Blooming Iowa

Hello. My name is Brett. And I'm an Iowan.

I'm a Hawkeye in Gopher country. A southerner to "y'all."

I'm a first-year doctoral student at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at "the U," as I've understood the U of M to be called.

I was born, raised and educated in Iowa City, with a few stops along the way in Spain and Brazil.

Pleased to meet you.

I received my MA in professional journalism at the University of Iowa. My advisor during my masters program was Steve Bloom, author of acclaimed books such as PostvilleThe Oxford Project, and Tears of Mermaids. Bloom was an excellent mentor. His lessons were the first to mold my journalistic acumen. He was the first to teach me what "good journalism" is.

Bloom's recent article in The Atlantic"Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life," is not good journalism. It is conceited, pompous stereotyping that flies in the face of everything Bloom stands for as a journalist.

I remember the first story I wrote for Bloom's graduate-level reporting and writing class. It was about a 6-year-old boy from rural Illinois who was named an honorary captain for an Iowa Hawkeye home football game after suffering severe burns from accidentally falling into a fire pit in his backyard. I remember the flowery language I used to describe the boy's smile when he walked to the center of the field at Kinnick Stadium, waving to the thousands of cheering fans.

Bloom tore it apart. Deservedly so. The piece was P.R. fluff. 

"A real story would have been that the UI Hospitals was using this boy as a poster child to cover up the fact that the Burn Unit is underfunded. Did you think of that?" Bloom chided me.

And he's right. Good journalism stirs your emotions. It spurs you to action. It tells a unique and gripping story with lots of detail and even more accuracy. It uncovers real issues, and thus It is often - though not always - critical.

Bloom's Atlantic article is critical. It is the opposite of my "Kid Captain" story. It points out major problems facing Iowa: meth labs, an unsustainable economy, bigotry, a polarizing culture war, and brain drain (look at me - here I am, an educated Iowan in Minneapolis). These are real problems that Iowans, Minnesotans, all Americans should understand and (hopefully) address.

These problems and other issues that Bloom brings up - such as Iowa being 96% white, and Iowa's Republicans leaning much farther to the right than the majority of U.S. Republicans - are valid reasons to question Iowa's coveted position as the first-in-the-nation caucus state. This last point is Bloom's news peg. The pitch-line for his piece is: "These are the people, and all of their problems to boot, with whom the nation is entrusting to pick (or at least give great momentum to) a presidential candidate."

Who are these people? According to Bloom, they are "the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking in education) to peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-oids 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.'" They are in-your-face Christians. They do nothing but hunt, fish, go to tractor pulls for fun and wipe the pig shit off their boots in their mud rooms, a room that every Iowa house (except mine and those of every other person I know) has. 

Bloom, who has lived in my hometown of Iowa City for 20 years, could not even spare a kind, "Kid-Captain"-esque word for the cosmopolitan college town. The place where Kurt Vonnegut once lived when teaching at the famed Iowa Writer's Workshop. The place that is one of the gay-friendliest cities in America.

The place where avid hunters in pick-ups have never stopped to ask me (or any other person I know) if the dog I'm walkng is a good hunting dog (see Bloom's closing paragraph).

Iowa City (as well as Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Cedar Falls, Davenport) is the other half of the story behind why Iowans picked Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama in the 2008 caucuses. Why, as Bloom so aptly points out, we are represented by politicians as diametrically opposite as Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin, Steve King and Dave Loebsack.

It is the half of the story that Bloom fails to tell. For the sake of not wanting to sound too soft, too "Kid Captain"? Perhaps. I can't blame him for that.

But to tell the elite readers of the Atlantic that their stereotypes are right, that Iowa and its people are a homogenous, backward breed who don't understand what's in America's best interests? All for the sake of being critical? That's inexcuseable.

More than that, it's bad journalism.

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    BrettGJohnson's picture
    Brett Johnson