NBC Gives Platform to Professor Who Called Iowans 'Meth Addicts' and 'Elderly Waiting to Die'

Following correspondent Andrea Mitchell referring to Iowa as "Too white, too evangelical, too rural" on Sunday's NBC Nightly News, on Monday's Rock Center, correspondent Willie Geist spoke to University of Iowa Professor Stephen Bloom, who similarly fretted: "It's basically a white, very, very Christian state."

Geist explained how Bloom has been "in hiding" since writing a scathing article in The Atlantic attacking Iowa as, "An assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that the sun will come out tomorrow." Bloom also ranted: "Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die."

Describing Bloom's column as "nearly 6,000 words painting a mostly ugly picture, arguing that Iowa is not representative of America," Geist did challenge the journalism professor's offensive generalizations: "Are you really surprised that Iowans are upset when they read something like that?" Bloom arrogantly asserted: " Yes. You know what? It's important to say those things. It's an impression of what I get in the state of Iowa after 20 years....I'm sorry. This is the way I do it. This is called satire. This is called parody."

Geist followed up: "Do you regret painting with such a broad brush?" Bloom replied: "No, no. I'm sorry that people don't get it. I knew I was stepping into something, absolutely. But isn't that what journalists ought to be doing?"

Near the end of the segment, Geist actually portrayed Bloom as a victim: "Perhaps the most deeply felt insult was to Iowans' faith. Bloom, who is Jewish, writes about the state's, quote, "in-your-face religion." He said he went into hiding because his wife received an anti-Semitic phone call. Do you fear for your life?" Bloom responded: "People tell me I shouldn't go back to Iowa." Geist wondered: "Will you?" Bloom declared: "Yeah. That's where I teach. That's where I've taught for 20 years. I'm not going to be bullied into leaving Iowa. This is my home."

Talking to host Brian Williams moments later, Geist tried to defend Bloom: "And we should point out, by the way, Professor Bloom does not deny that the people here are nice. He just says that it's a place that can be improved. By all accounts he's an active member of the community, goes to the Hawkeye football games, has lived here 20 years, raised his family. He says he loves the place, he just wants to help make it better."


Here is a full transcript of the January 2 segment:

10:12PM ET

BRIAN WILLIAMS: You're looking live at Mitt Romney in Clive, Iowa, tonight. A truly last-minute rally, trying to pick off some undecideds as the caucuses are tomorrow. In fact, by about this time tomorrow night, we'll have the first results from the GOP caucuses because, of course, Iowa gets to go first. And Iowans are very protective and proud of their role every four years.

And every four years journalists go and cover it while some of them grumble that Iowa doesn't look enough like the rest of America to play such an important role in the election process. But this year, one man who lives in Iowa has criticized the place out loud and in a harsh way. And tonight, Willie Geist reports on the Iowan who is now persona non grata.

WILLIE GEIST: Professor Stephen Bloom of the University of Iowa is walking the streets of New York City hoping to blend into a crowd. We flew him to Manhattan from an undisclosed location where he's been hiding. All because of something he wrote.

STEPHEN BLOOM: Gosh, I raised some unspeakable truths. In my mind, they're opinions. And there's a firestorm.

GEIST: That firestorm is the reaction to his article "Observations From 20 Years of Iowa Life." It was published on the website of The Atlantic. Professor Bloom spends nearly 6,000 words painting a mostly ugly picture, arguing that Iowa is not representative of America.

STEPHEN BLOOM: It's basically a white, very, very Christian state.

GEIST: Born in New Jersey and educated in California, Bloom has spent the last two decades in Iowa teaching journalism and traveling to every corner of the state. He's even written two books about small-town Iowa.

There's one passage in your piece that's come to summarize, for your critics, the disdain they say you have for the state of Iowa. It reads this way, "Those who stay in rural Iowa are often the elderly waiting to die. Those too timid or lacking in education to peer around the bend for better opportunities. An assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that the sun will come out tomorrow." Are you really surprised that Iowans are upset when they read something like that?

STEPHEN BLOOM: Yes. You know what? It's important to say those things. It's an impression of what I get in the state of Iowa after 20 years.

GEIST: I think for people reading it, though, and not just people in Iowa, but outside the state, it's not the problems you raise, which are valid. Rural poverty, poor economy in certain parts of the state. Those are all valid concerns. It's the way you do it.

BLOOM: I'm sorry, Willie. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. This is the way I do it. This is called satire. This is called parody.

BLOOM: If Bloom's article is parody, many Iowans missed the joke.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's the biggest bunch of trash I've ever seen.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Older Iowans aren't living out in the country waiting to die, as he said.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN B: I think a lot of people took offense to some of the things he said that we're all, you know, meth heads and that we just shoot things all day long.

