August 5, 2019

We have long considered social media to be a swamp for fabulists and narcissists, half truths, trolls and fact-free provocations, unvetted madness and cruelty. No one, save for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and select tech titans, know the full extent of social media’s insidious reach.

We are reluctant to respond to what we read or see in the scroll of Facebook, the bottomless roll of Twitter and the chaos of Instagram. But there are times we must because social media, the product of thoughtless thumbing, is exacting a high price on our culture, community decency and the essence of democracy — the truth.

We are more than willing to print letters to the editor, or otherwise absorb comments challenging our coverage. But the taxpaying public should be concerned with increasingly aggressive online efforts to intimidate or chill our coverage of the use of taxpayer dollars. We’ve received some ugly and highly personalized pushback, some of it entering the borderlands of calls for violence on our reporters, for a recent story on a sexually suggestive email former Carroll Schools Superintendent Kevin Lein sent inadvertently to a teacher and the fact that Lein collected a salary of about $13,000 a month for five months while on a “leave of absence.”

The district also spent tens of thousands of dollars on attorneys’ fees and an interim superintendent as part of the episode.

That money is your tax dollars at work — or, in the case of the leave of absence, not working at all for kids in the schools.

Trust in the management of the public schools is doubly important in Carroll as referendums for building and program improvements require the goodwill of Kuemper Catholic School System families as well as those parents who send their kids to the Carroll Community School District. It’s a priority for us to see that trust prevail, because without it, bond issues are likely to fail, and so with them, the quality of education in this city.

Some voices on social media want us silenced. They don’t want those stories in the newspaper. And they want us out of business, washed out of Carroll, sent packing for our watchdog reporting.

Publishing such accounts is the primary reason for the existence of the news media in a democracy. We are the leg on the table of American life that holds the other three accountable.

What we find especially outrageous is that some angry commenters on our Lein coverage, who have spent little time in Carroll or don’t live here at all, have attacked our three-generation-deep commitment to education in the Carroll area.

We are celebrating 90 years of Wilson family ownership of the Carroll Times Herald. During that time, one of our highest priorities has been boosting education in the region, for the Carroll Community School District, Kuemper Catholic High School System, Des Moines Area Community College and surrounding schools. We do this with coverage of day-to-day work in the classroom, which comprises the bulk of our journalism, to watch-dogging decisions from school boards about the use of limited resources, our tax dollars, to outright advocacy on our editorial pages or with personal volunteer time.

Consider:

— Times Herald Co-owner Douglas Burns and his friend, Carroll attorney Robert Peters — both Carroll High School graduates and former students of the peerless James Knott — co-founded the Carroll High School Foundation, a non-profit organization that has funded a raft of projects and initiatives, with a focus on science and math, at our local schools. Burns and Peters remain on the foundation board, now led by Carroll businesswoman Shellie Haluska, its effective president.

— Burns is also Carroll’s representative on the Des Moines Area Community College Foundation, a volunteer position in which he meets regularly in Des Moines as one of its few rural members. Burns, working with the foundation, as well as local economic development leaders, and a bipartisan political network he’s cultivated over three decades, has been involved in the development of a scholarship program for computer languages — and promotion of a region that includes Carroll and Jefferson known as the Lincoln Corridor. The goal: Bring high tech jobs from Silicon Valley to rural Iowa and educate students locally to fill them. Pillar Technologies will open a Jefferson branch for software development in September, and more announcements on the extension of tech to the Carroll area are forthcoming.

As people were rooting online Friday for the Times Herald to shutter, based on our coverage of the Lein episode, Burns was on the phone much of the day with DMACC and congressional officials, as well Iowa Central Community College, about the furtherance of this computer languages program, which the newspaper has fiercely advocated and will work to see expanded.

— Times Herald Co-owner Ann Wilson served for 32 years on the Heartland Area Education Association board, a volunteer position in which she regularly drove to Des Moines to advocate for more funding and services for Carroll and Kuemper and other area schools. Wilson, who was president of the association for more than a decade, helped secure thousands of dollars of funding for Carroll and Kuemper for, among other things, mental-health services, teacher training, new technology and school supplies.

— The library at Des Moines Area Community college bears the name of the late publisher of this newspaper, James B. Wilson, who worked tirelessly with his friends, James Knott, and the late Art Neu, to bring the 2 + 2 program to Carroll, allowing students to earn four-year degrees right here in Carroll at DMACC. When Wilson passed away, we found the original articles of incorporation for the arrangement for that program with University of Northern Iowa and Carroll’s DMACC in his files. We still have them here.

— In the late 1980s, Ann Wilson worked with the committee that was able to successfully campaign for the referendum funding construction of the current Carroll High School building. It was no easy task, and what is now the Adams Building would have been the high school for years longer had that effort failed, potentially setting up embarrassment for Carroll had the state needed to intervene, such was the inadequacy of the facilities.

— Former Congressman Tom Latham appointed Jim Wilson to serve on the committee that recommended Latham’s appointees to the military academies of this nation — one of the great joys and accomplishments of Wilson’s long career here. Later, Burns, his nephew, would continue to interact with his political network in Washington, D.C., writing letters and calling members of Congress to advocate for appointments to the military academies for local students. Additionally, Burns, who graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has been a go-to resource for students from Carroll looking to apply to prestigious colleges and universities. He’s provided advice and written letters of advocacy for Carroll kids to top schools.

— Our newspaper is among the largest contributors to the Summer Fun Camp, a wonderful extension of educational opportunities for 55 kids this year, about half of them with disabilities in the Carroll area. We will continue financial support and publicity for this organization, as we have the last five years.

— Working with the Manatt Family from Audubon and Iowa State University, the Carroll Times Herald provides what the Iowa State Daily advisor describes as the “best journalism internship in Iowa” to ISU students annually. Our intern alums have gone on to CBS News in New York City, The Des Moines Register, Orlando Sentinel, Iowa City Press-Citizen as well as to positions in the law and business and other pursuits.

One of the spectacularly false narratives spun about community newspapers is that controversy is the lifeblood of our existence, that we make money from the bad stories.

It’s actually the opposite in small towns.

Covering crime and courts with a trained eye, or writing about local government without lapdog obedience, requires more skills than retyping press releases, attending ball games or parroting back what local businesses want to see written about them. We have to dedicate more time and money and resources to covering the hard news, and sometimes bear the brunt of backlash, of modern cancel culture with abandoned subscriptions and lost advertising, when people don’t like inconvenient truths, painful facts.

An easier and more profitable model would be to stand down from the tough stories, look the other away at misdeeds, maybe just comfortably stay silent in complicity with the culprits who would no doubt advertise more with us if we granted them such breaks from shame and even jail. Yes, we could be a newspaper that feeds people San Diego-sized helpings of sunshine, and no one would ever be angry at us again — except maybe parents of 17-year-old girls involved with police officers or parents and taxpayers concerned about tens of thousands of dollars in school waste after a superintendent resignation.

Most rural newspapers, based on financial challenges and cultural changes, have opted for the latter approach, the balloons-and-cupcakes-for-all model, becoming, in the process, mere church bulletins with news on who died and where to find a Friday fish fry, community newsletters with limited, if any, critical investigative reporting or hard news — and very, very little crime and courts coverage beyond simple tracing of police reports, what the officers give us, no questions please, ma’am.

We think you deserve better.