Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Horray and Boo: Iowa Wins a Pulitzer

From prize.
Well, it’s a great day to be a journalism professor in Iowa. It’s not every day someone wins a Pulitzer Prize and I get to say: “Hey, I know that guy.”

I lived in Early Iowa, a small town 15 miles south of Storm Lake, in the 1990s. I can’t honestly say I subscribed to The Storm Lake Times for all of those years—but for much of my residency there, I was a Times reader.

And now Art Cullen, the Iowa newspaper editor most likely to be mistaken for Mark Twain, has won the Pulitzer Prize for journalism for editorial writing. Bravo.

A journalist's mission to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Cullen wrote his prize-winning editorials about the lawsuit between the Des Moines Water Works and agricultural counties, including Buena Vista in northwest Iowa, that pollute the Des Moines River, the source of drinking water for Iowa’s largest urban area, due to the county's agricultural runoff.

Cullen spoke with the Sioux City Journal about the importance of small-town journalism in a video report that I hope you will watch.

The Des Moines Register made a video of its own, too—but despite being flashier, it lacks something without Art speaking in it.

From the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, Art or Mark.
Photo by Allison Bradley for

I stated before that Art Cullen looks a little like Mark Twain. He’s like Twain in a bit more than looks. Twain was, in his time, an acerbic critic of social norms. Recall the prayer he wrote in 1905 ("The War Prayer") that was a harsh satire of war prayers in general. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking of Twain as a warm, fuzzy storyteller—when in fact he was a clear-eyed curmudgeon, and could be sarcastic.

Cullen doesn’t mince words, either. See his editorials. As he noted, anybody with a nose knows there’s something wrong with water in Iowa. And Cullen is a fierce progressive voice in the extreme conservative King country of western Iowa.

The Storm Lake Times is a family business. In news accounts of the Pulitzer Prize, Art Cullen credits his son Tom Cullen as a co-winner of the prize because the son’s reporting fueled the father's editorials. Art Cullen also says his brother John Cullen, who founded the Times, taught Art Cullen to write.

Well, congratulations Art Cullen. You proved that good, clear, strong writing can come from a newspaper of any size, and you did something that should make Iowans proud.

But even as we celebrate, we need to recall hard realities.

The Iowa legislature is controlled by a virulently conservative Republican party. Terry Branstad is still governor, soon to be replaced by his GOP Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. Donald Trump recenlty appointed an EPA chief who in the past has sued the EPA, and Trump's administration shows no taste for environmental regulation.

The only power that can change the rules to stop the pollution that caused the dust up that led to a Pulitzer Prize is government—and right now, government doesn’t seem to care much about pollution.

Yes, I know, Governor Branstad made a halfhearted try last year to fund an inadequate plan to reduce water pollution, but it was killed by his own party. Rights now, Republicans at the state and federal level are in no mood to tackle any pollution, whether the result is dirty water or global warming.

The big story that the Cullens have been telling is not that a Des Moines water utility sued Buena Vista County. Nor even who paid for the county to defend itself.

After all, that lawsuit has already been dismissed.

No, the big story is that nitrates are still today leaking into Iowa water, poisoning not just Des Moines but also small towns. And a dead zone grows in the Gulf of Mexico as chemicals from Iowa farm fields make their way downstream.

In recent decades, farming as an industry has changed in ways that are not sustainable nor compatible with our collective health and well-being. And, while we can wag our fingers at farmers, they are, for the most part, just a part of a giant system whose rules they don’t set and whose trends push them to this style of fertilizer-intense farming. And farmers are facing tough economic times. Farm incomes have been hit hard as commodity prices fall—and as nitrogen is pumped into the soil, as the waters grow poisoned, and as Iowa slowly turns foul and unhealthy.

As Cullen noted, anybody with eyes and a nose knows.

That’s a big story. It’s not a pleasant one. We need brave journalists like Art Cullen to continue to tell it, even when we don’t want to hear it.

Congratulations to the Cullen clan on being recognized for their good journalism. And please get back to work.

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