Why Did The Des Moines Register Censor Donald Kaul?

Donald Kaul

Every Sunday morning I read The Des Moines Register.  The first thing I do is pull out the opinion page to read Donald Kaul’s column. Yesterday, I could not find the column in its usual place.  So I sent an e-mail to the paper, inquiring. Here’s what I got back:

“The editor did not feel Don’s column for today hit the mark and asked that I find a substitute for the day. I expect Don’s column will return next week.”

Randy Evans
Editorial Page Editor

Really?  What does “hit the mark” mean, exactly?  That they didn’t agree with it?  What could Kaul have written that was so off the mark that the Register took purposeful action to prevent us from seeing it? I hit reply and asked Mr. Evans to explain, but did not hear back again.

For those who are unfamiliar, Donald Kaul was a Des Moines Register columnist for years while we boomers were growing up.  He’s a a great writer, and has even been nominated for a Pulitzer.   He long ago retired from the Register.  Now he is syndicated through Otherwords.org and happily, The Des Moines Register has picked him up again as of June of this year.

Since June, there were a couple of Kaul’s columns that I thought the paper would surely catch flack about, for example, when he said something negative about farm subsidies and ethanol.  And his column, Stay Healthy was about the scientific research now published in a book called The China Study,  pointing to the over-consumption of meat and dairy as the cause of most cancer. Considering what happened to Oprah when she started trash-talking meat, I was rather shocked that they didn’t pull his column that day (although they did bury it on the last page).  So, since he’s already gotten away with those and other columns that must surely have offended the Farm Bureau and the tea party conservatives, I’m thinking, what could he possibly have said in this week’s column that caused them to bleep it?  It must have been incredibly controversial.

So I went to Otherwords.org to find it. And it turns out that the column that The Des Moines Register declined to publish was a beautifully written narrative about the demise of journalism from the point of view of someone who has been in the newspaper business for 50 years, Donald Kaul.

One would think that the paper would recognize this article as being of particular interest to Register readers because of the fact that it was written by someone who was a popular columnist at the paper for years. All Iowans of a certain age remember Donald Kaul’s column, Over the Coffee.  And not only that, in this column that the Register decided it didn’t want us to see, Kaul spoke of the paper fondly the single time he mentioned it.

“It’s been a little more than 50 years since I first walked into the Des Moines Register newsroom to begin a career in journalism.

It was a beat-up scruffy place filled with beat-up scruffy people, almost all men. They worked in a big room lined with gray steel desks piled high with newspapers, stacks of books, notebooks, and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette stubs. They wrote on manual, black typewriters. The phones, also black, had rotary dials.

This scene right out of The Front Page was a case of love at first sight. “This is my kind of place,” I told myself. And, as it turned out, I was right.”

“But the most important thing about that room was something you couldn’t see: an invisible wall that protected its inhabitants from interference from the business department. It meant that, if you had the facts on your side, you could annoy the rich and powerful of the city. The wall would protect you from retaliation.”

How cool is that?  Why wouldn’t The Des Moines Register also find it cool, for readers, especially young readers, to have access to this bit of history of  the Register?  One can only guess it’s because they couldn’t publish that part without publishing what came after it.

“Things changed in newsrooms as they did everywhere else. Computers arrived on the scene, bringing with them increased efficiency but also competition for readers and advertising dollars. The ranks of the ruling families grew too numerous to be fed by dividends alone. They cashed out, selling at elevated prices to newspaper chains, which then resold the publications to business brigands who had neither understanding nor interest in newspapers as newspapers.

Newspapers were just another kind of dog food to them.

Increasingly the bulwark between the business and news departments was ignored. The business types couldn’t understand the need for it. News should be put at the service of profits and the quicker the better, they thought.

Soon the answer to every problem was to water down the product with brutal staff cuts, domestic and foreign bureau closures, and the pursuit of trivial, celebrity-oriented stories.

In city after city, papers were closed down, staffs cut to the bone, and home delivery severely curtailed. The invisible wall? Can something invisible disappear? It did.”

There is much more in the article. He mentioned the book by James O’Shea called The Deal From Hell: How Moguls And Wall Street Plundered Great American Newspapers.  The rest of the column is well worth the click.

Perhaps the Register declined to print it because it was all just a bit too close to home. Someone once said that if you give power an opportunity to do the right thing even if it wouldn’t really cost them anything, they’ll usually choose the wrong thing anyway.

The Des Moines Register could have chosen to publish this article and we would all be better informed about the problem of the media that is doing real harm to the country right now. And they would have been a better paper for doing it. Instead, they took the low road and did an enormous disservice to everyone.

(Click here to read the entire column by Donald Kaul, at Otherwords.org)


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1 Response to Why Did The Des Moines Register Censor Donald Kaul?

  1. Elizabeth Vartanian says:

    to: Donald Kaul

    Dear Mr. Kaul,

    For years, I read your column. I enjoyed them very much and, as I don’t live in Iowa, my sister would send most of them. The one I particularly appreciated was the one you wrote about your father after his passing…”Going out with some grace.” My sister, Thelma Abian, passed away, on June 29, 1979. When her husband, Alexander Abian, passed away, I came to Iowa for the funeral. Alex was a math prof at ISU. We stayed at a hotel in Des Moines. I believe it was The Embassy. There was a special function going on at the hotel, I don’t remember what is was about, and I saw you standing in front. I wanted very much to tell you how much I enjoyed your articles, especially the one I mentioned, but I’m a little reluctant to approach celebrities. I want to tell you now how much that article meant to me. Being an offspring of immigrants, I particullarly appreciated it.

    Now, I would like to thank you for the many humorour articles you wrote and the one about your father in particular. I still have the article and read is from time to time. I just finished reading it and I thought it was about time to let you know how much it meant to me.

    With great fondness.

    Elizabeth Vartanian


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