WELCOME to the debut of “The Truth Is!”, a blog of reporting and commentary that aims to be informative, thoughtful and provocative. At least initially, the blog will have a strong heartland flavor by virtue of the connection of a number of us to Cowles family journalism. I am former editor of the Des Moines Register’s opinion pages. Another contributor, Michael Gartner, is former editor of the paper; he later served as president of NBC News. Another former Register editor who has agreed to contribute, Geneva Overholser, is director of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg school of journalism. Followers of the blog will have access also to the work of Herbert Strentz of Des Moines, a close Register and other newspaper watcher who once headed Drake University’s journalism school. Bill Leonard, a longtime Register editorial writer, will add insights.

“The Truth Is!” will be supervised by my daughter, Marcia Wolff, a communications lawyer for 20 years with Arnold and Porter (Washington, D.C.). Invaluable technical assistance in assembling and maintaining the blog is provided by my grandsons Julian Cranberg, a college first-year, and Daniel Wolff, a high school senior.

If you detect a whiff of nepotism in this operation, so be it. All of it is strictly a labor of love. —Gil Cranberg

Thursday, October 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.