Monday, December 31, 2007

Fundamentalists, small towns keep Huckabee ahead in Iowa, Des Moines Register's last poll says

On the strength of rural and small-town voters, but also with support from metro areas, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had a marginal lead in The Des Moines Register's final Iowa Poll before the Jan. 3 Republican presidential caucuses. (Register chart)

Huckabee had 32 percent of likely caucusgoers, to 26 percent for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, 13 percent for Arizona Sen. John McCain and 9 percent each for former Sen. Fred Thompson and Rep. Ron Paul. The poll's margin of error was 3.5 percentage points, so Huckabee's lead was within the margin. The error margins for geographic subsamples were much greater, but the results do indicate the sources of each candidate's support. Small towns were Huckabee's main base; in them, he led Romney 36-25. Among rural residents, he led Romney 30-26; in metro areas, 31-26. The race was tightest in small cities: Huckabee 29, Romney 28.

The key to Huckabee's lead is "born-again or fundamentalist Christians," reports the Register's Jonathan Roos. Almost half of Republican caucusgoers fit that category, and among them, "Huckabee outpolls Romney, 47 percent to 20 percent. Romney has faced questions about his religious standing as a Mormon. Among those who think it's more important for the next president to be a social conservative than a fiscal conservative, Huckabee leads Romney 48 percent to 24 percent. "

There was no major trend during the Dec. 27-30 polling period, but some observers, such as the Register's David Yepsen, think Huckabee slipped badly today with a "goofy press conference ... in which he promised not to run attack ads against Mitt Romney while producing them and showing them to reporters anyway. " (Read more) Roos reports, "The poll shows there remains enough indecision among likely caucus participants to scramble both the race for first place between Huckabee and Romney, and the battle for third. Nearly one-half of caucusgoers say they could still be persuaded to support another candidate." (Read more)

Obama leads in Register's final poll, appears to take Iowa's small towns; Edwards has rural areas

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama had a marginal lead in The Des Moines Register's final Iowa Poll before Thursday's presidental caucuses, with 32 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers. The poll found Obama leading in small towns, small cities and metropolitan areas but trailing former Sen. John Edwards among rural residents. Edwards and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton were virtually tied in the poll, with 24 and 25 percent, respectively. However, during the Dec. 27-30 polling period, support for Clinton declined while support for Edwards increased. (Register graph)

The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, so while Obama probably led during the polling period, that is not a statistical certainty -- contrary to the suggestion in the Register's story, which said Obama had "a lead larger than the survey's margin of sampling error." Error margins apply to each result, not the difference between two results.

The newspaper did not give the sample sizes of error margins for its temporal or geographic subsamples, but by definition their error margins would be much larger. The results among rural residents were Edwards 30, Clinton 25, Obama 24. Obama's other results were 32 percent in small towns, 35 percent in small cities and 37 percent in metro areas. In small cities, Edwards and Clinton were tied at 25; in the other categories, Clinton was running second and Edwards third. Clinton took issue with the poll, noting that 40 percent of the respondents were independents, and the Register's David Yepsen sounded skeptical.

The polling trend shows Edwards with the greatest current momentum, and his increasingly strong, populist message is aimed mainly at small-town and rural voters, reports Dan Balz, chief political writer for The Washington Post. "It is a call to arms that is raw and angry, populist and pugnacious. It is a message that is as exhausting as it is confrontational. It is a message that makes Al Gore's 'people versus the powerful' seem timid by comparison," Balz writes. "One Edwards supporter, departing after a big rally in Des Moines on Saturday night, said he hasn't heard a message as passionate or strong since Bobby Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. . . . That message is strong brew and not for everyone, but it has found a following. Edwards is counting on enough Iowans -- those in small towns and rural areas especially -- to buy into it to put him over the top on caucus night." (Read more)

Meanwhile, Obama said in a Dec. 30 conference call with family farmers that he had been more consistent on agricultural and rural policy than Edwards, and made a subtle dig at the fact Clinton's rural organization "is headed by a large scale pork producer of the kind that family farmers want better controls placed upon," reports Al Giordano in his blog, The Field. Giordano also questions the validity of polling in Iowa at a time when many caucusgoers, according to reporting by Balz, have stopped answering their phones because of the onslaught from campaigns and pollsters. (Read more)

Sunday, December 30, 2007

All-terrain vehicles damaging national forests

"Federally owned lands are rapidly being transformed into the new playgrounds — and battlegrounds — of the American West. Outdoor enthusiasts are flocking in record numbers to lesser-known forests, deserts and mountains, where the rules of use have been lax and enforcement infrequent," Felicity Barringer and William Yardley report for The New York Times.

"The federal government has been struggling to come up with plans to accommodate the growing numbers of off-highway vehicles — mostly with proposed maps directing them toward designated trails — but all-terrain-vehicle users have started formidable lobbying campaigns when favorite trails have been left off the maps. Even with the plans, federal officials describe an almost impossible enforcement situation because the government does not begin to have the manpower to deal with those who will not follow the rules."

From Durango, Colo., the writers add, "The temptation to go off-trail, legally or not, comes from the desire for variety, federal land managers say. 'The more a route is used, the less challenging it becomes,' said Mark Stiles, the San Juan [National] Forest supervisor. 'You end up getting lots of little spurs off the main route.' Even a few errant riders, he said, 'can do a lot of damage.'" (Read more)

Lack of state trauma systems kills rural Americans

Rural Americans are dying from accidents because their states lack systems to designate hospitals to treat trauma victims, Laura Ungar reports today in The Courier-Journal.

"Trauma systems are designed to get injured patients the care they need as quickly as possible within a 'golden hour' in which survival is more likely," Ungar writes for the Louisville newspaper. "In states with trauma systems, more hospitals are encouraged to develop certain levels of expertise, paramedics and emergency medical technicians are trained in where to take patients, medical professionals coordinate services and a registry tracks trends."

States without trauma systems are Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wisconsin. Indiana and Alabama recently started state systems. For a detailed, state-by-state rundown from the American College of Surgeons, click here.

Ungar reports that a bill to start a system in Kentucky "faces obstacles -- legislators wary of spending the millions it would require, rural hospitals concerned about the costs of becoming trauma centers and already-overburdened rural doctors worried that their on-call workloads would increase." (Read more)

Friday, December 28, 2007

Obama, Huckabee may ride rural-newspaper endorsements to victories in Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses

Rural newspaper favorites Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama would win the Iowa caucuses if they were held tonight, say the latest "power rankings" of the Iowa Independent, an online news site that is our favorite source of grass-roots information on Hawkeye State politics.

The Independent knows rural Iowa, and says Obama's "wave of small-town newspaper endorsements should enhance his second-choice support in rural parts of the state where he has been perceived as weak." Second choices are important because supporters of a candidate who doesn't get at least 15 percent of the vote in a precinct can then caucus for someone else. The Independent's rankings have Hillary Clinton and John Edwards tied for second.

[This paragraph was updated Dec. 30.] In the Republican race, which has no 15 percent rule, Huckabee had five newspaper endorsements, three from weeklies. John McCain had four dailies and two weeklies; Mitt Romney had three dailies and Fred Thompson had one, the Ottumwa Courier. For a listing of all the endorsements and the newspapers' circulations, click here.

The Independent's rankings put Romney in second and Ron Paul in third. Chase Martyn (in photo below) writes, "Paul broke double digits in at least two polls for the first time this week and he seems particularly strong in areas of the state where the media has less of an impact on political deliberations -- especially in rural northwest and southern Iowa." Because rural precincts tend to be smaller, the rural vote in the caucuses is amplified. For an Independent story on that by John Deeth, click here.

The Independent is spotlighted in the January issue of Wired magazine, in a story about Iowa blogs that quotes former Des Moines Register reporter Chuck Offenburger: "Many times I notice, like with the Iowa Independent or smaller papers, they'll be out in front of the media on some campaign appearance, and then the larger media then works their way around to it."

