Bloom describes Iowa as “schizophrenic,” “economically depressed,” and “culturally challenged.” (The piece originally and inaccurately stated that Iowa is 96 percent white, despite 2010 census data showing that number is actually about 91 percent; the error has since been corrected.) His essay invokes a 2008 quote from then-candidate Barack Obama stating that people from the Midwest who are unemployed and frustrated “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” It argues that the state is not accepting of racial or religious diversity, and that it is “insular” because farmers from one county do not know all the farmers from another. It derisively suggests that a state filled with people who like to hunt is not a suitable demographic for choosing the next president. And, in the sentence that has aroused more fury in my home state than any other, it asserts, “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.”
Each of these claims might have been subjected to greater skepticism in advance (what might be a better, more representative voting demographic than hunters: scrapbookers, say, or marathon runners, or wine enthusiasts?) and since publication many of them have been by readers. In an acknowledgment of the criticism the piece has generated, an Atlantic editor wrote Wednesday, “Obviously, no one piece can encompass how life is lived by all the people of a state of more than three million.”
But elsewhere in its response to critics, the magazine has broken one of journalism’s golden rules: errors should be corrected forthrightly, and with as much fanfare as the original mistake was made. The piece erroneously stated that the state’s second-largest newspaper, the Cedar Rapids Gazette, ran an Easter Sunday headline in 1994 “splashed across Page One” that read, “He Has Risen.” The Gazette has since produced a copy of that front page. The top two headlines are actually about a murder in the state and ethnic cleansing in Croatia, with a small (albeit odd and journalistically inappropriate) box above the fold quoting a Bible verse that includes the words “He is risen.”
Rather than simply concede the error, The Atlantic added this note as one of a number of “corrections and clarifications”: “A 1994 newspaper headline both Prof. Bloom and his wife recall is different from the one on the edition of the Cedar Rapids Gazette unearthed by a reporter for the paper from its archives.” But there is no debate here: the story was wrong; no evidence has been presented that the dramatic headline exists. And the fact that Bloom remembers that small box as dramatically as he does perhaps says something about the lens through which he has viewed his adopted home state from day one.
Readers have also, correctly, taken Bloom and The Atlantic to task for the article’s one-sided depiction of Iowans’ views about same-sex marriage. The piece suggests that same-sex marriage is likely doomed if state Republicans succeed in forcing a referendum on the issue, a claim that seems intended to paint the state as provincial. But a poll just a few months ago found that 46 percent of Iowans believe same-sex marriage should be legal, compared to 45 percent who do not. Maybe Bloom is right about how things would turn out at the ballot box, but those results suggest an awfully progressive mindset for a state portrayed as so old-fashioned and non-inclusive.
Bloom, whom I consider a personal friend—and who was among my teachers when I was a journalism student at the University of Iowa—has deflected criticism of his piece by suggesting that Iowans are taking offense because he has brought up “tough truths” about the state that no one wants to address: anti-immigrant sentiment, a brain drain of talent, a declining population.
So let’s focus on some tough truths in assessment of the piece—and hope that as news outlets take their turn characterizing the terrain that is Iowa, they will do the same in the coming weeks.