Friday, June 08, 2012

Ex-secretaries of agriculture, health offer bipartisan plan to fight obesity epidemic, other health woes

Four former secretaries of heath and agriculture and the Bipartisan Policy Center have released a lengthy report aimed at the nation's obesity epidemic. With 26 recommendations, the report promotes public and private sectors working together to create healthy families, schools, workplaces and communities.

The report, called "Lots to Lose," recommends extending federal guidelines for diet and physical activity to all children under 6 years old, along with offering more support to promote breastfeeding. "Learning to be active and staying active is a critical piece of the puzzle," said Republican Mike Leavitt, former secretary of health and human services and former governor of Utah. "Government has a role to play, but it is not the answer."

"If you think this is fluffy stuff about diet and exercise or about creating a nanny state you are wrong," said Dan Glickman, who was a Democratic congressman from Kansas and agriculture secretary under Bill Clinton. "Americans like silver bullets to solve problems. This one requires silver buckshot."

Former agriculture secretary Ann Veneman, a Republican who served under George W. Bush, spoke of the importance of good nutrition during the first 1,000 days of a child's life. "Improving health outcomes early in life is a critical element in helping to shift our current health care system toward prevention," she said.

Democrat Donna Shalala, president of the University of Miami and health secretary under Clinton, also participated. While The Washington Post's Janice D'Arcy called the report "an earnest and comprehensive effort," she asked, "Haven't we been down this road before?" For the report, click here.

Alpha Natural Resources to close 4 mines, 2 plants

Alpha Natural Resources announced today that it would close four Eastern Kentucky mines and two coal-preparation plants "as continued market pressures and new regulations on coal-fired power plants make production from certain mines in those areas uneconomic." The mines are in Pike and Martin counties, the state's easternmost. Alpha said 436 employees would lost their jobs, but 286 will be offered employment elsewhere in Central Appalachia.

Alpha recently said it expected to produce less coal this year due to declining demand, mainly because of the mild winter and electric utilities' switching from coal to natural gas. "Future sales forecasts also are being affected by a series of regulatory actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has resulted in utilities announcing plans to shut down a number of generating stations that have traditionally used Central Appalachian coal," the company said in a press release.

Scientists link bee colony collapses to fatal virus spread by mites

Reddish Varroa destructor mite on honeybee (Photo by Alamy)
The worldwide collapse of honeybee colonies may have finally been linked to a blood-sucking parasite that has successfully spread a fatal virus on a global scale. According to findings published in the journal Science, the researchers warned that the virus passed on by the varroa mite is now one of the "most widely distributed and contagious insect viruses on the planet."  Furthermore, writes Damian Carrington in The Guardian, the new dominance of the killer virus "poses an ongoing threat to colonies even after beekeepers have eradicated the mites from hives. Varroa destructor has spread from Asia across the entire world over the past 50 years."

Bees and other pollinators are vital in the production in up to a third of all the food eaten by humans, and a 2011 United Nations report estimated that bees and other pollinators such as butterflies, beetles or birds do work worth $191 billion a year for the world economy. The role of mites in colony coll,apse disorder had been suspected but unclear; bacteria, fungi and pesticides had also been found in colonies along with the viruses. The disorder had proven difficult to study because the bees generally left the hive en masse to perish, making it difficult for effective post-mortems.  (Read more)

Coal supporters confront EPA in Central Appalachia

Industry supporters, left, confront mining
foes and state official between hearings.
(Photo by Chris Anderson)
This week marked the first time that members of the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration visited Eastern Kentucky for an open, public forum, reports Chris Anderson of the Appalachian News Express in his story about two EPA hearings on surface-mining permits.

Yesterday was a chance for hundreds of people in the Central Appalachian coalfield "to be heard by a government agency that many feel is attacking their way of life," Anderson writes. EPA had announced its plan to veto 36 surface mining permits in the region, on grounds that they would cause too much water pollution. The meetings to discuss the government's controversial stance drew members of both sides of the mountaintop-removal coal mining debate, with Anderson reporting that those in support of mining far outnumbered those against it.

Miners spoke passionately about jobs and said President Obama was trying to ruin their livelihoods. Mine operators, like Don Gibson of Arch Coal, urged the meeting's participants to make their voices heard in November. Ama Bentley, an employee of Appalachian States Analytical Laboratory, argued that regional water quality is actually improved by coal mining in some places, and she and others said more harm is done by lack of proper sewerage.