Sarah Lai Stirland writes, "Founded eight months ago, the Iowa Independent is staffed with a motley mix of part-time contributing bloggers and more-established local writers. Its sole full-time employee is Martyn -- a former Democratic field coordinator and student political blogger who graduated from Grinnell College earlier this year."

The Independent is one of four state political blogs "funded by the Center for Independent Media, a nonprofit group headed by former Wired magazine writer David Bennahum," Stirland writes. The others are Colorado Confidential, Michigan Messenger and Minnesota Monitor. (Read more)

Study suggests farm women who apply pesticides put themselves at greater risk of getting asthma

If you're a farm woman who applies pesticides, you appear to have a much greater chance of developing allergic asthma -- especially if you didn't grow up on a farm. Those are the headline results from the first study of the subject, published in January of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, published by the American Thoracic Society.

The study looked at 25,814 farm women in North Carolina and Iowa, more than half of whom applied pesticides. It "found an average increase of 50 percent in the prevalence of allergic asthma in all farm women who applied or mixed pesticides," says Newswise, a research-reporting service.

About 40 percent of the women in the study did not grow up on a farm. Their greater risk of developing asthma from pesticide application is "due to a protective effect that remains poorly understood," Newswise says. "Growing up on a farm is such a huge protective effect it's pretty hard to overwhelm it," said Dr. Jane Hoppin of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and lead author of the study.

The study "found that most pesticides were associated only with allergic asthma, even though non-allergic asthma is generally more common in adults," Newswise reports. "Even some commonly used pesticides were associated with a marked increase in allergic asthma prevalence. Malathion, for example, a widely used insecticide, was associated with a 60 percent increased prevalence of allergic asthma."

Because the study was a cross-section of data collected from physicians' reports in the 1990s, the researchers cannot definitively say that using pesticides causes asthma. They are planning a large-scale study that will better evaluate the linkage. To read or download the current study, click here.

U.S. coal production down 1.4% from last year, mainly due to 3.6% drop in Central Appalachia

U.S. coal production dropped 1.4 percent this year, largely because of significant declines in Central Appalachia, according to the Energy Information Administration.

As of Dec. 15, production in Virginia was down 10.2 percent from 2006, to 25.8 million tons. Kentucky production was down 5.2 percent, to 110.8 million tons. In the entire Appalachian coalfield, "production dipped 3.6 percent to 364.6 million tons," The Associated Press reported.

Production in southern West Virginia, which comes from many of the same seams as those in Eastern Kentucky, declined 0.4 percent to 105.5 million tons. "Northern West Virginia mines increased output during the period 4.1 percent to 42.6 million tons," AP reported. "In Wyoming, the nation's biggest producer, production is up 1.6 percent to 433.1 million tons."

AP added, "U.S. coal producers faced weak demand from electric utilities and stagnant prices for much of the year. More recently, however, international demand for coal used to generate electricity and to make coke for steel manufacturers has spurred exports, particularly to Europe and South America." To read the EIA reports, click here.

Giuliani and Oxycontin: How much influence?

Last month, we heard from columnist Don McNay that "The mainstream media [have] ignored how [Rudy] Giuliani made his living. Helping a company that sold addictive drugs is worse than being married a few times." McNay started writing about that in May. Today, The New York Times tells the story of the presidential candidate and Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the painkiller Oxycontin (in photo by Toby Talbot of The Associated Press).

"His work for Purdue, the company’s first and longest-running client, provides a window into how he used his standing as an eminent lawyer, a Republican insider and a national celebrity to aid a controversial client and build a business fortune," Barry Meier and Eric Lipton write of Giuliani Partners, the consulting firm of the former New York mayor and U.S. attorney.

They start their story with his final phone call last year to John Brownlee, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, who was about to bring charges against the company and three executives for "perhaps the most aggressive promotional campaign for a high-powered narcotic ever undertaken. It promoted the drug not only to pain specialists, but to family doctors with little experience in treating serious pain or recognizing drug abuse. As a result of the expanded access, critics charged, OxyContin wound up in the high schools and street corners of rural America where curious teenagers crushed the pill, defeating the time-release formula, and ended up addicts, or in some cases, dead."

From June to October 2006, Brownlee and Giuliani met or spoke six times. In the last of those conversations, the prosecutor told Giuliani "that he expected to ask for a grand jury indictment by the end of the month. Plea discussions ensued and Mr. Brownlee ultimately agreed that the three executives would not have to do jail time. . . . After years of denial and a high-profile public relations campaign, the company was forced to admit that it had misled doctors and patients. But to the parents of young people who had died getting high on OxyContin, the absence of jail time was evidence of Mr. Giuliani’s influence."

Not so, U.S. District Judge James Jones said when he accepted the plea agreement, which fined the company and the executives $634 million. “It has been implied that because Mr. Giuliani is a prominent national politician, Purdue may have received a favorable deal from the government solely because of politics,” he said. “I completely reject this claim.” (Read more)

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tama County, Iowa, bucks trend of rural decline

At least one Iowa county is bucking the trend of rural population decline in the state, thanks to low housing prices, government-backed home loans and relative proximity to urban hubs, reports Ken Black of the Times-Republican in Marshalltown, in the county to the west.

"Tama County is seeing an increase in population among those whose ages range from 15 to 49, a key demographic of economic health," Black writes, quoting Lindi Roelofse, executive director of the Tama County Economic Development Commission: "We really believe at least part of this may be attributed to the fact that relative to some of the surrounding counties, starter homes are cheaper, specifically in Tama County. Also, there are a lot of programs out there to help first-time home buyers."

Black notes that some of those programs, such as those under the Rural Development umbrella of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are available only in rural areas, and every town in the county is eligible for them. "Because of that, the county can be very attractive to young families who may be looking to purchase real estate, especially for the first time," he writes, also crediting the county's low cost of living and its location, "25 to 35 miles from an urban hub such as Marshalltown, Cedar Falls, Waterloo, or Cedar Rapids." The county seat of Toledo is at the junction of US 30 and 63, 23 miles north of Interstate 80. (Read more)

Mine plan pits Alaska traditions vs. modern culture

Karl Vick of The Washington Post reports from Nondalton, Alaska (near center of Encarta map): "The gold mine proposed for this stunning open country might be the largest in North America. It would involve building the biggest dam in the world at the headwaters of the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery, which it would risk obliterating. Epic even by Alaskan standards, the planned Pebble Mine has divided a state normally enthusiastic about extracting whatever value can be found in its wide-open spaces."

The proposal by Northern Dynasty Minerals of Vancouver and Anglo-American Corp. also has serious implications for the rural culture of the area. Vick writes, "By tradition and law, natives have the run of the area for the moose, caribou and most of all the salmon that provide sustenance in a place hundreds of miles from the nearest road. But the outside world moves closer with each generation, and appetites change. The only food on the table where [Olga] Balluta sat were oily paper pouches of french fries hand carried on an airplane from a McDonald's in Anchorage. Lined up on the counter behind were jumbo containers of Hills Bros. coffee, CoffeeMate and Lucky Charms. "That's all they learn to eat now," she told Vick, referring to local children. Her favorite foods are bear fat and fish gut salad.

"The mining companies count on that change, dangling the prospect of cash incomes even while bowing deeply to traditions that no native consciously rejects," Vick reports, quoting company spokesman Sean McGee: "If we can't show to the satisfaction of the local people that we can protect the fisheries, we will not advance this project. We have no interest in replacing one resource with another, and we understand the burden of proof is ours." (Read more)

Va. coalfield congressman predicts greenhouse-gas limits, coupled with carbon-capture funding

The Democratic congressman for southwest Virginia, which includes part of the Appalachian coalfield, is telling local newspapers that Congress is "virtually certain" to enact limits on greenhouse gases in the next three years, and he will be part of the effort.

