Saturday, September 27, 2008

Pastors plan to challenge law in pulpits tomorrow

Here's a story that might be going on near you tomorrow. The Alliance Defense Fund is coordinating an effort by pastors to flout the 1954 law that says religious and other non-profit organizations that take sides in elections must pay federal income taxes. In its "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," ministers are expected to preach "about the moral qualifications of candidates seeking political office," ADF says. The group hopes for a court case that will weaken or strike down the law, though legal experts say similar cases have already upheld it, reports Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times.

Goodstein writes that 33 ministers will participate in the effort and send copies of their sermons to the Internal Revenue Service. ADF, which Goodstein identifies as "a consortium of Christian lawyers that fights for conservative religious and social causes," says it won't reveal their names until after the sermons are delivered. "When the fund first announced the protest this year, it said it planned to have 50 ministers taking part. As of Thursday it said it had hundreds of volunteers, but had selected only 33 who were fully aware of the risks and benefits," Goodstein reports.

The Rev. Luke Emrich of New Life Church, "a small evangelical church in West Bend, Wis., demurred when asked which candidate he planned to endorse on Sunday," Goodstein writes. Emrich told her, “I would say endorsement is a strong word,” he said. “I’m planning to make a recommendation. I’m going to evaluate each candidate’s positions in light of Scripture and make a recommendation to my congregation as to which candidate aligns more so.” Goodstein reports, "Organizers said they wanted a range of clergy of various faiths and political persuasions to join the protest, but acknowledged that the participants might be 'weighted' toward the conservative end of the spectrum and more likely to support" Sen. John McCain and other Republicans. (Read more)

Americans United for Separation of Church and State says it will report to the IRS "houses of worship that flagrantly violate federal tax law by taking part in a Religious Right-led effort to politicize America’s pulpits this Sunday." A group of religious leaders from Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and other states has already filed a complaint with the IRS.

Central Church in Collierville, Tenn., which has 3,000 members, won;t be participating. It turned down a chance to host presidential candidate Mike Huckabee because of the law, and pastor Ernie Frey told Lindsay Melvin of the Memphis Commercial Appeal that he would like to see it repealed. "Our calling from God is to be able to call the truth," he said. (Read more)

For our first post on this, click here.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hurricane and a once-disillusioned journalist combine to create a paper in Pass Christian, Miss.

Hurricane Katrina produced a weekly newspaper for Pass Christian, Miss., which had not had one since 1990, Mississippi State University professor Larry Strout wrote for a paper presented at the Newspapers and Community Building Symposium at the National Newspaper Association convention in St. Paul, Minn., today.

When the residents of Pass Christian returned home, "Communication between the city’s residents and the local, state and federal government and volunteers was poor. So, some four-and-a-half months after Katrina, volunteers created the Gazebo Gazette," wrote Strout, who lived in "The Pass" before and after Katrina. The paper started as a free newsletter (first edition at right; click on image to view enlargement) but grew into a newsprint tabloid that now sells for 50 cents a copy.

"This is a story about a city left for dead . . . about a disillusioned journalist and volunteers teaming up to save a newspaper and the community," Strout said as he presented his paper. "One woman took this on her back and carried it." That was Evelina Shmukler, who came to the area to write freelance stories for The Wall Street Journal. After giving up on journalism and returning twice as a volunteer, she helped start the paper in January 2006, assembling it in Atlanta and shipping it to The Pass. Volunteers considered the project temporary, but by the fifth edition it was selling advertising and by Memorial Day, it had become a newspaper. Shmukler owned it, and she moved to The Pass. By August, she was writing editorials, and in December, she opened an office. Now the paper has been around long enough to cover another big hurricane (Sept. 5 edition is shown; click to enlarge).

"From the very start the Gazette was available online," Strout wrote. "While the evidence suggests that the hard copy version distributed at various locations throughout the city was invaluable for those citizens returning or looking to return to the city, clearly the online Gazette was vital for those who had relocated and either decided not to return or hadn’t made a final decision."

Shmukler wrote on the "Divine Caroline" site of Real Girls Media Network, "Every subscription, every renewal, is an affirmation. And then there are the kind words and nice notes–and the time recently that one of my early subscribers said to me that when they returned to Pass Christian after Katrina and saw the newspaper, they knew that the town would survive. I feel like the luckiest person in the world to know that what I do gives that kind of hope, not to mention a little bit of extra knowledge to make the re-building process easier for my neighbors. . . . I love the ways that my newspaper is journalism and also the ways that it breaks journalism’s 'rules' — for example, by being part of the community, rather than just covering it from a distance." To read the rest of Shmukler's account, click here. For a copy of Strout's paper, e-mail him at

Presidential debate touches on a few rural issues

A few issues of rural importance, such as ethanol and broadband, were mentioned in tonight's first presidential debate, between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, at the University of Mississippi.

Asked what priorities they would have to give up because of the expected bailout of the financial system, Obama said, "There are range of things that are probably going to have to be delayed," but "Some things have to be done," such as energy independence, "fix our health-care system ... make sure that we're competing in education; we've got to invest in science and technology ... make sure that college is affordable for every young person in America," and improve infrastructure -- not just roads and bridges, "but also broadband lines that reach into rural communities."