Anderson notes that "a handful of environmental activists . . . spoke in favor of the EPA’s blocking of the issuance of the permits." They included Matt Wasson of the Appalachian Voices group, who countered pro-industry arguments about jobs by noting Appalachian coal jobs have actually increased since 2009. He said the coal industry's troubles are not the doing of EPA, but factors such the industry’s inability to compete with cheap natural-gas prices. "He also blasted Eastern Kentucky leaders for failing to expand the region’s economy."

The later the evening got, the less civil was the discourse. Anderson reports that "Roger Warton, who claimed to represent several pro-coal groups from West Virginia, told the EPA officials that those in attendance at the meeting were just as adamant about 'whipping somebody’s butt' as the soldiers who stormed beaches on D-Day in World War II. He also alluded to the possibility that the EPA officials would not be allowed to leave Charleston, W.Va., if they traveled there to fly out of the region." (Anderson's story is behind a paywall.)

Oil makes North Dakota boom, but at some cost to the environment

ProPublica, an independent investigative news operation, reports that oil companies in North Dakota have documented "more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater or other fluids in 2011, about as many as in the previous two years combined." (Photo by Karen Bleier)

Nicholas Kusnetz writes, "Many more illicit releases went unreported, state regulators acknowledge, when companies dumped truckloads of toxic fluid along the road or drained waste pits illegally. State officials say most of the releases are small. But in several cases, spills turned out to be far larger than initially thought, totaling millions of gallons. Releases of brine, which is often laced with carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals, have wiped out aquatic life in streams and wetlands and sterilized farmland. The effects on land can last for years, or even decades. Compounding such problems, state regulators have often been unable — or unwilling — to compel energy companies to clean up their mess."

Under North Dakota regulations, Kusnetz notes, the agencies that oversee drilling and water safety "can sanction companies that dump or spill waste, but they seldom do: They have issued fewer than 50 disciplinary actions for all types of drilling violations, including spills, over the past three years." Mark Bohrer, who oversees spill reports for the state Department of Mineral Resources, which regulates drilling, told Kusnetz that the number of spills is "acceptable given the pace of drilling and that he sees little risk of long-term damage." Oil companies are drilling upwards of 200 wells each month in northwestern North Dakota, an area roughly twice the size of New Jersey, and the state now ranks second in production. The work has reinvigorated North Dakota's economy; unemployment sits at 3 percent, reversing a population decline that began in the mid-1980s, when the last oil boom went bust.

But there's always a downside. Micah Reuber, former environmental-contaminant specialist in North Dakota for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said he quit after growing increasingly frustrated with inadequate resources; responding to oil field spills was supposed to be a small part of his job, but it came to consume all of his time. He said no agency, federal or state, has the money or staff to study the effects of drilling-waste releases in North Dakota. Kris Roberts, who responds to spills for the Health Department, said that the state does not have the manpower to prevent or respond to illegal dumping. North Dakota's legislature has passed a few regulations this year, including a rule that bars storing wastewater in open pits. Still, writes Kusnetz, "advocates for landowners say they have seen little will, at either the state or federal level, to impose limits that could slow the pace of drilling." (Read more)

Tomato genome decoded and made public to improve its future production and pest resistance

In Western Farm Press Daniel Stolte reports that an international consortium has deciphered the genetic code of the cultivated tomato and a wild relative. The Tomato Genome Consortium, a group of more than 300 scientists from 14 countries, decided to publish results in the May 31 issue of the journal Nature in an effort to reduce costs and streamline and improve future tomato production and resistance to pests and drought.

"The sequence provides a detailed overview of the functional portions of the tomato genome and its closest relative, revealing the order and structure of their 35,000 genes," writes Stotle, of the University of Arizona. "The tomato belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, which includes potatoes, peppers and eggplant, plus ornamental or medicinal plants including petunia, tobacco, belladonna, and mandrake. The members of this family have adapted to different ecosystems, from tropical rainforests to the extremely dry Atacama Desert in Chile."

“The tomato is an important biological model system for understanding fruit biology, ripening and crop development,” said Rod Wing, who heads the university's Arizona Genomics Institute. “Having the genome provides a much more precise way of bringing in genes through normal breeding and crossing techniques, and much faster than was possible before.” Having the genome sequence will allow scientists to locate and identify genes more quickly and improve the crop more rapidly. The sequence shows that the genome of tomato “triplicated” suddenly about 60 million years ago, soon after the mass extinction that included the disappearance of the dinosaurs. 

