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The most important news in Iowa appears to be -- an essay that makes people mad

For a while Wednesday night, after I finished an e-mail exchange with The Atlantic about The Gazette's Eastern Sunday front page from 1994, I thought I would end up being the last person on Earth to write about University of Iowa journalism and mass communication Professor Stephen Bloom's Atlantic piece, "Observations on 20 Years of Iowa Life."

I spent most of Wednesday talking with others about the piece, checking archived material and then making up to my wife for a long day at the office by taking her out for dinner. Surely the furor would simmer, I thought, but I ought to blog something. This is 2011, after all, and everyone else is blogging about the paper of which I am the editor.

The beast, it seems, is in no danger of dying off so that we can move on to more important matters -- and those matters exist. I'm certain I will not be the last person to write about Bloom's piece.

My observations are from 55 years of Iowa life. I spent three others in Minnesota, either attending school or working. I'd elaborate on living in Minnesota but Iowans make Minnesota jokes, as do Minnesotans about Iowans, and the market for picking on a state right now is not booming.

Reporters and columnists who appear in The Gazette have provided plenty of information about what the front page of the 1994 Easter Day Gazette displayed. No need to belabor that.

However, worth noting is why I wanted to pore through our archives at The Gazette. I wanted to do this because some folks who have been here a long time had memories of seeing the kind of headline Bloom described. The notion was in the back of my mind, as I've talked with Bloom about it personally -- he brings it up a lot -- and many years ago at one of his classes while speaking about journalism, in general. I agree with him that a declarative headline, "He is Risen," plastered across the page of a newspaper would not be news and, in fact, would be inappropriate in a newspaper whose mission is reporting the news instead of making faith statements.

So I wanted to check archives thoroughly so that we could state factually what we found.

What I am confident about is:

  • The headline is not spread across an Easter Sunday front page at any time from 1986 to 2006. We checked multiple years. A small two-column Easter greeting exists in the 1994 edition below the masthead to the left with a Bible verse that†contains the phrase "he is risen.".
  • The mistake about the headline is a small matter given the scope of the ultimate message being conveyed in the Bloom piece. We just wanted to correct the record, which, by nature, always seems to amplify a situation. We wanted to state what exists because:
  • The reference was intended to be an example in the context of what hicks Iowans can be. The Gazette is, has been and continues to be serious about having high standards for what it tells Eastern Iowans.
  • A moment in time from a distant past does not illustrate a larger picture about the present. In The Gazette's case, Easter greetings were on front pages in years past. Not every year, but some, and they have not been there since 1994. Cedar Rapids and Eastern Iowa have vibrant communities of Muslims and Jews, especially, but also other faiths. We try in our faith and values reporting to understand them all. To use the "He is Risen" example to illustrate the way Iowa, and The Gazette, functions in 2011 doesn't jive with reality.

Other points:

  • Bloom's article was offensive. It read like a piece from an outsider, amplifying stereotypes to make certain points for audiences outside of Iowa who relate to the stereotypes. It wasn't written for an Iowa audience. Bloom describes things in his piece that I must have missed while growing up in towns of 250 people, 3,500 people and, finally,†950 people†where my high school graduating class had 43 students. We didn't have T-shirts bearing out names, but that was a different era. (see comment above about making judgments about the present through a moment in time in the distant past. Real distant past in this case.)

The article's snarkiness gets in the way of the fact that:

  • It†describes truths about the state that Iowans need to understand and address in order to grow.
  • Iowa, indeed, is homogeneous in much of its rural area -- I grew up in rural communities and witnessed it. The state suffers from brain drain. Small towns are struggling to survive.
  • Some years ago, when I was a reporter at The Gazette, a story idea we wanted to pursue but didn't in lieu of others was an examination of elderly people living alone because their children had moved away, and in towns no longer as vibrant as when they were younger.
  • And that high school graduating class from which I emerged? The school district allowed a religious-based ceremony in the school gym in addition to the regular graduation ceremony. It was in 1971. The practice no longer exists, the result of a more enlightened time about people's sense of cultural diversity even in a small Iowa town.

Finally,

  • I find hateful attacks on Bloom and also calls for him to be fired to be offensive and uninformed.
  • Firing a university professor for writing something that rankled you strikes at the heart of academic freedoms and the exploration of the truth.
  • I've seen some of the hate that has poured out in comments and on message boards. Also, Bloom wrote to me in an e-mail on Wednesday that it is coming in personal phone calls and e-mails.
  • Go ahead, be offended, and tell people about it. But if you want to prove Iowans are hicks the best way to do it is to take†the bait and act like one, or to throw your lot in with the hatemongers out there zeroing in on that fact that Bloom is Jewish. Some company to be in.

Now, I have to write a column for Sunday. It was going to be about efforts Iowa journalists are going to take next month to shed light on your rights to open government. I guess that will have to wait while this tempest continues to brew.

Some of what's out there

"Bloom has lived in Iowa for 20 years. Iíve lived here three times that long and have never been to a tractor pull. In fact, I canít think of any friends who have been to a tractor pull but then thatís not something my friends would mention out of fear of ridicule.

"In fact, just last Sunday, when my friends and I could theoretically been at a tractor pull, we were instead at a poetry reading in Mount Vernon (pop. 4,000) where I live..."

-- From a website called SteveIowa.com.

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"Gazette reporters have been working to debunk Ė or at least to respond to Ė professor Steve Bloomís Atlantic article that hickified most of Iowa.

"Todd Dorman, a columnist, has been responding with opinion on where Bloom went wrong in his generalities, while reporter Patrick Hogan was early to respond with questions of accuracy..."

-- From a blog by Robert (Ted) Gutsche Jr., a doctoral candidate at the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Gutsche sent me this in an e-mail Thursday morning:

"You might want to check this out: The Atlantic's description of Iowa in 1900 is quite similar to the one in 2011. Have things really not changed or is this about something else?

http://blog.robertgutschejr.com/?p=497

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E-mail exchange from Dec. 14, 2011, with Garance Franke-Ruta, senior editor, The Atlantic

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Articles

UI President Mason issues open letter about The Atlantic article.

Iowans outraged over article critical of rural state: Reuters report.

A journalism professor derides Iowa, questions its clout and unleashes a bipartisan fury: Washington Post.Iowans Respond to Stephen Bloom: Blog by Garance Franke-Ruta is†the senior editor at The Atlantic who edited Bloom's piece.

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