could well be considered worthless. The report, as could have been predicted, absolved Christie of any responsibility for the George Washington Bridge scandal. If the lawyers had found, and reported, any suspect conduct by Christie, they might have lost their licenses to practice law.

That’s because lawyers owe their responsibility to the client. In this case the client is arguably not the taxpayers who paid for the report, but the person who engaged them -- Chris Christie. The reporters who covered the charade Christie staged in the form of a press conference neglected to probe the nature of the relationship between Christie and the authors of the report the press conference ostensibly was called to discuss. Christie browbeat the reporters for the way they phrased questions and he belittled their professionalism; they deserved the scorn he heaped on them, but not for the reasons he cited. Instead, they should have made the obligations owed to Christie by the authors of the report the centerpiece of the press conference questioning.

Christie’s bulldozer tactics worked this time. But more reports are in the wings. Reporters have time to brush up on how not to be intimidated by a bully in the guise of a governor.

Friday, March 28, 2014


As mystifying as the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 is the silence of the National Rifle Association. The association almost always can be counted on to uphold the interests of gun owners, but passengers on the missing flight had to surrender all of their handguns, rifles and ammunition at the check-in gate. U.S. airlines meekly go along with the same international rules. Thus, if hijackers took control of flight 370 after takeoff, passengers would have been defenseless.

The NRA wasn’t at a loss for words when the schoolchildren of Sandy Hook were massacred. Then, the organization quickly demanded that armed guards be posted at public schools and that school personnel arm themselves. For some reason, the NRA is shy about urging that airline passengers have equal protection.

By all means, let’s have firearms in flight, the more the better. No carry-on bag should be without a handgun. In fact airlines should facilitate the packing of guns in flight bags by waiving fees for any carry-on luggage bearing a weapon.

Such a campaign would be fully worthy of the National Rifle Association. The organization was negligent in allowing in-flight disarmament without putting up all-out resistance. It can make amends by demanding that every passenger have the right to a safe flight, which means, in other words, the right to travel armed to the teeth.

Does the Second Amendment extend to Air Space? If it doesn’t, it should. The National Rifle Association should not rest until it makes packing for a trip and packing heat one and the same.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014


The New York Times on March 18 described it as a “nightmare scenario” and an “extraordinary case” that opens up “new frontiers of political corruption.” Indeed it does. For in Utah, political operatives essentially hung a for sale sign on the attorney general’s office and urged the payday lending industry to buy the office by surreptitiously contributing to the campaign of a candidate who let it be known he would be partial to the interests of the contributors.

The U.S. Supreme Court in its 2010 decision in Citizens United virtually invited this kind of corruption by poo-poohing the risks of corruption posed by campaign contributions. In dismissing the notion, the court wrote, “…we now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Tell that to the folks in Utah victimized by the payday lenders’ scheme to take control of the attorney general’s office.

The Supreme Court in Citizens United made almost a fetish of the notion that money is speech. In so doing, it blinded itself to the corrupting potential of money. The overreaching in Utah ought to be a wake-up call to the high court’s justices to re-examine their flawed ruling in Citizens United.

A recent book by a brilliant First Amendment scholar, the late Professor Randall Bezanson of the University of Iowa College of Law, made a convincing case of the need for re-examination. Bezanson wrote of the Citizens United ruling, “…there is good reason to find it logically wanting, historically and textually arid, given to grand and broad statements of law and ultimately dissatisfying. The Court’s opinion never really gets to the substance of the corporate speech issue, instead escaping the need to grapple with text and history and theory by what proved to be a weak and unconvincing expedient of claiming that the decision had already been made in many Supreme Court decisions….With all respect, nothing could be further from the truth.”

So by all means let’s have a fresh look at Citizens United.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Gilbert Cranberg: SURPRISE! LOOK AT A MAP!

An op-ed article by Senator John McCain in the March 15 New York Times begins, reasonably enough, by blaming Vladimir Putin for the current turmoil in Ukraine and Crimea. But no sooner does McCain absolve President Obama of responsibility, when he takes it all back and makes Obama the villain of the piece. McCain did not write the headline, “Obama Made America Look Weak,” but he might well have because it accurately reflects the tenor of the article: It’s all Obama’s fault!!

