Uproar about what Iowa may be

A story that recently appeared on the Atlantic’s web site about Iowa, politics and culture has created a stir. Simply, news stories and online comments on the magazine site and in local press say the story unfairly targets Iowans as being hicks.

The Gazette’s Todd Dorman had it right when he wrote:

If you bet a bottom dollar that Bloom would strike a nerve here, winner-winner, meatloaf dinner. Most Iowans I know who read it don’t like it. But of course, it wasn’t written for us. It was written for far off outsiders, giving them a welcome chance to shake their heads, sigh, and thank goodness that they don’t live in these horrid hapless hustings.

Bloom, who is in my department at the University of Iowa, told the Press-Citizen: “Good journalism isn’t just reporting. It’s making observations, making sense out of the world — even if readers might not agree with those observations.”

(First, I want to say that I support Bloom’s right to publish whatever he wants. That goes for the Atlantic, too. The emotional response to his writing is a bit troubling, especially if he is getting nasty emails and phone calls. There is no need for that. My interest, though, is in how and why the Atlantic chose to publish something that was so very much a generalization about a place.)

Since I study how newsworkers talk about place, I contacted the Atlantic editor who worked on this piece. Garance Franke-Ruta was nice enough to talk with me (some journalists don’t care to be interviewed, but she was OK). Our conversation was great, even though it may have ended poorly, which you will see in the post below.

Asking the Atlantic

First, I asked how the Atlantic decided to publish a piece that had such a strong position — namely that Iowa was one thing: hickish.

Franke-Ruta told me that Bloom “pitched (the story) to us and it seemed interesting.” Franke-Ruta also said that she had spent time in the state that his observations “seemed reasonably accurate.”

She said that “it was not intended to be a piece about Iowa” and that there were other places people could go to get a more complete picture of the state. This was not to be the “definitive” piece on what Iowa is — and isn’t.

Franke-Ruta said that she addressed the tone of the piece with the author with concerns that he may get backlash from people in his community, but she said that he was OK with the article as-is.

The oops moment

Where Franke-Ruta and I got off track was when I asked how the Atlantic responds to pieces that seem to marginalize. Franke-Ruta told me that the piece was personal opinion, whereas I argued that by publishing the piece, the Atlantic was giving legitmacy and authority to a piece that seemed to be sprayed with generalities.

I noted that Esquire published a similar piece (see here) about Blacks in Newark, calling them “zulus” and “zombies,” and that even though the piece was written as personal opinion, the publication of the piece gave the arguments that the inner city is hell-on-Earth journalistic institutional authority. You can read a response to the Esquire piece here.

I then made reference to the Atlantic‘s piece on use of cultural narratives of the small-town, the fly-over country to the historic use of antisemitism to explain the world’s ills. Maybe a bad comparison, and she called me on it. And hung up.

My biggest concerns

But, we had a nice email exchange, which you can see below where she is nice enough to engage in conversation after the phone call and I (maybe) do a better job of making an argument about the use of cultural stories to explain social conditions.

My biggest concern in all of this is that journalism that relies on myth about place – that Iowa is nothing but a hog heaven full of hicks and Jesus worshipers – furthers stereotypes about place, which I have written about here before.

How we talk about a place, whether it is the inner city, a foregin country, or Iowa, can determine the commitment we put into that place. Where will we choose to build a factory? Invest money? Open hospitals? These are real decisions about social change that can come from how we talk about place.

The emails

Below, I share my email exchanges, because they add context to the arguments and the discussion. This context is especially important because of the emotion over culture, opinion, and news and gives insight into how people talk about journalism.

Hi Robert,

As I said, if there are specific factual questions about the piece you want to forward on, please send them my way and I will investigate the allegations.

But I must say, I found your use of racial slurs against blacks while describing the Esquire piece on Newark — which I will again say is an article I’d never previously heard of — and subsequent comparison of Iowans to Jews disturbing and offensive.

Iowa is a lovely, secure American state — and one I have always enjoyed visiting — that is experiencing hard times in some pockets, as I documented in 2007 for publications such as The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/eyes-wide-open) and The Iowa Independent. It is not a historically oppressed religious minority that was subjected to an organized campaign of extermination last century, and it is offensive in the extreme to attempt to argue that there is any point of comparison. I would have been happy to continue to answer your questions had we not reached a Godwin’s law point.

