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Get it right

BY GUEST OPINION | MARCH 19, 2012 6:30 AM

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On behalf of David Schoenbaum (UI history professor, 1967 to 2008, now retired), Calvin Hennick (UI graduate 2004), and me (UI graduate 1969), I write to express our concern about the character and future of a university to which all three of us are deeply attached. All three of us have worked for major papers. All of us have also written nonfiction and made it our cause and calling, whatever the story, to get it right.

As you might imagine, Stephen Bloom's recent caricature of a state we thought we knew in The Atlantic and John D'Agata's much-publicized skirmish, first with a fact-checker at Harper's, then with a fact-checker at The Believer, are at the root of our concern.

All of us taught and were taught at the University of Iowa that nonfiction writing faculties such as journalism schools and history departments also exist to teach students to get the story right. Yet both Bloom and D'Agata have played fast and loose with the commitment to verifiable facts that we have always understood as the first condition of professional credibility.

We cringe perennially these days as the media and public figures rain fabrications and exaggerations of every kind on us. We find it not only alarming but a violation of trust, when people with a mandate for teaching the difference between fact and fiction do the same. That these recent breaches involve a university we think of as ours only makes the matter personal.

As you see, we vary greatly in ages and backgrounds. David was just beginning his career at the university around the time I was The Daily Iowan editor en route to graduation in journalism and political science. He was approaching retirement by the time Calvin became DI Opinions Editor en route to a degree in English.

Yet despite major differences of generation and life experience, we share a loyalty to UI exceeded only by our shared conviction that fiction and nonfiction are fundamentally different and that honest journalism is equivalent to honest science and honest scholarship.

All of us cut our teeth on the classics of free speech from John Stuart Mill to the Supreme Court's decision in Near v. Minnesota. Whatever our difference of opinion with them, neither Bloom nor D'Agata gives us cause to reconsider our position. But we would welcome your assurance that the University of Iowa is still a place in which facts matter.

Cheryl Arvidson
UI graduate
Falls Church, Va.


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