The 16 Bleeding Heartland posts that were most fun to write in 2016

Freedom to chase any story that captures my attention is the best part of running this website. A strong sense of purpose carries me through the most time-consuming projects. But not all work that seems worthwhile is fun. Classic example: I didn’t enjoy communicating with the white nationalist leader who bankrolled racist robocalls to promote Donald Trump shortly before the Iowa caucuses.

Continuing a tradition I started last year, here are the Bleeding Heartland posts from 2016 that have a special place in my heart. Not all of them addressed important Iowa political news, but all were a joy to write.

I struggled to choose just sixteen posts out of hundreds published in 2016. Some honorable mentions:

IA-02: Mark Chelgren’s ludicrous pander to Hawkeyes. My take on a GOP state senator’s publicity stunt, designed to tap into outrage over the Stanford marching band’s antics during the Rose Bowl.

Ten Iowa legislative incumbents who raised surprisingly little for their re-election campaigns. A lot of work went into putting this piece together, but I wasn’t complaining.

Throwback Thursday: When Bob Vander Plaats asked for money to promote his Iowa caucus endorsement. A Twitter spat between Donald Trump and one of Iowa’s leading Ted Cruz endorsers inspired this review of a scandal from the closing weeks of the 2012 Iowa caucus campaign.

Get your heads out of the sand, Iowa Democratic Party leaders. A semi-rant written in a sleep-deprived state two days after the caucuses.

More secrecy and signs of a corporate leadership culture at the University of Iowa. One of many pieces about the aftermath of University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld’s hiring, this post had both controversy and unintentional comedy. Also contributing to my fond memories: the work led to the Cedar Rapids Gazette post described below.

Moving on to the countdown:

16. Want to help under-funded schools? Invest in your downtown.

Although I care deeply about land use issues, I don’t write about them often enough. This post covered some little-known facts about the benefits of downtown development in small towns as well as larger cities. An eye-opening graphic was a bonus: the “footprint” of Jordan Creek Town Center development in West Des Moines, overlaid on the East Village neighborhood of downtown Des Moines.

15. Six reasons Newt Gingrich would be a perfect running mate for Donald Trump.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so confident that certain political liabilities would sink Trump in the general election. But I stand by my assessment: Gingrich would have been a perfect match for our narcissistic, big-spending, debt-accumulating, conflict-of-interest-having, three-times-married president-elect.

14. Throwback Thursday: When a computer malfunction may have robbed Ronald Reagan of a 1980 Iowa caucus victory.

Not breaking news, but news to me: problems counting the 1980 Republican Iowa caucus results were serious enough to cast doubt on whether George H.W. Bush was the winner. This piece involved some entertaining interviews.

I don’t know why I never thought to start the Throwback Thursday series before the summer of 2015. I’ve enjoyed writing all of those posts. Several more are in the works for next year.

13. Bernie Sanders fans, stop citing my work to support your conspiracy theory.

I like Bernie Sanders, and I like the passion he brings out in his supporters. I tried hard to avoid arguing with the Sanders crowd before and after the caucuses. I even discouraged other Democrats who had favored Hillary Clinton from badgering the “Feel the Bern” contingent.

I drew the line when some pro-Sanders bloggers distorted words I wrote in 2015 to advance their bogus claim that Iowa Democratic Party leaders rigged the caucuses to secure a Clinton victory.

12. Throwback Thursday: Best and worst 1996 Russian presidential election ads.

Boris Yeltsin’s first re-election campaign looms large in my “past life” and was a focal point of my work for years. On the twentieth anniversary of that election, I looked back at some striking campaign advertising. A few of the pro-Yeltsin spots were among the most effective political ads I’ve ever seen. Some commercials for a different candidate were the most incompetent, without question.

Other recollections from the summer of 1996 ended up in an October Throwback Thursday post: Five Russian jokes about rigged elections.

11. One Iowa House Republican’s strange and lonely battle against marriage equality.

I’ve yet to hear a convincing case against the Iowa Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Varnum v Brien. But even if I disagreed with that ruling, I wouldn’t see the logic in how retiring State Representative John Kooiker chose to express his opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples.

10. Anatomy of a missed opportunity for Bruce Harreld.

The University of Iowa president has demonstrated on many occasions that he doesn’t understand academic culture or why the leader of a public institution should be open and forthcoming about the university’s work.

This post covered what should have been an easy way for Harreld to show his commitment to transparency and accountability. He blew it.

9. Adventures in sexist ledes.

I don’t normally keep up with news about Hawkeyes football, but a nepotism scandal put this Iowa City Press-Citizen story on my radar in May.

I set aside what I was working on and completed this post quickly after reading Mark Emmert’s lede: “If you can impress Kirk Ferentz enough to marry his daughter, you can certainly make a convincing case that you have what it takes to work for the Iowa football coach.”

8. ISU president didn’t follow university policy on transporting firearms.

A reader’s question sent me down this rabbit hole. The hardest part of the process was waiting ten days to publish after an important e-mail arrived from Iowa State University’s public records officer at 4:56 pm on the Friday before election day. I didn’t want the story to get buried under last-minute campaign news or the crush of post-election takes.

ISU President Steven Leath has since claimed that he “fully complied” with guidance from the university’s general counsel on the storage and transport of his firearms. I’ll continue to pursue this story in 2017. So far ISU staff have not answered my follow-up questions.

