A Defense of Stephen Bloom's Right to Observe

By Terrence McCoy

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 clich├ęs, 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.

And a great furor across the heartland did awaken. Dude's getting hate from all sides. Nearly 1,500 comments have spawned below his column, many of them angry, vindictive, and aimed at Bloom himself. One of his fellow professors unleashed some profanity-laden tirades on his Facebook wall that, among other things, called Bloom smug, self-important, and a "horrible, horrible human being."

By heating up the truths of this somnolent state, Bloom brought to bear the fire of the inquisitor, fostering probing questions most Iowans would likely rather ignore: Is the state really as idyllic as everyone thinks? Why does a place that bears little resemblance to the greater nation afforded such prominence in selecting our presidents? How come its college graduates, like the ones Bloom's spent two decades teaching, flee Iowa in droves for more urbane communities?

Bloom knew how angry Iowans would be. The day his article hit the web, December 9, he e-mailed me the link with the note, "My order of Kevlar clothing hasn't arrived yet ... but I think I might need it."

Try an atomic-bomb bunker instead. Even Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad last week swiped at Bloom, calling his article a "nasty, negative piece." University of Iowa President Sally Mason also disowned the article. Everyone's main bone of contention: Bloom's tone. He took on the flaws of a state of 3 million residents in 5,600 words and, admittedly, wound up conveying complicated matters in a mishmash of stereotypes. But after all, maybe that was the point. To get people talking, he had to pick a fight.

Bloom's fond of citing the importance of ideas in journalism. "Ideas are the currency," he pounds into every classroom. His piece, though incendiary and bombastic, wasn't anything more than that. It was just an idea. He wanted people to understand his Iowa. Not their Iowa. His. In 1993, Bloom landed in a place he calls more foreign than any country or state he had ever known. This story is a report from the frontiers of culture shock. It's about what it means to be different from everyone around you. Day after day, for 20 years.

Iowa has more significant problems than an atrophying economy or meth addicts if different views and ideas -- even uncomfortable ones -- aren't allowed in the public discourse. And if that's the case, Iowa doesn't deserve its prominence in presidential politics.

Image credit: Kevin Satoh, Wikimedia Commons

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/12/a-defense-of-stephen-blooms-right-to-observe/250313/