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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Cost of Free Speech: Watch What You Say About Iowa

     A sickening combination of political correctness, cultural touchiness, and the profit motive has killed the kind of rough and tumble journalism once practiced by H. L. Mencken and the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens. It's been replaced by the kind of feel-good public relations slop you see on morning TV. Today, a journalist takes a risk attacking anyone other than a politician or a celebrity. (I don't have a problem mocking and exposing politicians and celebrities, but why just them?) Stephen Bloom, a journalism professor at the University of Iowa, recently said some unflattering things about certain lower class Iowans. It's the kind of writing you rarely see anymore, especially from a professor. (If free speech has an arch enemy, it's the university.) The professor from Iowa is now paying the price for speaking his mind in print.

     In an essay Stephen Bloom wrote called, "Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life," published on December 9 on "The Atlantic" magazine website, Bloom, in questioning whether Iowa was worthy of being the nation's first caucus state, portrayed certain Iowans in a pretty bad light. For example, he says the rural citizens of the state "...are often the elderly waiting to die, those too timid (or lacking 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 Anne, that 'the sun'll come out tomorrow.' Bloom described the municipality of Keokuk as a "depressed, crime-infested slum town," and other Iowa communities as "skuzzy" and "slummy." Ouch.

     As could be expected, Bloom's opinions and observations angered and offended many people, including some of his fellow journalism professors, current and former students (particularly those from Keokuk I'd imagine), the university administration, local politicians ( pandering idiots who I am sure share Bloom's opinion of these "hard-working Americans"), and of course, rural Iowans with bad teeth and a drug habit.

       In response to his description of the lower rung of Iowa's socio-economic ladder, Professor Bloom has received threatening emails which have sent him into hiding until the firestorm of indignation burns itself out. (Next fall he is scheduled to teach a semester at the University of Michigan.) In discussing his situation to a media blogger, Bloom said, "...I don't want some of those crazy people who are reading everything they want into my story to know where I am." To avoid adding fuel to the fire, Professor Bloom has turned down offers to appear on several cable TV news shows. (I don't blame him. Who wants to be spit on by a red-faced talking machine like Chris Matthews?)

     Bloom's incendiary essay comes at a time when the University of Iowa's master's degree program in journalism is in trouble. (Not to be confused with Iowa's famous Writer's Workshop.) The program lost its accreditation last year because it lacked a sufficient number of students. The undergraduate program, not doing well either, is operating on provisional accreditation. David Perlmutter, the director of the journalism school, is worried that the Bloom flap will dissuade prospective journalism majors from applying to the program. Perhaps the director should worry about the message this firestorm is sending to students already enrolled in the crippled (should I use that word?) journalism program.

     To his credit, Perlmutter said this to the "Des Moines Register," "I'm nobody's editor. I'm nobody's publisher. We don't want the kind of system where somebody has to send me something before it gets published, and I'm supposed to censor it...."

     The president of the university, Sally Mason, apparently not a big fan of fee speech, sent an open letter to "The Atlantic" disowning Professor Bloom and his essay. "Please know that he does not speak for the University of Iowa." If Iowans didn't already know this, Bloom had described them correctly. With a degree of pandering one can expect from a university president (these people are worse than politicians), Mason laid it on: "What defines Iowans are their deeds and actions and not some caricature." If this piece of puiblic relations crap had been written by a graduate of the school's journalism program, the program should be shut down.

     Professor Bloom has attributed all the fuss to the state's need to protect its first-in-the-nation caucuses. "There's a financial incentive for the Iowa media not to rock the caucuses' boat," he said. "Political advertising means revenue for newspapers, TV and radio stations."

     Fortunately for Professor Bloom, he's tenured. (I'm usually not a fan of tenure--professors should be fired like everyone else--but in this case, I am.)

       

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