Corporations' increased role in funding university agricultural research raises concerns about influence

UPDATE, June 8: From 1994 to 2010, research and development expenses in the private sector to improve agricultural production increased by more than 40 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, USDA's Economic Research Service reports.

The gap between federal support for agricultural research at large public universities and private investment continues to widen. A new research report suggests that the divide may mean an increased threats to academic freedom and more potential for corporate meddling in the once-independent university lab.

Alan Scher Zagier of The Associated Press reports, "A recent study shows that nearly one-quarter of the money spent on agricultural research at land-grant universities comes from corporations, trade associations and foundations, an all-time high. Financial support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture accounts for less than 15 percent, the lowest level in nearly two decades." Here's a graph showing the trend:

Zagier says the report by Food and Water Watch, a Washington-based environmental group, is "rife with what it calls examples of how corporate money 'corrupts' the public research mission at land-grant schools, which were created by the Morrill Act of 1862 (which will be 150 years old July 2). The examples range from a University of Georgia food-safety program that allows industry groups to join an advisory board in exchange for annual $20,000 donations, to an Ohio State University professor whose research on genetically modified sunflowers was blocked by two seed companies after the initial results suggested the sunflowers fostered the growth of weeds.

"The report, entitled 'Public Research, Private Gain,' also explores the blurry lines created when universities and industry work together, such as when South Dakota State University sued farmers over wheat-seed patents as part of a public-private coalition formed with a Monsanto Co. subsidiary. The company is known for aggressive litigation against what it calls seed piracy. Kansas State University, Colorado State and Texas A&M have pursued similar lawsuits," Scher Zagier reports. "Such alliances are a far cry from land-grant universities' historic role in promoting public knowledge and freely sharing the fruits of their research," said Patty Lovera, Food and Water Watch's assistant director.

Deans at several agricultural colleges said corporate support is vital but would be unlikely to sway research results or even influence what research gets done. "We're kind of caught between a rock and a hard place," said Thomas Payne, dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at the University of Missouri. "In order for research to continue, we have to have support from a variety of sources." With the current five-year Farm Bill set to expire, AP notes, Food and Water Watch is lobbying for a boost in federal investment "in campus agricultural research, with more resources steered toward sustainable methods, organic farming and reduced use of pesticides. The group also is calling for land-grant universities to more fully disclose gifts by private donors and wants agricultural research journals to adopt more stringent conflict-of-interest rules, similar to the recent crackdown by medical journals." (Click here to download the report.)

Ky. paper does first online-first editorial to focus on secretive school board's meeting with job candidate

When a local school board decided to identify, interview and vote on a superindentent candidate all in the same day, an the candidate left some questions unanswered, the Kentucky New Era of Hopkinsville, Ky., posted an online as "breaking news" an editorial saying the decision should wait because candidate Marvin Welch "was unable to articulate what this district could expect from him in terms of leadership and philosophy" and answer other questions raised at community events -- including the graduation rate in the district where he is now assistant superintendent.

"The board should give itself more time on this decision," the editorial concluded. "Christian County Public Schools deserve a top-notch educator to lead the district, its employees and students. It is simply not clear yet if Welch is that person." The editorial was posted two hours before Welch's scheduled, private interview. The board first heard from school principals, then briefly met with Welch and adjourned without action or comment. UPDATE, June 9: The board is still interested in Welch but will interview another candidate and is “probably going to slow down a little bit,” the newspaper reports.

Jennifer P. Brown, the paper's editorial-page editor and former editor, said in an email that she took the unusual step of a "live" editorial because there was "very little time to give the school board any feedback on this candidate, and . . . the newspaper has a very small opportunity to report on this candidate and offer much coverage. So, four New Era employees attended an afternoon community meeting where the candidate gave a brief formal speech and then answered questions." She started writing the editorial during the meeting. Earlier, she had written editorials critical of the board's secretive approach, one of which got a headline-size blurb on Page One.

