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, March 11, 2015


Succumbing to the temptation that one usually knows what is better for others, may I suggest that instead of giving up chocolate, gin or cursing for Lent, we’d be a lot better off if people would give up ignorance. Give it a try. Forsake ignorance, if only just for what’s left of the 40 days of Lent.

That notion occurred as I leafed through the March issue of National Geographic, in which the cover story, THE WAR ON SCIENCE, is a horror story all its own — peppered as it is with graphic lift outs such as “A THIRD of Americans believe humans have existed in their present form since time began” and “LESS THAN HALF of all Americans believe the Earth is warming because humans are burning fossil fuels,” along with lines about people who believe Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were pranksters in a hoax about landing on the moon

Predictably, for me, this led to revisiting a favorite quote from the play, Inherit The Wind, a drama about the so-called 1925 “Monkey Trial” over the teaching of evolution in Tennessee.

On the witness stand, the anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan character asks the courtroom to consider the defense attorney, Clarence Darrow: “Is it possible that something is holy to the celebrated agnostic?"

“Yes!” Darrow replies. “The individual human mind. In a child’s power to master the multiplication table there is more sanctity than in all your shouted ‘Amens!’ ‘Holy Holies!’ and Hosannahs!’ An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man’s knowledge is more of a miracle than…the parting of waters.”

Those lines still resonate this Lenten season, perhaps even as much as the Sunday Old Testament Lesson or the Epistle or the Gospel for the day. Indeed, the need to give up ignorance for Lent is reinforced everywhere, it seems.

In an op-ed piece for The New York Times — Happy Talk History — Timothy Egan notes that not only are many political leaders in denial about science, as noted in National Geographic, they’re also in denial about history. Because history courses were not sufficiently pro-American and pro-Biblical, Egan wrote, Oklahoma “State Rep. Dan Fisher, a Republican, a Baptist minister and an active promoter of the view that church must meddle more in the affairs of state… got a legislative committee to approve an ‘emergency bill’ to ban A.P. history courses for college credit in Oklahoma high schools.”

The “good news”, Egan writes, is “Fisher has been mocked, mercilessly, in his home state. His legislation seeks to deny high school students access to a voluntary program that offers them college credit — a leg up in life, and a tuition-saver.”

The not so good news is that denial of science and denial of history is in vogue. The National Geographic notes, “We live in an age when all manner of scientific knowledge — from the safety of fluoride and vaccines to the reality of climate change — faces organized and often furious opposition.” Empowered by their own certainty and reinforced by fellow believers, “doubters have declared war on” well-founded consensus.

Small wonder that satirist Andy Borowitz of The New Yorker should write, “In the hopes of appealing to Republican primary voters, candidates for the 2016 Presidential nomination are working around the clock to unlearn everything that they have learned since the third grade, aides to the candidates have confirmed.

“With the Iowa caucuses less than a year away, the hopefuls are busy scrubbing their brains of basic facts of math, science, and geography in an attempt to resemble the semi-sentient beings that Republican primary voters prize.”

That seems an invitation to counter fear-driven and fear-driving candidates by giving up ignorance for Lent. And maybe beyond?

Michael Gartner: RICK GREEN

The affable Rick Green is off to Cincinnati, so now there will be yet another publisher of The Des Moines Register.

That is not good news.

It is not easy being publisher of a newspaper. It particularly is not easy these days — when the industry is changing dramatically and no one really knows how the economics will play out. The Register doesn’t make its finances public, but it has been laying off workers regularly in recent years, and its circulation has plunged to the lowest levels in nearly 100 years. So either money isn’t pouring in over the transom or else it is being sent out in indefensible amounts to Gannett headquarters in Virginia. Both of those possibilities are bad.

Uncertainty is the only certainty in the newspaper business today. Indeed, it would be foolish to bet that there will be home delivery of the daily Register in five years. And if there is, it would be foolish to assume that there’s anything in it for readers over 45 — the traditional print readers but the upper end of the newspaper’s target demographic, in this aging state, both in print and on its loopy Web site.

So The Register needs all the help it can get. Time will tell if Rick Green set The Register off in the right direction — or the wrong one. But he had all but one of the skills needed to run the place. He understood news. He understood business. He got involved in the community, at least to a degree. And he was relentlessly upbeat, at least in public. An added benefit was that he truly cared about the First Amendment — in seeming contrast to a few of his predecessors — and spent some of his scarce dollars fighting for openness.

