Remembering Gil Cranberg3/13/2018
Two of his children and a colleague recall Register editorial writer, the “intellectual leader of state,” who died March 11 at age 93
Gil Cranberg may have been the smartest person ever to enter the Register and Tribune building.
And — luckily for Iowans — he stayed for 33 years.
In the first 26 years, he wrote editorials for the morning and Sunday Register and the evening Tribune. In the next seven years, he not only wrote editorials but also guided those pages and the 10 or so men and women working on them. He kept the papers on a steady course of arguing for civil rights and human rights, for openness of government and justice for all, and for the blessings of liberty.
In those 33 years — from 1949 to 1982 — he enlightened us and persuaded us. Sometimes he moved us to action, sometimes to outrage, sometimes to tears. His research was so thorough, his thinking was so sound, and his writing was so clear that you’d read his editorials and say, “Of course.”
Of course that’s the situation.
Of course that’s the solution.
And why hadn’t I seen it that way before?
When he became boss, he broadened the editorial and op-ed pages, making them livelier and more thought-provoking. He ran poetry. He excerpted articles from medical journals. He ran learned — and deftly summarized — articles from law reviews. He ran essays that came in over the transom if they met his high standards of reporting and writing. (One such essay was from a young American living in England. It was the first piece anyone in America had published by Thomas Friedman, who went on to win Pulitzer Prizes for nonfiction books and for commentary at the New York Times.)
His thirst for information was insatiable, his quest for knowledge unquenchable. He never stopped reading, he never stopped thinking. He felt this compulsion to find the truth and then to share it with Iowans.
In that era, the Register was still a state-wide newspaper. Its news pages gave all Iowans a thorough and common source of information. Its editorial pages gave a consistent interpretation of that news. So Gil became, by the power of the paper and the power of his mind, the intellectual leader of the state.
He always gave both sides of an argument before his surgical excision of one side. “Acknowledging ‘the other side’ signals readers that you took it into account and thus makes your argument more convincing,” Cranberg wrote to a New York Times editor who didn’t think an editorial should give both sides. That sense of fairness always guided him.
Gil never took anyone’s word for anything without first checking it out. He read the documents, the court cases, the journals, the testimony. And, often, he produced devastating proof that the conventional wisdom might have been conventional, but it certainly wasn’t wisdom.
He became an expert in libel law — not because he ever was sued for libel but rather because he believed so strongly in a free press and in fairness for the wronged. One of his fact-based conclusions: The wronged person is often right, and often he just wants to air his complaint to the editor. If editors would simply listen to that person, rather than shoo him away, the person would feel satisfied. If editors kissed him off, the chances increased that he’d file a lawsuit. Editors who followed Gil’s advice saved their companies a lot of money in legal fees — and perhaps libel judgments.
He practiced what he preached. It wasn’t enough just to argue for civil rights; he fought for them for six years as a member of the national board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union. It wasn’t enough to argue for compassion and professional care of disadvantaged young people; he served on the boards of the Des Moines Child Guidance Center (now Orchard Place) and Iowa Children’s and Family Services. It wasn’t enough to oppose awful wars; he served on the board of the Iowa Peace Institute. It wasn’t enough to believe it was wrong to throw poor folks in jail while they awaited trial; he worked with Dan Johnston on an innovative bail-reform project.
In print and in life, he was a champion of the hopeless, the helpless and the hapless.
He left the newspaper in 1982 as he saw change coming, and he turned to teaching and writing for others. His essays popped up everywhere — from The New York Times to USA Today to CITYVIEW — and he earned a new following among students at the University of Iowa. Readers still relied on him; students revered him.
Gil was married for 58 years to Norma Ansher Cranberg, a speech pathologist. She died in 2009 at age 85. He was devastated. Gil was a combat veteran from World War II, and he was in the Veterans Administration medical system — which he championed. When Norma died, a VA social worker stopped by to see him.
She asked how he was. Devastated, he said. They’d spent their adult lives together, he explained, and he was in deep grief. The worried social worker pressed him, asking if he had thought of committing suicide. Although he never seriously considered it, he had to acknowledge that, yes, the thought had crossed his mind to just drive into the garage and close the door.
The social worker was alarmed. She continued to worry about him and to stay in contact. Not too long afterward, he moved to Florida (where he continued to write, and where he led a happy and productive life). A few months after that, she called him to ask how he was doing, to ask if there were any problems.
He was doing OK, he said, but, yes, there was a problem. “The garages down here don’t have doors,” he said.