Once upon a time, the watchwords in this country were, “politics stop at the water’s edge.” Nowadays, partisanship knows no boundary. It’s almost newsworthy if a member of one of the parties has something nice to say about the opposition.

You would never guess from McCain’s article that Crimea and Ukraine are located smack up against Russia’s homeland. No acknowledgement at all of geography, that Putin throwing his weight around just might have something to do with both places being in Russia’s backyard, and that one of them is home to a Russian military base. But that would have detracted from the blame McCain seemed to want to heap on Obama.

This country made a huge fuss in the 1960s when the Soviet Union sought to put nuclear armed missiles in Cuba. We reacted so fiercely the world was thought to be on the verge of nuclear war. The U.S. reactions included launching a secret war against Cuba, complete with commando-style raids intended to destabilize Castro’s government. This was considered justifiable because the Soviet Union had no business taking provocative actions so close to U.S. shores. But how different are Putin’s actions in the Crimea and Ukraine from our actions in response to Soviet actions in an area we felt was too close for comfort?

Not all that different. The Times did not print a map with McCain’s piece showing the proximity to Russia of Crimea and Ukraine. Maps would have been helpful, as would reminders by the U.S. press when it fulminates about Putin’s actions that it is his backyard that’s at issue.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Paul Ryan, the GOP’s budget guru, likes to talk about the “dignity of work,” as he did recently when he said “we have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value or culture of work.” Ryan is critical of federal programs for creating a culture of poverty by sapping the ambitions of poor people.

Somehow, almost never on Ryan’s radar screen, is what inherited wealth does to ambition. It’s as though food stamps are evil and drive people further into poverty because they are handouts, while inherited money has no impact whatever on the heir’s willingness to work.

Ryan’s policies for overhauling government programs would have a lot more credibility if they didn’t include speculation about the harm the government does by helping people. And if he can’t resist the impulse to psychoanalyze on poverty, then he should at least acknowledge when he denigrates government assistance that many times wealthy people don’t earn their income. And on that score, his prescriptions for attacking poverty would carry more weight if he also noted the case for higher inheritance taxes. As it is, when conservatives address that issue, it is usually to belittle the idea as a “death tax.”

Thursday, March 13, 2014


Why is the Central Intelligence Agency so fearfully critical of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s oversight of the agency? After all, plenty of criticism has been heaped on the CIA without provoking the sort of push-back that caused Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein recently to take the unprecedented step of attacking the agency on the Senate floor.

One possibility is that CIA operatives are worried about possible prosecution under the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It’s one thing for the press to allege waterboarding and other harsh treatment of prisoners by the CIA, but it’s a wholly different order of magnitude when the body charged by law to hold the CIA to account makes the allegation. In that case, it becomes imperative to brush off the Convention Against Torture and to enforce it, which could include criminal penalties.

International conventions are the law of the land. The United States is a signatory to the Torture Convention, along with 150 other nations. It would be the worst nightmare for a CIA operative to be charged with violating the Torture Convention, which might well explain Senator Feinstein’s claims that the CIA went to such extraordinary lengths, including allegedly stealing Committee documents, to discredit the Committee.

Congress has a stake in ensuring the integrity of its oversight. It also needs to send a message that it won’t be intimidated. A good way to accomplish both objectives would be for the Committee to announce its intention to invoke the United Nations Torture Convention.


March 9 marked the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark libel ruling, New York Times v. Sullivan. The Times observed the anniversary with an editorial declaring that the ruling “represents the clearest and most forceful defense of press freedom in American history.”

Whether or not that is true, it assuredly enables the press to win the vast majority of libel suits brought against it. The great difficulty a libel plaintiff has in winning suits against the press assures that the press as a whole will regard Times vs. Sullivan as an unalloyed plus.

That’s too bad because there are some things in the ruling that are not good for the press nor for American society as a whole. And so long as Times v. Sullivan is regarded as beyond reproach, the country is denied the kind of critical examination of libel law all court rulings deserve.

Award-winning research at the University of Iowa has established that what plaintiffs want above all else when they bring a libel action is vindication of their claim that the story about them was false. But Times v. Sullivan does not make falsity the central issue in libel suits. Many times falsity is not addressed at all. Instead, the key issue for libel of public figures, the high court declared in Sullivan, is whether the press was at fault. The court defined fault as actual malice – that is, knowingly making a false statement or making it recklessly, that is, while having serious doubts about its truth.

