A journalism professor derides Iowa and faces fury
IOWA CITY, Iowa—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's website painted Iowans as uneducated Jesus freaks who love hunting and don't deserve the political clout they will exercise Jan. 3.
Every four years, some pundits and voters complain about the small, largely white states of Iowa and New Hampshire getting to play outsized roles nominating presidential candidates with their first-in-the-nation contests. But what makes Bloom's critique stand out is that it came from within and was expressed in brutal terms by a talented writer who has spent years reporting on Iowa.
Add in some factual inaccuracies, sweeping generalizations and stereotypes about Iowans, and you have an outrage that is playing out from Sioux City to Keokuk (which he labeled "a depressed, crime-infested slum town".)
Bloom said he wrote the article to expose "uncomfortable truths and unconventional truths" about Iowa's population and economy and generate a debate about whether its four-decade run as the first caucus state should continue.
In the article, he paints Iowa's cities and rural areas as economic wastelands with little culture. He calls the state politically schizophrenic with Republicans living west of Des Moines and Democrats to the east. He describes rural areas as hotbeds for suicide and filled with the uneducated, the elderly and meth addicts. He calls the Mississippi River "commercially irrelevant" and describes cities along it as "some of the skuzziest" he'd ever seen.
Bloom, who is Jewish, complains that Iowans constantly talk about Jesus and hunting. "That's the place that may very well determine the next U.S. president," Bloom, a New Jersey native who came to Iowa in the early 1990s from San Francisco, concludes.
The response has been bipartisan and overwhelming. "Professor Bloom is engaging here in just a remarkable level of stereotyping. He should know better," said Sue Dvorsky, the chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Iowa. "He's done two great books about life in Iowa. This commentary is not worthy of him."
"The saddest part of all of this is he's a journalism professor for crying out loud!" added Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, a Republican. "This is a condescending piece that I'm ashamed to say was funded by my constituents' tax dollars."
Some online critics have told Bloom to leave the state, called him a liar and worse. He says he's gotten hundreds of calls and emails "calling me all sorts of hateful things. Some of the responses, frankly, are frightening."
But others have used humor to hit back. RayGun, a store that sells Iowa-themed clothing, released a shirt congratulating Iowans for surviving "meth, Jesus, hunting accidents, crime-filled river slums and old people. Unfortunately, you are going to die sad and alone soon."
Bloom has gotten little support at the university, where he earns an annual salary of $107,000. University President Sally Mason said Thursday that he didn't represent the school and she "was offended by Professor Bloom's portrayal of Iowa and Iowans." One professor called him a "smug, self-important jerk" -- on Bloom's Facebook page.
Critics argued Iowa voters were some of the most educated in the country. Others noted the state's unemployment rate of 6 percent is below the national average. Iowa's population is slowly increasing, not "dropping precipitously" as Bloom wrote.
Bloom, currently at the University of Michigan as a visiting scholar, said critics are missing the larger point that parts of Iowa are hurting economically and need improvement for future generations. He said he had no apology for raising issues such as
"You can chip away if you want at this story, but it raises some fundamental central issues that Iowans and Americans need to confront," he 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."
Bloom said he faced similar attacks when he wrote the 2000 book "Postville," which chronicled the clash between Iowans and Hasidic Jews who moved in to run a slaughterhouse. He said he was vindicated years later when authorities cracked down on the abuses he chronicled.
But readers aren't sure this piece will hold up. Some are questioning Bloom's claim that the state's second largest newspaper had "He Has Risen" as a front-page headline to mark Easter in 1993. A microfiche of the page shows no such headline, but Bloom insists that's his recollection.
And then there were Bloom's claims about his family dog. Bloom wrote that "he can't tell you how often over the years" he was walking the dog when pickup truck drivers stopped to ask whether she's a good hunter. Iowans, he said, would never get a dog for amusement but only "to track and bag animals that you want to stuff, mount, or eat."
That line prompted several dog owners to insist they've never been asked that and to accuse Bloom, who lives in a liberal neighborhood in a college town, of exaggeration.