"Ninth District U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher has announced his intention to author legislation that will both mandate the reduction of greenhouse gases and ensure a viable coal economy for years to come," reports Keith Strange of The Coalfield Progress in Norton. Boucher told the weekly newspaper, "My goal is to have a meaningful control on greenhouse gas emissions, while at the same time enabling a growth in the use of coal."

"While some people may consider the two goals mutually exclusive," Strange writes, "the congressman said new technology could make coal mining much more environmentally friendly. ... The technology, commonly referred to as “carbon capture,” is not currently commercially feasible, but Boucher said he plans to put the strength of the federal government behind research into the process," which would funnel carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants into underground rock formations or other reservoirs. (Read more)

McCain rides events and endorsements, including a chain of weeklies in rural New Hampshire

When John McCain passed up the Ames Straw Poll last summer, "It was not difficult to find Iowans who proclaimed the Arizona senator's campaign dead in the water," writes Lynda Waddington of the Iowa Independent. "Recent events, including newspaper endorsements and an assassination on the other side of the globe, have prompted some Iowans to give McCain a second look." (Independent photo)

Mary McEniry of Marion told Waddington, "With the [Benazir Bhutto] assassination today, that just made me think that we need somebody really strong, and he's the one." Waddington reports, "The assassination of Pakistan's former prime minister was at the top of McCain's list when he offered his prepared remarks." (Read more)

Michael Shear of The Washington Post reported yesterday, "McCain still trails in Iowa -- most polls peg his support in the single digits -- in part because of his opposition to ethanol subsidies and his support of immigration reform. But armed with an endorsement from the Des Moines Register and buoyed by his success in New Hampshire, McCain on Wednesday launched a three-day tour of Iowa's rural towns."

Today, McCain returned to New Hampshire, where he has keyed on rural votes. In his comeback since hit campaign hit bottom in early fall, "McCain also worked hard to win endorsements from the state's leading papers, seeing it as a no-cost strategy for building support." Shear reports. "Aides even pursued the Salmon Press chain of small weeklies, inviting its editors to ride on the bus." (Read more) The chain endorsed Sen. Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Access to its sites requires a subscription; for a story by James Pindell of The Boston Globe on its endorsement, click here.

Congress cuts local drug task force funds by 2/3

Drug-enforcement efforts in many rural areas are likely to suffer from a 67 percent cut in a federal grant program, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports today, in a story that seems ripe for replicating in most jurisdictions around the country. (For an example, see this story by Tom Joyce of the Mt. Airy News in North Carolina.)

The budget bill that Congress passed last week has $170 million for the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant program, which got $520 million in the last fiscal year, reports the Herald-Leader's Cassonrda Kirby, quoting the executive director of the Kentucky Narcotics Officers' Association and David Steingraber, president of the National Criminal Justice Association.

Kirby writes, "The loss of grant money will mean disaster for small task forces, said Van Ingram, with the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. For those that manage to remain open, the cuts will severely limit their abilities, he said. 'You can't do drug investigations without money for informants, money for overtime and money for salaries.' David Gilbert, director of the Lake Cumberland Area Drug Task Force, which serves Pulaski, McCreary and Wayne counties, said 75 percent of the task force's budget comes from the grant. He says he doesn't know whether the Lake Cumberland task force will survive the cuts. In the past year, Gilbert said, [it] has worked more than 300 felony drug cases. Two years ago, the task force helped make the first seizure of liquid methamphetamine coming into Kentucky on a plane." (Read more)

Battle to improve oral health in Appalachia faces many cultural, economic, governmental obstacles

From southeastern Kentucky, Ian Urbina of The New York Times writes of the poor oral health of Central Appalachians -- "everyday people who are too busy putting food on the table to worry about oral hygiene. Many of them savor their sweets, drink well water without fluoride and long ago started ruining their teeth by chewing tobacco and smoking."

The story also blames "inadequate access to dental care or the inability to pay for a dentist," and notes that less than a fourth of Kentucky's dentists accept clients of the Medicaid program for the poor and disabled, partly because the reimbursement rates for adults and children, respectively, are 65 and 50 percent below market rates. Urbina also cites "widespread use of chewing tobacco and a pervasive assumption that losing teeth is simply part of growing old. West Virginia, for example, which has the highest proportion of people over 65 without teeth, also has one of the lowest percentages of adults who visit the dentist at least once a year."

Dr. Edwin Smith of Barbourville, Ky., "is trying to catch these problems before they progress," Urbina reports. "Each week, he drives his mobile clinic, Kids First Dental Care, up the windy Appalachian roads to visit schools and to provide free check-ups to children in the poorest counties of Kentucky. Dr. Smith paid about $150,000 of his own money to build the mobile clinic inside an 18-wheel truck. The clinic has a staff of seven and operates with private and Medicaid financing."

Urbina relates some of Smith's horror stories, which include tooth-eroding methamphetamine, "the shame of a 14-year-old girl who would not lift her head because she had lost most of her teeth from malnutrition, and the do-it-yourself pride of an elderly mountain man who, unable to afford a dentist, pulled his own infected teeth with a pair of pliers. He has seen the brutal result of angry husbands hitting their wives and the end game of pill-poppers who crack healthy teeth, one by one, to get dentists to prescribe pain medications."

Medicaid doesn't pay for root canals and dentures, so people who lose all or prominent teeth find it hard to overcome the economic disadvantages that may have contributed to their problems in the first place. "Try finding work when you’re in your 30s or 40s and you’re missing front teeth,” Jane Stephenson, founder of the New Opportunity School in Berea, which provides job training to low-income Appalachian women and helps them buy dentures, told Urbina. "She said about half of the women who go through the program, most in their 40s, were missing teeth or had ones that were infected. As a result, she said, they are shunned by employers, ashamed to go back to school and to be around younger peers and often miss work because of pain or complications of the infections." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In Kentucky and West Virginia, most poor kids who could get free dental care don't

"Most of the 200,000 West Virginia children covered by Medicaid don’t see a dentist, even though they’re entitled to a full menu of dental services," Eric Eyre of The Charleston Gazette reports in his latest story on oral health in the state. "At last count, about 64 percent of kids with Medicaid weren’t going to a dentist, according to 2003 data from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid." The figure for Kentucky is similar.

This Gazette photo, of Dr. Bridget Boggs Stevens extracting a tooth from a six-year-old, is emblematic of The Mountain State's oral-health issues. "West Virginia dentists have billed the state more to pull children’s teeth than to clean them" in the last four years, . "From 2003 through last year, the state was billed more than $15 million for children’s tooth extractions, and $13 million for cleanings," Eyre writes. "Last year, the Medicaid office spent $11 million on children’s extractions and fillings, but only $6 million on prevention treatments."

After analyzing more than 3.3 million Medicaid claims submitted by dentists since 2003, the Gazette also found that "The number of cleanings, fluoride treatments and sealants all decreased from 2003 to 2006. At the same time, extractions also declined — a positive sign.
Routine teeth cleanings dropped from 95,566 in 2003 to about 87,971 last year. And they’re on pace to decline even further, to about 86,000 at the end of this year."

Shannon Landrum, executive assistant to the state Medicaid commissioner, told Eyre, "A lot of our members access the medical system for crisis, not for prevention. It’s our goal to change that." (Read more)

Hills of N.C.'s Southern Piedmont about to become a major area for commercial blackberry production

In the hills of the North Carolina Piedmont west of Charlotte, where soybeans are the major crop, farmers are about to cash in on a growing national market for blackberries, driven by their antioxidant qualities, reports Rebecca Sulock of The Charlotte Observer.

SunnyRidge Farms of Florida has signed up "about a dozen" Lincoln County farmers with 120 acres for 2008, and plans to double the acreage by 2009 and open a distribution center early next year in adjoining Cleveland County. The growers "will fill a gap in the berry harvesting season, which will last four to five weeks longer than the season in Georgia," the Observer reports.

