Column: Hating Iowa isn’t actually journalism

I happened to hear an interview on NPR last week with a journalism professor from Iowa named Stephen Bloom. I’d never heard of him and I’d been unaware of the reason NPR was interviewing him: an article he wrote in the current issue of The Atlantic questioning why the sorry state of Iowa — sorry as he describes it — gets to be such an important place in the presidential nomination process every four years.

It sounded as if his piece had hit a raw nerve. He told his interviewer that his family was getting death threats and people were vilifying him on the Internet.

He wasn’t defensive, he wasn’t ranting, he wasn’t whining. He said he’d written a fair and honest piece of journalism. If he’d been a commentator from one of the coasts, someone for whom Iowa was just one of the “fly-over” states, no one would have cared, he said. What he’d written mattered to Iowans because he lived there.

“You can chip away if you want at this story, but it raises some fundamental central issues that Iowans and Americans need to confront,” he said in an interview I found online. “I think America should sit down and have a collective discussion on the wisdom of how we select our president and how inordinately important Iowa is in that process.”

I read the piece. There’s nothing in it that addresses that issue. It’s just an exercise in Iowa hating. I wonder at how far off the track of real journalism Professor Bloom went and his editors at the Atlantic allowed him to go. Hmmmm. I can relate. But there are no two ways about it in his case, even if all that he says about Iowa is true.

“Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life” is a blend of commentary and superficial reporting laced with a peculiar chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that Professor Bloom seems to have toward the people of his adoptive home state. The piece made me wonder why he had stayed there so long if he hates the place so much.

The tone emerges early. “Keokuk,” he writes, “is a depressed, crime-infested slum town. Almost every other Mississippi river town is the same; they’re some of the skuzziest cities I’ve ever been to, and that’s saying something.”

Ever been into the heart of Petersburg, Va., or Newburgh, N.Y.?

He reports that “Iowa conservatives in 2010 mounted a successful campaign to oust three of the state’s justices who ruled on behalf of same-sex marriage.” I recall a similar backlash in Vermont when civil unions were legalized there.

“Suicides in Iowa’s rural counties are 13.55 per 100,000 residents; New York’s suicide rate is 5.4 residents per 100,000,” he writes.

The rate is high all across the rural center of the country — so what’s the point that is peculiar to Iowa?

“The largest and most elegant house in many rural towns is the local funeral parlor,” he tells us. That’s unique to small towns only in Iowa? And so what, anyway?

“Men over 50 don’t leave home without a penknife in their pocket. Old Spice is the aftershave of choice. Everyone knows someone who has had an unfortunate and costly accident with a deer (always fatal for the deer, sometimes for the human).” Men with penknives bother him? And deer accidents? I presume he means auto-deer collisions. So unique to Iowa! I just spent a bundle on repairs after my deer hit.

“Rules peculiar to rural Iowa that I’ve learned are hard and fast, seldom broken,” Professor Bloom writes. “Back doors are how you always go into someone’s house. Bar fights might not be weekly occurrences, but neither are they infrequent activities. Collecting is big — whether it’s postcards, lamps, figurines, tractors or engines. NASCAR is a spectator sport that folks can’t get enough of.”

These broad strokes don’t reveal anything unique to Iowa. I remember bar fights at the Black Buoy in Sag Harbor, before the village lost its status as the “unHampton.” I know a former supervisor here who follows NASCAR. He’s a smart guy.

“Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in education) 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.’ ”
No comment needed.

There are plenty more examples of Professor Bloom’s bitter take on Iowa. I don’t completely reject the picture that he paints but I wouldn’t call it journalism. It’s very personal, based more on peeve and a parochial arrogance than on reporting. The piece includes, for example, a very strange anecdote about the professor’s effort to convince his Iowan journalism students (from a state he notes is mostly Protestant and where religion, he says, is the “in-your-face” kind) to say “Happy Holidays” to people instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Huh? This fits into a piece that’s supposed to be about Iowa’s role as the first state in the presidential primary process?

All that Professor Bloom finds failed, broken or wrong with Iowa (including people who like to say “Merry Christmas”) can be found all over the country, from New England and upstate New York to Oregon. So why brand Iowa a terrible place to start picking presidents? If the local electorate is all wrong there, it’s all wrong all over the country, except maybe on the Left and Right coasts where voters like me eat brie and organic arugula.

I was feeling sympathetic toward Professor Bloom when I first heard his radio interview. I sensed a kinship there, a fellow veteran from the inevitable battles that community journalism forces us to fight. Now I wonder how a journalism professor, one they say has done great work in the past writing about Iowa, could veer so far off track.

Writing in public can be a dangerous game. The more we reveal about ourselves (whether intentionally or not), the more perilous it gets. I hope the “raging bonfire” Professor Bloom says he started — and fears — subsides soon. In his case, though, I’m not sure the damage can be undone.

Peter Boody is the editor of The Shelter Island Reporter and Times/Review Newsgroup’s executive editor. He can be reached at [email protected] and 631-749-1000, ext. 18