That was the only mnetion of "rural" in the 97-minute encounter. McCain continued to press his case for reductions in spending, and cited one of the higher-profile tax breaks in rural America. "First of all, I'd eliminate ethanol subsidies. I oppose ethanol subsidies." He also called for fixed-cost defense contracts and controlling cost overruns, which he said he has experience doing. He said he would "examine every agency of government [and] find out those who aren't doing their job and eliminate them."

Moderator Jim Lehrer, at right in photo taken after the debate, pressed Obama to say what he would drop or delay. "I want to make sure we are investing in energy," Obama said. "There may be individual components of it that we cant do, but John's right, that we've got to make some cuts," such as $15 billion in benefits for insurance companies that sell Medicare policies.

Later in the debate, McCain said he would also make energy a priority, including construction of nuclear power plants, which he said are "also important for climate change, an issue that I have been involved in for many, many years . . . along with Senator [Hillary] Clinton." That was an attempt to pick up supporters of Obama's main foe for the Democratic nomination. (Late in the debate, Obama said McCain voted against alternative energy 23 times. McCain replied, "Nobody in Arizona votes against solar" and said he supports alternative energy.)

Pressed again by Lehrer, McCain suggested a spending freeze on everything but defense, veterans' and entitlement programs." A bit later, he added "several other vital issues," unnamed, to that list. Obama said, "You're using a hatchet where you need a scalpel" to choose among programs such as early-chidlhood education, which he wants to increase, and Iraq spending, which he wants to cut by bringing troops home. That was the first mention of Iraq, 30 minutes into a debate that was supposed to be about foreign policy but was sidetracked by the greatest issue of the moment, the credit crisis.

On the bailout, Obama said the Republican philosophy has been "what's good for Wall Street, not for Main Street." McCain said, "Main Street is paying a penalty for the excesses and greed in Washington, D.C."

Asked the fundamental differences in the approach each of them would take, McCain said congressional earmarks, which Obama only recently foreswore, are "a gateway drug ... to out-of-control spending and corruption. . . . We spent $3 million to study the DNA of bears in Montana," and delivered his usual line wondering if the study involved a criminal issue or a paternity issue. "Scientists say it's key to preserving the species," Scientific American said in a story in February about the study. "The point of the project isn't really to analyze the bears' DNA, it's to use their DNA to take a census," says, which truth-checks candidates' statements and ads. A similar site is For debate fact-checking from The Washington Post, click here. The study found the bears are doing well.

UPDATE, Sept. 27: Obama, in Greensboro, N.C., today, picked up on the bear study: "He railed against some study of bears in Montana, but he had nothing to say about the fact that more and more Americans can’t afford to pay for college. . . . The truth is, through ninety minutes of debating, John McCain had a lot to say about me, but he had nothing to say about you." For more and a transcript, from Mark Halperin of Time, click here.

Looking for rural issues in the presidential debates

Tonight's presidential debate is supposed to be about foreign policy, and the credit crisis is likely to intrude, so no rural issues may be mentioned. But it's worth thinking about what rural voters should be looking for, and Doug Burns interviewed me and others about that this week for the Iowa Independent, an online news outlet.

Iowa Republican insider David Oman, a former GOP gubernatorial candidate, told Doug, “Sen. McCain’s opposition to ethanol subsidies probably gets buried by the much larger economic issues of the day. Both candidates should keep rural voters in their vocabulary as they speak to these issues; rural voters often feel forgotten.”

To read Doug's report, click here. Here's what I told him:

In the arena of foreign policy, the only issues of specific interest to rural voters that might come up have to do with energy and trade. Here’s a logical question on that front, one that folks in farm country deserve an answer to: How would each candidate resolve the new Farm Bill’s failure to comply with the World Trade Organization? But I don’t expect such a question to come up Friday night because, as a national security and foreign policy issue, it ranks relatively low.

On energy and the need for independence from foreign oil, Obama could point out McCain’s opposition to the ethanol subsidy and the renewable fuels standard that requires a certain total percentage of ethanol to be used in gasoline, and McCain could counter by saying he opposed the Farm Bill as a whole because the subsidies are too large and gas prices are too high. That would be off-topic, and perhaps risk losing some farm-state votes, but in the current credit-crunch climate, where voters are fed up with lobbying interests’ influence in Washington, such an exchange about ethanol could benefit McCain.

In later debates, there is more opportunity for questions on rural interests. I’d like to know if they favor a ‘hard cap’ on total subsidy payments to any one recipient. North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) and Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley (R) proposed a $200,000 cap, which failed to make it into the Farm Bill because it couldn’t get 60 votes in the Senate. Main reason: Opposition from cotton and rice farmers, whose states are not much in play this fall. Also, do they favor a ban on meatpacker ownership of livestock, which is squeezing independent producers as packers consolidate? The ban, pushed by Grassley, was removed from the Farm Bill in the conference committee.

'Unique' is unique; we should try to keep it so

What's wrong with this paragraph?

"The Pinnacle Knob tower is unique in several ways. First, very few fire towers remain in Kentucky, and Pinnacle Knob is one of the most remote. Secondly, it is one of the few built with a 14-foot-by-14-foot cabin which was large enough for the fire watcher to live in."

The tower is certainly unusual, or distinctive, but it is not unique -- because it is not one of a kind, as the paragraph itself makes clear by saying "very few," "one of" and "one of the few." And this paragraph (we'll keep the source to ourselves) doesn't commit the most common error, applying an adverb of degree ("very" or "extremely," as notes).

