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

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.