The company's production manager, Stanley Scarborough, told Sulock, "Lincoln County hopefully someday will be the Napa Valley of blackberries." But she cautions, "The plants aren't easy. They're expensive, require irrigation and are perishable when ripe. All those berries have to be gently plucked and put in coolers." Farmer Ervin Linberger of Kings Mountain told her, "We expect we'll have some problems getting labor for handpicking."(Read more)

Monday, December 24, 2007

Florida tomato workers who got help from Yum! and McDonald's get back of hand from Burger KIng

"A group of farmers who persuaded McDonald’s and Taco Bell to have their tomato suppliers pay their pickers more have seen their effort stall as Burger King has refused to do the same," reports The New York Times. "The main group of Florida tomato growers — calling the farmworkers’ tactics 'un-American' — has threatened a $100,000 fine against growers that cooperate with McDonald’s or Yum! Brands, the parent of Taco Bell, to pay their pickers more."

Lucas Benitez, a co-founder of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, told reporter Steven Greenhouse, "The only way you can describe this industry is the way it was described 40 years ago: It’s a harvest of shame." The vice president for food safety and regulatory compliance at Burger King, Steve Grover, said, "We’re being asked to do something that we have legal questions about. We want to find a way to make sure that workers are protected and receive a decent wage."

The workers wanted Burger King to follow the lead of McDonald's and Yum! and pay pickers 77 cents, up from 45 cents, for each 32-pound bucket of tomatoes. "A bigger obstacle to the coalition’s efforts is the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, a cooperative representing 90 percent of the state’s growers," Greenhouse reports. "It has threatened large 'noncompliance penalties' for any growers that share information about wages or tonnage picked with third parties like McDonald’s. Florida grows 85 percent of the nation’s winter tomatoes." (Read more)

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Demand from China, other nations has greatly boosted U.S. coal prices in the last three months

"Surging demand for coal in Asia is bringing good news all the way to the U.S. coal miners of Appalachia," reports Matthew Dalton of Dow Jones Newswires. "Coal prices in the U.S. have surged 20 percent in the last three months, due largely to the voracious appetite of China and India for coal to generate electricity and make steel. Rising Asian coal consumption has caused European and South American coal consumers, which have relied heavily on coal from South Africa and Asia, to seek out U.S. coal companies for supply."

Jim Thompson, publisher of Coal & Energy Price Report, told Dalton, "The impact of Asian demand in the world market has probably increased the price of U.S. coal by $10 per ton in a three-month period. That's a pretty amazing development." Central Appalachian coal shipped by barge is now selling for $55 a ton, up from $44 a ton in August, Dalton reports, adding, "The price of coal for delivery toward the end of 2008 is even higher, approaching $60 per ton."

The market shifts should help James River Coal Co., International Coal Group and Massey Energy Co., Dalton reports. "These companies have seen their profits suffer over the last two years, as raw materials and labor costs have been rising but coal prices remained flat. Mild weather in 2006 and improved coal shipping from railroads allowed U.S. power plants to stockpile large amounts of coal." Massey's stock price is the highest since July 2006. (Read more)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

FCC should couple deregulation with requirements for local reporting, journalism deans say

As it continues to deregulate broadcasting and allows new cross-ownership with newspapers, journalists should press the Federal Communications Commission to require a "commitment of resources to original local reporting on public affairs," and seven journalism-school deans and the director of Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy write in The New York Times today.

Their op-ed piece was prompted by the FCC's 3-2 vote to exempt large markets from the 41-year-old rule against one company owning a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market. The writers note that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin "offered a journalistic justification for this move: broadcast profits would help pay for the substantial news-gathering staffs at newspapers. But local television and radio stations should be doing their own news gathering, rather than merely serving as support systems for news gathering by newspapers. Besides, if Mr. Martin were really so passionate about news gathering, he wouldn’t have restricted the F.C.C.’s action to media properties in big cities. Don’t small-town news organizations need help, too?" (Yes, they do, and we're glad to see the mention.)

The writers say broadcast deregulation "seems to have had the effect of reducing the resources available for original broadcast reporting, especially about public affairs. . . . Stations generally have smaller news staffs today than they did in the era before deregulation. That represents a real loss for American democracy. . . . We do not believe that the market can be absolutely trusted to provide the local news gathering that the American system needs to function at its best. . . . Our profession needs to cast its reluctance to discuss broadcast regulation aside, and to let its voice be heard, loud and clear — on behalf of local reporting." Amen.

The writers are Roderick P. Hart of the University of Texas, Thomas Kunkel of the University of Maryland, Nicholas Lemann of Columbia University, John Levine of Northwestern University, Dean Mills of the University of Missouri, David Rubin of Syracuse University, Ernest Wilson of the University of Southern California and Alex S. Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. (Jones, a native of Greeneville, Tenn., is a member of the national Advisory Board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.)

Huckabee's legacy as Arkansas governor included closing scores of small, rural school districts

"Mike Huckabee produced a legacy like few other Republican governors in the South, surprising even liberal Democrats with his willingness to upend some of Arkansas' more parochial traditions," including small, rural school districts, two reporters for The New York Times write from Little Rock, apparently having been dispatched after the surge in Huckabee's presidential campaign.

"He drove through a series of changes that transformed education and health insurance in Arkansas, achievements that were never tried by most of his predecessors, including Bill Clinton," write Adam Nossiter and David Barstow. "But he is also remembered in the state for a style of governing that tended to freeze out anyone of any party who disagreed with his plans."

They add: "Mr. Huckabee is a son of small-town Arkansas, yet he deeply angered many in his rural constituency, touching the third rail of the state’s politics by shutting down money-draining, redundant school districts in the hinterlands. Protesters rallied at the state Capitol, fearful of losing schools, football teams, and age-old identities, but the governor insisted his way was the best and the schools were closed."

The reform was prompted by a state Supreme Court decision that found the Arkansas school system to be inequitable. Closing dozens of small districts, which Clinton had avoided, was "the path of greatest resistance," Nossiter and Barstow write. "The fight went on for over a year, and Mr. Huckabee’s staunchest allies proved to be the most liberal Democrats in the Legislature." He had proposed cutting the 310 districts "by well over half," and refused to sign or veto the resulting law, which cut his plan by almost two-thirds. (Read more)

The tougher type of journalistic integrity: Giving newsrooms enough money for public service

Tim Rutten wrote this week about a big-city media company, the one that employs him, but he said some things that ring true about journalism at any level, so we're sharing them with you. Rutten works for the Los Angeles Times, the parent firm of which was bought in 2000 by Tribune Co. -- which as of Thursday is now privately owned, by an entrepreneur named Sam Zell. His closing words to company employees were "We will compete fiercely but with integrity. We will work hard and have fun."

Rutten writes: "Journalistic integrity is a two-sided coin. One, more commonly acknowledged side simply enjoins reporters, editors and media executives to be honest and fair in the journalism they deliver to readers, viewers and listeners. As hard as that often is, it turns out to be the easy part. The other side of the integrity coin is the demanding one, because upholding it requires media executives and proprietors, which is what Zell has become, to keep faith with their readers and their communities.

"That can mean restraining a desire for ever-increasing -- or arbitrarily set -- profits in the interest of maintaining a sufficient level of journalistic service to readers, viewers and listeners and the communities in which they live. This is the test of integrity, which every publicly traded newspaper company and local television and radio company has failed miserably at over the last two decades. The era of corporate accumulation has been an unmitigated disaster for American journalism. Money has flowed like a fiscal Mississippi into the pockets of investors and fund managers, draining one newspaper and TV station after another of the resources necessary to serve their communities' common good. Nearly every American newspaper and local television station sucked into one of the chains -- from the largest to the smallest -- during that period is today a lesser journalistic entity of less real service to its audience than when it was acquired.

