united states project

The Atlantic Gets Iowa Wrong

And in the process, urges national readers to ignore those hicks in the Heartland
December 16, 2011

IOWA — With less than three weeks until the Iowa caucuses, the country is beginning to lock its political gaze on the state that every four years holds what amounts to the first official vetting of presidential candidates—the state that has launched, cemented, or dashed the fortunes of so many seeking the nation’s highest office.
It’s easy to see why voters who haven’t yet paid much attention will have to play catch-up this time around: the political terrain has shifted countless times, with the front-runners becoming the forgottens, the bottom-of-the-pack surging to take the lead, the polls continuously anointing new anointed ones.

But regardless of scandal or spin, one piece of the election terrain is sure to go unchanged between now and January 3: the vast expanse of Iowa where this wintery political showdown will take place, as it has every year since 1972. To that end, news organizations are—correctly—now attempting to paint for their readers and viewers a clear picture of this section of Middle America that holds such political sway.

This process operates differently that it once did. Just eight years ago, my old newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, set up hotel-based, three- to five-person bureaus in Des Moines and Nashua, N.H., more than a month in advance of those states’ votes. Today, with presidential campaigns changing and becoming more nationally focused, most news organizations simply do not have the budgets or the desire to “embed” their reporters at the height of political season.

The result is reporters who are rarely experts on the terrain on which they tread. Worse still, many don’t recognize it. Where reporters once got to know the terrain of a state and its voters personally, by crisscrossing the better part of it and talking to hundreds of people along the way, most of them now fly in for big debates, critical campaign appearances, or when they absolutely need to catch up with a candidate who is either on the rise or fall. They rarely spend enough time on the ground to gravitate toward telling nuanced stories about how voters are feeling and why. They can rarely, with any real certainty or conviction, truly capture the zeitgeist of the place behind their dateline.

Against this backdrop, journalism from within these states, written by people who are ostensibly experts, may have greater force. Unfortunately, The Atlantic last week released a story that, in its depiction of Iowa, is more laughable caricature or confusing Picasso abstract than realistic still life.

Stephen G. Bloom, a University of Iowa professor and 20-year Iowa resident, attempts in the magazine’s online edition to profile the place, its people, and the circumstances shaping its voters this political cycle, and in the process to argue that the state’s unique status in selecting future presidents is unjustified.

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I disagree with that conclusion, and I wish that an Atlantic editor had pushed Bloom harder to explain why the nation shouldn’t be influenced—even inspired—by a state where generations of voters have cared so much about presidential elections that they are willing to participate in the caucuses, a system that requires them to debate their views and then cast their votes and stand on their principles in public. But the bigger journalistic problem here is that the argument is buttressed by a story about meth addicts, hunting dogs, and tractor pulls that has very little to say about the real issues that will be motivating Iowans to caucus for their candidates—and one whose errors and omissions reinforce its stereotypical portrayal of the state and its people.

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.

The truth is this: during this age of national and global economic uncertainty, a long-term war on terror, and a vigorous debate over social and moral issues, Iowa is a place in flux. But perhaps it is the state’s struggle to come to terms with shifting landscapes that should make it a familiar place—not the indecipherable, “foreign” one Bloom describes—for a country grappling with the very same issues.

Indeed, Iowa is a state where anti-immigration ads today are running about as often as political ads, almost certainly because many Iowans have been frustrated—angry, even—with the influx of thousands of workers who have come to the state, often illegally, to work in meat-packing plants and slaughterhouses. That part of the magazine’s piece is dead on. But it is also a place where the people in those same frustrated small towns have raised money to help those same immigrant families pay for medical bills, for Christmas presents, even for funeral expenses after some of those immigrants died in their attempt to sneak into the country. Surely conflicted voters in places like California or Arizona can understand that dichotomy.

It is a state where a few months ago one of my best friends, a small-town girl who was raised Catholic, got married to a big-city man who was raised as a Muslim, in a classy reception at a modern facility overlooking the Mississippi River. (Unlike Bloom’s depiction, the dinner was catered, and not a single guest assumed it would be appropriate to bring a Jell-o mold.) The groom’s family, many of whom were born and raised in Pakistan long before 9-11 compelled Americans to pay attention to that part of the world, traveled to Dubuque for the event; the bride’s family, generations of whom have been farmers or worked in industries where farmers were their customers, did not serve Iowa pork at dinner out of respect for their guests. Surely states with growing Muslim populations like Michigan could relate.

It is a state that has, to be sure, seen a generation of farmers struggle to make ends meet raising corn, soybeans, and hogs; many family farms simply went under, causing plenty of small towns and small schools to dry up with them. But it is also a place that high-tech agribusiness and ethanol are reviving, with some farmers today making more money than they ever have and taking one issue that used to be something of a holy grail for Iowa voters—ag subsidies—virtually off the table this caucus season. Surely this rings a bell in critical swing states like Pennsylvania and Missouri.

As far as the state losing talented young professionals, it’s absolutely true. Big in-state companies have set up recruiting programs to pull them back; it’s hardly an insidious, hidden reality that only The Atlantic has noticed. But it is also hardly true that the only people left behind are meth addicts. And the latest census data on domestic migration show that adults in their 20s, and those aged between 45 and 64, are arriving in the Midwest faster than they are leaving.

Whatever one thinks about the virtues or pitfalls of the Iowa caucuses, the piece does Iowans—and the national political audience, which will evaluate the outcome come January 4—a terrible disservice. Rather than offering a framework to understand the concerns of politically engaged citizens, a piece like this simply begs the rest of the nation to laugh off whatever those primitive hicks in the Heartland decide on caucus night.

Kirsten Scharnberg Hampton is an Iowa native who for a decade was a national and foreign correspendent for the Chicago Tribune, where she covered the war in Iraq, famine in Africa, and breaking news and politics in the U.S. She also worked at the Baltimore Sun and The Des Moines Register, and recently moved back to the Midwest after several years in Europe. She can be reached at kirstenrhampton@aol.com.