Such usage has become common, especially in broadcast journalism, which tends to be more reflective of evolution in language. Because languages must evolve to reflect changes in society, some say we shouldn't be concerned about this new definition. I disagree, for at least two reasons.

First, the root word of unique is uni, Latin for "one." A word is understood more deeply if its definition remains true to its roots. Internal conflicts are confusing and should be avoided.

Second, the English language has no other word for "unique." It is, well, unique. "One of a kind" means the same thing, but requires four words. Simplicity and clarity in language are virtues worth preserving.

So, let's keep "unique" unique.

Photographer gets farmers posing, not working

"Farmers are just as important to America now as they were in 1776," northwest Missouri farmer Richard Oswald asserts in the Daily Yonder, reviewing American Farmer: The Heart of our Country, a 264-page book with more than 150 photographs by Paul Mobley from 30 states, and the farmers' own words edited by Katrina Fried.

"I can read between the lines of each picture," Oswald writes. "I can smell the burlap and feel the humid summer heat. I feel the tickle in my nose from hay dust, and I know about the burn one gets from the hot vinyl seat cover in the cab of an ancient pickup truck. I understand the threadbare clothes and labor stained ball caps, shy smiles, sweaty t-shirts, and the bent brim of a straw hat."

But Oswald also faults Mobley for "a sameness about his pictures that doesn’t always show how the farmers do their jobs. The color photos seem too bright, almost pretty, the poses sometimes too rigid. But I’ve been photographed myself a few times, and the toughest thing for a farmer to do is look natural while someone nearby holds a camera. Farmers are a restless people, with hands always at the ready. Seldom do you see those work-hardened hands in a pocket." (Read more)

The Welcome Books Web site for the book says it will be in stock Oct. 7 and has photos from Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Series of studies pinpoint the rural effects of climate change in non-coastal states

Amid debate over whether global warming helped make hurricanes worse, a study says climate change will significantly impact non-coastal areas, costing billions of dollars to a number of U.S. states. The effect of global warming on agriculture, manufacturing, and forestry make rural areas especially at risk, says report by the University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Environmental Research.

"While some of the benefits from climate change may accrue to individual farms or businesses, the cost of dealing with adverse climate impacts are typically borne by society as a whole," the report says. "These costs to society will not be uniformly distributed but felt most among small businesses and farms, the elderly and socially marginalized groups."

Researchers studied the impact of global warming in 12 states. So far, they have published the results from eight. They say, for example, that higher temperatures in Appalachian North Carolina reduced livestock yields by about 10 percent. In Tennessee, new migratory patterns for birds would affect the hunting industry, which "contributes more than half a billion dollars each year to the state's economy." In North Dakota, the worst drought in its history, in 2000-06, "strained water supplies, directly affected hydropower production, and contributed to the worst fire season on record. The drought also damaged transportation infrastructure -- for example, cracked streets, driveways and sidewalks."

Researchers say that the study underscores the need for immediate action. "Some of the climate changes have already been set in motion and these will create economic effects," says center director Matthias Ruth, "but inaction or delay will only worsen the situation." (Read more)

Coalfield Progress suggests Biden contradictory

"Contradiction?" That was the first subhead on a story in today's Coalfield Progress of Norton, Va., on Joe Biden's remark to an environmentalist in northwest Ohio that he and Barack Obama "don't support clean coal," contrary to Obama's statements and some Biden made in southwest Virginia days earlier.

"Saturday, he told United Mine Workers members in Castlewood that Democrats will invest in clean-coal systems during an Obama-Biden administration," Publisher Jenay Tate and News Editor Jeff lester write. "Biden used a campaign stop at Saturday’s annual UMW fish fry in Castlewood to establish his credentials as a friend of coal mining. He pointed out that he grew up in Pennsylvania’s anthracite mining region and that his grandfather was a mine engineer." (Photo, of Biden with UMW International President Cecil Roberts at Castlewood, by Whitney Bentley)

"Before Biden spoke, Ninth District U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon, told the crowd that Biden is “a friend of coal and of Southwest Virginia.”Biden told union members that Democrats will invest in clean-coal and liquid coal technologies and research. By contrast, he said McCain and his vice presidential running mate Sarah Palin are “oil people.” Within days, critics pointed to a YouTube video of Biden at a campaign stop in Ohio three days earlier." (Read more) For Teresa Mullins' story on the UMW rally, click here. (Subscription may be required)

Bailout stirs fear, uncertainty, skepticism and opposition in some rural areas

As Congress debates the proposed $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, many in smaller communities are left to figure out what the bailout will mean for them.

For many, economic uncertainty weighs heavily. "How much of Main Street will be in the Wall Street bailout? ... We don't know the end game," said Jason Bailey, research and policy director at the non-profit Mountain Association for Community Economic Development in Berea, Ky, told Mary Meehan of the Lexington [Ky.] Herald-Leader. He says that the bailout will result in less money for non-profit groups serve small communities.

Others question why Washington waited so long to intervene. “Why and how did we let it get so bad?” Peggy Vinson of Batesville, Miss. (pop. 7,000) asked Bob Greene of CNN. “Everyone knew it was coming; as a teacher of economics at a high school in Mississippi, I saw it coming. So they knew it was coming, and they let it happen."