Determining whether a reporter knew what he wrote was false or had serious doubts about it requires probing the reporter’s state of mind – why he wrote what he did – plus a whole series of questions related to the editorial process. The press ordinarily would find such questions unacceptably intrusive, but doesn’t make an issue of it because the actual malice hurdle erected by the Supreme Court enables the press to win almost all libel cases. So the press accepts the good with the bad in Times v. Sullivan and more less pretends the bad does not exist.

Times v. Sullivan does a poor job of protecting reputation while opening the editorial process to excessive scrutiny. The ruling also denies the public definitive answers when facts are in dispute. The ruling clearly needs more work, but don’t expect the press to press for it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, American policy-makers can take a sort of perverse satisfaction from recent Russian actions in Crimea and Ukraine. They bear a striking similarity to the way this country has thrown its weight around in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Grenada, Chile and Cuba, to name a few of the places where we either have sent troops or found other ways to try to destabilize reigning governments, some of which were duly elected.

All of the above-named countries are in the U.S. backyard, where we have practically assumed a right to intervene if a country‘s leadership displeases us. But it’s not only in the Western Hemisphere where we have unilaterally overthrown governments. Just 11 years ago, we sent troops half a world away to attack Iraq, a country that never harmed the U.S., for reasons that proved groundless.

Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine appear to be lawless, but they are at least in areas neighboring Russia. In Crimea, Russia also has military interests.

Protests against Russia’s aggression are justifiable. But unless they are coupled with admission that this country’s skirts are not as clean as they ought to be, the criticism of Russia by members of Congress and others in this country is hypocritical and too readily refuted.

The invasion of Iraq was a costly mistake. We are learning now that the cost includes moral authority. It’s too bad that the U.S. case against Russia’s aggression cannot be made while occupying the moral high ground.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Rachel Maddow and Barney Frank should know better but there they were the other night on Maddow’s program on MSNBC discussing the “defense” budget. The occasion was Defense (that word again) Secretary Hagel’s new budget for a trimmer military.

The Associated Press story about Hagel’s budget, under a head, “Defense Cuts Proposed,” reported, “The defense spending plan will be part of the 2015 budget that President Obama will submit to Congress next week.” “Defense” in the military sense means to “protect.” Who can object to spending for that? Because no one can the press ought to recognize it as a loaded word that should be used with care. Instead the word is used promiscuously as a synonym for “military,” as the New York Times did the other day when it referred to somebody as “a defense expert” when it should have more precisely described him as “military expert.”

Rachel Maddow especially should know better, having earned a doctorate from Oxford and written a book subtitled “The Unmooring of American Military Power.”

“Defense” is so entrenched in the language it may not be possible for it to be dislodged. But the press ought to at least try. It shouldn’t be too difficult. After all, the Iraq war is still fresh in the public’s memory, and by no stretch can that be considered a war of defense; it was a war of aggression, pure and simple. So let’s quit misleading people with talk about defense expenditures when the reality is that it’s often non-defense spending for war.

Sunday, February 23, 2014


The United Nations charter was adopted after a war in which Japan and Germany committed acts of aggression. Bloodshed in the world today does not come from such cross-border warfare. The upheavals in Syria and Ukraine are essentially civil wars. Even so, the U.N. charter was written with language flexible enough to enable the world organization to intervene. It says the U.N. can act “to maintain international peace and security…in situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.”

The fighting in Syria surely has the potential to spill over that country’s borders and create a much wider war. So, too, in Ukraine, given the opportunities there for conflict with Russia.

The Obama administration wisely has kept its distance from both wars. That doesn’t mean it should refrain from using its influence in the interests of peace. It should urge the parties in both conflicts to engage with the United Nations. The organization was created, after all, “to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace.”

The U.N. charter prohibits the world organization from intervening ‘”in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” But that shouldn’t be a bar to U.N. action if the parties themselves invite intervention, as they should. Besides, in a world of drones and intercontinental missiles, the words “domestic jurisdiction” have lost their original meaning.