Reporter Benjamin Joubert's story reported that Welch "couldn’t remember the student minority population of Madison [County] schools when asked. One of the most marked differences between the districts is the percentage of minority population. Madison reported a 90 percent white student population in 2010; five percent were African-American. That same year, Christian County had a 59 percent white student population and 35 percent were African-American." The district's students have low test scores.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

'Ag-gag' laws aimed at photography at agricultural facilities could affect journalists more broadly

The recent rash of state legislation "designed to curb undercover recording at farms and other agricultural facilities may potentially restrict reporters’ ability to gather and publish important information about the food industry," Kristen Rasmussen writes for the spring edition of The News Media and The Law, the quarterly magazine of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"Some of the measures would directly prohibit journalists from photographing or recording farm animals and other items and activities involved in food production in a manner not likely to pass constitutional scrutiny," Rasmussen writes. "Others, however, seek to cut off the dissemination of this information at its source, by criminalizing the actions of whistleblowers. Although the laws and proposed laws differ in the types of activities they criminalize, all are at the center of a legal controversy that pits agricultural interests against those of journalists, activists and employees."

Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish said, “It’s one thing to prohibit trespassing on private property, but regulating legal activity on public land is a very scary trend and most likely wouldn’t pass constitutional muster. These laws also put a severe chill on those who would expose any wrongdoing on farms that could harm the nation’s food supply and health.” (Dalglish is leaving the RCFP to become dean of journalism at the University of Maryland.)

Rasmussen's 2,300-word story is a comprehensive look at the issue, and is accompanied by a description of each "ag-gag" law in Iowa, Kansas, Montana, North Dakota and Utah and the unsuccessful legislation in Minnesota, Missouri and New York.

Obama EPA about same as all the rest, expert says

Contrary to much political rhetoric, the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama has had pretty much the same approach as EPA under George W. Bush, a law professor who has written extensively on EPA enforcement testified yesterday before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Power.

Joel A. Mintz, professor of law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., testified on behalf of EPA and "told the subcommittee that the Obama EPA has been quite ordinary," reports Todd Neeley of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Though other witnesses criticized EPA for what they said was the agency's failure to work with them on a number of issues, Mintz said his research found that the current EPA has provided little contrast in how it enforces regulations compared to other recent administrations."

Under Bush, EPA's civil penalties averaged $117 million per year, and were about $115 million a year in the first three years of the Obama administration. That drop could be the result of better compliance, not weaker enforcement. Mintz testified, "Although there may well be good explanations for these declines, they do support the overall conclusions of my historical research: EPA's enforcement work during the Obama period has been similar in nature to its work in nearly every administration since the agency was established, regardless of the party affiliation of the president." (Read more)

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette raises single-copy price, partly to keep itself a statewide newspaper

The era of statewide, metropolitan newspapers that offered circulation and news coverage in the far  reaches of their states, a critical connection for rural readers, is almost over. But at least one paper is bucking the trend, at a price that it hopes readers will pay.

In the past week, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette raised its single-copy price to $1 ($2 on Sundays), saying the proliferation of other advertising media and the paper's maintenance of statewide circulation and coverage had made its profits "dwindle to unsustainable levels," Publisher Walter Hussman Jr., right, said in a letter to readers.

"In many ways we have charted a different course," Hussman wrote. "Rather than cutting back on circulation in outlying areas, we have continued to be a statewide newspaper. We believe readers throughout Arkansas are interested in statewide news, and we see evidence that advertisers benefit from our large circulation. Our daily circulation of 178,906 is higher than ten years ago."

Hussman added, "At the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, our plan is to remain a statewide, seven-day-a-week daily newspaper. We also plan to maintain our news staff and provide the type of complete, in-depth reporting that Arkansans have expected from us for decades. But with continued advertising declines, we can see no other way to do this other than fundamentally changing our revenue base. In the future, we will have to rely more heavily on revenue from readers and subscribers." (Read more)

Bucking trends is nothing new for Hussman. Almost alone among major publishers, he resisted the strategy of providing news for free online. Now the industry is moving his way. Had it done so earlier, and also followed his example of staying statewide, the industry and its customer would have been better off.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

N.C. lets Cherokees expand casino, build two more

Sequoyah Fund map shows Cherokee land (Qualla
Boundary) in red next to Great Smoky Mountains
National Park. Heavy black line is Interstate 26.
North Carolina is allowing the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to have live card games in the tribe's casino in the Great Smoky Mountains, and giving it the right to open two casinos on tribal lands near the state's southern border west of Interstate 26. The legislature gave final approval to the 30-year deal today, and Gov. Bev Perdue signed it into law minutes later, reports John Frank of The Charlotte Observer.

