Storm Lake Times Publisher Wins Pulitzer
When this year’s Pulitzer Prizes for journalism were recently announced, the publisher of a newspaper few outside of its regional area even knew about won.
The publisher’s name was Art Cullen, and the newspaper he writes for is The Storm Lake Times of Iowa. He won for editorial writing.
As with most other Pulitzer awards, this one was for taking on and brilliantly dealing with an important issue of our time. Cullen wrote a series of editorials attacking some of Iowa’s biggest agribusinesses, all related to their clandestine funding of the government’s defense in a major environmental lawsuit.
The agricultural giants he took on included Gmo/glyphosate titan Monsanto, Cargill and the notorious Koch brothers. The Koch team is well known for its strong agribusiness ties and its aggressive backing of so-called “conservative” political causes.
His editorials were praised by the Pulitzer committee for being fueled “by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”
Cullen made this happen from a 10-person familyrun newspaper printed only twice a week and with a circulation of just 3,000. Storm Lake, the community served by the newspaper, is a small town that relies heavily on the meatpacking industry for jobs and is located in northwest Iowa. It has a heavy immigrant population, which explains why its small community of 11,000 citizens speaks a total of 21 languages. It is also why 88% of the elementary school community is of color and 75% of it is Latino.
Behind the editorial cause that won him the Pulitzer was an ugly situation where the local immigrant workforce, many of whom came from Mexico, was being taken advantage of with lowpaying jobs involved in hog slaughter and ethanol production from local corn crops. In the process, the agribusinesses involved ended up dumping high concentrations of nitrates, part of the meat treatment by-products, in the Raccoon River, a major water source locally and for the city of Des Moines.
An important environmental lawsuit was filed involving Des Moines Water Works, the municipal water utility that serves a half a million customers in Des Moines and the surrounding counties. The charges were against the counties that had contributed to polluting the water with nitrates, something directly caused by the agribusiness companies. Unfortunately, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that the company suing couldn’t win damages against those companies.
Art Cullen was not satisfied with that outcome, smelling a bigger problem underlying all of this than just the pollution alone. He sensed a potentially criminal conspiracy involving the agribusiness companies and one of the defendant counties, Buena Vista.
Following some very old-fashioned approaches to journalism, including a lot of driving around, footwork, interviewing people and searching through records, he discovered that the Agribusiness Association of Iowa was working with the Iowa Farm Bureau to send money to the county.
Art Cullen, his son Tom, his wife Dolores and his brother John all helped in the digging. Finally, with the help of documents seized via the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, they discovered the proof needed to break the story wide open. Then Cullen’s editorials did what was needed to get the word out to the community, the state and the nation in a way that would stick and require action.
The end of all of that work is still to be seen. For Cullen and his team, it feels right and just that their hard work was recognized in this unexpected way. It also feels right that the cause they championed may now see some justice for those harmed by the agribusinesses that think they can get away with just about anything.