Many focus their ire on Wall Street executives. “If there is a bailout, then the compensation of the key executives at those companies should be taken down to zero. The bailout money shouldn’t go to any of them, that’s for sure,” Vinson's husband, Jim told Greene. "I’ll tell you what would happen if the place where I work found itself in the same situation– I’d be out and they’d be looking for a new CFO.” (Read more)

One Kentucky representative says his constituents are letting their opinions be known. Meehan writes, "U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, said he's skeptical about the bailout plan. 'And the citizens I represent are even more skeptical,' he said. He's received more than 400 calls from constituents opposing the bailout. Only six have called in support." (Read more)

Some skeptics have compared the administration's push to invade Iraq. Kevin Hall of McClatchy Newspapers, which in its earlier incarnation as the Knight-Ridder News Service did some of the best reporting that questioned the Iraq run-up, reports that "Many of the nation's brightest economic minds are warning that the Wall Street bailout's a dangerous rush job." (Read more) For help for covering the story, from Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute, click here.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Writer yearns for those rural hymns of old

When's the last time you heard an old-fashioned hymn sung? "These days, many churches have turned to 'praise choruses' -- songs that employ simple, repeated words of praise rather than the more poetic, penitent language of vintage hymns," Randy Speck of Albany, Ky., writes on his Notorious Meddler blog.

"I have watched hymn-singing decline over the past several years. It is a big loss," writes our friend, left. But he puts it a lot better than we could: "The difference between the hymns and the praise songs is the difference between a sonnet and a greeting card. They don't have the depth and the poetic language that a song would have from the old hymnal."

Randy goes on to pay tribute to the great writers of hymns, one great singer of them (whom we both knew) and that old-time religion. Randy's writing is more than "good enough for me." To read his post, click here.

Candidates answer Farm Bureau questionnaire

The race for rural votes is a crucial factor in this year's presidential race, but candidates' positions on a wide number of rural issues are often ignored or covered only sporadically by metropolitan media. This makes Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama's answers to a recent questionnaire from the American Farm Bureau Federation a resource for rural voters.

The survey covers farm and ranch concerns such as the Farm Bill, energy, trade, environmental regulations, and immigration. From the perspective of the AFBF, both candidates display strengths and weaknesses in their positions. “Where Obama seems to come out stronger on issues like the Farm Bill and renewable fuels, McCain might look better on taxes and government regulation of farms and livestock operations,” said Linda Johnson, the federation's director of policy implementation, writes in FB News. “So farmers and ranchers have to weigh it all and see where the candidates stand with them. For many it could be a tough choice this year.” (Read more)

Columnist scolds McCain for saying cancel debate

With John McCain threatening to pull out of Friday night's debate at the University of Mississippi in rural Oxford, an area columnist is chiding the senator on his lack of "Southern manners." McCain says the debate should be canceled to allow both candidates to focus on the financial crisis, but columnist Wendi Thomas of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis notes McCain's family roots in Mississippi and says of his proposal to renege after a year and a half of planning, "That is just not done. And what's more, it isn't necessary."

While Thomas agrees there is a crisis, she says the debate would take relatively little time, a president must multitask, and cancellation would upset many. "It is tacky to renege on such short notice," Thomas writes. "And if McCain is indeed a no-show Friday, I'm sure the hosts at Ole Miss, in a gracious display of Southern hospitality, will nod understandingly and smile. But when the cameras are off, the hosts are going to be peeved." (Read more)

UPDATE, Sept. 26: Harry Smith of CBS asked Republican Gov. Haley Barbour this morning, "If you were a betting man, would you bet that John McCain" will be at the debate? "I am a betting man," the gregarious Barbour replied, adding that he would bet on McCain attending. (Sorry we can't provide full verbatim.) Barbour seems to have not only wishful thinking, but to be putting pressure on his party's nominee. Later in the day, McCain said he would show up.

Study faults limits on subsidized child care in Ky.

According to a study by the National Women's Law Center, parents in Kentucky who get child-care subsidies pay disproportionately higher co-pays than those in other states. That makes it harder for them to get quality health care and harder for health-care providers to remain viable. "Low-income parents in Kentucky who receive child care subsidies are still paying very high co-payment rates, and the state's eligibility level is among the country's lowest," writes Valarie Honeycutt Spears of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"The federal government recommends that states set their child-care provider reimbursement rates at the 75th percentile of current market rates, which allows families to access three-quarters of the child-care providers in their communities," Spears explains. Kentucky's reimbursement rate is around the 68th percentile, meanign just over two-thirds of the providers are available. (Read more)

Second Sunday, Oct. 12, aims to get Ky. moving

A new initiative in Kentucky is aimed at getting the state out of those labeled most unhealthy. "Second Sunday, a statewide event designed to get Kentuckians on their feet and moving, is planned for Oct. 12," writes Carol L. Spence of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. "Organized by specialists and agents in the family and consumer sciences arm of the UK Cooperative Extension Service, the idea is to work with local officials to close a road or roads in each county for a few hours on the second Sunday in October. This will allow people to get out and exercise in a fun, safe, community-friendly environment."

Organizers of Second Sunday hope that the event will push local counties to re-evaluate infrastructure and move toward building communities that encourage people to get out of their homes, schools and workplaces to exercise. Janet Kurzynske, chair of the Nutrition and Food Science Department in the college's School of Human Environmental Sciences, adds: "People in cities get more exercise than people in suburbs and rural areas because they don't get their car out, if they even have a car. It's too much trouble. It's much easier to walk."(Read more)

Timber-county payments back on chopping block

Rural counties that have relied on federal payments to compensate them for restriction of timbering in national forests may have to get along without the money. A Senate amendment to to a huge spending bill would have resumed the payments, but the House rejected the amendment after White House objections.

