A Defense of Stephen Bloom's Right to Observe

A University of Iowa graduate recalls how his former professor taught him to avoid writing PR.

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It was early February 2006 in my sophomore year of college in Iowa City and I was late to an appointment with a professor who had terrified me for weeks. His teaching antics had stirred all sorts of labels among fledgling journalists taking his intro-level reporting class: megalomaniac, mad storyteller, and neurotic Jerry Seinfeld-lookalike.

Early February can be brutal in the heartland. Any vestige of the holidays is long dissipated, and all that remains is the chalky residue of salt and sand topping ice-veneered streets and the inescapable truth that temperatures will stay mired in the teens for months. For Stephen G. Bloom -- the professor I was hurrying to see and author of The Atlantic's controversial article last week, "Observations on 20 Years of Iowa Life" -- the winter months mean one thing: sweaters. Lots and lots of sweaters.

Grey sweaters. Blue sweaters. Black ones and brown. And on that day in February when I tip-toed into his office with tales of my first interview with a live person, Bloom had on a gray, woolen number over a button-up collared shirt. His office in the University of Iowa's journalism building was a terribly cluttered affair. Books and stacks of documents everywhere, and framed posters and pictures leaning against walls rather than hanging from them.

My interview and subsequent profile of a local county official had gone dreadfully, but I thought the work I showed Bloom was just shy of transcendent. The article swarmed with clichés, truncated thoughts, and, for reasons still unclear, a three-paragraph stream-of-consciousness section intended to convey "what it all meant" that I found positively profound.

Bloom handed me back the piece, bleeding in blue ink. The word "rewrite" stretched across the bottom. "Reads like a puff piece," he told me, though I had no idea what a "puff piece" was. The journalistic lesson, however, was clear: No one reads PR.

Now six years later, Bloom made thousands of enemies in Iowa last week for a piece that's anything but PR. In his article on The Atlantic's website, Bloom -- who's originally from New Jersey and clocked time in the Bay Area -- called Iowa a place that's "culturally backward" (wam!) and teeming with "slum towns" (pow!). Bloom, 60, went on to question Iowa's undisputed role as national kingmaker in presidential politics. He insinuated that a homogenous state of white hunters and casserole-gobblin' football fanatics doesn't represent our free-wheeling, wildly diverse nation. (Full disclosure: I enjoy both casseroles and football.)

Bloom, who has taught journalism in Iowa for nearly 20 years, also got dinged on accuracy. He said Iowa is 96 percent white; the figure is actually 91.3 percent, according to the 2010 Census. He also incorrectly harpooned the local newspaper the Cedar Rapids Gazette, which I once wrote for, for a banner headline about Easter it never ran (though the phrase he recalled did in fact appear on its A1 that day). He additionally asserted that Iowa will likely rescind gay marriage, when that's very much in question.

Presented by

Terrence McCoy

Terrence M. McCoy is the Gordon Grey Fellow of International Journalism at Columbia University.

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