Dead carp and institutional credibility

August 26, 2022 8:00 am

Dead carp litter the shore at Storm Lake in August 2022 after being killed by koi herpes virus. (Photo by Jake Kurtz/Storm Lake Times Pilot)

Thousands of carp washing ashore stinks. It draws flies and suspicions. Why just young carp? The tests came back saying herpes was killing them. It was too much for me to resist: “Cause of death: HERPES” read the headline in a funereal black box draped over a photo of a carp belly up in our green August water.

That caused the phone to ring. The lady on the line said she doesn’t believe it. She thinks it might be the chemicals they dosed lake weeds with several weeks ago.

No, we said, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources biologists told us that it was herpes. The chemical they used to kill weeds, copper sulfate, is safe for aquatic life other than weeds. So they say, and I just have to believe them because they went to Iowa State or someplace and got a degree in this stuff.

I believe them.

I believe that Ben Wallace, the Lake View fisheries biologist who oversees Storm Lake, is dedicated to science.

I believe that the state lab produces accurate reports of its results.

Institutional credibility has a bad case of herpes.

I believe the FBI had probable cause to search Donald Trump’s Florida resort to look for nuclear secrets, because The Washington Post confirmed it. Having run through The Post’s editing gauntlet several times, I can testify that the editors often take the fun out of life and take sourcing seriously (not that I just said so, or heard it at the bar from a guy with a cellphone).

If you can’t trust Ben Wallace, or you think your doctor is wrong about vaccinations, then how are you ever supposed to establish fact in a courtroom? Probable cause … so says a federal judge, sure, yeah, even though he was appointed by Trump he is still a lackey for the jack-boots, as Steve Bannon, Trump’s political advisor with a rap for contempt of Congress, said.

I blame Richard Nixon.

He lied about the Vietnam War, along with Lyndon Johnson. He covered up and then lied about Watergate. Not to be trusted. Tricky Dick.

And Ronald Reagan, who told us not to trust the government.

I blame religion. It is used to justify or obfuscate all manner of sin. If you like religion in government, ask them how it’s working in Kabul or Tel Aviv. I don’t believe it is God’s plan for a 10- year-old rape victim to have a baby. I missed that Bible verse.

I blame all the money that is spent propping up propaganda machines battling to win the hour before, as prescient Mark Twain observed, the truth could get its pants on.

Institutional credibility has a bad case of herpes.

The FBI was run by a very weird man for decades. You should be skeptical. Anybody who ran the CIA is good to keep at a distance. But Merrick Garland seems like a man with starched underwear who would not step on a crack for fear of violating legal tradition. Joe Biden has a screw-up son but Joe’s an alright guy. They and many other good people put checks on the spies, we trust, but I am old and sentimental that way.

I still believe in the power of facts on a democracy, and that a free press is necessary to vet those facts. We do try. Trust me. No reporter sets out to spin. He or she may be spun. They may misspell Anderson with an “e” but they got the rest of it right. We have to trust in that.

We have to trust each other. You can’t drive without some degree of trusting that the car next to you won’t bump you just for fun.

Then we can get a grasp on the facts.

The facts are that we have a lot bigger fish to fry than dead carp — mega drought, pandemic, and a former president who thinks nuclear secrets are his to keep and that he can let go the reins when he damn well pleases.

I trust the DNR’s science, if not the agency’s politics. I trust that science can lead us out of the desert. I trust the Storm Lake police to catch the bad guys. I trust that reporter Jake Kurtz tells the truth straight from Ben Wallace’s mouth to your Times Pilot — it was HERPES. I don’t trust Donald Trump as far as I can throw him. He is so much rotting carp on our body politic, but the talons of truth are taking him away little by little. In the meantime, you have to put up with the stench. It will blow away.

About this column

Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot, where this column first appeared, as well as Art Cullen’s Notebook on Substack. It is republished here as part of the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.

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Art Cullen
Art Cullen

Art Cullen is editor of the Storm Lake Times Pilot, where this column appears. Please consider a subscription to the Times Pilot or a tax-deductible donation to the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation. He is a member of the Iowa Writers' Collective. Subscribe to Art Cullen's Notebook here.