Fight for open government never ends


Art Cullen is a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, but hasn’t an ounce of pretense or arrogance in his tall, lanky body covered by his typical bib overalls. 

Last year when Art’s son Tom was chasing down leads and tenaciously following the money trail all the way to Iowa’s biggest and most powerful ag interests, and Art was writing hard-hitting editorials, I told my friend Art, “This is Pulitzer-worthy stuff.” I wasn’t being prophetic. The quality of writing and reporting by this gutsy twice-weekly is intuitively obvious to the most casual reader.

Getting the story wasn’t easy for either generation of Cullens. And it wasn’t always popular with local folks, advertisers and readers. And the Cullen team was especially unpopular with local government officials, most of whom remained mum on the source of funding for their legal defense in a water quality suit brought by the Des Moines Water Works.

Art just doesn’t understand — or tolerate — people who want to do the public business and then go behind closed doors to conduct it.

Art also knows his beloved Storm Lake and Iowa’s streams and rivers are polluted and he consistently editorially challenges the most powerful farm interests to fix it.

The face of Iowa is changing — literally and figuratively. In what used to be nearly all-Anglo, Storm Lake schools are now only 22 percent white. Art views this diversity as good and defends it, especially against the xenophobic, anti-immigrant rantings of Republican Congressman Steve King, whom Art often criticizes. This in itself is a profile in courage in very Red Northwest Iowa.

Art is a graceful, eloquent writer, who pens passionate and persuasive editorials and folksy columns. I admire and respect him. Even though 10 years my junior, he is my journalist hero.

He is also my friend.

Art and I trekked to Cuba in October 2015 and I found Cubans are all very equal — equally poor. Art is an avid baseball fan. He was a sensation with the ubiquitous Cuban baseball fans, as he would cry out, “El Duque,” the Cuban hero, Orlando Hernandez Pedroso who pitched four World Series victories for the New York Yankees, and earned Olympic gold in Barcelona for the Cuban national baseball team.

We visited the home of another Pulitzer Prize winner, Ernest Hemingway, who earned the Pulitzer for “Old Man and the Sea” in 1953. Always gregarious and always seeking a story, Art met and befriended Osvaldo Coneso Pena, 76, who was Hemingway’s fishing boy and played himself in the move, “Old Man and the Sea.” Pena’s photo appeared in The Storm Lake Times, front-page, in-color, above-the-fold.

Art learned that Cubans love Americans and then-President Obama, but our embargo not so much. Upon our return, Art wrote a powerful editorial, “Cruel, useless embargo,” calling for the end of our trade embargo and closure of the Guantanamo prison.

Art, a product of his agrarian roots, did something else in Cuba and subsequently, promoting Iowa agricultural exports and trade with Cuba. Art reasoned that Cubans love food that Iowa produces: corn, beans and pork. Why not Tyson pork produced in his hometown of Storm Lake?

Daryl Beal is a former Democratic state senator from Fort Dodge who also worked as a publisher of daily and weekly newspapers in Iowa and South Dakota. This was written for the Associated Press Connections email newsletter as it covered the Pulitzer Prize winners on Wednesday.