Gil Cranberg had a sense of humor, too. ♦
EULOGY FOR GILBERT CRANBERG
By Lee Cranberg
My father was blessed with work he loved, and his work was writing about the world. He began a career in journalism in 1949 as an editorial writer for The Des Moines Register and Tribune. Editorial writing is a position that many journalists aspire to, and he remained an editorial writer at the R&T for 33 years, the last seven as Editor of the Editorial Page. The R&T gave its editorial writers much leeway, allowing them to specialize on domains of interest and to speak their minds. (Dad’s bailiwick was jurisprudence, including the criminal-justice system.) As a close family friend often said, Dad was paid to think. Then he put his thoughts on paper, and they were read by the community.
Sometimes they even changed the community. After all, Des Moines was the proverbial small pond and the R&T were the jointly owned and staffed monopoly newspapers in town. Dad was acquainted with the leaders and shapers of the community and they with him; and he had some ideas worth implementing. For example, when he saw how an arrested acquaintance was released pending trial without bail because the man had friends who could offer him work and vouch that he would not skip town, my father editorialized that all defendants with proven ties to the community who were not flight risks should be given similar consideration. He helped create a pilot no-bail program in Polk County (Des Moines) that became a national model. He was invited to attend the signing by President Lyndon Johnson of the national bail-reform act in the 1960s.
After 33 years of writing editorials, in 1982 he adroitly made the transition from newspapers to academe when he retired from the R&T and became the George Gallup Professor of Journalism at the University of Iowa. Once again, he was paid to think, but now more deeply and assiduously on a particular topic. He co-authored two books, one on libel law and the other on a signal transformation in American journalism, the rise of the publicly traded newspaper corporation. (The other modern-day scourge to newspapers, the rise of the Internet, was yet to come.)
He had been lucky. He had had a fulfilling career as a newspaper man during the glory days of newspapers. Then, when the newspaper business evolved, he researched and wrote about it from an academic perch.
In late life he had yet another professional transformation. Keeping up with the times, he became a blogger. He was on the roster of writers for the Nieman Watchdog, the blog of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. Later he founded his own blog, TruthBlog.us, which published posts by him and a group of former colleagues. He made blog posts approximately a couple times per month until age 91, when the ravages of age finally stilled his keyboard after 66 years.
In closing, I want to say one word about my father’s personality. That word would be unflappable. Very little would upset him (except perhaps injustice done to others). It was an attitude he learned in the infantry in World War II. Comrades would come and go — some transferred, others killed — and there he cultivated the habit of adapting as necessary, without fuss. He took things as they came and looked forward to the future. In the worst of storms, he would always find that patch of sky unseen by others where it was clearing. ♦
EULOGY FOR GILBERT CRANBERG
By Marcia Cranberg Wolff
I consider Dad to have been both an independent, honest and creative thinker; and simultaneously quietly courageous. He came by these qualities both through experience and inheritance.
A seminal formative experience was the education he received as a member of one of the earliest classes at the renowned Bronx High School of Science. There he was taught the scientific method — how to get and dispassionately evaluate the facts, a hallmark of his later professional life.
But the habit of independence in thought may also have been in his blood. His own father, Hyman Cranberg, fled his Jewish Russian ghetto as a teenager to make a new life in New York. Most uncommonly, while my grandfather began life in the New World in the garment industry, he decided that he preferred to engage in professional endeavors, and he beat the odds to become a civil engineer. He was employed by the City of New York, where among other projects he helped design the 6th Avenue Subway Line. One of my father’s early memories was of attending a dedication ceremony for a new water-treatment plant his father had helped design. The improbable New York City Department of Sanitation Band performed, and before my father’s very eyes Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia dramatically imbibed a glass of water purified by the facility Hyman Cranberg helped create.
After participating in the World War II landings on Leyte and Okinawa as a mortarman in the infantry, Dad returned home and like so many of his fellow vets, took advantage of the GI Bill to get an education. But hand-to-hand combat in the Pacific jungles wasn’t adventure enough. So he decided to postpone settling down to job and family and instead traveled to destinations under siege, attending college at a Hungarian university just after the Iron Curtain descended over that country, and writing as a stringer for the Christian Science Monitor and other publications from Franco’s Spain. He also enrolled for further studies at the University of Oslo, Norway.
