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UI officials: Bloom doesn't speak for the university

Officials spoke out after several days of controversy about an article Bloom wrote for a national website

U. of Iowa campus/Iowa City looking north from the Pentacrest/Old Capitol (lower left) up the Iowa River. Clinton St. bottom to top/right side with Pappajohn Business College center. (Sourcemedia Group)
U. of Iowa campus/Iowa City looking north from the Pentacrest/Old Capitol (lower left) up the Iowa River. Clinton St. bottom to top/right side with Pappajohn Business College center. (Sourcemedia Group)

IOWA CITY — University of Iowa professor Stephen Bloom neither speaks for nor represents the university with his not-so-flattering views of the state, UI officials said Wednesday after several days of controversy about an article Bloom wrote for a national website.

But Bloom, a tenured professor of journalism and mass communication, has the right to express his opinion about any topic, they said.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that other members of the university community endorse his viewpoint,” UI spokesman Tom Moore said.

President Sally Mason said that as of Wednesday afternoon, she had received about a dozen emails from UI alums and state residents upset about Bloom’s article. She characterized those responses as “reasoned and thoughtful.”

Days after “Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life” first appeared Friday on the website of The Atlantic, reactions continued to consume Facebook news feeds, send bloggers to their keyboards and drive online discussions.It was the most-viewed story on the site for two days running.

It’s generated enough discussion and dissent that another roundup piece was posted, highlighting the conversation it has provoked, said Garance Franke-Ruta, senior editor at The Atlantic. The site also has received written response pieces, including some from Iowans, that editors are considering how to handle, she said.

“We don’t see his piece as the final word on this state or even our final word on this story,” said Franke-Ruta, the editor on the article.

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Bloom approached The Atlantic with the story, Franke-Ruta said. It’s a story about the state, but also a story about one man and his view of it, she said. Some people have pointed out what the magazine sees as “small, specific factual” issues, Franke-Ruta said, and editors are investigating those and have made some corrections.

“I think people’s objections were more with his observations than with his specific facts,” she said.

The Bloom piece touches on Iowa’s economic challenges and demographics, but it also refers to its residents as “an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth” and implies that an Iowan would only ever own a dog for hunting purposes.

The writer is on leave from the UI this year, serving as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. He did not return phone and email messages Wednesday but did give a statement to The Gazette on Monday, saying his goal with the piece was to shine a light into dark corners. Good journalism, Bloom said in the statement, is making observations, even if readers might not agree with those observations.

Iowa City attorney Bob Downer, a member of the Board of Regents that oversees the state’s public universities, said that while Bloom is entitled to his opinion, he disagrees with much of it and thinks there are some factual errors.

“I understand some of the things that he is saying,” Downer said, adding that he thinks many of Iowa’s good attributes got lost in the telling.

Several state legislators said free speech is free speech, especially when it’s unpopular.

“He has every right to express his feelings. I have no problem with that. I disagree with him fundamentally,” Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said.

Kaufmann, a community college instructor, said he thought Bloom’s piece contained “stereotyped innuendo” not based on fact.

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Gov. Terry Branstad said in a statement that Bloom is “way out of touch with what Iowa is like today.”

Faculty members have academic freedom and freedom of speech, but that works both ways, said David Perlmutter, director of the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Professors can write what they want to write, but everybody has the freedom to criticize or challenge that, Perlmutter said.

“There’s a discussion going on with lots of back and forth, criticizing and challenging, but that’s the way the system works,” Perlmutter said.

The Gazette Des Moines Bureau’s Rod Boshart contributed to this report.

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