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UI journalism professor's article causes uproar

BY ERIC MOORE | DECEMBER 14, 2011 7:20 AM

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Though locals say a University of Iowa professor had every right to compose a controversial article about Iowans, some say it doesn't tell the whole story.

UI journalism Professor Stephen Bloom's controversial article "Observations from 20 Years of Iowa Life" appeared in the Atlantic earlier this month and stirred responses this week from Iowans offended by what they believe are inaccurate and overly generalized portrayals of the state and its people.

In the article, Bloom comments on the culture and history of Iowa after living in the state for the past 20 years. He also discusses the state's role in politics with its first-in-the-nation caucuses.

"Personally, I wonder why he's doing this," Johnson County Supervisor Pat Harney said. "Is he doing this for reactive purposes … or does he truly believe that Iowa is the way he wrote about it? If it is true, then why is he still living here?"

Tuesday evening, the Des Moines Register reported Bloom now fears for his family's safety because of "frightening" emails and phone calls he has received in response to the piece. Numerous attempts to reach Bloom, currently a visiting faculty member at the University of Michigan, were unsuccessful Tuesday evening.

But Supervisor Janelle Rettig said the controversial piece can actually be positive, despite the current negative public response.

Discussion isn't necessarily a negative reaction to the article, she said, and critically examining perceptions can be beneficial.

"I'm a firm believer in the Constitution, and he has the right to say almost anything he wants, and he's used his freedom of speech to write," said Rettig, though she added she doesn't agree with Bloom's analysis.

But Bloom himself is not the issue, one UI graduate student said.

"The issue is what messages were within the piece that led the Atlantic to endorse those ideas and make perceptions about Iowa," said Robert Gutsche, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, who previously worked with Bloom as a teaching assistant.

Gutsche said he believes the way people talk about places determines the commitment people put into places.

"These are real decisions about social change that can come from how we talk about a place, especially in the news," he said.

However, Harney said he is unsure of Bloom's intent for writing the article.

"He's categorizing everybody statewide on whatever his perspectives are," Harney said. "I don't think he's giving people credit for the education level we have, there's a lot businesses; Iowa City is very developed."

A local T-shirt business, Raygun, 103 E. College St., has taken a comedic approach to the discussion.

Raygun owner Mike Draper came up with the idea for a satirical T-shirt based on Bloom's article.

The image for the T-shirt was posted on Raygun's Facebook page around 3 p.m. Tuesday and received 131 "likes" by midnight Tuesday.

"When I first read [the article], I thought, 'Oh, that's kind of silly,' it just seemed so over-the-top and one-sided that it wasn't even funny," Draper said.

He said his goal was to make the piece funny.

"It would be a waste of time to put together a long, rational argument about it," Draper said. "We'd rather just use the humor of pointing out the absurdity of it."

Humor aside, Rettig said higher education is the ideal atmosphere to prompt such discussion.

"I think if there's any place that people should be pushing the envelope and creating dialogue, it's on college campuses," she said. "That doesn't mean the university has endorsed his article or the university has agreed with him, it just means that one of their professors got printed and caused people to talk and think."


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