"The timber law provides hundreds of millions of dollars to Oregon, Idaho and other states, mostly in the West, that once depended on federal timber sales to pay for schools, libraries and other services in rural areas," writes Matthew Daly of The Associated Press. "The law helps pay for schools and services in 700 counties in 39 states. Without the money, teachers and law enforcemeent officers in rural districts throughout the country could lose their jobs."

The measure called for "$2.1 billion reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000, commonly known as 'county payments.' The bill also provides $1.7 billion for a separate program that compensates states for lost tax revenue from federally owned land," adds Daly. The bill had bipartisan support mostly from senators from Western states, where the payments are most important, especially in Oregon.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said, "It is outrageous that the president is willing to borrow $465 million for foreign aid, the majority of which is going to the Republic of Georgia, and $700 billion to bail out his Wall Street buddies, but he is turning his back on schools, law enforcement and other vital public services in rural communities."(Read more) For Daly's earlier story, click here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Presidential hopefuls play hooky on rural schools

The presidential candidates' stands on rural education issues remain largely a mystery, writes Caitlin Howley for the Daily Yonder, a rural news site: "Neither offers much that is substantive on rural education."

John McCain supports performance pay, in which teachers are financially rewarded when student achievement increases. He also encourages private tutoring, school vouchers, and "school choice" options. Obama supports increased educational funding and promises to further develop early childhood education plans and reform the No Child Left Behind law.

Both have discussed incentives for those who choose to teach in struggling schools or rural areas, but Howley says their education platforms lack addressing the unique issues rural communities face -- though there are more than 10 million rural students. "Poverty remains a persistent impediment to equitable education opportunities and student achievement," she writes.

Issues directly affecting the status of rural education include the skweing of Title I grants for "large, urban school districts at the expense of rural districts" and the increasing number of non-English speaking immigrants and decreasing number of English Language Learner teachers. The National Center for Education Statistics found that "more than 40 percent of rural districts report vacancies and/or difficulty recruiting ELL teachers." None of these issues has been addressed by Obama or McCain.

The rural education system faces many challenges in its curriculum and teacher recruitment. Lower pay, geographic and social isolation and being required to teach multiple subjects discourage teachers from going rural. Many of the issues facing large districts, such as non-English speaking students, professional development and a lack of foreign-language teachers, also face rural areas, but without the numbers to qualify for federal aid. Considering that 30 percent of all schools nationwide are rural, it is vital that these problems be publicly addressed by our presidential candidates, says Howley, director of the Rural Education Center at Edvantia: "The educational lives of children should not be shortchanged simply because of where they live." Read the whole story here.

Michelle Phillips of the Anamosa Journal-Eureka in Iowa questioned Obama about education when he was seeking votes in that state's caucuses last fall. He called for better teacher pay, broadband access, and more money for school buildings and early-childhood education. To read Phillips' story, click here.

United States of Mind: a study that supports and undermines stereotypes, some of them rural

There may be evidence to back up some state stereotypes. Psychologists have released a study based on more than 600,000 online surveys collected from 1999 to 2005 that correlate traits in states: agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness to new ideas.

Is the Californian really laid back and the New Yorker uptight? Some common stereotypes rang true, with New York ranking high in anxiety and California high in openness. But some outocmes were surprising, such as North Dakota's lead in extraversion and agreeableness. (Remember the movie "Fargo"?)

"A state's dominant personality turns out to be strongly linked to certain outcomes," Stephanie Simon writes for the Wall Street Journal. "Amiable states, like Minnesota, tend to be lower in crime. Dutiful states -- an eclectic bunch that includes New Mexico, North Carolina and Utah -- produce a disproportionate share of mathematicians."

The study identified what could be called a "neurosis belt" that connected the seemingly disparate Northeast with more rural, poorer states like Kentucky, Arkansas and Mississippi. The latter "tend to have higher rates of heart disease and lower life expectancy," Simon says, in an effort to explain the phenomenon.

Experts emphasize the limitations of the study and warn people not to draw overly simplistic conclusions about an area. The questionnaires were based on current residence, not native status, and lead researcher Peter Jason Renfrow, a lecturer at the University of Cambridge in England, admits there is an underrepresentation of rich and poor. Some of the rankings are revealing in their own right, though. Extraversion "is defined in part by stong social networks and tight community bonds, which are characteristic of small towns across the Great Plains," Simon writes.

The usefulness of the study is debatable, but Simon suggests possible benefits. "In the Northeast 'stress belt,' health officials might consider programs to help folks relax," she writes. "In the Midwest, a dutiful state like Kansas might look to woo more innovative personalities, perhaps by nurturing an artists' enclave or encouraging young chefs to start restaurants." The study, despite its naysayers, may be a way for states to identify which traits they do and do not like about themselves and change. "It's also a wake-up call for proud residents of the great state of wherever -- some of whom aren't fond of the findings," adds Simon.

Whatever the study's usefulness, it at least sparked some interesting commentary. In Mississippi, ranked fourth in neuroticism, Ted Ownby, who studies Southern culture at the University of Mississippi, has found a way to be proud of the label. "Here in the home of William Faulkner," he told Simon, "we take intense, almost perverse neuroticism as a sign of emotional depth." Read the whole article here.

