Storm Lake Times Pub­lisher Wins Pulitzer

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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.

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