By Michael Bugeja
National news about Iowa last month did not involve politicians but a journalism professor publishing an Atlantic essay that offended many, including his institution’s president who disowned Stephen Bloom’s “Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life.”
In an open letter, Sally Mason wrote she strongly disagreed with his portrayal of Iowans. “In this cynical world that can harden even the greatest optimist, the citizens of Iowa continue to believe.”
I believe. I also share Mason’s fascination with the caucuses and “how thoroughly Iowans become involved in the selection process of a president.”
I’m resurrecting the topic because Bloom reportedly was going to discuss his essay Monday night on NBC’s “Rock Center with Brian Williams.”
Also, with the today’s caucuses, and the national focus intensifying again on Iowa, I want to revisit Bloom’s piece in my role as journalism director at Iowa State University, dealing with stereotypes about our state and the critical role that we played in the 2008 election — largely overlooked by media.
First, the stereotypes, starting with Bloom arguing against Iowa’s first-in-the-nation status, partly by depicting our rural residents as “the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in educated [sic]) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that ‘The sun’ll come out tomorrow.’”
He bemoaned our politically “schizophrenic, economically depressed, and some say, culturally challenged state” that might not be the ideal locale to determine the next president. “Iowa’s not representative of much.”
Depicting representation by race or lifestyle (always risky) requires research. The Atlantic eventually noted Bloom’s essay “incorrectly stated that Iowa is 96 percent white; the 2010 census data reports it as 91.3 percent white. It incorrectly said that same-sex marriage in the state would be subjected to a repeal referendum, but, in fact, that would only potentially happen if Republicans take control of the state.”
Bloom’s 5,600-word piece managed to irk Iowa liberals and conservatives (quite a feat). The more he wrote, the more his voice lapsed, making the essay seem less about the caucus and more about his distaste for the culture he calls home.
He needed an editor and got one after the fact, literally.
One glaring error involved Bloom’s recalling his first Easter Sunday in Iowa. The Cedar Rapids Gazette, he wrote, had splashed a front-page banner stating “HE HAS RISEN,” breaking all the rules he was trying to teach journalism students. “The editors obviously thought that everyone knew who He was, and cared.”
The 1994 banner actually read: “Murder drama — Iowans riveted to details of Forsyth trial.” (The current online piece also corrects that.)
Bloom’s piece ends with an anecdote about walking his dog. He couldn’t count the times over the years that Iowans in pickups would pull over and ask such questions as, “Do much hunting with the bitch?”
“You’d never get a dog because you might just want to walk with the dog or to throw a ball for her to fetch,” he concluded. “You get a dog to track and bag animals that you want to stuff, mount, or eat. That’s the place that may very well determine the next U.S. president.”
To his credit, Bloom did note that Iowa helped catapult Barack Obama to the presidency over what many believed would be a victory for then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
In 2008, Clinton’s campaign manager Mike Henry wrote a memo that asked, “What is the cost relative to the benefit of dedicating significant funding and other resources to Iowa?”
Clinton rejected this, campaigning vigorously in Iowa. She congratulated her rivals on caucus night, including the one who came in second: John Edwards.
Clinton’s former communications director, Howard Wolfson, told ABCNews.com that were it not for Edwards “we would have won Iowa, and Clinton today would therefore have been the nominee.”
Political blogger Andrew Malcolm, writing in the LA Times, noted in this 2008 post that Edwards would likely have been the nominee if Clinton bypassed the state. In hindsight, his extramarital scandal could even have put Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin in the White House.
This is the power of the media in shaping political coverage, and why many Iowans are angry about Bloom’s essay. We require good journalism.
As for stereotypes, I addressed that in a 2008 speech to a joint meeting of Iowa’s and Iowa State’s journalism school faculty. (Bloom was not in attendance.)
Both schools “compete for the very best prospects and lose them,” I said, “only to learn they have stereotyped our state. … [W]e should tell prospects that Iowa is one of the most attractive places to live whether you are single or married, whether you have children or just pets and especially if you have both because we are surrounded by parks and expansive land with rich, dark soil reaffirming life in every season. Yes, the state of Iowa has good schools, but that doesn’t only make it a place to raise families and hybrid corn.”
History has shown it also is a place to raise issues that candidates have to address in a process that brings them to rural towns as well as cities. Iowans listen closely and rely in part on journalists to fact check assertions and help them make candidate decisions.
In the end, Bloom did not damage the state but the state of the media. Indeed, Iowa can elect a president because citizens demand the facts and pillory anyone who distorts them.Michael Bugeja directs the journalism school at Iowa State University of Science and Technology. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org