Ky. columnist gets attention for financial coverage

On almost every issue, Don McNay disagrees with Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, but the Richmond, Ky.-based columnist doesn't let that stop him from commending the state's junior senator for positions they do agree on. He's getting noticed for it.

Yesterday, Dave Astor of Editor & Publisher highlighted McNay's column, which runs in The Richmond Register. Astor writes, "McNay ... makes some interesting points about how [Bunning] had better instincts about America's economic problems than many other politicians."

McNay, who makes his living counseling people with financial windfalls, says Bunning seems to be "in touch with how people really live and what they are really thinking" about the proposed Wall Street bailout. He also praises Bunning for opposing the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, Alan Greenspan, and the current chairman, Ben Bernanke, when it was unpopular to do so.

McNay compares the proposal to another Congressional decision that is widely considered disastrous. "The rush to spend $700 billion and reshape the world economic system also reminds of the rush up to the current war in Iraq," he writes. "We are being asked to make a hasty decision by officials whose data we can’t verify and who haven’t done that great of a job. There is a push to 'ignore the fine print' and get on with things." (Read more)

Biden digs Obama a hole full of coal in Ohio

Al Gore would have been president if he hadn't lost West Virginia's five electoral votes over coal issues in 2000. The same thing could happen to Barack Obama in Appalachian Ohio, given running mate Joe Biden's statements to an environmentalist on a rope line in the northwest Ohio college town of Maumee, who asked him why the Democrats were supporting clean-coal technology.

"We're not supporting clean coal," Biden told her, saying China is building "two dirty coal plants" per week. "No coal plants here in America. Build them, if they're gonna build them over there, make them clean, because they're killing you." For the video, click here. (Toledo Blade photo of Biden on the Maumee rope line)

"Obama is actually on record supporting the expansion of such technologies, but Biden's words are prompting Republicans to lick their lips about the potential resonance of the issue in key coal states such as Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado," writres Jonathan Martin of Politico. "The Democrats are responding by essentially reiterating Obama's stance on the issue, implying that this was merely a matter of Biden speaking out of school." (Read more)

Newspapers in what may be the election's pivotal state are giving the story moderate coverage. The Columbus Dispatch headlines its story, "Biden's clean-coal has Democrats scrambling." Jack Torry and Johnathan Riskind write, "His words either were a verbal gaffe or reflect a split with Obama."(Read more) The headline in The Ironton Tribune reads "GOP pounces on Biden coal remarks." Benita Heath focused her piece on a media conference call placed by U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, a former governor who has bipartsan support, and other Republicans. They said Biden's statements were not a simple slip of the tongue, but represented an actual policy statement. (Read more)

The Plain Dealer in Cleveland covered the coal story and another Biden gaffe, in which he told ABC News on ABC news that the Delaware Fighting Hens were going to defeat Ohio State in college football -- a farcical statement, but perhaps not the wisest to make when preparing to campaign in Ohio. (Read more) The coal controversy followed Biden to Virginia yesterday, where he didn't mention coal as he talked about energy, Neil Simon reports for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. (Read more)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Two women from rural South given genius grants

"A South Carolina basket maker and a family physician who rebuilt an Alabama health clinic after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina" are among 25 winners of $500,000 "genius grants" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, writes Caryn Rousseau of The Associated Press.

Recipients, who may use the money as they please, include Mary Jackson, 63, of Johns Island, S.C., above, who has been making baskets from sweetgrass since age 4 and has pieces in major museums; and Regina Benjamin, 51, of Bayou La Batre, Ala., right, founder and CEO of Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in the Gulf Coast fishing community of 2,500 that was also hit by a hurricane in 1998.

"Despite scarce resources, Benjamin has painstakingly rebuilt her clinic after each disaster and set up networks to maintain contact with patients scattered across multiple evacuation sites," the foundation reports. "Benjamin is skilled, as well, in translating research on preventive health measures into accessible, community-based interventions to decrease the disease burdens of her diverse patient base." (Read more)

Rousseau writes of Jackson, "Weaving the baskets is a West African tradition handed down from the time of slavery in which artisans entwine the slender sweetgrass with such things as palmetto fronds, bulrushes and pine needles." (Read more) The foundation says she pushes the tradition "in stunning new directions." (Read more)

Mississippi starts car tag to promote Blues Trail

The Mississippi Blues Foundation and the state Tax Commission are promoting a new specialty license plate for the Mississippi Blues Trail. Luther Brown, chairman of the foundation, said it needs money to erect historical markers at more than 40 sites. “We currently have funding for 119 markers, but our wish list has grown to more than 160 sites that we think are worthy of being designated as a stop on the Blues Trail,” Brown said. “We also want the visibility of the tags on the highway, so people will have reminders about our blues heritage.”

The commission will produce the license plates once the first 200 tags are sold. The extra fee will be $31, with $24 going directly to the Blues Trail marker program. Approximately 52 markers have been unveiled to date, and the audio/video components for the markers are in the process of being developed, which will add a new level of interest.

The Mississippi Blues Foundation is a support organization made up of a diverse group of business and community leaders. The role of this group is to identify and secure sources of financial and programmatic support for the work of the Mississippi Blues Commission.

For Mississippi residents: The application for the license plate can be found on the Mississippi Delta Blues Society of Indianola’s website. Email questions to (Web site: or call Dr. Luther Brown at 662-846-4311 at Delta State University’s Delta Center for Culture and Learning.