So by all means, as killing continues in Syria and threatens to reignite in Ukraine, let’s dust off the United Nations charter and put the organization to work.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


Anyone who has ever been victimized by one of Rupert Murdoch’s scandal sheets will be thrilled by the March issue of Vanity Fair. The lengthy article in the issue, “Seduced and Abandoned,” about Murdoch’s divorce from his much younger wife, Wendi Deng, is as seamy and steamy as anything Murdoch has published and is fitting payback for the grief his brand of journalism has caused others. Murdoch now knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of scandal reporting.

The star of the piece is Chinese-born Wendi, depicted as ambitious, profane and promiscuous. She is presented as such a shrew you find yourself sympathizing with Rupert. Wendi is reported in the article to have abused him both physically and verbally. I, for one, began to wonder if Britain’s phone hacking scandal involving Murdoch’s minions might have had its origins in Rupert’s interest in learning how many others in his circle were as miserably married as he was.

A major supporting role in the Vanity Fair piece is played by Tony Blair, the former British prime minister. Blair is pictured as a sexually voracious scoundrel who received many political favors from Murdoch and who repaid him by bedding his wife.

Vanity Fair plunged a knife into Murdoch and then twisted it by writing, “Several years ago, when [Blair] was in his 50s, he described his sexual appetite as inexhaustible….In 2005, asked by The Sun if he could have sex five times a night, Blair, who was suffering from a slipped disk, replied, 'At least; I can do it more, depending on how I feel.' 'Are you up to it?' Blair’s wife was asked. 'He always is,' she responded."

Murdoch is 82, his onetime wife 45. If nothing else, Vanity Fair established with its piece on Wendi, Rupert and Tony that it can give lessons on sleazeball journalism to the folks on Murdoch’s payroll.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Nicholas Kristoff’s New York Times column has called attention to the prevalence of domestic sex trafficking, calling it “one of the most severe human rights violations in America today. In some cases it amounts to a modern form of slavery.”

Kristoff was writing about pimps who recruit young girls into prostitution and hold them in a kind of bondage, selling them for sex and pocketing their earnings.

But if you Google “pimps,” a rosier picture emerges. The Website Wikipedia reports: “Since the Internet became widely available, it has become the preferred medium for prostitution. Prostitutes increasingly use websites to solicit sexual encounters. In turn, pimps have used these sites to broker their women.

“The use of the Internet for prostitution as well as other changes in the sex industry have resulted in…allowing prostitutes to deal with clients directly. This has rendered pimps largely superfluous, at least in the United States. In 2011, Wired magazine reported that of 11 pimps working out of New York’s midtown Manhattan in 1999, all were out of work within four years.”

Perhaps, but I am skeptical. New York is atypical in many ways, and I suspect also in the sex industry. Nashville, Tenn., which Kristoff studied, is probably more representative. He found that in terms of the sex trade, Nashville “is every town USA. Sex Trafficking is an American Universal: The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation reported in 2011 that over a two-year period, trafficking occurred in 85 per cent of Tennessee’s counties, including rural areas.

The truth may be somewhere in between. When I questioned a detective in the town where I live – a place with lots of visitors from out of town, a lively bar scene and plenty of streetwalkers – he confirmed that the Internet has changed the sex trade, but that prostitutes and pimps still operate the old-fashioned way.

Pimps provide support for psychologically needy women that no internet site can furnish. But that doesn’t make pimps valued members of society. Communities are well rid of them. The press nationwide should pressure their police departments to make their communities pimp-free zones.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


Shirley Temple Black died the other day. At 85. She was a multi-talented child star, idolized by millions. As an adult, she was almost as accomplished, serving in several diplomatic posts. All of it was described in her obituary, which spilled out from Page One of the New York Times onto a full inside page.

Upon her death, readers learned a great deal about the one-time entertainer, including how, as an adolescent on her first visit to MGM studios, “the producer Arthur Freed unzipped his trousers and exposed himself to her. Being innocent of male anatomy, she responded by giggling, and he threw her out of his office.”

Something readers didn’t learn was the cause of Shirley Temple Black’s death. A salacious incident that occurred decades ago was thought to be newsworthy, but something that had just happened was so skimpily reported it was not possible to know how long she had been ill or what took her life.

