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

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.