How a colorful Iowa newspaperman is taking on big interests

Art Cullen, who runs a tiny paper along with his brother, wife, and son, won a Pulitzer Prize this spring for his bold editorials.

Doug Struck
Editor Art Cullen, shown here in the office of the Storm Lake Times, is a a fearless town scold in a small town in conservative Iowa. This spring he won the Pulitzer Prize for his scathing editorials.

Chicago newspaperman Wilbur F. Storey once reviewed a local performer with unvarnished bluntness: She was a “large-limbed, beefy specimen,” he wrote in 1870. The offended woman tracked him down on Wabash Avenue and horsewhipped him.

Art Cullen is not afraid of horsewhipping, but he allows that some folks really don’t like what he writes in his newspaper.

Mr. Cullen, too, has a penchant for telling it like he sees it. In the small town of Storm Lake, Iowa, where agriculture and slaughterhouses rule, he has taken on powerful interests.

He forced the mighty Agribusiness Association of Iowa to back down, and embarrassed the local county superintendents. He has berated the area’s popular congressmen (“morally reprehensible”), jabbed the legislature (“abysmal”), and run roughly on his longtime friend, former Gov. Terry Branstad. He dismissed a chunk of his own farmer readers (20 percent “could beat the devil at his game”). Deep in Trump Country, he has defended the tide of immigrants who have rushed into this conservative northwest corner of Iowa.

For that, he won the Pulitzer Prize this year. His editorials foiled a secret arrangement by local authorities to allow big-farm interests to fight a lawsuit seeking improved water quality in the town’s namesake lake. The Pulitzer board said his commentary was “fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing.”

The Pulitzer Prize for such a small paper warmed the hearts of those who see the loss of tough journalism in local reporting. As small-town papers have lost advertising, cut staff, and been bought by corporate chains, too often they have lost the sharp teeth of their traditional watchdog role. Not Cullen’s Storm Lake Times.

“Art Cullen speaks his mind. And he is articulate,” says Jon Kruse, Storm Lake’s long-time mayor. He chooses his words as though tiptoeing through a minefield.

Cullen relishes the effect. He is tall, with a shock of white hair and a horseshoe mustache. He looks startlingly like Mark Twain, and writes like Samuel Clemens, too: sometimes folksy, sometimes eloquent, frequently mocking, and customarily outraged.

“It’s important for somebody to say, ‘Hey, we are going too far.’ That’s our basic function as a free press in a small rural place,” Cullen says simply.

It’s not puffery. The editor of The Storm Lake Times is cut from the newsprint of journalistic tradition. He is passionate about it. His small newspaper – circulation 3,000 – is a family affair. His brother John started it in 1990 and is publisher; his son Tom is the chief reporter. His wife, Dolores, writes features and takes pictures.

The paper publishes twice a week. It serves a community that on the surface looks typical, Midwestern, idyllic: neat homes on elm-lined streets, set on the shore of a sparkling lake. A closer look, though, shows its peculiarities. Whites are almost a minority here, with Hispanics, Laotians, Vietnamese, Sudanese, Micronesians, and Hmong making up nearly half of the population. Much of the chatter on the street is in foreign tongues. Downtown is not abandoned, as it is in many rural towns. Storm Lake is gaining population while most small towns are hemorrhaging.

There are two newspapers in town, also unusual. Cullen dismisses the competition as the product of out-of-town owners. “I never read it. If I need to read the Pilot Tribune to find out about the news, then I ought to go sell shoes.”

He chats at his newspaper office on Railroad Avenue; it is a small warehouse, thoroughly cluttered. It is adorned by memorabilia, including a signed photo of JFK and an ancient Apple computer that sits beside his old typewriter. Rough boards separate a few offices for the 10-person staff. The only inside door barges open, and furry Mabel the news hound regally inspects – and dismisses – a visitor.

Cullen will jump up in mid-conversation to jot down a reminder, and cut short his high dudgeon over some issue with a laugh – “That will be my next column.”

His son Tom endures the heat of the sparks his father fans. Tom is rainspout-tall like his father, bespectacled, and full of nervous energy. As the “chief” – about the only – general assignment reporter, Tom hustles about town chasing the news. Spend a day or two in Storm Lake and one will cross his path often. Tom Cullen’s news reports are straight; most town officials concede he is accurate and fair.

But when his father rails on the editorial page, the afflicted officials often see Tom’s face next. He admits he has walked into a hostile public meeting “feeling like a lamb going to slaughter.” The room lights have been turned out on him, and “I’ve gotten the death stare” from angry officials.

Tom is 25, but he has an old-time reporter’s thrill for the chase. He recounts running in dress clothes to the 14th hole at a golf tournament to try to catch officials who had been dodging him. “The looks they gave me were golden.” And he admits to the journalist’s secret pleasure: “When you see your name in a byline, it’s awesome. I love it.”

His father said he nudged Tom to forgo law school to be a reporter because it is more fun. Tom tells a slightly different story: “I bombed the LSATs. I was terrible at taking tests.” But he relishes his occupation. “I think we have made a difference. People always have to answer to us. That’s built on 20 years of scrupulous reporting. Sometimes they refuse to talk to us, but eventually they come around. Even Republican lawmakers who probably hate our guts.”

But Art Cullen’s editorials are equal-opportunity offenders, as likely to take on environmentalists as the bumbling city manager who tried to close a city council session but accidentally left the public-address system on, broadcasting the secret meeting to Tom Cullen sitting on a bench in City Hall.

Writing on President Trump: “He is a fool. He is ignorant. People who prop up an ignoramus should question themselves, unless they don’t have the wits to recognize it.”

On Iowa’s revered presidential caucus: “It’s ugly. It’s dishonest.”

On the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors: “They are doing everything they can to hide from the public… the chutzpah of it.”

On complaints that immigrants have undercut labor by taking slaughterhouse jobs at $15 an hour: “The wages aren’t Manhattan, but they’re enough to get by in Storm Lake. It is the best a proud person illiterate in English from El Salvador could hope for. It offers the freedom that is yet a dream in Myanmar. It offers peace from the civil war in Sudan, and a place for the long-wandering migrant to plant some roots.”

He saves his strongest acid for US Rep. Steve King, the Republican who has won seven elections in the northwest Iowa district (though he did not carry Storm Lake in the last one). Representative King is an arch-conservative on abortion rights, gun rights, and his comments on immigrants are, in the eyes of critics, thinly covered racism. Mexicans “have calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King has said. America “can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies,” he has said.

“He feeds off what we say,” Cullen acknowledges. “I can be his foil.”

Do you ever pull punches?

“No.” A pause. “Well, yes, yes I do. But not with morally reprehensible people.”

With whom?

“Bankers!” Cullen laughs explosively. “When you are $500,000 in debt on revenues of $700,000, you are careful.”

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