"That's what makes Sam Zell's daring purchase of Tribune not only a great financial opportunity but also a historic opportunity for American journalism -- a chance to demonstrate that private ownership can reestablish the link between good business and good journalism that initially was forged by familial proprietors. Zell already has indicated that one of the keys to devolving control of Tribune's newspapers to local managers is accountability. He plans, he says, to hold his publishers strictly accountable for their newspapers' performance. That's a great standard because it cuts two ways: Since he has assumed personal control of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, the people of those cities can -- and should -- hold Sam Zell strictly accountable for the integrity and quality of their newspapers." (Read more)

Friday, December 21, 2007

State approves Virginia's first wind farm, with protections for wildlife; appeal possible

"Virginia approved its first commercial wind farm Thursday along with a mandate that the operator pay to protect bats and raptors from a series of spinning turbine blades now pegged for a Highland County ridgetop," reports Jeff Sturgeon of The Roanoke Times.

"The site picked for the wind towers, which will stand up to 400 feet tall, is visible from U.S. 250 west of Monterey," Sturgeon writes. "Critics, including area residents, tried to block the project based on aesthetic considerations, the risk the turbines posed to wildlife and other issues. They can appeal Thursday's decision to the state Supreme Court."

Under the order by the State Corporation Commission, Highland New Wind Development LLC must allow state game wardens "to search daily under at least 10 turbines for dead or injured creatures for at least three years," and "strategically curtail turbine operations and employ other available technology to minimize animal deaths," Sturgeon reports. "In addition, the company will owe the state a penalty for any raptor killed, the highest being $1,500 in the event a bald eagle or peregrine falcon dies. The minimum penalty is $500 for a great horned owl, red-tailed hawk, osprey or American kestrel." (Read more)

Virginia sheriff said to be first official to be fined for violating state Freedom of Information Act

A Northern Virginia sheriff "must pay a $250 fine and the plaintiff’s court fees for willfully violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act, a judge ruled Tuesday in Madison County General District Court," reports Rob Humphreys of the Star-Exponent in Culpeper.

"Experts are calling it a potentially precedent-setting case regarding how public officials are punished for failing to comply with open-records requests," writes Humphreys, managing editor of the 7,300-circulation daily owned by Media General Inc. Notably, this case was not brought by a journalist or news organization.

Leigh Purdum, a former employee of Sheriff Erik J. Weaver, sued when Weaver refused to say whom he had appointed to a new citizens advisory board. "Purdum also sought other information about the board, including its meeting dates, the criteria for choosing members, topics of discussion, goals and objectives, and copies of previous minutes," Humphreys writes. After she won, the sheriff "produced the names of the 13 board members."

Jennifer Perkins, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, told the Star-Exponent that the case is “a huge step in the right direction” because no official had been fined in a similar cases. Maria J.K. Everett, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, told the newspaper that she believed this is the first time a district judge has ruled that an elected official willfully violated a state FOI law. (Read more)

Army National Guard, a disproportionately rural force, is sending more soldiers to Iraq

"While the military as a whole is ramping down its presence in Iraq, its most politically sensitive component — the citizen-soldiers of the Army National Guard — is ramping up from 46,000 to 55,000 troops," reports the National Journal. And a graphic with the story illustrates that the Guard comes mainly from rural areas.

"Since its origins in the colonial militias of the 1600s, the Army National Guard has drawn most of its soldiers from small towns," the magazine says. "People living in highly urbanized states are generally less likely to enlist; those in rural areas, more likely."

Reporter Sydney Freedberg Jr. writes, "An Army National Guard unit recruits from its local community and may keep the same soldiers together for decades. That those communities keep producing volunteers six years into a global war speaks to the depth of their military traditions. ... Such ties are strongest in small towns -- not in more-rural areas, where people live too far apart to converge easily at a local armory, and not in large cities, with their abundance of social and economic alternatives."

"In some communities, the local Guard unit is one of the major sources of social cohesion," David Segal, University of Maryland sociology professor and the director of the school's Center for Research on Military Organization, told National Journal. "Being in the Guard is how one earns one's bona fides as a member of the community."

"But precisely because those bonds are so tight, the Guard does not provide the same social mobility that the regular military does," Freedberg writes. "All of these factors mean that the Army Guard has about half the percentage of African-Americans as the regular Army, significantly fewer Hispanics, and a lower ratio of women to men. As a rule of thumb, the lower a state's population density and the lower its percentage of minorities, the higher the percentage of its population likely to be serving in the Army National Guard. As a rule of thumb, the lower a state's population density and the lower its percentage of minorities, the higher the percentage of its population likely to be serving in the Army National Guard." (Read more)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Edwards video casts him as the rural candidate, but may be too hokey for Iowa, and he trails in rural $

John Edwards' presidential campaign is mailing a 12-minute DVD to voters in rural Iowa, where the first votes for president will be cast Feb. 3. With a background of banjos, fiddles and high-lonesome bluegrass music, "For the Country" casts the former senator from North Carolina as the candidate of rural America in general and rural Iowa in particular.

"I feel like presidential candidates don't talk about what's going on in rural America," Edwards says in one of several film clips. Much of the DVD is biographical, with repeated appearances by his parents. His father, Wallace Edwards, recalls how he told his son to punch in the nose anyone trying to pick a fight with him and says that as president, "He'll fight and he'll fight and he'll win."

Edwards' chief rural adviser, David "Mudcat" Sanders, talks about Edwards' rural platform and says farm policy has left Iowa with 9,000 family-owned hog farms, far below the 60,000 it had in 1978. He also touts his candidate's electability. Edwards was running third in the latest Iowa poll, but isn't counted out because he has an organization from his 2004 campaign and the Democratic caucuses give disproportionate weight to rural precincts, which tend to be smaller.

Dien Judge of the Iowa Independent writes, "Edwards should be commended for his commitment to the issues facing the people who live out here in the country. . . . But the video, with bluegrass music playing over the entirety of its 12 minutes, is about as hokey as a possum wearin' bib overalls. It's the kind of stuff that makes some of us in rural Iowa grumble. Sometimes we get the feeling that a rural rube stereotype is being unfairly perpetuated, and some of us don't like that." (Read more)

Though Edwards is campaigning as the rural candidate, he was far behind Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in contributions from rural ZIP codes in the third quarter of this year, the most recent reporting period, according to an analysis for the Daily Yonder by Tim Murphy Bill Bishop. To read that story, click here.

One in four Great Plains farm families say health-care costs cause them financial problems

The high cost of health insurance is contributing to farm families' money woes and failing to protect them from additional financial risk, says The Access Project, a Boston-based research group that tries to improve health and access to health care, especially in underserved areas. Its latest study looked at seven states lying partly or completely in the Great Plains: Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska and the Dakotas.

The survey of farm and ranch families in those states found that "While the vast majority of farm and ranch operators had insurance coverage, one in four said that health-care costs contributed to financial problems for their families," said a news release. The Access Project conducted the study with the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota.

Farmers generally depend on the individual insurance market and often "pay high premiums for policies that also include significant deductibles, thus resulting in high overall costs for those who experience illness," the release says. "Controlling for age and health status, families purchasing insurance from an agent in the individual market spent $4,359 more than those able to secure insurance coverage through off-farm employment. . . . Four in five families overall had insurance plans with high deductibles, suggesting that more comprehensive coverage with low deductibles is not readily available."

“Many people are being forced to make the choice between getting jobs off the farm or ranch to get more affordable insurance, or else they need to use money to pay for medical bills that could otherwise be invested in farm or ranch operations,” said Dr. Alana Knudson, associate director for research at the Center for Rural Health and a co-author of the study.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Energy bill may offer more to farmers and agribusiness than the Farm Bill, by pushing ethanol

Today, President Bush signed an energy bill that "presents a huge opportunity for the nation's fledgling biofuels industry -- and uncertainty for energy markets," reports The Washington Post. (Associated Press photo by Dirk Lammers shows combine with a Cob Caddy gathering corn and cobs while blowing stover back into the field on a farm near Hurley, S.D., on Oct. 30, 2007. Ethanol maker Poet was testing the equipment because it wants to make cellulosic ethanol, an advanced biofuel, from cobs.)