"The gambling compact now goes to the U.S. Department of the Interior for review but Chief Michell Hicks expects quick approval," Frank writes. "Hicks said the tribe hopes to offer live-dealer games, such as blackjack, roulette and poker by July 4th, a big tourism weekend in the mountains." (Read more)

Read more here:

Coal's share of electric generation keeps dropping

You can blame or credit the warmest March on record in a lot of the country, and historically low natural gas prices driven down by supply from hydraulic fracturing, for a whale of a drop in coal's share of U.S. electric generation in March.
Coal's share of net generation dropped to 34 percent, the lowest since at least January 1973, when the U.S. Energy Information Administration started keeping monthly statistics. Its report  this week notes that "despite seasonally low loads, natural gas-fired generation grew markedly and accounted for 30 percent of overall net generation by March 2012. Total electricity demand fell this winter as warmer weather reduced home heating requirements.

Coal generation decreased 29 billion kilowatt hours from March 2011 to March 2012, while natural gas generation increased 27 billion kwh during the same time period, accounting for 30 percent of generation. Gas prices were near 10-year lows this winter, leading coal-burning utilities in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania to increase their use of natural gas-fired plants. "Newer gas units operate at higher efficiency than older, fossil-fired units, which increases the competitiveness of natural gas relative to coal," EIA reported.

House GOPers suggest anti-mining activist's photo of 9-year-old girl in foul water is child pornography

As if things weren't ugly enough in the battle over mountaintop-removal coal mining, The Denver Post reports that leading anti-mining activist Maria Gunnoe of West Virginia was questioned for 45 minutes by U.S. Capitol police on suspicion of child pornography after Colorado Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn’s Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee members or staff, or both, decided a photo she submitted of a 5-year-old girl in bathwater supposedly fouled by coal mining was inappropriate and told the cops.

On his Coal Tattoo blog, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette writes: "I’m still a little baffled that one of the environmental group lawyers or lobbyists who might have been present at the time didn’t just step in and advise Maria not to go with those police officers unless she was under arrest. Then again, who would have possibly imagined the police going along with something as nutty as this?"

Ward writes, "That a couple of young parents in the richest country in the world — living in a community where untold natural-resource wealth is hauled away every day — don’t have decent water in which to enjoy the wonderful ritual of bath-time with their child?" The outrage has gone viral. On the Ohio Valley's Environmental Coalition's in-house blog, Ward counted four separate posts about the incident. Only grandmother-activist Gunnoe, writing on her Facebook page, said she would like to put it behind her. However, she gave an interview to strip-mining critic Jeff Goodell, who published it with an introduction on the Rolling Stone magazine website.

Only three states, all big in cattle, choose to keep 'lean, finely textured beef' in school lunches

When given the choice by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the nation's schools have overwhelmingly chosen to buy slightly more expensive beef that is free of "pink slime" than to offer beef that contains the product, formally known as "lean, finely textured beef." The Associated Press reports that only the major beef-packing states of Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota chose to keep buying the beef that is derived from beef-fat trimmings that are treated with ammonia hydroxide to remove pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. Every other state has agreed to pay 3 percent more for beef served in schools. (The company that makes beef containing the product, Beef Products Inc., is based in South Dakota and has had, until recently, facilities in Iowa. The company still operates in Nebraska.)

According to Nirvi Shah of Education Week, the product "can be more susceptible to pathogens than regular cuts of meat because it often comes from the outermost part of cows — where it's more likely to be in contact with fecal matter on a cow's hide. A 2009 New York Times story reported that from 2005-2009 ground beef with lean, finely textured beef was far more likely to have salmonella than ground beef made without it." The USDA maintains that lean, finely textured beef is safe. It has been under fire most recently when food blogger Bettina Siegel called for its removal from school meals, generating a petition that yielded thousands of signatures. Soon after, the USDA gave schools the choice. Shah adds that this move by the states is in line with an earlier poll in which "Americans said they want better nutrition standards for the food and drinks sold in schools." (Read more)

Columnist: What if tables were turned on oil and gas execs who want to keep fracking chemicals secret?

Last week, Joe Blundo, a columnist for The Columbus Dispatch, wrote a humorous column that took direct aim at the way Ohio's legislators wrote legislation to allow natural-gas drillers to keep secret from the public potentially hazardous chemicals they pump into rock formations to release natural gas -- a process known as hydraulic fracturing.