The press tends to regard the cause of death as so unpleasant, the less said about it the better. The local paper I read runs a page or more of obituaries daily, but never is the cause of death reported in any of the obits.

Why people die conveys important information. Not all that long ago the press almost never reported AIDS as a cause of death. When a few prominent papers finally broke the taboo, the public first realized that AIDs was almost of epidemic proportions and the disease became a public health priority.

Suicide now occupies the place AIDS once did. Families and the press are skittish about revealing when suicide is the cause of death. But the price of respecting the privacy of families is to deny the public information about the extent of what is surely a community’s mental health problem.

Paid obituaries are a profit center for many newspapers. It’s time papers look beyond profit and realize the public benefit in informing people more fully about death.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Gilbert Cranberg: WHAT DO EDITORS DO?

What do editors do? Primarily, they must be inquisitive, so they have to ask questions, lots of them – of community leaders and of their own staffers. If they fail to do that, they will produce papers with gaps in coverage. And when that happens, they have to admit they shortchanged readers.

One of the most generous admissions of that sort of error was in the New York Times a couple of years ago by Bill Keller, the paper’s former executive editor. Keller admitted that on his watch the Times published “some notoriously credulous stories about Iraqi weapons.” The Bush administration quoted Times coverage to show that the weapons the administration cited to justify its invasion of Iraq actually existed. So the Times not only misled readers, it helped validate the phony case for war made by the government.

That’s a heavy load for any editor to bear. But as Keller leaves the Times, as he recently announced he would do to head up a non-profit journalism venture, he can do so having set the record straight about his part in what he described as “a monumental blunder.”

That’s more than many editors can say. With few exceptions, the press supported going to war against Iraq but precious few have admitted they were in error. Colin Powell apologized for his influential pro-war speech to the United Nations, but almost none of those who editorially lauded Powell’s address followed Powell’s lead in expressing regrets.

I, for one, was unimpressed at the time by Powell’s case for war and criticized it. But given prevailing opinion, I was unable to get what I wrote before a large audience. An editor who rejected the piece did subsequently say privately that he should have run it. That falls short of an admission to readers that they were shortchanged, but, hey, it’s something.


It almost goes without saying that big-time athletics on American campuses is big business. So big that colleges and universities can afford to pay coaches millions of dollars. Blame greedy administrators and alumni, who demand winning records year after year, for turning institutions of higher learning into farm teams for the major leagues.

Blame also the press, which feeds the public’s appetite for winning seasons and sports news generally. The other day, my reasonably responsible local paper devoted nearly three full pages of the sports section to the outcome of “National Signing Day,” the day when athletes sign with the colleges and universities of their choice. The paper reported which athletes decided to go where and which institutions had the best recruiting classes.

Universities do publicize key statistics about the quality of applicants they accept; but if the press reports routinely on the success these institutions have in enrolling the best students I missed it. You can bet that if the press wrote about the recruitment of top students and faculty with the same zeal it shows in reporting about star athletes coming to campus the public would pay attention. It might even demand to know what is being done to beat the bushes to achieve quality in the classroom.

The press ought to campaign for a National Signing Day for talented students and report which schools recruited the most capable classes. The press ought to tally the results and publicize them heavily. Taxpayers who foot the bill for education have an interest in this kind of news, which the press has an obligation to provide.

Monday, February 10, 2014


It’s a mixed blessing that Bill Keller is leaving his perch as op-ed columnist for the New York Times to become editor-in-chief of a new non-profit devoted to covering the criminal justice system.

The Times is perhaps the most influential news organization in the country, if not the world. As a columnist, Keller could write about anything. As head of what will be called The Marshall Project, he will be confined to a relatively narrow area. Narrow but neglected and important.

The Marshall Project is expected to have a staff of about 30 and publish its work online. Keller has so much credibility as a journalist it’s likely that mainstream publications will pay attention to the issues he tackles and either reprint material or publicize Marshall Project findings.

The growing interest in the issue of income inequality makes this an opportune time for a focus on criminal justice. From start – the setting of bail -- to finish – the sentence -- the criminal justice system is rife with bias against the poor. The Marshall Project could spend all of its time and money on a single aspect of the system – inadequate legal representation – and not exhaust the subject.