Post reporter Steven Mufson writes that for farmers and agribusiness, the legislation provides "more support than perhaps even the Farm Bill. It doubles the use of corn-based ethanol -- despite criticism that corn-based ethanol is driving up food prices, draining aquifers and exacerbating fertilizer runoff that is creating dead zones in many of the nation's rivers. The law will also require the massive use of biofuels using other feedstocks, creating an industry from technologies still in laboratories or pilot stages whose economic viability is unproven. The law says that at least 36 billion gallons of motor fuel a year should be biofuels by 2022, most of it in 'advanced biofuels,' not a drop of which are commercially produced today" but which are likely to get federal subsidies in order to meet the goal.

The bill, noted most for requiring higher fuel efficiency, disappointed promoters of wind and solar energy. To overcome largely Republican opposition to tax increases, "Congressional leaders dropped a tax package that would have reduced breaks for the biggest oil and gas companies and extended breaks for wind and solar projects," Mufson notes. Still, Sierra Club Director Carl Pope told him that the bill "is a clean break with the failed energy policies of the past and puts us on the path toward a cleaner, greener energy future." (Read more)

World food cost up; good for farmers, not for poor

"It's finally dawned on Americans — on the world, really — that there's no more cheap lunch. Or dinner or breakfast," and that has implications for rural areas, Bill Bishop writes in the Daily Yonder, rounding up recent reports from The Economist, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News.

"Food prices in the U.S. have risen more in 2007 than in any year since 1990," and that is part of a worldwide increase, Bishop notes. "These trends are likely to continue. . . . Using grain crops for biofuels is being blamed for much of the run-up in prices, especially by industries that compete for corn and soybeans. Even as the Senate voted 86 to 8 for a new energy bill last week that expands mandates for ethanol use, a lobbyist for the Grocery Manufacturers Association described the competition for land between food and fuel to be a 'runaway freight train. It's great news for corn farmers, but terrible news for consumers.'"

And for the world's poor. "The UN's index of food prices has risen more than 40 percent this year, and Jacques Diouf, head of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said there is now "a very serious risk that fewer people will be able to get food.'"

Meanwhile, New Hampshire Agriculture Commissioner Lorraine Merrill notes in her Weekly Market Bulletin, "Higher prices will be good for farmers and rural economies. But they can also contribute to political instability. Some countries have already put price controls on food."

Obama's surge in N.H. coming from rural areas

Sen. Barack Obama is closing the gap on Sen. Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire's Jan. 8 primary largely on the strength of rural voters, according to political analyst Al Giordano, writing in The Field, a rural-oriented blog about the early presidential contests, hosted by

The Dec. 10-11 poll by Suffolk University showed Clinton leading Obama 33 percent to 26 percent statewide, but Obama leading in rural western, northern and central New Hampshire. "The two populous regions that favor Clinton are seacoast Rockingham and southern Hillsborough [counties], which have many suburban bedroom communities to Boston and other Massachusetts cities, with Democrats and Independents that typically tune in to Boston TV and media, and represent 52 percent of the survey sample," Giordano writes. "The two regions where Obama leads are more rural and represent 48 percent of the sample."

Giordano suggests Obama's momentum will continue. He notes that Clinton's base includes many readers of The Boston Globe, which endorsed Obama on Sunday, and that the Illinois senator is also backed by U.S. Rep. Carol Shea Porter, whose 1st District includes key urban areas such as Derry, Manchester, Portsmouth and the state's Atlantic coast. The state's other House member Rep. Paul Hodes, has also endorsed Obama, and Giordano says that "may already be working its magic" in the rural areas. (Read more)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Community newspapers still strong, especially if they have interactive Web sites, Calif. editor says

"The death of newspapers has been greatly exaggerated," and that's especially true when it comes to community papers, writes Jeff Pelline, right, editor of The Union in Grass Valley, Calif., population 11,000. That's in Nevada County, pop. 92,000, where Interstate 80 enters the state and cuts through the Sierra Nevada.

"At profitable community papers such as The Union, circulation is strong and Web traffic is growing sharply, because we provide unique local information that is now the "sweet spot" of journalism. Bigger papers are following suit in some cases, focusing on so-called hyperlocal journalism
," writes Pelline, a former editor at CNET, a technology news outlet. "Though paid print circulation has been sliding (for decades, in fact), readership -- as measured by combined print and online audiences - in most cases is growing. In this sense, the Web has been a boon for newspapers (at least ones with interactive Web sites). . . . Newspapers have to work harder to make their Web sites more profitable. But a growing, interactive readership is a big plus, compared with most radio and TV stations. "

The Union is owned by Reno-based Swift Communications, which publishes newspapers in California, Oregon, Nevada and Colorado, and farmer-rancher publications in Nebraska and South Dakota. Pelline is among a group of California editors and journalism professors who recently made recommendations for changes in journalism education to match "the changing media landscape," as he put it. "
As a group, we conceded that too many journalists and journalism professors resist change, even though they teach and write about change almost daily." To read the recommendations and the rest of his column, click here.

FOIA reform bill wins final passage; ombudsman could help speed rural media records requests

The U.S. House today passed by voice vote a measure to strengthen the Freedom of Information Act, sending it to President Bush for his signature or veto. The legislation, House Resolution 1309, could prove especially helpful to rural news outlets.

The measure "creates an independent ombudsman to resolve citizen disputes, helps agencies strengthen FOIA, creates a tracking system for the public to easily track the status of requests and allows requesters to more effectively recover legal costs incurred when agencies improperly deny requests," says a release from the Society of Professional Journalists. It also would improve the ability of information requesters to be reimbursed for legal fees when they have to sue, sets up tracking numbers for requests, limits fees agencies can charge when time limits for a response are not met, requires agencies to explain which exemptions to disclosure are being used to justify deletions from records, and requires reports to Congress that will help oversight committees judge the effectiveness of executive branch performance.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of 10 media groups, said in a release, "Community newspapers particularly sought an independent office to resolve disputes." It quotes Steve Haynes, president of the National Newspaper Association and publisher of the Oberlin (Kan.) News: "Strengthening the Freedom of Information Act will pay dividends in public information for a long time to come. This newlaw has many virtues. But as community newspaper journalists, we particularly celebrate the development of an ombudsman office under the Office of Government Information Services." (Read more)

San Antonio newspaper stops daily delivery in 30 rural counties, says coverage will continue

About 30 rural counties in southern and central Texas will no longer get daily delivery of the San Antonio Express-News, which proclaims itself "The voice of South Texas since 1865," reports Bob Richter, the Hearst Corp. newspaper's public editor.

"The Express-News is the last of the state's major newspapers to pull back, but it's a trend. The area from which the Express-News is withdrawing — effective Dec. 31 — is roughly the size of Maine, with a circulation of about 12,000 papers daily and nearly 13,000 on Sunday," Richter writes. "It's a lot of trucks and carriers driving long distances, burning lots of fuel to deliver relatively few newspapers. But it's devastating news for people who have made reading a newspaper a daily ritual most of their lives." He quotes several, then his bosses.

Express-News President and Publisher Tom Stephenson said the decision was "difficult but necessary" because the paper's circulation and revenue are declining as production and newsprint costs were increasing. "We were delivering newspapers in the state at a significant loss," he said. The paper is offering readers in the area a $2-a-week subscription (the first 30 days free) to an electronic edition with traditional newspaper formatting. Some places, such as Pearsall, only 55 minutes from downtown San Antonio, will be Sunday-only.