Blundo's column takes the nature of a long joke. It begins: "A 'fracking' executive, a state legislator and an oil-and-gas executive walk into a bar." He likens the "secret-keeping" to not disclosing if peanuts are an ingredient in the highly allergic legislator's meatloaf, for example. There's more. Blundo's column can be read by clicking here. An explanation of the bill under discussion is here.

EPA starts Ky. hearings on 36 surface-mine permits

As hundreds of supporters of mountaintop-removal coal mining held a rally, 75 people "opposed to surface mining held a news conference" late yesterday afternoon in the capital of Kentucky, reports Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader. (H-L photo: Line forms for public hearing)

"The 200 yards separating them might as well have been a thousand miles. The two camps put their deeply divided views on display as part of the latest chapter in the struggle over mountaintop mining in Kentucky," Estep writes. "The occasion was a hearing in Frankfort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on its objections to 36 permits for surface mines in Eastern Kentucky. The hearing started after the partisan events."

Two more hearings are scheduled tomorrow in Pikeville, Ky., in the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfield.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Cable TV coverage of Wisconsin recall illustrates problems with U.S. politics and public discourse

By Al Cross, Director
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

In less than an hour tonight, flipping through cable-TV channels, I witnessed what ails American politics and public discourse.

Seeking results and analysis of the recall election for Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, soon after the polls closed at 8 p.m. Central Time, I turned on CNN, which usually has the best journalists and the most balanced treatment of politics.

But just before enough returns came in to make it all but certain that Walker had won, the network gave the last half of the hour to Piers Morgan (who usually has the whole hour) and replays of that day’s coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee. A couple minutes of the royal family were enough for me, so I switched to Fox News, on an adjoining channel.

Right after Fox host Sean Hannity told viewers that it looked like Walker would win, apparently with the help of a big rural vote (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel map), he got reaction – from a couple of Republicans. Democrats were unrepresented.

Disliking that one-sided presentation, I turned to MSNBC, where liberal Rachel Maddow has been known to give conservatives their due. But she got her initial reaction only from Ed Schultz, a liberal blogger and radio talk-show host who was clearly disappointed, perhaps even upset, that the recall had failed. A couple minutes of that was, again, enough for me. I went back to Piers Morgan.

Soon, though, it was after 9 Central, and CNN had returned to the election. As Dana Bash reported from Walker headquarters, the crowd realized that she was on the air and started booing. On a later report, Walter supporters crowded around her platform and jumped up and down with signs, one saying “Don’t believe the liberal media.”

Bash was playing it straight, as CNN usually does. But neither side seems to think so. When another CNN reporter tried to report on the reaction of recall supporters massed outside the Wisconsin Capitol, they nearly drowned him out with noisemakers and bumped him with small bags bearing dollar signs.

And which of these channels has lost the most audience lately? CNN, apparently because it tries to give viewers what they need – a fair, accurate and reasonably thorough report – rather than what they apparently want, facts that are selectively reported and opinion that confirms their political beliefs.

For more than a decade now, the proliferation of news outlets has made most of them hungrier for audience, so they increasingly give viewers what they want. And the increased competition has made them give an inordinate amount of time to opinion, which is much cheaper and easier to produce than real news, which involves paying journalists to go out and dig up facts.

The market for opinion in this country continues to grow, while the market for facts continues to decline. At some point that becomes bad for a representative democracy, which relies on voters who make informed judgments, not just knee-jerk reactions or echoes of what they have heard or read. I fear we have passed that point.

Farm and energy states are leading the recovery

About half the states are "returning to past robust employment levels," and most are states where farming and the production of oil and gas are important factors, reports Kevin Hall of McClatchy Newspapers.

"Energy and farm states outperformed the nation, as did states near the nation’s capital, according to a new study by a private forecaster," IHS Global Insight, Hall writes. "States that suffered a housing bust, and old industrial states, continue to suffer the most." IHS identifies "three pockets of strength:"

  • Alaska, Louisiana, North Dakota and Texas, all of which are enjoying energy booms, already have returned to peak employment levels, but three of the four have small populations.

  • Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., are within 2 percentage points of peak employment, thanks to government spending and related contracting.

  • Energy-rich Oklahoma, West Virginia and South Dakota are within striking distance of peak employment too, as are Pennsylvania and New York, big states with diversified economies.

