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UI Officials: Bloom Doesn't Speak for the University

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IOWA CITY, Iowa - University of Iowa Professor Stephen Bloom does not speak for nor represent the university with his not-so-flattering views of the state, UI officials said Wednesday, after several days of online-fueled controversy about an article Bloom wrote for a national website.

But Bloom, a tenured UI professor of journalism and mass communication, has the right to express his opinion about any topic, UI officials said.

"That doesn't necessarily mean that other members of the university community endorse his viewpoint," UI Spokesman Tom Moore said Wednesday.

UI President Sally Mason said she plans to write a guest editorial about the issue to share with Iowa media. As of Wednesday afternoon, Mason had received about a dozen emails from UI alums and Iowa residents upset about Bloom's article, and the president characterized those responses as "reasoned and thoughtful."

Days after the piece, "Observations from 20 years of Iowa Life," first appeared Friday on the website of The Atlantic, reactions to the Bloom article continued to consume Facebook news feeds, send Iowa bloggers to their keyboards and drive online discussions. Popular Iowa store Raygun on Wednesday started selling shirts with a sarcastic reference to the Bloom controversy; the Iowa City Raygun had 80 of the shirts, and Manager Brett DePue expected the discussion to have a long shelf life to sell the "inside joke" shirts in the coming weeks.

There were more than 700 reader comments on The Atlantic online article by late Wednesday, and it was the most-viewed story on the site for two days running.

It's generated enough discussion and dissent about some of the Bloom's points that another round-up piece was posted online, highlighting the conversation it has provoked, Garance Franke-Ruta, senior editor at The Atlantic, said. The site also has received some written response pieces, some from Iowans, that editors are considering how to handle, she said.

"We don't see his piece as the final word on this state or even our final word on this story," said Franke-Ruta, who was the editor on the piece.

Bloom approached The Atlantic with the story, Franke-Ruta said. It's a story about the state, but also a story about one man and his view of the state, she said. Some people have pointed out what they see as "small, specific factual" issues and Atlantic editors are investigating those and will correct what needs correcting, Franke-Ruta said.

"I think people's objections were more with his observations than with his specific facts," she said. "We've gotten a lot of responses from people in the state who have a different vision of things."

The Bloom piece touches on Iowa's economic challenges and demographics, but also uses the phrase "an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth," and seems to imply Iowans would only ever own a dog for hunting purposes.

Bloom is on leave from the UI this year, serving as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. He did not return phone and email messages Wednesday, but did give a statement to SourceMedia Group Monday, saying his piece tried to shine a light into dark corners. Good journalism, Bloom said in his statement, is making observations, even if readers might not agree with those observations.

Bloom on Wednesday shared with online media blogger Jim Romenesko some of the positive feedback he has received, but Bloom added that the tenor, ferocity and hatefulness of some responses indicate the piece struck a chord.

State Board of Regents President Craig Lang and President Pro Tem Bruce Rastetter were unavailable Wednesday to talk about the controversy.

Regent Bob Downer, an Iowa City attorney, said while Bloom is entitled to his opinion, Downer disagrees with much of it and thinks there are some factual errors. Still, Downer said he hasn't received nearly as many comments from people about this article as he did last week when an Iowa State University lecturer wrote a letter to the student paper questioning efforts of the campus Republicans to gather donations for soldiers overseas.

"I understand some of the things that he is saying," Downer said of Bloom's piece, but Downer thinks many of Iowa's good attributes got lost in the telling.

Several state legislators said free speech is free speech, especially when it's unpopular.

"He has every right to express his feelings. I have no problem with that. I disagree with him fundamentally," Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said.

Kaufmann, a community college instructor, said he thought Bloom's piece contained "stereotyped innuendo" not based on fact.

"He's a good writer but I don't see any redeeming value in what he's written except for pure opinion," Kaufmann said.

Faculty have academic freedom and freedom of speech, but that works both ways, said David Perlmutter, director of the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Faculty can write what they want to write, but everybody has the freedom to criticize or challenge that, Perlmutter said, adding that he's received about eight negative emails regarding Bloom's piece.

"There's a discussion going on with lots of back and forth, criticizing and challenging, but that's the way the system works," Perlmutter said.

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