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."