When a paper's circulation area shrinks, its coverage area usually does, too. Not so with the Express-News, Executive Editor Robert Rivard said: "The State Desk mission remains the same because we cover South Texas primarily for the benefit of our readers in San Antonio and the surrounding counties." (Read more)

Coal and electric industries pick Mattoon, Ill., for zero-emissions coal plant; Energy Dept. demurs

A coal-fired power plant with zero emissions -- even of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming -- will be built near the east-central Illinois town of Mattoon, it was announced today -- in many ways, including this marquee in Mattoon, as pictured by the Journal Gazette and Times Courier of Charleston.

The FutureGen Industrial Alliance Inc., a non-profit industrial consortium representing the coal and power industries, is supposed to build the plant over the next 10 years with support from the U.S. Department of Energy. However, a DOE official "said Tuesday that the federal government wants a reassessment of the FutureGen design due to escalating costs," reports Herb Meeker of the JG-TC. "DOE officials said last week that the FutureGen Alliance decided on its own to move ahead with its Tuesday announcement of Mattoon as the plant’s site, apparently before cost overrun issues were settled, according to one informed source. Meeker adds, "U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., believes renewed negotiations between DOE and FutureGen Alliance officials early next year can hammer out agreement on curtailing costs." (Read more)

The other finalists were sites near Tuscola, Ill., 25 miles north of Mattoon, and two in Texas: Odessa in the west and Jewett in the east. Robert J. Finley, director of the Energy and Earth Resources Center of the Illinois State Geological Survey, told Nathaniel West of the Charleston newspaper that the underground rock formations at the site were better suited to storing carbon dioxide than those in Texas, where the formations have been punctured by oil and gas drilling. Finley once worked for the Geological Survey of Texas, West notes. (Read more) (Encarta map) For DOE's Web site about the project, click here.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Arkansas trooper who arrested journalist covering fire is taken off law-enforcement duty

An Arkansas state trooper who arrested a weekly newspaper reporter-photographer at a fire has been taken off law-enforcement duty and assigned to office work, and the charge he filed against the journalist has been dismissed. (See Rural Blog item from Dec. 14.)

Trooper Thomas Weindruch arrested and handcuffed Bill Lawson of the Maumelle Monitor, a suburban Little Rock weekly with a circulation of 3,200. His charge of misdemeanor obstruction of governmental operations was dismissed at the request of Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley, The Associated Press reports.

"After we reviewed the incident report and the videotape (from a camera in Weindruch's vehicle) and looked at the relevant statute, we didn't feel as though the charge was appropriate, given what we read and saw," Jegley told Stephens Media, owner of the Monitor. (Read more, from the First Amendment Center) For Lawson's account of the arrest, which indicates the trooper was angered by flash photography, click here.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Edwards banking on rural voters in Iowa; Obama trying hard for them, too, and itineraries overlap

Former Sen. John Edwards is on the cover of Newsweek, labeled "The Sleeper" in Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses. (Photo by Jonathan Torgovnik for Newsweek) Inside, the story by Arian Campo-Flores and Suzanne Smalley says he could overcome Sens. Barack Obama and and Hillary Clinton on the strength of voters who resonate with his rural roots, and the nature of the caucuses themselves.

"For months, Edwards has been rounding up support in the state's rural precincts where the front runners have paid less attention," the reporters write. "While Obama and Clinton have drawn crowds in the thousands in places like Des Moines and Ames, Edwards has been winning over people in tiny towns like Sac City (population: 2,189). That's important, the strategists say, because under Iowa's arcane caucus rules, a precinct where 25 people show up to vote gets the same number of delegates as a place that packs in 2,500. In other words, even if he loses to Obama and Clinton in the state's bigger cities, he can still win by wrapping up smaller, far-flung precincts that other candidates have ignored."

"The bulk of our support is in small and medium counties," Jennifer O'Malley, Edwards's Iowa state director, told Newsweek. Edwards has visited all 99 Iowa counties, and O'Malley said the campaign had trained captains in 90 percent of the 1,781 precincts. "Rural voters are sometimes reluctant to caucus, so the campaign has been enlisting respected community leaders to encourage first-timers to get past their apathy or fear," Campo-Flores and Smalley write. "This could be wishful thinking from an ailing campaign. But it's worth keeping in mind just how wrong the media echo chamber can be when it comes to predicting winners and losers." (Read more)

Meanwhile, Iowa expert Jeff Zeleny reports in The New York Times that Obama, shown below in Independence, population 6,000, has a challenge in rural precincts. "His organization faces its greatest test yet: turning enthusiasm among many grass-roots Democrats into widespread support at the caucuses on Jan. 3 in precincts that will decide the outcome, particularly rural areas where his support still remains uneven after 10 months of campaigning," Zeleny writes, adding that intineraries of Obama and Edwards are "practically mirroring each other." (Read more) (Photo by Joshua Lott for the Times)

E. Ky. author asks state legislators to pass tighter controls on mountaintop-removal coal mining

When Kentucky legislators visited mountaintop-removal coal mines in Eastern Kentucky this month, they heard from regional author Silas House, right (in KET photo), who made one of the more cogent and eloquent arguments yet heard for tighter control of the practice in Central Appalachia. His testimony -- and in this case the word has more than the legal meaning -- appears in The (Louisville) Courier-Journal today.

"Mountaintop removal is a case study in greed, in taking from the community without giving back, in instant gratification," House says, while acknowledging deeply divided opinions in the region. "I can't tell you how many people have written to me to thank me for standing up and saying that mountaintop removal is wrong, for speaking out for what I believe in. I also can't tell you how many people have written me nasty letters, or have cussed me out, or have refused to speak to me at family gatherings."

House says coal companies "brainwashed us to believe . . . Eastern Kentucky couldn't make it without coal," but once he saw mountaintop mining from the air, "I have never been the same since. I couldn't believe that such disrespect could be done to the land, to the people, to my heritage. My convictions only thickened when I heard stories from the people."

House told the legislators, "I'm not asking you to ban coal mining. All I'm asking is for you to see the problems that mountaintop removal is causing, to see how it's a sacrilege to the land, to stand up and say, 'Now listen, we can mine coal, but we've got to do it with some integrity, with some respect, with some compassion for the land and our people.' To vote for more regulations and then to make sure that those restrictions are enforced." (Read more)

House is author of Clay's Quilt, A Parchment of Leaves and The Coal Tattoo. He is co-editing a new nonfiction book about mountaintop removal, scheduled for publication in fall 2008. The tentative title is Something’s Rising. His Web site is

Des Moines Register backs McCain and Clinton, says Democratic candidates much alike on rural issues

The presidential campaigns of Sens. Hillary Clinton and John McCain got a much-needed boost today as The Des Moines Register endorsed them for the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. (Photo by Register's Christopher Gannon shows Clinton in Emmetsburg) McCain has opposed federal subsidies for ethanol, which has become one of the state's most important products. The state's largest paper found less difference on issues among the Democrats.

"Beyond their personal appeal, the candidates have outlined ambitious policy proposals on health care, education and rural policy," the Democratic editorial said. "Yet these proposals do little to help separate the field. Their plans are similar, reflecting a growing consensus in the party about how to approach priority issues. The choice, then, comes down to preparedness: Who is best prepared to confront the enormous challenges the nation faces, from ending the Iraq war to shoring up America's middle class to confronting global climate change? The job requires a president who not only understands the changes needed to move the country forward but also possesses the discipline and skill to navigate the reality of the resistant Washington power structure to get things done."

Clinton once led in Iowa polls, but is now in a statistical dead heat with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- and in a sparring match with Obama, who has had the most momentum of late and a marginal lead in polls. The Register's news story about the endorsements noted that McCain ran fifth in the paper's poll of likely Republican caucus-goers last month.

But the editorial said, "Time after time, McCain has stuck to his beliefs in the face of opposition from other elected leaders and the public. He has criticized crop and ethanol subsidies during two presidential campaigns in Iowa. He bucked his party and president by opposing the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. A year ago, in the face of growing criticism, he staunchly supported President Bush's decision to increase troop strength in Iraq. McCain would enter the White House with deep knowledge of national-security and foreign-policy issues. He knows war, something we believe would make him reluctant to start one. He's also a fierce defender of civil liberties. As a survivor of torture, he has stood resolutely against it. He pledges to start rebuilding America's image abroad."

