Factual Errors in Bloom’s Attack on Iowa

I was reminded that I promised to do a follow-up to my blog post about Stephen Bloom’s article in The Atlantic, which lambasted his home state of Iowa, its residents and its way of life.  If it sounds like I’m exaggerating, read the original article here.

Mr. Bloom justifies his criticism variously as “unspeakable truths,” “opinions,” and “satire and parody.” If he seems confused about the focus of his piece, it has gotten him a lot of attention (with over 2,000 comments on the magazine’s web site, and even an interview on NBC’s Rock Center) which is perhaps what he wanted all along.  Tellingly, he is quite vocal about the responses to his article, citing a death threat, anti-Semitism, and being forced into “hiding in an undisclosed location.”

Personally, I feel it’s all too easy to get attention through attacks and name-calling.  What’s especially egregious is that he cloaks his criticism under the guise of journalism, saying how he is only “shining a light into dark corners.  That’s what good journalists do.”

Apparently other journalists have taken issue with his professional integrity.  A response to Mr. Bloom’s article said, “… we have a profound and professional disagreement with Professor Bloom concerning the practice of “good journalism.” We do not believe, as he does, that good journalism entails scathing attacks on powerless people, nor do we endorse any work riddled with inaccuracies and factual errors, and based on sweeping generalizations and superficial stereotypes.”  This response was written by faculty members of Mr. Bloom’s own employer, the University of Iowa School of Journalism, including Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Berry.

In an effort to contribute to the “light-shining”, let’s take a look at some of the “facts” which Mr. Bloom uses to support his opinions.

Mr. Bloom – “It’s no surprise then, really, that the most popular place for suicide in America isn’t New York or Los Angeles, but the rural Middle, where guns, unemployment, alcoholism and machismo reign.

Sperling – Suicides in Iowa’s rural counties are 13.55 per 100,000 residents; New York’s suicide rate is 5.4 residents per 100,000.”
This is an issue plaguing rural counties throughout the United States, not just Iowa.  New York City, for whatever reasons, has an exceptionally low suicide rate, so it’s unfair to compare New York with rural Iowa.  Instead, let’s compare the average suicide rate for all of rural Iowa with the rural counties for the other states, and a different story emerges.  In actuality, rural Iowa has one of the lowest suicide rates in the nation, ranking 9th out of 48 states. (source – CDC Compressed Mortality Database, 1999-2007) (Fun fact to know and share – Rhode Island and New Jersey have no counties classified as ‘rural.’)

Mr. Bloom – “Of the students I teach, relatively few will stay in Iowa after they graduate. The net flow of Iowans is out, not in. Iowa’s greatest export isn’t corn, soybeans, or pigs; it’s young adults.”

Sperling – This is simply not true, according to the latest statistics from the American Community Survey from the Census Bureau.  Examining the 379 U.S. metro areas and divisions (home to 85% of all U.S. residents), Mr. Bloom’s home town of Iowa City has the 10th-highest percentage of young adults in the 25-34 year-old range so highly coveted by urban planners.  Sure, Iowa City is a college town which gives it an advantage, but that’s why the 25-34 year-old range is commonly measured, which should exclude most of the currently-enrolled students.  Des Moines is ranked #25, and Ames comes in at #90.

Mr. Bloom – “In between these two great, defining rivers, Iowa is a place of bizarre contrasts. The state is split politically: to the east of Des Moines, Iowa is solidly Democratic; to the west, it’s rabidly Republican.”

Sperling – Actually, these contrasts are not uncommon, and certainly not “bizarre.”  Atlanta accounts for more than half of Georgia’s population and votes Democratic, while the rest of the state swings Republican.  Portland, Oregon is similar, in that it’s home to half of the state population and is considerably more liberal than the rest of the Oregon.

I’d also like to point out that Iowa cities often rank near the top in measures of health and livability.  Ames has the highest life expectancy among U.S. metro areas (over 81 years at birth), with Cedar Rapids and Dubuque also scoring well. Iowa metros have some of the lowest rates of cardiac and cancer mortality (age-adjusted), and report some very low incidences of hypertension, cholesterol, and diabetes.  Obesity is a challenge though, as with much of the United States.

Mr. Bloom – “…Keokuk is a depressed, crime-infested slum town. Almost every other Mississippi river town is the same; they’re some of the skuzziest cities I’ve ever been to, and that’s saying something.”  “Those who stay in rural Iowa are …an assortment of waste-oids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth…”

Sperling – Keokuk does have a high crime rate.  In fact, it has the most violent crime per capita of any Iowa city according to the 2010 FBI Uniform Crime Reports.  But what about crime in Iowa overall?  The state of Iowa has the 18th and 10th lowest violent and property crime rates in the nation (respectively).  Since Mr. Bloom has a particular fascination with rural Iowa, let’s have a look at the FBI stats again and we see that non-metropolitan Iowa counties have the 12th and 4th lowest violent and property crime rates in the U.S.

In conclusion, here’s my take on Mr. Bloom’s “reporting” about Iowa.  He presents few facts to support his opinions, and when he does, they are usually distorted and misleading.  Iowa is not much different from the rest of our United States; it is a mix of success, prosperity, challenges and failures.  By relentlessly chronicling the negative facets (real or imagined) of Iowa, Mr. Bloom seems to be on some personal vendetta against his home state.

I’d like to conclude with a quote from the elegant response by Mr. Bloom’s fellow journalism professionals at the University of Iowa:

“At a time when hits, ratings and circulation numbers seem to matter more than substance, it’s easy to become confused about what good journalism is, or whether it still exists. It does, but it’s not to be found in caustic columns tossed off to pander to prejudices and preconceptions. Iowa, like every state, teems with stories that deserve attention and analysis, and that need to be reported on with care and complexity and — yes — compassion.”

2 Replies to “Factual Errors in Bloom’s Attack on Iowa”

  1. Bert,
    You were too kind with this guy. What a jerk!!! I spent my freshman year at Simpson in Indianola (Aug ’67-May ’68), and found the Iowans to be some of the nicest people I had ever met. Wholesome, kind, down-to-earth, honest, etc., etc. I guess those are values that Bloom doesn’t appreciate. The only correct thing was the pig smell, but you have to endure it if you like bacon for breakfast…. and I do. Bloom must not be too smart if it took him 20 years to figure out he didn’t like Iowa. It only took me a few months… and that was due only to the extreme cold in Indianola, not to the people or culture. I just can’t handle cold or snow very well…. otherwise, Iowa would have been a nice place to live. So, to hell with Bloom for denigrating a state like that.

    By the way, I have a question: how far do you live from Portland? I’m really considering coming out to explore Vancouver, Salmon Creek, Battle Ground, and Camas, and need your expert advice, for which my wife and I would treat you to dinner at a restaurant of your choice!! Maybe next April?

    1. Mark,
      Yeah, it’s pretty easy to just stand back and be nasty. Every place has issues, but life is too short to be abusive about it.
      Hopefully, it will be another 20 years before Mr. Bloom’s next ‘light-shining’ campaign.
      And sure, let’s hook up when you come to the Portland area. Leave a message on my office phone (503-777-1636) and we’ll exchange contact info.
      One warning, the Pacific Northwest summer doesn’t really start until late June, so be prepared for cool and showers in April.
      Best, Bert

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