Talking Through Both Barrels

Stephen Bloom of the University of Iowa touched off a firestorm by questioning why Iowans should get first crack at nominating a presidential candidate at caucuses known as chat 'n chews.University of Iowa journalism professor Stephen Bloom has discovered that people shoot back when you talk through both barrels.

Bloom, a native of New Jersey, penned an article for Atlantic magazine that questioned why Iowans get first shot at nominating presidents. He said Iowans aren't representative of the entire nation after surrendering to non-union meatpacking plants, rampant gambling, out-of-control pollution and widespread meth use. It wasn't a flattering portrait.

Not surprisingly, many Iowans — including Bloom's boss, the president of the University of Iowa — took issue with his characterization. Rebuttals called Bloom's account snide and not factual. There have also been ethnic slurs and death threats.

Appearing on NPR, Bloom didn't express any surprise at the reaction to his article. Good thing. Don't turn on the oven unless you can stand the heat in the kitchen.

Bloom's analysis of Iowa comes across as one-sided and dismissive. "Iowa is a throwback to yesteryear and, at the same time, a cautionary tale of what lies around the corner," he wrote. If his goal was to ignite a firestorm, he succeeded. But if his objective was to spark a collective reflection by Iowans, he failed.

Managing a public issue requires the skill of a surgeon, not a butcher. Challenging viewpoints, especially of people who may be comfortable in their self-perceptions, isn't easy. Alienating your target audience doesn't help.

This isn't an argument for turning public discussion into puffy, politically correct speech. Saying something incendiary can spark a healthy dialogue. It is the difference between a burning bush and an out-of-control wildfire.

At the end of the day, Bloom's real purpose may have been to get noticed. In that sense, his article is more like an attention-grabbing Hollywood press release than a thought-provoking piece of journalism.

Persuading people to take a fresh look at their world and themselves is better accomplished by pulling back the curtain, not breaking the window.