By Chris Umscheid
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– As a child, Lyle Muller really liked three things: radio, newspapers and music. And through a dedicated career in the media, he is accomplished in all three.
Muller, a North Liberty resident since 1979, is currently the Executive Director of Iowa Watch, a non-profit media watchdog with the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism. Formerly the editor for The Gazette, Muller now spends his days focusing on the craft of journalism and mentoring up-and-coming student journalists.
A native of tiny Farmersburg in northeast Iowa, Muller also spent time in New Hampton, then Fredericksburg, where he graduated from high school. From there it was on to broadcasters’ school at the well-known Brown Institute (now Brown College). With a diploma in his hand, he entered the world of commercial radio for seven years in such markets as Waverly (KWAY), Fort Dodge (KWMT) and Cedar Rapids (KLWW). According to Muller, KWMT, 540AM, was, at the time, “a huge station. It was one of the top-rated country stations.” KLWW, 1450AM was a rock station in the 1970s before becoming KCDR, another country station, then eventually KMRY or “K-Memory.”
Muller’s eventual foray into television was with KAAL TV in Austin, Minn. where he was a weekend anchor and producer. However, radio pulled him back and he served as the news director for KXIC, 800AM in Iowa City.
“I started off (in Waverly) as a country DJ. I didn’t know anything about country music, I was a rock-‘n-roller. So I did that for awhile, but nobody was doing sports.” Muller asked the station manager if he could add sports coverage to his broadcast, which led to reporting on games and doing on-air play-by-play. “That kind of got me interested in sports journalism, but it was also the Watergate era, and post-Vietnam, and I was a huge news consumer,” said Muller.
Watching the Watergate hearings on television before going into work became a daily ritual, he said, as did watching television news. He pointed to his parents as another influence, who were also heavy consumers of news and subscribers to multiple newspapers when Lyle was growing up. A hunger for news may be genetic in origin, Muller said, as his brother picked up the appetite for information too.
Muller’s second radio assignment was to report the news, and something about it stuck. As his career progressed, he continued to cover news, but he found himself, “woefully under-trained,” he said. “I was curious, I could write, I could deliver a story, but I would see these other reporters and they knew things that I didn’t know about, and it was because they were educated.”
In 1980, at the non-traditional college age of 27 and with a wife and young daughter, Muller enrolled into the University of Iowa for a bachelor’s degree in communications studies. Seven years and two additional children later, he had his journalism degree.
“My senior years were the greatest years of my life,” he recalled. Muller joined the staff of The Daily Iowan, a student-produced newspaper at the U of I, the place where he made many friends among the younger crowd. He credits the grueling and sometimes brutal process of writing stories, rewriting them and enduring critiques from his classmates for his development as a journalist.
“I let those kids beat me up, and tell me what I was doing wrong, and I soaked it all in. It was a great experience,” said Muller. At the time he had 20- and 21-year old kids telling him, “you need to do it this way.”
Now the tables are turned. As director of Iowa Watch, and with the backing of years of experience, Muller is telling today’s students how it’s is done.
The lure of journalism is simple, said Muller. “It’s learning about stuff before anybody else, and then telling them about it. We don’t exist to learn stuff, (we exist) to learn stuff and tell others about it.”
After The Daily Iowan, Muller went to the Iowa City Press Citizen, and finally to The Gazette, where he ran the Iowa City bureau before leading an investigative team and heading up special projects. In May 2012, after 25 years at the Gazette and having achieved the top editorial position, Muller left the newspaper for the position at Iowa Watch. Steve Berry, an Iowa Watch co-founder, approached Muller a few years earlier to ask if The Gazette would publish investigative journalism pieces written by students. Muller okayed the idea, with certain parameters for editing and fact checking.
The first piece ran in May 2010 and led to an apology, in print, from Muller and company. A foreign student from an African nation had gone missing at the U of I, and after days of being gone, his father asked the University, the Iowa City Police Department, and even The Gazette for help in locating him. He was told universally– including by The Gazette staff members– that adults don’t disappear; rather, they just don’t want to be found. In other words, there was no organized search, no real response to try and find him.
At about the same time, a student at Iowa State University went missing and the community rallied to find him. Both were eventually found; unfortunately, both were dead. The fact that the U of I student was black while the ISU student was white raised eyebrows, and questions.
“We did a mea-culpa. The story was about how no one responded to (pleas for) help. In that story, we said that we (at) The Gazett , were wrong. It was a powerful story.”
Since then IowaWatch.org student journalists have been published on the front pages of several daily newspapers in the region, and on inside pages of the Des Moines Register. Even smaller, weekly papers such as the North Liberty Leader are taking content.
Muller said he made the move because Iowa Watch is focused on “doing journalism and doing it the right way.” To Muller, that means, “uncovering all of the stones, answer all of the questions, do it precisely and succinctly, do it fairly and honestly.” While many reporters focus on the question, he shakes his head and tells them, “I don’t care about the question, I care about the answer. Good journalism is answering the question so that you (the reader) can be an informed citizen and have an impact on those who have authority over you.”
It’s also about holding those in authority accountable. “I don’t care what people say, I care about what is,” said Muller. For example, a city councilmember may say something and be quoted by a reporter. However, just because they said it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the truth. Muller believes a reporter should drill down to the truth. In addition, he feels an investigative reporter’s work should figuratively, “punch someone in the nose and make them bleed. That’s the impact you should have when you read a story, like you just got smacked. Even a good feature should smack you,” said Muller.
In his years of reporting, Muller has covered stories that smacked him, and have stayed with him. The Gang Lu mass shooting on the U of I campus in 1992 is one example. Muller described the immediate aftermath and the days following as intense, sad, eerie and scary. A multiple fatality house fire south of Iowa City also lingers in his mind.
However, the tragedies are also offset with joyous occasions and rare opportunities, Muller said, such as his coverage of the Voyager 2 space probe having a close encounter with Neptune. Muller was sent to the National Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where famed physicist Dr. James Van Allen took him under his wing and gave him the cook’s tour.
In addition, presidential candidates such as George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, John McCain, Al Gore, Ron Paul and Newt Gingerich have crossed paths many times with Muller.
“I’ve enjoyed them all,” he said of the campaigns he’s covered.
Muller is passionate about the importance of journalism in general, and newspapers in particular. While the newspaper industry has been on the decline in recent years, the blogosphere has exploded. As with almost anything, Muller sees good with the bad as people start their own blogs and call themselves journalists.
“Anybody can be a journalist,” he said. “Citizen journalists have broken stories and they’ve dug for the truth that professional journalists haven’t. So, I think there is some good there, but there is also a ton of crap, and its scurrilous and often one-sided.” During this expansion, credible blogs continue to get attention while the sloppy ones don’t, he added. “Journalism is still a difficult craft to do. Everyone thinks they know the truth until they have to explain it. It is hard work.”
“We’re at a time when journalism is needed now more than ever. And it’s because there is so much information out there. All of this information has made us hungry for the truth. So, everyone can tell us stuff, but give me something reliable, and that’s where journalism comes in,” said Muller.
He also sees small town newspapers as vital, “I still need the North Liberty Leader to know what’s going on in North Liberty. Nobody else is doing it. The smaller the town, the more valuable the paper.”
Iowa Watch and The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism is online at IowaWatch.org and is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IowaWatch .