Once, during a visit to a maximum-security prison, an inmate asked me, “Why are there only poor people here?” A profound and troubling question. Bill Keller has his work cut out for him to answer what may well be the central question he will face.

Friday, February 7, 2014


There’s an apology glut loose in the land, or so it would seem. A columnist in the Feb. 4 New York Times wrote:

“The age of the apology is clearly upon us.…It has become de rigueur, an almost reflexive response….The art of the apology has become a carefully choreographed dance: Say you are sorry, show vulnerability, tell everyone you are ‘taking responsibility’ and then end with ‘I hope to put this behind me.’”

A well-timed and -phrased apology has a magical ability to make people feel better, so much so that medical malpractice suits have been known to disappear with the soothing balm of just a few words. I know of a brain surgeon who faced a sure-win claim for operating on the wrong side of a patient’s head, but was spared a suit by immediately admitting the error and apologizing profusely for it.

Libel claims are especially easy to avoid with a retraction or apology. A study I did with several colleagues found that many plaintiffs went to court, not to receive money damages, but for a finding that what was said about them was false. The news organization that treats complainants with respect and recognizes that claims of falsity may be valid has a very good chance of not ending up on the losing end of a libel verdict.

News organizations should not be too quick to apologize; this is as wrong-headed as stubbornly refusing to admit error. An unwarranted apology is a disservice both to staffers and to the public. But the subjects of erroneous news stories are entitled to vindication. When they show up in the newsroom to complain, they are entitled to fair treatment even when they are not accompanied by a lawyer. Despite the surfeit in public life of excessive mea culpas, honest handling of victims of journalistic malpractice is both good business and good journalism.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Gilbert Cranberg: CRAZINESS AT FORT LEE?

Invective has fallen on hard times judging from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s response to David Wildstein’s charge that Christie had advance knowledge of the plan to snarl George Washington Bridge traffic. Once, an accusation would be met by a simple understandable denunciation – Liar! Thief! Christie’s office chose a different route. It dug into Wildstein’s childhood and reported that he had once been described as “tumultuous.”

A lot of New Jerseyans would have trouble spelling and pronouncing “tumultuous,” let alone know that it means full of commotion, uproar. In the long history of political name-calling, this may be the first recorded use of tumultuous as an epithet.

Chalk it up possibly to the role of consultants. Have a public relations problem? Call in a consultant. Now and then they may advise to tell the truth, but that may not necessarily be the best course. The absolute worst course is to dredge up what some kid said or did years ago. Whoever advised Christie to bring up Wildstein’s childhood did him no favor. If Christie’s political goose wasn’t cooked before, his decision to tattle that Wildstein had been accused by a high school social studies teacher of “deceptive behavior” or that he had been an anonymous blogger or had had “a strange habit” of registering web addresses for other people without telling them may or may not reflect character defects by Wildstein, but if so, they reflect just as poorly on Christie for putting him on the state payroll.

Tying up traffic as a political payback was farcical, made even more so by the governor’s claim that a central figure in the tie-up has a history of tumultuous conduct. Who knows, when all the investigations are complete, we may yet find that what looked like craziness was really just that.

Saturday, February 1, 2014


A statement in 2013 by Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, is being cited often these days as evidence that Republicans in Congress may be open to some measures to liberalize immigration policy. Cantor’s statement: “One of the great founding principles of our country was that children should not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.” Identical language is used in the Republican statement of immigration reform principles adopted Jan. 30 by the House leadership.

Both are admirable statements of principle unfortunately marred by their choice of words. What “mistakes” did the parents of the children who would be helped by the proposed policy make? A mistake means to blunder, to make an unwise choice. Was it a mistake for immigrant families to want better lives, including the freedoms this country offers? Obviously not.

The mistake, if it can be termed that, was in coming here illegally. Given the choices open to them, the decisions made by millions to overstay visas or to cross borders without visas were understandable.

If children should not be punished for the understandable acts of their parents, Cantor’s and the GOP’s logic should lead them to advocate “an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship” for parents as well as for children. Otherwise, Republicans will find themselves in the position of advocating tearing families apart.