7. Throwback Thursday: Ed Fallon reflects on endorsing Ralph Nader for president.

Wikileaks disclosures and events during the Democratic National Convention enraged activists who identified themselves as “Bernie or Bust.” Having lived overseas during the 2000 presidential campaign, I hadn’t directly observed the flight of some progressive activists from Democratic nominee Al Gore to Ralph Nader. I sought perspective from Iowa’s best-known Nader supporter: then State Representative Ed Fallon.

I’m grateful Fallon spoke so frankly about that decision and how it affected his political career. His thoughts about the 2016 campaign were insightful as well.

6. Three Iowa House Democrats retire in last three days of filing period.

It drives me crazy when incumbents orchestrate their retirements to exclude most people from considering a run for the Iowa House or Senate. I’d just written a piece complaining about the practice when a second and then a third Democrat pulled the same trick. Apparently I’m not the only one bothered by such games, because this late Friday night post turned out to be among my most-viewed of the year.

5. Casual sexism in the Iowa House becomes easy clickbait for Radio Iowa.

Like Adventures in sexist ledes, this unplanned media commentary poured out in one sitting. I felt compelled to write after a journalist I greatly respect, O.Kay Henderson, used “catfight” in the title and opening sentence of a story about a substantive disagreement between two female lawmakers on the Iowa House Government Oversight Committee.

4. ISU’s cover story on President Leath’s airplane use is falling apart

The ISU “planegate” scandal had me hooked from day one, but my interest reached a new level upon reading this report by Ryan Foley for the Associated Press.

ISU officials maintained Leath hadn’t instructed pilots to land at a small New York airport to pick up his brother and sister-in-law and drop them off two days later. Rather, the pilots “unilaterally” decided to refuel at that airport twice on one trip to the east coast. The narrative wasn’t consistent with easily accessible information about a King Air’s fuel capacity. It made sense only as a way to avoid admitting that Leath had violated university policies and/or state law, or that the ISU Foundation may have spent funds in a way federal tax code prohibits.

This post struck a chord with many Bleeding Heartland readers.

3. Adventures in willful blindness.

I couldn’t resist taking the bait when an influential Iowa Democratic Party insider pointed to low turnout for the June 7 primary as “food for thought for those who keep telling us how undemocratic caucuses are and that they depress turnout.”

Even though my previous writing about disenfranchising and unrepresentative features of the caucus system could fill a short book, I was proud to find a new way to illustrate the problem in this post, by comparing Democratic voter participation in this year’s Iowa caucuses and Connecticut primary.

2. Cedar Rapids Gazette lets reporters grab other people’s scoops without attribution.

The pull of this draft was so strong that while I was working on the piece, I nearly missed a deadline for another obligation.

Peer-reviewed analysis has shown bloggers are more generous about crediting other people’s work than are traditional journalists. For months, I’d been troubled to see the Cedar Rapids Gazette match stories first reported by another news organization. Then sportswriter Marc Morehouse praised a competitor’s exclusive on Twitter but failed to link to that report in his own rendition of the same news. Responding to my query via e-mail, Morehouse handed me a smoking gun, explaining that his newspaper’s policy is not to acknowledge other people’s investigative work if a Gazette reporter can “independently confirm the story.”

I’ve been interested in journalism standards for more than 20 years, so I thoroughly enjoyed researching guidelines on attribution and corresponding with Steve Buttry, a tremendous resource on best practices for media.

Since this post appeared, a number of readers have told me reporters at prominent Iowa television stations including KCCI in Des Moines and KCRG in Cedar Rapids frequently match scoops without giving credit to the original source. I welcome more tips along those lines, because I don’t watch a lot of local newscasts and would likely not notice otherwise.

Side note: Morehouse blocked me on Twitter almost immediately after I published this piece. I’ve written much tougher critiques of work by some other journalists, none of whom were so thin-skinned.

1. If ISU pilots chose to land at Elmira, it wasn’t for cheap fuel.

Back to “planegate”: I challenged myself to search for evidence supporting the version of reality ISU first gave the AP’s Foley and later echoed in three other venues: “The pilots wanted to refuel before entering New York City airspace and unilaterally decided to stop at the [Elmira Corning] airport in Horseheads, New York, before the [NCAA basketball] game, allowing the couple who lives nearby to get on at no extra cost […].” I couldn’t find any reason professional pilots would select that airport for a fuel stop, if they didn’t know President Leath wanted to pick up his relatives there.

While researching this post, I learned a lot from private pilots and fixed base operator personnel at small airports in the northeast. Most were perplexed when a woman from Iowa from a website they’d never heard of called to ask about Jet A fuel prices in March 2014. Fortunately, all but one agreed to pull up some invoices, once I assured them I wasn’t seeking names or other identifying details about their customers.

I was gratified to see that the internal audit of ISU’s Flight Service, presented to the Iowa Board of Regents in December, unambiguously stated, “A return stop in Elmira would not have been necessary other than to drop off passengers.” On the downside, the auditors didn’t acknowledge that refueling in Elmira was unnecessary in either direction. Nor did they try to calculate the additional costs incurred by those stops: higher Jet A prices in Elmira, less efficient fuel burn while descending and taking off, having to pay ramp fees at the New Jersey airport where ISU’s King Air was parked for two days.

Come on, people. I put this post together by myself during a week when I lost a day to Yom Kippur. The Board of Regents had a team of seven scrutinizing ISU’s airplane use for a month and a half.

To sum up, despite not getting called a traitor by a sitting state senator, I had a lot of fun writing in 2016. Happy new year and many thanks to all who joined me for any part of this journey. I’m ready for what comes my way in 2017.

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