But he lacked one thing: He didn’t know the territory.

That’s a huge liability to overcome. (I know. I spent 15 months as editor of the Louisville Courier-Journal, where I felt like I was editing a newspaper with one hand tied behind my back. I didn’t know Mitch McConnell from Willie Shoemaker, though I grew to admire one of them.) An editor and a publisher must have a great knowledge — and a great affection — for their city and state, a knowledge that makes them confident of their facts and an affection that spurs them to comment truthfully about those facts. Good and bad.

It takes a lifetime — a lifetime of insatiable curiosity — to learn at least some of those facts. As for the affection, it’s kind of like falling in love. At some point, it just happens.

Rick Green knew nothing about Iowa when he came here from California to edit the newspaper four years ago; that’s not his fault, it’s the fault of people at corporate headquarters who look at newspaper editors and publishers as fungible goods and move them around like inventory to stock a store whose shelves are bare. But editors are not auto parts, publishers are not bananas. Rick Green is a quick study, and he learned a lot, about as much as you can absorb in four years, and he didn’t commit any awful gaffes.

But the whole time, I suspect, his heart has been in Cincinnati. He was born and raised in Ohio, he graduated from Ohio University, he spent 16 years in the newsroom of the Enquirer — and his eyes sparkle when he talks about his years there. He knows the territory — and he is in love with it. He’ll do a great job in Cincinnati. The paper is lucky the corporate masters didn’t pick someone for Cincinnati who grew up in Vermont, say — or Iowa.

But where does that leave The Register?

Can Gannett find someone who knows what Joy Corning and Jo Ann Zimmerman and Roger Jepsen and Sally Pederson and Terry Branstad have in common? Can it find someone who knows the stories of Jack Trice and Nile Kinnick? Who follows the price of soybeans and knows how many bushels an acre of corn produces in Hamilton County? Who understands the Iowa school-aid formula (well, that’s probably asking too much) and the history of liquor-by-the drink?

As well as someone who can build a rate card and reach those generations who think print is ridiculous and who text each other even when they’re sitting at the same restaurant table? Someone who can wring every dollar out of the budget to make sure the newspaper has the manpower to cover the courts as well as Fifty Shades of Grey and to summarize city council meetings with the same thoroughness it devotes to “Girls” and “The Bachelor?”

And figure out a way to price what editors and publishers increasingly call “the product?”

Good luck in finding that person.

And good luck to Rick Green, who is the right person for Cincinnati.

Thursday, March 5, 2015


There was something surreal about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent performance in Washington. Israel is militarily strong but essentially weak in that its existence is wholly dependent on the United States. Yet there was Netanyahu lecturing this country on how to conduct U.S. foreign policy. Call it chutzpah.

U. S. House Leader Nancy Pelosi rebuked Netanyahu for a speech she describes as condescending and insulting. Not many American politicians are willing to use such strong language in describing the Israeli leadership. Call it a straw in the wind, a willingness to subject the U.S. - Israeli relationship to the same critical standard we apply to all countries. In that sense Netanyahu may have done his country a huge disservice by overplaying his hand and seeming to bully this country into following his country’s lead on Iran.


Lyrics to If I Only Had A Brain (From Wizard of Oz)

(As a GOP theme song)

We could do away with Perrys
With Carsons and with Christies
And with the man from Bain
We could do real soul searchin’
Instead of phony churchin’
If we only had a brain

We’d listen to the people
And not just the creep who’ll
Bankroll our campaign

With the thoughts we’d be thinkin'
We could be the party of Lincoln
If we only had a brain

Oh, we could do so much
To close the income gap
Cope with climate change, take ISIS off the map
And then dysfunction we could zap

We’d wonder ‘bout Giuliani
Our latter-day McCarthy
Good grief! The guy’s a pain
We would do our ‘nash-nul’ duty
Forsakin’ guys like Rudy
If we only had a brain

We would not just be a poutin’
Trumpin’, hatin’ and shoutin’
And just plain raisin’ Cain
We could win the election
Say goodbye to dis-affection
If we only had a brain