Technology can boost the rural economy, if government and business cooperate, studies say

Government and business working together to "onshore" information technology services can bolster rural economies, say two studies released today by an IT-focused public policy initiative.
The CGI Coalition for Mission Results says that the increased "offshoring" of high-skill jobs can be countered if governments and corporations partner to promote U.S.-based job creation, activity which could have a significant impact in local communities. "Information technology is our newest national resource," said Donna Morea, president of CGI Group, Inc., in the press release. "High quality jobs with proximity to clients create enhanced productivity and value for all of our stakeholders while supporting our rural communities across the country."

One of the studies highlights the opening of two major IT facilities in Russell County, Va. (pop. 30,000) through a public-private collaboration. Since the opening of CGI's Southwest Virginia Center of Excellence in December 2007, 230 IT jobs have been created. By 2010, CGI anticipates that number will grow to 750, and that the project will add more than $65 million to the local economy. (Read more; for the full studies, click here and here).

NRA ad vs. Obama latest case of truth being stretched to breaking point; both sides flawed

As a presidential election nears, candidates' advertising often stretches or distorts the truth, and it can get really bad when ads come from lobbying interests, which voters find difficult or impossible to hold accountable for their actions.

In a new ad campaign the National Rifle Association falsely accuses Barack Obama of wanting to "ban use of firearms for home defense, ban possession and manufacture of handguns, close 90 percent of gun shops and ban hunting ammunition," reports, a bipartisan effort to expose false statements made by both campaigns.

Much of the ad "is actually contrary to what he has said throughout his campaign: that he 'respects the constitutional rights of Americans to bear arms' and 'will protect the rights of hunters and other law-abiding Americans to purchase, own, transport, and use guns.' . . . we find the NRA has cherry-picked, twisted and misrepresented Obama's record." (Read more)

FactCheck has found fault with several Obama ads about John McCain's plan for Social Security, funding of education, and regulation of health care. It has found shortcomings in the McCain campaign's ads on Obama's tax plan, his stance on sex education and one distorting FactCheck's findings. We encourage newspapers, broadcast stations and bloggers to use FactCheck.

FactCheck has also found fault with an interest group backing Obama, the AFL-CIO, and its advertising accusing McCain of costing politically crucial southwestern Ohio 8,000 jobs. The labor federation and an Obama ad claimed McCain helped pave the way for DHL, a German based delivery company, to take over Airborne Express by voting against an amendment to stop the takeover. Airborne had already laid off 2,000 workers before the merger was announced and McCain claimed he did not vote for the amendment to stop the takeover because it was inserted into an unrelated special project bill, a move endorsed at the time by the Teamsters Union. "it's implausible to suggest that an Arizona senator's vote in 2003 is directly responsible for the business decisions of an independent company five years later," Joe Miller of FactCheck writes. (Read more)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Another Washington bureau is closing, putting more burden on local reporters to cover Congress

After Election Day, add Newhouse News Service to the list of the Washington newspaper bureaus that no longer exist, further reducing coverage of Congress and putting more pressure on reporters back home to do the watchdog journalism that is more important than ever. The demise of the bureau and others like it is lamented in an article in the current American Prospect magazine, by John McQuaid, who was at the bureau until 2006, when he took a buyout.

"It was the home for a dozen individual papers' Washington correspondents, who produced often deep district-by-district coverage of Congress and federal agencies," McQuaid recalls. "A separate staff of national reporters wrote stories exploring the fault lines of the American political discussion, including race, religion, and economics -- an experiment in reinventing Washington coverage, or at least intended to give it a good tweak." He notes the reporting of Jonathan Tilove, now at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, on race and ethnicity, which has been noted here. However, he adds, "The bureau's customers were mostly small and medium-sized newspapers with limited space and appetite for national stories," and they often failed to take full advantage of such reporting.

"Papers in San Francisco, San Diego, Des Moines, Pittsburgh, Hartford, Toledo, Houston, Salt Lake City, Montana, Wyoming, and Maine have all cut back or eliminated Washington coverage in the past two years," McQuaid notes. "Reporters for the Tribune Co. papers are fretting over possible additional cuts to their communal Washington bureau as owner Sam Zell wields the knife" at the company, which also has TV stations. McQuaid notes this comes at a bad juncture. "The federal government is more opaque and arguably more mistrusted than at any recent time. Just from the standpoint of brute journalistic force, multiple layoffs mean fewer knowledgeable eyes on the day-to-day business of Congress and the federal government, so more political and bureaucratic shenanigans will go unnoticed." (Read more)

Prisons offer jobs, but do they boost economies?

Prison construction has been heralded as a way to boost struggling rural economies by providing steady jobs, but many question the overall impact on the local economies.

"Prisons have become a growth industry in rural America, where communities suffering from decades of decline in farming, mining and manufacturing jobs are grateful for solid employment opportunities," writes Robin Acton of the Tribune-Review in Pittsburgh. "Critics contend that prisons strain aging water, sewage and highway systems; burden local police and courts; and fail to stimulate new business and housing ventures."

Most recent prisons in Pennsylvania in recent years are in rural counties such as as Fayette, on the West Virginia border south of Pittsburgh, which is getting its second. County Commission Chairman Vincent Vicites told Acton that prisons create "recession-proof jobs at a good, family-sustaining wage level."

