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

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Gilbert Cranberg: MONEY AND SPEECH

Some things are true but false. A major example is the often cited statement by the Supreme Court equating money with speech. Of course, you can buy an issue ad with money and that is unquestionably an exercise in free speech. But money also buys access to the political system and that is much less clearly an exercise in free speech.

No one has ever been corrupted by reading an ad in a newspaper, but political candidates excessively influenced by big money have corrupted the political process. The political landscape is littered with examples of politicians using their influence for corrupt purposes.

So, is the use of money purely an exercise of speech or is it something more? The American Civil Liberties Union is seriously split over the question. Long-time members disagree with the organization’s objections to restrictions on campaign advocacy and spending. Absolutists in the organization see any government restraint on spending as a violation of the first amendment. The ACLU is the nation’s pre-eminent advocate on free speech issues. So when members disagree as vehemently as they do now the rift is a serious one.

It’s much too simplistic to declare that speech is synonymous with spending. Too much corruption has been evident in the way access to candidates has been abused. It is obvious that the high court must revisit the question of money and speech. When it does it has to recognize that equating money with speech is unrealistic. The corrupting influence of excessive access to the powerful in society is too obvious to ignore. It is that access that makes a mockery of the court’s insistence that spending is simply an exercise of free speech.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


For all the red-white-and-blue hurrahs and chest thumping so dear to the hearts of those who promote the Iowa caucuses, it is sobering — even depressing — to consider how the GOP caucuses don’t much care about the wisdom of the U.S Constitution in general or the spirit of Article VI of the Constitution in particular.

Sadly, the last 20 words of Article VI not only are ignored by the Iowa caucuses but are kind of a sick joke when it comes to the race for the GOP presidential nomination. Those words from the hallowed Constitution: “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

No religious test? What a hoot! Those sympathetic to James Madison and his founding friends need not apply for a booth at the Iowa Straw Poll.

No religious test? Tell that to “Cary Gordon, a Christian conservative pastor at a Sioux City church,” as he is identified and invoked from time to time when the Des Moines Register wants to report whether a potential GOP candidate passes muster in a Christian “born again” litmus test.

No religious test? Tell that to Gov. Terry Branstad and the press who make it clear to prospective candidates that, when it comes to the caucuses, the folks who really must be impressed are the likes of Charles Hurley of the Iowa Family Policy Center and Robert Vander Plaats of the equally evangelical The Family Leader.

Yes, the Constitution does set restrictions on government and not on citizens. So, a private company can punish an employee for expression that the First Amendment will protect when it comes to limiting government. Likewise, while legislators — at least so far — cannot declare the U.S. to be a Christian nation, millions of voters can take that notion to the polls, as many clergymen urge them to do every election. And now we have candidates for the GOP nomination campaigning along the same religious lines regardless of the spirit or advice of the Constitution. (And while the Constitution focuses on what government can and cannot do, the document does not prohibit citizens from following its spirit!)

James Madison and his 18th century colleagues feared the likes of an Iowa caucus and its de facto endorsement of a religious test for candidates. As legal scholar Burt Neuborne writes in his new book, Madison’s Music: “The Founders knew from personal experience that true believers often use the state to impose their beliefs on others and to persecute, harass, and even annihilate non believers…That’s why, even before there was a Bill of Rights, Article VI…forbade the political majority from imposing religious tests for public office, one of the few protections of civil liberties in the text of the 1787 Constitution.”

Article VI is fightin’ words to the Iowa GOP and caucus promoters. Perhaps that is to be expected, given the penchant of true believers to shove their ideologies down everyone else’s throat.

So for the past 20 or 30 years, the Iowa GOP has raced to the religious right in its party platforms and what it sees as Gospel-driven demands on public policy — from a war against science to anti-gay fervor and pro-gun policies that stop just short of mandating that everyone must be armed to better end violence in our society.

It’s bizarre, and so is the fact that the news media are just about oblivious to such trends — for a longtime ignoring the Iowa GOP platforms as irrelevant, while compromise and common sense are the real irrelevancies in today’s Iowa GOP.

Perhaps in time, the Iowa caucuses as currently configured will become irrelevant, too. One can only hope because, after all, “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

I read that somewhere.

Saturday, May 23, 2015


Federal District Court  Judge Jed S. Rakoff (Southern District of New York) recently singled out Iowa Federal Judge Mark Bennett for praise calling him “a brave federal district court judge”. Bennett is one of the few federal judges to speak out against the unspeakable use of mandatory minimum penalties even for first time offenders of minor crimes. 

Lives are thoughtlessly ruined by long prison terms. Judge Rakoff is critical of the federal judiciary for not speaking forcefully about this outrage. When he singled out Mark Bennett he listed him among several courageous federal district court judges: Paul Friedman of the District of Columbia and Michael Ponsor of Massachusettes. Judges can be convinced beyond doubt that justice would be better served by probation or a short term of incarceration but their hands are tied by laws that mandate imprisonment. Judges know firsthand the manifest injustice of this policy but all too often carry it out in silence. Mark Bennett and the other members of the judiciary who speak up about it are to be commended beyond measure.

Among other things, mandatory minimums are thought to exacerbate racial disparities in the criminal justice system.  Judge Rakoff's praise for judges who speak up is welcome but that in itself is a half-measure. No candidate for the bench should be considered qualified without evidence of a demonstrated commitment to equal justice.

That means at the bare minimum that no judge can tolerate the use of mandatory minimum sentences.