Good journalism matters more than ever

STRAY THOUGHTS

BY RANDY EVANS

If you poured truth serum down my throat, I would admit there have been times, especially lately, when I wondered whether people have lost faith in the First Amendment and the important role journalists play in the United States.

Last week was not one of those weeks, however.

Last week, my optimism flowed like water out of a fire hydrant. The upbeat feelings clearly won out over my occasional feelings of doubt and discouragement.

The optimism was the result of 500 emails and letters that flooded into the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, the 40-year-old nonprofit organization that I have directed for the past year and a half.

The correspondence carried similar messages:

“I grew up in Iowa long ago, and it’s great to see that organizations like yours are fighting for the people. Keep it up!” — The note came from a woman who included a $20 donation.

“In honor of Art Cullen and all of the good work done by journalists.” — This note came with a $10 donation by a woman who also did not identify where she lives.

“I am a native of Iowa. It breaks my heart to see what agribusiness is doing to the land and its rivers.” — This message arrived with a $250 gift from a St. Louis man.

“Keep it up! We need you now more than ever.” — An Evanston, Ill., woman sent that note and a $100 contribution.

I have been a working journalist going back to 1966. That’s when Gary Spurgeon found a spot for an eager high school kid on the staff of the Bloomfield Democrat, where he was editor. In the years since then, especially during 40 years with The Des Moines Register, there have been times of great exhilaration, excitement and satisfaction.

But there never has been a day quite like April 10 turned out to be.

That day, my friends at the Storm Lake Times — Editor Art Cullen, with important help from his son, Tom — won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Winning a Pulitzer Prize at a twice-a-week newspaper with 3,000 subscribers is as rare as an unassisted triple play in baseball or a full-court buzzer-beater in basketball.

The Times was honored for crusading against agricultural pollution originating in Iowa. The pollution has fouled the drinking water in Des Moines and polluted the Gulf of Mexico.

The Times was vocal in its criticism of the government secrecy that kept the public in the dark for more than a year about the growing legal problems brought on by the pollution.

During the Cullens’ exuberant celebration on April 10, Art was interviewed by journalists from coast to coast. He went out of his way to express appreciation for the role the Iowa FOI Council played in finally prying hundreds of pages of records — agreements, checks, attorneys’ invoices — out of the clenched fists of officials in the three counties sued by Des Moines Water Works.

In those interviews, Art also encouraged the public to support the efforts of the Iowa FOI Council on behalf of government transparency. His plugs led to the letters and emails that flooded in last week, most containing donations that ranged from $3 to $5,000.

The donations now total just shy of $20,000. The donors fall into three broad categories:

There are those who want to support high quality investigative reporting at a time when our president cries “fake news” as a way to demean the important work journalists do.

Others are savoring the heartwarming achievement by a small, family-owned business in rural Iowa in a contest typically dominated by the nation’s largest big-city newspapers.

And there are those who want to lend a hand to a nonprofit organization like the Iowa FOI Council. We are a hand-to-mouth organization that works on behalf of the public and journalists like the Cullens to coax and cajole government officials about their obligations under Iowa’s open meetings and open records laws.

The Iowa FOI Council has always operated on a shoe-string budget. But with Art Cullen’s encouragement to people reading about his Pulitzer Prize and his own pledge to give part of his $15,000 in prize money to the council, it looks like we will be stepping up from flimsy shoe strings to nice thick leather laces.

This is significant. Too few organizations are speaking for the public about open government in the Iowa Legislature and to various government boards, councils and committees.

As a woman in Charlottesville, Va., said in one of the notes last week, “Good journalism matters now, more than ever.”