John Deeth of the Iowa Independent writes that Register endorsements usually help. Meanwhile, Dien Judge of the Independent reports on endorsements by smaller papers.

The Daily Yonder reports on the Democratic candidates' discussion of agriculture, energy and trade at Thursday's Register debate, here.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Senate passes Freedom of Information Act reform

The U.S. Senate passed today some of the changes journalists sought in the federal Freedom of Information Act. Now the House, which passed a stronger version, will be asked to go along.

The Senate bill, which passed unanimously, "does not alter FOIA’s disclosure requirements or any of its exemptions. However, the legislation does improve the process by which the federal government can carry out FOIA’s disclosure requirements," says a Society of Professional Journalists news release. "It creates an independent ombudsman to resolve citizen disputes, helps agencies strengthen FOIA, creates a tracking system for the public to easily track the status of requests and it allows requesters to more effectively recover legal costs incurred when agencies improperly deny requests.

“This is an important step to ensuring open access to the public record by journalists and all citizens,” SPJ President Clint Brewer said. “Freedom of information is at the heart of an open government and a free press. We encourage leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives to pass this legislation.”

SPJ backed reform as part of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, which also includes the American Society of Newspaper Editors, The Associated Press, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, the National Association of Broadcasters, the National Newspaper Association, the Newspaper Association of America, the Radio-Television News Directors Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. (Read more)

Small Midwest papers, especially in Oklahoma, struggle to publish in wake of huge ice storm

The massive ice storm that tore through the Midwest last weekend, leaving hundreds of thousands of electric customers without power, posed considerable challenges for small newspapers in the region. In the hardest-hit state, Oklahoma, the daily Norman Transcript and the weekly Oologah Lake Leader, were among the papers that had to improvise to get issues out this week. Above, Lake Leader employees, with Editor-Publisher John Wylie at left, put out the paper on the dining-room table in a staffer's home.

While Transcript publisher David Stringer looked for a nearby press that still had power, the rest of the staff looked for a place to work, because the diesel-powered generator in the newsroom only could do so much. Managing Editor Andy Steiger had hoped to use his home as a temporary newsroom, but the power was off there, too. Advertising Director Saundra Morris drove to the parking lot of a Panera Bread outlet to take advantage of the store’s free wireless access. It was full, so she worked from her car, reporter M. Scott Carter writes.

Several reporters and editors found a temporary home in the public-relations offices of Norman Regional Hospital, where they wrote and edited stories and posted them to the paper’s Web site. Stringer managed to secure some time on the press at the Edmond Sun, and a few editors made the 30-mile trip to design the print edition. (Read more)

In northeastern Oklahoma, the office of 3,000-circulation Lake Leader was without power, as were the homes of all its staff members. “We were not sure we would publish at all,” Wylie said in an interview. On Tuesday, the power returned to the home of Marketing Director Carolyn Estes, so staff packed up its production computer and set up shop on a table there. the paper was a day late for the first time, and limited to eight pages. Wylie said its Web site,, would be updated frequently. (Read more)

Foreclosures strike rural areas, but the numbers are far lower than in urban areas

Around the country, foreclosures have shaken up housing markets. Rural areas have not been free from loan defaults, but the number of foreclosures have been far fewer than what has happened in urban areas. That's because rural borrowers and lenders work a little differently, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Rural borrowers tend to be far more conservative in the amount of debt they carry, and the lenders who serve rural areas keep those loans on their books instead of selling off to others, reports Tim Grant. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture handles the majority of rural home loans, and it tries to avoid foreclosures by suspending monthly payments for up to two years. Last year, less then 3 percent of the USDA-funded mortgages in Pennsylvania were foreclosed.

"Usually in small towns people know each other, and you might have help from relatives. Plus you have the stigma of not wanting people to know you've lost your home," Darla Wise, north central chapter leader for the Pennsylvania Mortgage Brokers Association, told Grant. "In a city, you can get away with being foreclosed on and people not know. That might be a reason why rural foreclosures might not be as high. Also, in small towns, people are more inclined to help out their neighbors."
(Read more)

State police investigate arrest of Arkansas reporter

On Monday, Bill Lawson, a reporter for the Maumelle Monitor, set out to cover a house fire. While walking toward the fire with a camera, he was stopped by Arkansas State Police Trooper Thomas Weindruch (at left in a flash photo by Lawson) and handcuffed so that he faced away from the fire, the Monitor reports. The Monitor is a suburban Little Rock weekly with a circulation of 3,200.

"Bill Lawson, 59, a reporter and photographer for the Maumelle Monitor, said Trooper Tom Weindruch arrested him and placed him in handcuffs at the scene of a chimney fire on High Timber Drive about 7:50 p.m. Monday," John Lyons wrote. "Lawson said Weindruch kept him in handcuffs for about 30 minutes before releasing him. Weindruch issued Lawson a citation ordering him to appear in Sherwood District Court on Feb. 26 on the charge of obstructing governmental operations."

Lawson said that firefighter Perry Hopman saw him and told Weindruch that Lawson was not a problem. “I believe my exact words were, ‘He’s not bothering us. He’s no problem at all,’” said Hopman, who is the son-in-law of Dennis Byrd, publisher of the Maumelle Monitor and chief of the Arkansas News Bureau. (Read more)

The Monitor ran a first-person account from Lawson in its Wednesday edition. Arkansas State Police are investigating the arrest, reports Editor & Publisher. A conviction on the misdemeanor is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine up to $100. (Read more)

Senate passes its version of the Farm Bill, 79-14

At 3:30 p.m., the U.S. Senate passed the Farm Bill, or its version thereof. The vote was 79-14, very close to the 78-12 vote to limit debate on the measure. The bill, H.R. 2419, now goes to a conference committee with the House.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, floor manager of the bill, announced that fellow Democratic Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware, Hillary Clinton of New York, Chris Dodd of Connecticut and Barack Obama of Illinois, who have been busy running for president in Iowa and elsewhere, would have voted for the bill had they been present.

"It is a good bill for rural America and for farmers and for everyone who eats food in this country," Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said after the bill passed. But the outcome disappointed those who wanted a lower limit on payments to individual farmers, such as Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. "It's just sad that a majority no longer counts for much in America's democracy," he told Dan Looker of Successful Farming, referring to the fact that 56 of 100 senators supported a lower limit -- four votes short of the 60 that has become standard for passage of significant legislation in the Senate. For a list of votes on that measure, from the Center for Rural Affairs, which supported it, click here.

Hoefner said the vote fell short partly because some senators "who had supported payment limits for the 2002 farm bill changed their votes this year," Looker reports. "Hoefner was surprised to see a no vote from two other Democrats on the ag committee, Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Senator Ken Salazar of Colorado. Stabenow voted for payment limits in 2002. Salazar wasn't in the Senate then but he campaigned for payment limits." (Read more, via Agriculture Online)

"The Bush administration continues to oppose the farm bills passed by both the House and Senate," reports Peter Shinn of Brownfield Network, while noting that Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner "didn't specifically renew the threat of a Presidential veto." (Read more) Conner said the Senate bill is "fundamentally flawed" and major changes must be made in conference or "We are no closer to a good farm bill than we were before today's passage." He added, "Farmers deserve a farm bill that is free of budget smoke and mirrors and tax increases. The measure passed today has $22 billion in unfunded commitments and budget gimmicks, and includes $15 billion in new taxes -- the first time a farm bill has relied on tax increases since 1933." (Read more)

UPDATE, Dec. 15: For our money, no mainstream journalist reports the Farm Bill better than Dan Morgan, a contract writer for The Washington Post and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. For his comprehensive story in the Post, click here.