Dad’s clear-eyed vision, independence and professional courage can be seen time and again in his many projects, conducted both from his perch at The Des Moines Register and Tribune, later in academia at the University of Iowa, and later still in retirement (so-called), writing independently for numerous publications and his blog. He thought for himself and quietly plugged away on matters of national consequence from his little office in Des Moines, Iowa. And because he was so smart and pragmatic and had such good judgment and did his homework, he was very often right in challenging prevailing orthodoxy. Over and over. Here are some examples:
Iraq Invasion. He was almost alone among journalists in immediately questioning the rationale for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. From the first day that Colin Powell sought to justify the war in a much-touted speech before the UN, Dad dug up many of the primary intelligence documents upon which Powell relied, concluded Bush’s and Powell’s justifications were unsupported by the evidence they cited, and persisted with multiple pieces. He kept writing letters to Colin Powell himself, questioning his characterization of the facts, and got stonewalled. (That non-correspondence resulted in Dad’s Washington Post piece entitled “Colin Powell and Me.”) Disturbingly, the mainstream media overwhelmingly supported the war and missed the boat. One of Dad’s pieces at the time surveyed the editorial pages of dozens of U.S. newspapers a day or two after Powell’s speech. They were convinced of the need for war. He kept at it. Ultimately, of course, far too late, we all realized we’d been had. The press by and large botched it, but Dad didn’t. Dad got the evidence, Dad thought for himself from the get-go, Dad persisted when it was unpopular to do so, and Dad was right.
Whitewater. To this day the media casually refer to the Bill Clinton “scandals,” enumerating a list that always includes Whitewater. In the Clinton years, the mainstream press could be quite critical of Clinton and assumed Whitewater was a thing. Dad got the documents, read through them, amassed the evidence instead of repeating bromides, wrote many pieces, ran them by Clinton’s lawyer David Kendall to be sure he had his facts right, and repeated his mantra “follow the money” to show there was no there there. And he was right. Whitewater was a big fat nothingburger. And not many journalists thought for themselves on this.
Libel. His creative proposals for an alternative to traditional libel litigation gave the press less power in battling libel claims made against them than did the existing system. So the media and the media lawyers were leery about his proposals for reform. But he was right. He was sensitive to the fact that the balance that had been struck by the courts between protecting the press and allowing those who had been defamed to have some redress left the latter in some cases with virtually no recourse, and required the press to spend a lot of time and money in litigation even when they successfully defended against libel claims. So he came up with a pragmatic idea for allowing libel plaintiffs to show where mistakes had been made without sacrificing important First Amendment press protections. Dad persisted, he was creative and he was right. He even co-authored a book on the subject. He found courage in knowing that University of Iowa Law Professor Randall Bezanson agreed with him, and they worked closely together on this project.
U.S. Supreme Court. Dad found multiple instances where Supreme Court Justices sat on cases in which they had financial interests, or where the rules allowed them to shroud certain votes in secrecy when there was no public interest for doing so. While initially the Washington Post and New York Times Supreme Court reporters failed to join his crusade, he persisted. He wrote each Justice and asked them to explain themselves. Some answered, and none of the answers was satisfactory. He wrote and wrote about these matters of concern. As a nonagenarian a couple of years ago, he wrote the Justices again, pointing out that antediluvian court traditions unnecessarily hid certain consequential votes from the public. Justice Scalia answered, and his answer was nonsense; Dad wrote another piece pointing that out. Ultimately, the Supreme Court adopted a new rule that addressed some of what Dad had been complaining about. He was right, and they addressed it. He was really brave to persist. He once asked me to look up the personal papers of a few then-deceased Justices at the Library of Congress. There were many memos and a fair amount of worried conversation among the Justices about this Iowa journalist who kept pestering them, including strategies for how to deal with his questions and fend him off. Dad was right, and he was brave.
Iowa Caucuses. Dad wrote a piece for The New York Times in 1987 entitled “The Iowa Caucuses Have No Clothes.” I know Iowans like their first-in-the-nation caucus status, but Dad’s piece questioned whether according Iowa voters such outsized influence made sense. He pointed out that not only are Iowa voters not representative of voters in the nation as a whole, but that activist caucus-goers, willing to spend hours in neighbors’ homes on a frigid winter evening, are not even necessarily representative of Iowa voters. He got a certain amount of pushback on that one. But NBC’s “Today Show” came calling, and Dad had the chance to espouse his heresy on national TV.
To me, one definition of courage might be quiet persistence. Dad had this in spades. And it was leavened with a nature of integrity, modesty, sweetness and an absolutely great sense of humor. It was always interesting and great fun living with Dad. I am proud of my father, and being his daughter has been a supreme gift. ♦