Weekend open thread: New leaders and new traditions

Governor Kim Reynolds took acting Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg on a whirlwind tour late last week to Osceola, Mason City, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, and Gregg’s home town of Hawarden (Sioux County). Hundreds of people showed up for the Hawarden event; much smaller crowds turned out at the other venues. At each stop, Reynolds and Gregg praised former Governor Terry Branstad, and Reynolds repeated the four key goals she had laid out in her first speech as the state’s top official.

Early signs point to a highly political rather than policy-oriented Reynolds administration. The new governor’s top appointees are veterans of many Republican campaigns. Chief of staff Jake Ketzner worked on Branstad’s campaign in 2010 and managed the governor’s 2014 re-election bid; in between, he ran Representative Steve King’s 2012 campaign against Christie Vilsack. Deputy chief of staff Tim Albrecht spent most of his career as a spin doctor for GOP candidates or elected officials before joining a Republican-oriented political communications firm in late 2013. You don’t put guys like this in charge of your office if you’re a “policy wonk” or interested in reaching out to constituencies that felt ignored during Branstad’s tenure. These choices suggest that Reynolds plans to wage partisan warfare, day in and day out.

Over at Iowa Starting Line, Pat Rynard commented on how the Reynolds administration is already blurring the lines between official state events and 2018 campaign activities. Expect much more of this in the months to come.

Speaking of political games, progressive activists put up a parody site at ReynoldsGregg.org, pushing the message, “Kim Reynolds and Adam Gregg are Iowa’s new team, but unfortunately they have the same old failed priorities” (see screen shot below). Rynard recalled that GOP operatives including Albrecht relentlessly mocked Jack Hatch’s campaign for making the same mistake in 2014. At that time, quite a few of Iowa’s political reporters wrote stories about Republicans grabbing HatchVernon.com and the @HatchVernon Twitter handle. So far, those media outlets have not publicized the same incompetence on the part of the Reynolds team.

Other passages worth noting: earlier this month, the Iowa Board of Regents chose Michael Richards as president and Patricia Cownie and president pro-tem, replacing Bruce Rastetter and Katie Mulholland, whose terms ended April 30. Rastetter opted not to seek reappointment to the board, tacitly acknowledging that Iowa Senate Democrats would never have allowed his confirmation. Mulholland sought another six-year term, but for reasons that remain unclear, Branstad passed her over. Regent Larry McKibben had expressed interest in the board presidency, but he gave up without a fight and formally nominated Richards. I didn’t have a preference between McKibben and Richards; from my perspective, neither could possibly do worse in that job than Rastetter. This weekend, the Ditchwalk blog took an in-depth look at Richards: part 1 focused on his background and how he got the top job on the board, while part 2 looked at his early actions in the new position, speculating about whether Richards can fix the board’s “colossal credibility problem” after years of administrative abuses by Rastetter.

In March, Sean Bagniewski won the election to succeed Tom Henderson, the long-serving chair of the Polk County Democrats. Bagniewski announced on May 23 that former Senator Tom Harkin gave his blessing to have Iowa’s largest county Democratic organization hold an annual “Steak Fry” fundraiser. The inaugural event is scheduled for September 30 at Water Works Park in Des Moines; headliners have not yet been announced. Bagniewski joked, “One of my friends asked me how it felt to land the Steak Fry. It’s like adopting a baby gorilla. Where do you put it? How’re you going to feed it? How much is this thing going to cost?”

Final note: the New Leaders Council, “a nonpartisan program to recruit, train, and promote the next generation of progressive leaders,” is holding a fundraiser in Des Moines on Thursday, June 1. Money raised will support the five-month training program for next year’s New Leaders Council fellows. Local organizers hope to attract a more diverse class and are “doing more focused outreach to underrepresented communities” with a goal of having a 60 percent non-white and 55 percent female cohort of fellows for 2018. I enclose below more details about this week’s event and the training program.

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KWWL won't correct error-filled story on Stand Your Ground

Generally accepted journalism guidelines call for acknowledging mistakes in news reports, setting the record straight quickly, and doing so “in a way that encourages people who consumed the faulty information to know the truth.” The Online News Association’s “Build Your Own Ethics Code” project lists “promptly correct errors” among a short list of “fundamentals” that “should apply to all journalists.” The Radio Television Digital News Association’s code of ethics states, “Ethical journalism requires owning errors, correcting them promptly and giving corrections as much prominence as the error itself had.”

KWWL, the NBC affiliate in Waterloo, doesn’t hold its reporters to that standard.

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Yes, Kim Weaver's undisclosed work as a psychic is newsworthy

An “anonymous package mailed with a Sheldon, IA, postmark” led to an exclusive report by the Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble on Monday: Kim Weaver, a Democratic challenger to Representative Steve King in Iowa’s fourth Congressional district, “operated an array of psychic services websites” and “charged customers as much as $3.99 per minute for readings online and over the phone.”

In an interview, Weaver, 52, did not deny dabbling in psychic services, but described her activities as “life coaching” and said they never amounted to more than a “hobby.”