GEIST: She's talking about a section of article where Bloom writes about Iowa's hunting culture, describing men in orange overhauls who mix guns with alcohol. Do you hunt?

BLOOM: No, I do not hunt.

GEIST: So how have you seen the scene where their drinking before they go to shoot.

BLOOM: I've seen photographs. I've seen photo essays about this.

GEIST: About people drinking before they shoot?

BLOOM: Yes. Absolutely.

GEIST: Do you regret painting with such a broad brush?

BLOOM: No, no. I'm sorry that people don't get it. I knew I was stepping into something, absolutely. But isn't that what journalists ought to be doing?

GEIST: The outrage first exploded online as the article spread quickly across the state, just weeks before its moment in the national spotlight for the Iowa caucuses.

KYLE MUNSON: The conversation started bubbling. So social media, Facebook, I wrote a column about it. Other people wrote op-eds, everything else, and it just mushroomed from there.

GEIST: Des Moines Register Columnist Kyle Munson wrote a front-page response to Bloom's article. Munson concedes that Bloom does make some valid points about Iowa.

MUNSON: But the problem is they get buried under the way he's mangled some of the facts and the mean-spirited nature of his prose. So if he's going to ratchet up his attack, he needs to also make sure he rises to the occasion with his facts and the way he presents them.

GEIST: Bloom says the half dozen corrections and clarifications posted with his article are quibbles. Among the errors, his claim the state is 96% white when the most recent census data has the figure at 91%. Meanwhile, Des Moines entrepreneur Mike Draper is turning a profit off the controversy with a little parody of his own.

MIKE DRAPER: The shirt is, "Iowa: If you're reading this congratulations, you survived meth, Jesus, hunting accidents, crime-filled river slums and old people. Unfortunately, you are going to die sad and alone soon."

GEIST: The t-shirts have been selling as fast as he can make them.

DRAPER: We also wrote a blog post about it that, you know, kind of said that Iowa should really have more of a hip-hop community now that we realize we have crime-filled slums and a suicide rate three times New York.

GEIST: Perhaps the most deeply felt insult was to Iowans' faith. Bloom, who is Jewish, writes about the state's, quote, "in-your-face religion." He said he went into hiding because his wife received an anti-Semitic phone call. Do you fear for your life?

BLOOM: People tell me I shouldn't go back to Iowa. People-

GEIST: Will you?

BLOOM: Yeah. That's where I teach. That's where I've taught for 20 years. I'm not going to be bullied into leaving Iowa. This is my home.

GEIST: A home he insists he loves, but one that's having a tough time loving him back.

WILLIAMS: It's an explosive article and we urge you to read it, we've linked to it tonight on our website. Runs about five, six pages on the web. And Willie Geist joins us tonight in, of all places, Iowa. Willie, I was – my first job making no money, I was in neighboring Kansas. And the article made me remember a lot of things, including Friday night church bean suppers, without which I wouldn't have survived, along with the kindness of strangers in the Midwest, which is unlike anywhere else. And they all come in for a kind of glancing criticism. So it will be real interesting to see how this plays out.

Anyway, I've got to remember that we're also here to talk politics. Whether the Professor likes it or not, Iowa plays a crucial role. And tell us on the ground as of tonight what it looks like things are shaping out with on the GOP front?

GEIST: Yeah, Brian. And we should point out, by the way, Professor Bloom does not deny that the people here are nice. He just says that it's a place that can be improved. By all accounts he's an active member of the community, goes to the Hawkeye football games, has lived here 20 years, raised his family. He says he loves the place, he just wants to help make it better.

As for what's happening here, we had our first debate among these Republicans, Brian, May 5th of 2011, eight months ago, by my count, and now finally this is going to start going to some people who actually vote. The polls have Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Rick Santorum bunched near the top, with Rick Santorum just over the last week making a big push here. We'll see who comes out. It's jump ball between those three, most experts say. Remember, though, in 2008 John McCain finished fourth here and went on to win the nomination. So the predictive nature of this caucus is up in the air.

WILLIAMS: And then we get to move the whole caravan to New Hampshire in the winter as always happens. Willie Geist, thanks. Great to have you with us and thanks for your reporting. It goes without saying we'll have all the Iowa caucuses covered tomorrow without grumbling on this NBC station beginning on Today, continuing on NBC Nightly News, and including updates on the results of the caucuses during prime time. And MSNBC will have wall-to-wall coverage beginning with Willie Geist at an insanely early hour of the morning. And right on through the evening.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC