Iowa's 'uneducated Jesus freaks'

My dad used to tell me a story about a man getting off of a train and asking the station manager for information about the town he'd just arrived in.

"What's the town you're from like?" the station manager asks. The man explains that it's not very nice. The people aren't that smart or nice and the food isn't that great and you can't keep a job and the ladies are all uppity.

"Well, I imagine you'll find this town's a lot like that, too," the station manager responds.

When the next train stops, another man gets off and asks the station manager the same question. "What's the town you're from like?" the station manager asks. The second man explains that he was blessed to come from a beautiful town with nice people full of interesting conversation and fun hobbies. People work hard, the kids are generally fun and he misses it terribly.

"Well, I imagine you'll find this town's a lot like that, too," the station manager responds.

You get the point. Well, I thought of that story when I read this absolutely hilarious (unintentionally, I should mention) piece in The Atlantic about how much University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen G. Bloom loathes his state. It ran a few weeks ago and I've been meaning to look at the piece since then but with Iowa caucuses happening tonight, it's now or never!

The piece itself is remarkable for how much hatred comes through but also for how many errors are contained within. First, let's get a taste of the piece:

Hats are essential. Men over 50 don't leave home without a penknife in their pocket. Old Spice is the aftershave of choice. Everyone knows someone who has had an unfortunate and costly accident with a deer (always fatal for the deer, sometimes for the human). Farming is a dangerous occupation; if farmers don't die from a mishap (getting a hand in an auger, clearing a stuck combine), they live with missing digits or limbs.

Comfort food reigns supreme. Meatloaf and pork chops are king. Casseroles (canned tuna or Tatertots) and Jell-O molds (cottage cheese with canned pears or pineapple) are what to bring to wedding receptions and funerals. Everyone loves Red Waldorf cake. Deer (killed with a rifle is good, with bow-and-arrow better) and handpicked morels are delicacies families cherish.

Religion is the glue that binds everyone, whether they're Catholic, Lutheran, or Presbyterian. You can't drive too far without seeing a sign for JESUS or ABORTION IS LEGALIZED MURDER. I'm forever amazed by how often I hear neighbors, co-workers, shoppers, and total strangers talk about religion. In the Hy-Vee grocery store, at neighborhood stop-and-chats, at the local public school, "See you at church!" is the common rejoinder. It's as though the local house of worship were some neighborhood social club -- which, of course, it is. A professor I know at the University of Iowa chides her students for sitting in the back of a lecture hall, saying, "This isn't church, you know."

Now, when people claim that magazines and newspapers run hate pieces like this, I frequently find myself saying something like "Now, now, let's not exaggerate." But it's hard to do that when, well, when major outlets such as The Atlantic see nothing wrong -- and a whole lot right -- with publishing rot such as this. This reads like a parody of what conservatives claim journalism professors and journalists think about them. Except that, you know, it's not a parody. That's what's so amazing. And for a spot-on, side-splitting parody, read "Is This Hell? No, It's Iowa" by Iowa's own, well, IowaHawk. Make sure you read the original before you read the parody, though. This fake Twitter account is also worth a regular chuckle.

Anyway, here's another choice paragraph:

When my family and I first moved to Iowa, our first Easter morning I read the second-largest newspaper in the state (the Cedar Rapids Gazette) with this headline splashed across Page One: HE HAS RISEN. The headline broke all the rules I was trying to teach my young journalism students: the event was neither breaking nor could it be corroborated by two independent sources. The editors obviously thought that everyone knew who He was, and cared.

It turns out it's not true. There was a small box with a verse from Matthew on the front page that contained those words. But the front page headline was about a murder. Anyway, the next paragraph is:

After years and years of in-your-face religion, I decided to give what has become an annual lecture, in which I urge my students not to bid strangers "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Easter," "Have you gotten all your Christmas shopping done?" or "Are you going to the Easter egg hunt?" Such well-wishes are not appropriate for everyone, I tell my charges gently. A cheery "Happy holidays!" will suffice. Small potatoes, I know, but did everyone have to proclaim their Christianity so loud and clear?

Even journalism professors are allowed to have opinions about how much they hate themselves or other people. I'm pretty curmudgeonly myself, to be honest. But they should probably be careful about the facts.

The hate screed was certainly big news in Iowa. Iowans of all religions and political persuasions responded decisively to Bloom. He's probably still licking his wounds. But the errors did get other media coverage.

For one thing, The Atlantic did not handle the corrections well. As Columbia Journalism Review put it:

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.

Errors are bad enough. Covering them up or trying to downplay them is worse.

The Associated Press didn't mince words with their lede to the story:

Only a few weeks before the first Republican presidential contest, some Iowans are on the attack like never before.

They’re writing angry blog posts, doing research to discredit their opponent and railing against elites, but this vitriol isn’t aimed at Republican candidates. It’s focused on University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom, whose article for The Atlantic magazine painted Iowans as uneducated Jesus freaks who love hunting and don’t deserve the political clout they will exercise Jan. 3. ...

"You can chip away if you want at this story, but it raises some fundamental central issues that Iowans and Americans need to confront," [Bloom] said in an interview. "I think America should sit down and have a collective discussion on the wisdom of how we select our president and how inordinately important Iowa is in that process."

In a statement issued Wednesday, he added: "Sorry if I offended, but that's the real job of journalism."

Causing offense (particularly by making stuff up) is not "the real job of journalism." What's unfortunate about all this is that it's Stephen Bloom and his editors at The Atlantic who are responsible for this really shoddy and error-drenched piece of journalism. But so many other reporters and journalists have to deal with the fallout.

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