  • Read more here:
    Several other states are within 3 percentage points of peak employment, many because of farm exports or strong crop production or both, Hall reports. They include Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska and Vermont. For Hall's story, which includes a list of how much each state is off peak employment, click here.
    Read more here:

    Poll shows public backs subsidies to support crop prices, and help for direct sales to consumers

    The Congressional Connection Poll on federal issues has "found strong support for either increasing or keeping spending about the same for subsidies to farmers and agribusinesses to help guarantee that prices for their crops don’t fall too low," National Journal's Matthew Cooper reports. "Thirty-nine percent of the public wanted the amount spent on such subsidies to go up, while 37 percent wanted it to stay the same. Only 19 percent wanted to see cuts, a significantly lower percentage than the 32 percent who wanted to see food stamps cut." Food stamps are part of the proposed new Farm Bill, now on the Senate floor.

    "The public showed enthusiasm for increasing the amount spent to promote local farmers’ markets, roadside stands, and other direct sales from producers to consumers," Cooper writes. "A near majority, 48 percent, wanted more money spent on this, while only 15 percent wanted such funding cut. Thirty-two percent wanted it kept about the same. The bill that was voted out of the Senate Agriculture Committee included expanded funding to help farmers sell directly to consumers."

    Here's a look at the breakdown by political affiliation (National Journal chart; click on image for larger version):
    The poll was sponsored by the National Journal, a magazine noted for its nonpartisanship. Cooper notes that a poll taken recently by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Mich., "found that 80 percent of the public says Washington should do more to increase access to locally produced food. Although the question was worded somewhat differently than the one posed in the Congressional Connection Poll, the results suggest that these programs may have a political constituency waiting to be tapped." (Read more; tip of the hat to the Daily Yonder)

    Monday, June 04, 2012

    House members of both parties from rural districts object to bill that would reduce rural mail service

    When it comes to restructuring the U.S. Postal Service, Emily Stephenson of Reuters reports, the creators of the cost-cutting House bill that offers a dramatic slashing of rural mail service are having to deal with outspoken rural lawmakers. In a rare display of agreement, legislators from both parties said if the sponsors want their bill to pass, they will have to work with rural members -- many of whom feel that Rep. Dennis Ross, a Florida Republican who co-sponsored the bill with Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) did nothing to address their concerns before writing provisions that would end Saturday delivery and close rural offices.

    "Given the fact that there was no discussion to start with, and a draft bill got written without any interaction with any people whose districts would be severely impacted, it's about time, isn't it?" said Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Republican who said her Missouri district's largest town has about 35,000 people. "I hear concerns from pharmaceutical companies because they have mail-order drugs. Certainly the newspapers to our rural communities, all of those newspapers get mailed. . . . It really does change the way that we communicate with people," she said.

    "The timing is tricky," Stephenson writes. "Members of Congress want legislation to help the service avoid default on two payments totaling $11.1 billion to the federal government before the Nov. 6 elections, which could quiet talk that a taxpayer bailout of the USPS could be needed. But lawmakers in tough races, particularly in rural areas, do not want to have to defend voting for legislation that could lead to the closure of post offices in their districts." (Read more) The Senate has passed a bill that would guarantee Saturday delivery for two years, and the postal service has backed off its plan to close thousands of rural offices, reducing their hours instead.

    Farm Bill's shift to crop insurance would still help big farmers most; conservation reserve would be cut

    The Congressional Budget Office confirmed last week that the Senate version of the Farm Bill will save an estimated $23.6 billion over the next 10 years. About three-quarters of that would come from reductions in subsidies for major commodity crops, David Rogers of Politco writes. This represents a huge shift of resources toward new, government-backed crop insurance options that would give farmers more help to pay deductibles. This should save about $17 billion from what are generally seen as traditional support programs, including direct payments made without regard to what is happening out in the fields. (Associated Press photo)

    As the Senate takes up the bill this week, "At issue are government-backed premium discounts designed to make the insurance more affordable to farmers," Rogers writes. "While not truly cash subsidies, the costs have soared in recent years and fit neatly into the environmental narrative that Washington is too quick to help large-scale farm production at the expense of investments in conservation and the land itself." Rogers' story is a good account of a complicated process. You can read it here.