Make no mistake, it was no mistake for immigrants to want to live here. Once Republicans concede that obvious fact, logic compels them to support permanent legal residence both for children and for the parents who brought them here. Few Republicans are likely to want to go that far. But sooner or later they will have to confront how they can justify disparate treatment for members of the same family.


George W. Bush picked up some bad habits in secrecy-saturated Washington during his stay there. He brought them with him to a recent speaking engagement in Sarasota, FL.

Bush was in town to raise money for a Sarasota library, which benefited from sale of tickets to the talk; it was a sellout. How much was Bush paid for the talk? Sorry, that’s confidential. Was it true, as the local paper reported, that no note-taking or photography was permitted at Bush’s talk? That’s covered by the contract we had with him. Can I see the contract? That’s private information. And so on to all questions concerning Bush’s appearance in Sarasota.

Libraries are institutions dedicated to openness. How much of the inappropriate secrecy was demanded by Bush and how much was self-imposed by the library association sponsors can’t be known because of the shroud of secrecy covering the event, but apparently much of it was required by Bush or his agents.

Bush did not leave the government payroll when he left the White House. As an ex-president, he is paid $400,000 a year. On top of that, he receives a tax-free $50,000 expense account.

It’s not asking too much for taxpayers to receive more openness than they are getting in return for their generosity. It’s outrageous that they could not take notes in Sarasota when the former president spoke, as is the three-minute limit on press access to the talk. Equally outrageous is the curtain of secrecy surrounding the arrangements for his appearance. If former presidents won’t voluntarily disclose the terms when they rent themselves out, and sponsors don’t insist on it, Congress should compel it.


The Des Moines Register had quite a scary headline for Iowa Republicans the other day — over a Rekha Basu column:

GOP’s lack of
diversity could
make it obsolete

But if you want an even scarier headline, consider this one:

GOP’s lack of
diversity won’t
make it obsolete

As a bonus to the thought-provoking headline, the column had the best one-sentence summary of the Iowa GOP that any paper has published in the past decade or so: “It is inhospitable to anyone but white evangelical Christians who oppose abortion and who think being gay is a lifestyle choice.” (Maybe Rekha could have worked ignorance of evolution into that, but why quibble?)

Those on the political/religious right who take offense at the inhospitable-to-anyone-but line might find solace in the fact that her comments are scripturally sound. It’s right there in Isaiah 40:3 or Mark 1:3: “…the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” No, not the wilderness of the Old Testament Israel or the New Testament Galilee. We’re talking about today’s wilderness of political reporting and commentary that refuses to recognize what a farce the Iowa religious right has made of Iowa’s holy of holies — the sacred caucuses!

For more than a decade, the Iowa press and the national press have refused to acknowledge what Gil Cranberg, former editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register and Tribune, began writing about almost 40 years ago — how the Iowa caucuses needed some tweaking way back in the ‘70s and how those same caucuses are now a certified basket case today thanks to the stranglehold the religious right has on the Iowa GOP.

Much of the concern about the Iowa caucuses is papered over because, come January of presidential election years, the caucuses are the only game in town. And the national press treats them in serious fashion, just as the gambler in the Old West played the saloon’s rigged roulette wheel “because it’s the only wheel in town.”

Small wonder Rekha Basu’s column should come as a breath of fresh air to those who marvel at the biennial absurdities in the Iowa GOP platform. And, of course, there is the compounding absurdity of how political reporters and commentators see no relevance at all between the fact that the folks who write the planks are also pretty much the folks who want to dictate who should be the presidential candidate of the Republican Party.

The latest suggestion that the Iowa GOP’s failings won’t make it obsolete is how Democratic and Republican leaders in the state turn handsprings over how great they are at compromising.

Look at how great we are at the state level, they say. Look at how great politics is at the state level, the press reports.

Why, we’ve learned to compromise.

Both parties agree to adjourn their sessions in the Iowa House and the Senate at the same time!

Both parties say public education is important!

Both parties are proud of the University of Iowa and Iowa State University basketball teams!

And that’s about it. Things get a bit more divisive when the talk to turns to pollution of Iowa waterways, a crumbling infrastructure and other aspects of our civic life.

But have you heard? The Iowa caucuses are only two years away and Iowa will again be the center of the political universe, at least for those who fervently oppose abortion and think being gay is a lifestyle choice.