Art Cullen certainly cuts a dashing figure for an old man—and I can say that as a man of approximately the same vintage.
The editor of “The Storm Lake Times,” Cullen won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing last year, and spoke to the INA and ICMA conventions Friday. He won the prize for a series of editorials hat attacked Buena Vista County, of which Storm Lake is the county seat, for secrecy in a legal fight with the Des Moines Water Works over nitrate pollution.
As Cullen says, it´s pretty self evident that Iowa´s waters are badly polluted, but it takes some courage for a small-town journalist in Iowa to point out that unpleasant reality. In that place, it´s a gutsy thing to do.
Cullen represents a pure view of what a journalist is and does. He and his brother John, who publish the paper, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, although Art noted he handles more of the afflicting. “I am the bad cop, he is the good one,” he said.
Bravo for Art and his little paper. But even with a Pulitzer Prize, he notes his readers care more about whether he has spelled their daughter´s name correctly. And he says the challenge for the Times is to figure out how to appeal to a growing Hispanic population in the paper´s market, or it will be game over in five years.
I hope he manages it. He´s a heroic journalist, and I wish him the continued success he deserves. Watch for his book, coming out this fall.
A somewhat different brand of courage was on display in the morning, when Jim Olson, a retired CIA spy from Iowa, entertained the INA and ICMA crowd with his tales from his exciting careen. Olson noted that spying is an important service to the country, and one that will always be needed. But, in response to a question at the end, he also noted that our current president is doing a great disservice by attacking the intelligence agencies because he doesn´t like some of the information they are finding.
Sure, the memo, but that´s fake vindication from a lying party. I would dearly love to hear what Art Cullen says about that.
The new motto of “The Washington Post” is that “democracy dies in darkness.” In their own ways, I suppose, both Olson and Cullen worked to dispel darkness, but I do have some fondness for Cullen´s way of serving the country. It is easy to honor a public servant like Olson, but there is the complication that not everything our government did or does is honorable. Of course, not all journalists are honorable, either, but the way Art does it, journalism is.
We finished the ICMA convention with ice cream. Instead of attending a final session, I offered students with me a chance to go tour the Iowa Capitol. Which we did, and we had a great time.
It felt like a fitting end to our ICMA experience. Now, it is time to get back to work, to again start comforting and afflicting, each in our own way aiding democracy.