"The Center for Rural Pennsylvania used a 2006 Edinboro University of Pennsylvania study to examine the relationship between four prisons ... and surrounding communities," Acton notes. "Researchers determined that state corrections personnel and government officials should be realistic in their claims regarding the potential benefits of prisons because 'any economic impact emanating from the prison, whether positive or negative, was not obvious to many community residents.' . . . Tracy Hulling, public policy analyst and author of the report, "Building a Prison Economy in Rural America," suggested that hidden costs of prison business, such as added financial responsibilities for local police and court systems, often strain small communities. Hulling wrote that small towns with prisons, but few other amenities, may appear unattractive to businesses and industries." (Read more)

As fuel stays pricey, more schools shorten week

Rising fuel costs have had a surprising consequence in about 100 localities in rural America: a shorter school week. Faced with high gasoline and diesel-fuel prices, running buses one fewer day each week is helping some school districts counteract the new costs.

Heather Sells of the Christian Broadcasting Network reports, "The four-day model has its roots in the energy crisis of the late 1970s. Today, the majority of the 17 states with four-day districts remain west of the Mississippi. Colorado has 57 districts. New Mexico has 21. And most of the districts are rural." The American Bus Council says that schools use than 800 million gallons of diesel fuel each year for 480,000 buses. With fuel costs almost twice what they were a few years ago, shortening the school week could have a significant impact.

Jenkins Independent Schools, on the Virginia border in Eastern Kentucky moved to a shorter week four years ago. Students now attend classes for seven and a half hours a day. The district initially adopted the schedule in order to consolidate teachers' planning time, but parents say the it helps their children as well. Laura Revis, who has children in the schools, says, "They have Mondays to prepare for bigger projects." Ellen Robinson, another Jenkins mother, says, "If they have doctors' appointments you can schedule them on Monday. It cuts down on absenteeism and they get a break." (Read more)

Nation's first fine-arts extension agent helps start community theater in mountains of Eastern Ky.

Eastern Kentucky is known for its rich artistic heritage, and a new theatre in the state's easternmost municipality gives local performing artists a place of their own. (Encarta map)

The Black Box Theatre has its grand opening tomorrow in Elkhorn City, population 1,000 or so. The 5,000-square-foot space seats 120, and the stage can be arranged six different ways to meet a variety of performance needs. "Not only will aspiring and professional actors and artists be able to use the facility to showcase their creativity, but it will generate income for Elkhorn City and Pike County," said Stephanie Richards, the University of Kentucky fine arts extension agent for Pike County and the first fine arts extension agent in the U.S.

The facility will also be used for art education. Katie Pratt writes for the university's College of Agriculture, "In addition to hosting various plays and performances, Richards said the theatre will provide opportunities for local young people to explore various art forms, in which they can develop critical thinking skills and build self-esteem. They are already holding classes for an afterschool theatre program." The facility already has this year's theatre season fully booked. Richards says, "Our goal is to have something going on in the facility every day of the year." (Read more)

Rural battleground poll shows McCain doing better but still needs a boost in that part of GOP base

Presidential candidates often win or lose battleground states and the presidency depending on the rural demographic. President Bush can thank rural voters, especially in states like Ohio, for his two elections. (Chart from Bill Bishop's The Big Sort blog on Slate) A poll released today indicates that John McCain has yet to match Bush's marks among rural voters in 13 battleground states.

The bipartisan survey sponsored by the nonpartisan Center for Rural Strategies says McCain leads Barack Obama 51 percent to 41 percent in rural areas of 13 hotly contested states, but that number is not even half of what Bush got from rural voters in defeating John Kerry in 2004. However, Bill Greener, the Republican pollster who worked on the survey, told Howard Berkes of National Public Radio, "We are not where we need to be on election day but we’re moving in that direction." (Click here to listen)

McCain's lead is virtually unchanged from the 9-point advantage he scored in the center's poll in May. "But other measurements in the poll indicate that McCain's popularity is rising with rural voters," says the center's press release announcing the poll numbers. (Chart from the Daily Yonder) McCain's selection of Sarah Palin helped him firm up support in rural areas, with half of those surveyed saying they are more likely to vote for McCain as a result; 31 percent said the choice makes them less likely to vote for him. The margin of error for each poll number is plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. For the full results, click here.

Obama's race is a factor. Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder writes, "Fifty-three percent of those polled said their neighbors and their communities were 'ready for a black president.' Twenty-four percent said their neighbors and the people of their communities were not ready for a black president. A quite large number, 23 percent, answered this question by saying they didn't know, refusing to answer or responding that neither option was appropriate." (Read more)

The Democratic pollster on the survey, Anna Greenberg, said the financial crisis is complicating the rural vote. She said, "Rural voters seem to be trying to decide which candidate can best address their economic concerns, and that means the rural battleground could be more competitive than we saw in 2004." Just over half of those polled said the issue they care most about is economy and jobs. "Other top issues were energy and gas prices (25 percent), the war in Iraq (21 percent), health care (18 percent) and terrorism and national security (12 percent)," the center said. "Moral values and illegal immigration ranked last on the list of voters' concerns, with 9 percent each."

"The question is whether the campaigns will translate [the importance of rural voters] into a conversation about rural issues and the future of rural communities," said Tim Marema, the center's vice president. The poll was taken Sept. 16-18 in rural parts of New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. (Read more)