As well, you alleged that there is no Iowa brain drain. Every report I see from the state says the opposite. For example, this from the Iowa Republican in 2010:


“Would you believe that two years after its founding in 2007, 20% of the original members of the Generation Iowa Commission, the state commission studying why the next generation is leaving Iowa, had waved good-bye and left Iowa?

“Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

“As a founding member and past-Chair of the Generation Iowa Commission, I have spent the last three years speaking about Iowa’s next generation to business, community and political leaders. I am repeatedly asked a simple question, “What makes some places able to attract the Next Generation, and why is Iowa so poor at it?”

“The question is born of desperation. Towns are dying. Their young people are leaving, as less than one in five counties show long-term growth in population at all. After nearly three years of research, fact-based analysis and surveying, the answer is clear. The majority of Iowa’s next generation wants to stay, but job opportunities determine whether they can.

“Simply put, Iowa has not created enough good jobs to keep our young people in the state.  How bad is Iowa’s labor market? In 2008, Iowa Workforce Development found that just 12% of available jobs required a bachelor’s degree, while 33% of young Iowans are earning such a degree. Sadly, the average county in Iowa in 2008 had fewer than four open jobs that required a graduate degree. To further the problem, these skilled jobs typically pay 15 to 20% less then surrounding states.

“Young people know that Iowa’s policy is failing them, and they have turned into a generation of economic migrants.”

I’d be happy to provide further data and reporting on the point if you so require.

Sincerest regards,

Garance Franke-Ruta

Here is my response:


I am sorry you found portions of our conversation offensive and disturbing. I think we are talking about disturbing topics. Attached, see the Esquire piece and the mayor’s response — where the comments I referred to in our talk was from the article, not my own endorsement of that article or form of speech. One example from the piece:

“The Newark myth, promulgated by nostalgic expats like Philip Roth and cemented forever into place by — pardon the redundancy — lazy journalists, is that the city was some kind of strivers’ paradise until July 12, 1967, when a pair of white cops pounded the living shit out of a black taxi driver, whereupon the angry Zulus erupted in a five-day paroxysm of murder and mayhem, turning Newark’s milk and honey to blood, followed immediately by the departure of everybody and everything that once had made the place great.

Goddamn Zulus.”

My concern, which I tried to relay in our talk, is when personal opinion becomes endorsed by news organizations via publication. While Esquire would not say that “they believed” anything that appeared in the piece I attached, there are certain cultural themes, narratives, and meanings that make the language and the scenes that were set in the piece make sense.These beliefs may not be the same as “truths,” but beliefs are the hardest truth to go against, even if not rooted in “scientific evidence.”

There are common beliefs that make comments, jokes, and articles salient when it comes to racial and economic minorities. Common beliefs about White, Christian, and hardworking hicks in Iowa as portrayed by a piece in the Atlantic does a disservice just as other jokes do.

In terms of the comment of religion that you also found offensive, so do I. But comments such as this continue to plague how we talk about social and cultural issues — including in the news. Journalism is, after all, a cultural function of dominant ideology and reflects and maintains many dominant beliefs. There is a history to support the notion that the Jewish people, however unfairly, have been blamed for the world’s problems that continues to be used within culture (think, even, Family Guy) such as in the rhetoric of American icon Henry Ford, the comedy of Jerry Seinfeld and a host of other political and religious conversations. But the issue is not that these notions should be endorsed; rather, that we identify that these themes are continuing in society.

My relationship of the above to Iowans may have been a misstep in the world of argument, but rhetorically a similar cultural reproduction occurs when we talk about a people or a place as being one general thing: My larger point may be that what the Atlantic legitimized about speech of a geography and a people made sense with the dominant audience and it didn’t matter if it was “true” or not, even in terms of a person’s own experience. If I were to write something endorsing alternative beliefs, I would question if the Atlantic, or another mainstream media source, would published those outside-the-mainstream beliefs that would be marked as offensive or “wrong.”

My larger argument here is about the cultural function of journalism and publishing what we all believe is possibly true and not questioning vast generalizations.