    The Environmental Working Group released new crop-insurance cost data gleaned from Freedom of Information Act requests filed with the federal Risk Management Agency showing that, in 26 cases, policyholders received an annual discount of $1 million or more in 2011. In 10,152 cases, it was $100,000 or more, while the vast majority of farmers received far smaller discounts, averaging closer to $5,000. “The eye-opening analysis shows crop insurance is not only very expensive,” said Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president of agriculture and natural resources, “but also very, very generous to large and highly profitable farm businesses.”

    "Because farm subsidies, old and new, have been tied to production, those cultivating the largest acreage get the biggest payouts, Robert B. Semple Jr. wrote in The New York Times yesterday. He noted the bill's proposed cuts in the Conservation Reserve program, " which rewards farmers for converting erodible farmland to grass and other vegetation. However flawed, the old subsidy programs required farmers to act as responsible stewards of the land — promising, among other things, not to drain wetlands. The crop insurance subsidies impose no such obligations."

    Semple writes that the bill repeats the vows made and broken with every Farm Bill, to "end unnecessary subsidies to big farmers, enhance the environment and actually do something to help small farmers and small towns. But what it usually does is find ways of disguising the old inequities, sending taxpayers dollars to wealthy farmers, accelerating the expansion of industrial farming, inflating land prices and further depopulating rural America," and the new one "promises more of the same — excessively generous handouts, combined with a serious erosion of environmental protections." (Read more)

    McCoy-Hatfield update: New DVD movie, real history books and a possible makeover for TV

    UPDATE: On the strength of the TV ratings and the crashing of the festival website from heavy traffic, the Tug Fork region is hoping to realize a long-hoped-for tourism boom for its annual Hatfields and McCoys Festival this weekend, reports Bruce Justice of the Appalachian News-Express in Pikeville, Ky.

    On heels of the news that the History Channel broke advertising-supported cable TV viewership records with its three-part "Hatfields & McCoys" miniseries, comes word from the Kentucky New Era of Hopkinsville that a new movie is coming out tomorrow on DVD about the same family fracas. "Hatfields & McCoys: Bad Blood" was shot in Christian County, in southwestern Kentucky, where there are some low hills but no mountains -- but in the movie things are still not copacetic along the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River. This version stars Christian Slater, Jeff Fahey and Perry King instead of the History Channel's bigger names of Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton as the chief protagonists.

    America loves its hillbilly throw-downs, but the History Channel has peddled something less than. Which might explain why it's refreshing to report that there is a book that Appalachian historians seem to agree is the best for factual reportage on the fracas. It's called Feud: Hatfields, McCoys, and Social Change in Appalachia 1860-1900, by Altina Waller. Among other things, it says that most members of the families were not involved in the feud, and at the beginning the ties among the Hatfield feudists were more economic than familial. Also, the second phase of the feud was driven mainly by "elites who were in a scramble to buy up land in advance of outside timber and railroad corporations moving into the area," the heart of the Central Appalachian coalfield, Betsy Taylor of the University of Vermont reports on Appalnet, a list-serve for Appalachian academics. UPDATE, June 13: Waller lays out the basic history of the feud, and her analysis of its causes, on the University of North Carolina Press blog.

    A less academic treatment of the feud is a 30-year-old book that is having a big revival online. The electronic version of The Hatfields & The McCoys, by Otis K. Rice, was first printed in 1984 and did only casual business before Memorial Day 2012. (Sadly, Rice did not live to see his success.) Today, his book is topping Amazon's and Barnes & Noble's bestseller lists. (Read more)

    In other feud news, actress Charlize Theron is reported to be shopping (that's Hollywood lingo) a series that centers on a modern-day telling of the feuding families. So far, no takers. But she was shopping it before the History Channel numbers came rolling in: 14 million per episode.

    County unemployment numbers for April, just out, continue to show some job growth in rural areas

    The Daily Yonder's Bill Bishop reports that unemployment in rural America continues to fall with the average unemployment rate in rural counties at 7.7 percent in April. The jobless rate in counties that are near metropolitan areas but are largely rural in character declined to 7.2 percent. Both of these percentages were below the 7.8 average seen in metropolitan counties that month. The figures on county unemployment were just released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (Read more)

    The drop in unemployment in rural counties represents a full percentage point since April 2011. That's 115,831 more jobs over last year. In the U.S. as a whole, there are 1,547,522 more jobs this April than in April 2011, an increase of just over one percent.