“I didn’t really actually do anything,” Weaver said. “It was all for entertainment purposes. Did I make a living from it? No, definitely not.”

On many social media threads yesterday, I saw Iowa Democrats complain about the Register hyping a “hit piece” planted by Republicans.

But even clickbait hit pieces have news value sometimes.

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Read highlights from Art Cullen's Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials

The best news out of Iowa last week was Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for “editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.” Our state’s journalism community has long recognized the quality of Cullen’s work. The same series of columns earned him one of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council’s Skip Weber Friend of the First Amendment awards last year.

Cullen will donate most of his prize money to non-profits, including charities assisting refugees and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, whose executive director Randy Evans helped Cullen press his case with Buena Vista County leaders who were withholding public records. Speaking to James Warren of Poynter and Jared Strong of the Carroll Daily Times Herald, Cullen went out of his way to credit his son, Tom Cullen, who “did most of the heavy lifting” while digging into who was paying for the legal defense of three counties sued by the Des Moines Water Works.

The Storm Lake Times posted all of the winning editorials on this page. Links to the individual columns are on the Pulitzer Prize website. I enclose below excerpts from those columns, from Storm Lake Times publisher John Cullen’s tribute to his brother, and from Art Cullen’s “thank you” column. I hope this post will inspire Bleeding Heartland readers not only to click through and read last year’s award-winning work, but also to bookmark the Storm Lake Times website and check its opinion page regularly.

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Journalists, stop validating Republican spin on voter ID

Later today, Iowa Senate Republicans will give final approval to a bill that could prevent thousands of eligible voters from casting ballots. A broad coalition of groups oppose House File 516, because common sense and research on similar laws in other states overwhelmingly point to one conclusion: voter ID and signature verification requirements will create barriers to the exercise of a fundamental constitutional right, disproportionately affecting students, the poor, the elderly, and people of color.

Republicans don’t acknowledge any of the expert testimony. They pay no attention to the conservative judge who regrets his ruling on Indiana’s voter ID law, having concluded that such laws are “a means of voter suppression.” They keep insisting their so-called “election integrity” bill won’t block a single citizen from voting.

They offer up false equivalencies, saying in their newsletters and on the Senate floor that Iowa Democrats also passed a voter ID law when they controlled both legislative chambers.

These tactics can be effective because most news reports on contentious issues give equal weight to both sides, even if one side is not credible. The “he said/she said” frame with no effort to evaluate competing claims is one of my major journalism pet peeves.

But I realized last Friday that when a politician stretches the truth, a reporter’s incompetent fact-check is worse than no fact-checking at all.

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Weekend open thread: Stolen Supreme Court seat edition

Confession: I didn’t watch the confirmation hearings of Judge Neil Gorsuch*. The outcome was foreordained, down to Republicans invoking the “nuclear option” of changing Senate rules to allow confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court nominees with a simple majority of votes. The late-breaking news of flagrant plagiarism by Gorsuch* was never going to change any Republican minds.

Democrats could make various political arguments for fighting this nomination through extraordinary means. Even though I knew the filibuster wouldn’t keep Gorsuch* off the high court, I supported the tactic for one reason alone: “business as usual” cannot go on after the theft of a Supreme Court seat.

No matter how qualified Gorsuch* is on paper, he should never have been able to receive this lifetime appointment. Denying the equally qualified Judge Merrick Garland a Judiciary Committee hearing was unprecedented and will be a permanent stain on Senator Chuck Grassley’s legacy. Republican excuses for refusing to consider President Barack Obama’s nominee have no more merit now than they did a year ago. Gorsuch* will never be a legitimate Supreme Court justice in my eyes, and Bleeding Heartland will put an asterisk by his name in perpetuity.

This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

Another tragic story caught my attention this past week: Rekha Basu’s feature for the Des Moines Register on former Mason City council member Alex Kuhn. Well-liked and seen by many as a rising star, Kuhn took his own life last summer. Basu told the story through the frame of the intensely negative feedback–by some accounts bullying–Kuhn received after opposing an incentives package for a huge Prestage pork processing plant. When John Skipper told the story of Kuhn’s final months in the Mason City Globe-Gazette last December, he focused on the young man’s battle with depression. According to Basu, Kuhn’s parents believe Skipper built “a narrative around depression, enabling those who had hurt Alex to turn his suffering back on him.”

The Globe-Gazette’s editor David Mayberry wasn’t a fan of the way Basu built her narrative, on grounds he laid out in this Twitter thread. He observed that “pinning a suicide to one cause is a well-documented no-no in journalism” and linked to this guide for reporters to support his case.

No one can precisely reconstruct why Kuhn’s suffering became too much to bear. Clearly the Prestage controversy profoundly affected him. I can’t imagine what a devastating blow his death was to his loved ones. It’s a huge loss for Iowa as well. Whatever you may think about local giveaways to profitable corporations, elected officials with Kuhn’s political courage are few and far between.

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