From the piece we are talking about:

1) “Whether a schizophrenic, economically-depressed, and some say, culturally-challenged state like Iowa should host the first grassroots referendum to determine who will be the next president isn’t at issue. It’s been this way since 1972, and there are no signs that it’s going to change.”

2) “In this land, deep within America, on Friday nights it’s not unusual to take a date to a Tractor Pull or to a Combine Demolition Derby (“First they were thrashin’, now they’re CRASHIN’!”). There are few billboards along the washboard-bumpy, blacktop roads that slice through the countryside, only hand-drawn signs advertising sweet corn, cattle, lemonade, or boar semen.”

From the Esquire piece:

1) “Lousy housing? Check. Rampant unemployment? You bet. Shitty schools? Bingo. Gang warfare? My, yes. Newark may have only one movie house — and zero new-car dealerships and big-box stores — but it has what might be the world’s only Toys “R” Us knockoff Ebonically named Wee Bee Kids, close to City Hall. Everybody with the means to flee fled long ago — and by “everybody” I mean the white folk and nearly all the middle-class blacks — and what was surrendered on the way out of town was any sense that the people left behind truly matter. I leave Newark and feel nothing except happy that I don’t live there — a state of spiritual and moral zombiehood that belies all lip service, however heartfelt.”

While both examples rooted in personal opinion, they are a selected opinion that both publications (Atlantic and Esquire) thought held legitimacy, despite their racist and elitist overtones.

In terms of brain drain, I DO believe that brain drain is occurring in Iowa and that businesses are not using our youth or our intelligence to better our communities. I am sorry if I led you to believe otherwise. And my concern is that this article further paints our state as a place no one would want to live — seemingly not even the author of the article in question.

In the end, you were very kind to speak with me and I thank you for that. Below, here are some questions of accuracy that have been addressed on various blogs, including the Atlantic’s. I have no cause to believe that these are inaccurate but wanted to see if you could address them since they were in public forums.

1) From Nathan Tabak on the Atlantic Site, which the author seems to have responded to:

“Marriage between two same-sex people is legal in Iowa for now, but may not be for long. A referendum is scheduled to appear on a statewide ballot.”

This isn’t true, not at this point.  The legislature would have to pass the referendum bill in two consecutive legislative sessions, and the Democratic Senate Majority Leader has, to date, blocked every attempt to hold a vote on it.”

2) From Daniel Prendergast on the Atlantic Site: Obama’s comments concerning small town voters was in reference to the upcoming 2008 Pennsylvania primaries, not the Iowa caucuses. Iowa Democrats, rural and urban had long since decided in Obama’s favor, four months before the notorious comments. The subtlety of Obama’s observations were not lost on the Iowa voters, voting for the Democrat with 54% over the 44% in favor of the Republican candidate in the general election.

3) From Patrick Hogan on the Atlantic site: Stephen,

I’m a reporter at the Cedar Rapids Gazette and your description of the front page on Easter piqued my curiosity. I’m a newcomer to this state as of last summer and originally a native of the New York suburbs, so I really don’t know much about my company’s history besides what I’ve been told.

So, I went down to the archives and checked the newspaper microfilm for 1991. It had a stand-alone centerpiece package with the headline “Preparing for Easter” and a photo of a local Church along with a caption describing worship services. After that, I checked 1990, which had a centerpiece photo of some lillies along with an attributed excerpt from the Bible. Going a year forward to 1992, I see again, a centerpiece package on Easter preparations along with a freelance lifestyle column on the left rail of an man’s reflections on his wife’s death. I did not see in the three year range the headline “HE HAS RISEN,” but if you provide a more specific year, I would be happy to check and report back.

I didn’t go sifting through microfilm because I’m concerned with historical accuracy (although that is important). I’m more worried that the newspaper you describe as part of an article communicating to the rest of the world a picture of the “real” Iowa, is one that is 20 years old. I’m not interested or capable in defending editorial decisions of the early 90s, as I was in first grade at the time on the other side of the country. But I do not feel your dated characterization of The Gazette is an unfair one, especially if the context is the 2012 Iowa Caucuses.

I don’t have much to say about your other observations. I have not been here long enough, and most of my reporting has been in the urban areas of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. I will say that I have difficulty imagining the circumstances where Iowa City would appear completely empty, but, again, I cannot comment on the state of Iowa City in the early 90s.