Thursday, July 20, 2017

Student journalists faced local backlash after story revealed disqualifying facts about new principal

Investigative reporters often receive public acclaim, but community journalists may face an unsupportive community that feels embarrassed about misdeeds they uncover. That applies to student journalists, as the story of The Booster Redux, the student newspaper at Pittsburg High School in southeast Kansas, illustrates.

The paper made national headlines in April when it reported that the school's new principal wasn't licensed and it couldn't find any evidence that her purported alma mater existed. The students worried about backlash from the start, but adviser Emily Smith said that she told them they didn't have to publish the story if they were too uncomfortable with that, Dylan Lysen reports for The Mercury in Manhattan, Kan.

Speaking at at a recent high-school journalism workshop at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Smith said she told the students, "This is probably going to be the hardest thing you do in your life because you’re doing the right thing and it’s not always easy and it’s not always popular."

And so it went. “I would say some people were really supportive, and they think it was great and they support the kids,” Smith said. “Most people were really mad because they said we made everyone look really bad.”

Some backlash was more subtle. Though the school board fired the principal and thanked the students for uncovering the story, the school district's press release about the matter mentioned neither the national coverage the story had attracted or the fact that the students were invited to the White House Correspondents Dinner. "That sent a huge message to the teachers and the community that they did not support us,” Smith said. "It’s really weird, because we didn’t even want to go out in public because people were mad at us, and they still are."

Smith said there are still unanswered questions about the principal's hire, since other news media have lost interest, but she isn't encouraging her students to pursue them. "We could have gone after that angle, but I really don’t feel like it’s my kids’ place to go find personal dirt,” she told Lysen. "To me it’s going to look like a vendetta."

House passes bills to streamline permitting process for some oil, gas and electric lines

Construction workers lay a natural gas pipeline.
(Natural Gas Now photo)
The House of Representatives voted July 19 to streamline the federal permitting process for some oil and natural-gas pipelines, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), would designate the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as the lead agency for approving permits for interstate gas pipelines.

The House also passed a bill by Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), that would put FERC (instead of the State Department) in charge of electric transmission lines and oil and gas pipelines that cross the Mexican or Canadian border. The president would no longer be required to issue permits for cross-border lines, a move that would prevent future presidents from delaying projects as Barack Obama did with the Keystone XL pipeline.

Congressional Republicans say streamlining the review process will encourage timely decisions about pipelines, which will in turn create jobs and stimulate the economy. Democratic critics say that streamlining approvals is unnecessary because FERC already approves 90 percent of gas pipelines a year.

Pick for USDA research undersecretary has no science background, but strong Trump credentials

Samuel Clovis
President Trump has announced a list of nominations for key administration posts; one may prove controversial, Jerry Hagstrom reports for The Progressive Farmer. Former Trump campaign co-chair and rural Kansas native Samuel Clovis was nominated July 19 to be undersecretary for research, education and economics.

The controversy stems from Clovis' lack of scientific expertise, since the position he has been nominated for is expected to be the Agriculture Department's chief scientist. Under both Democratic and Republican administrations, each of the last five people to hold the job have had a master's degree and doctorate in natural sciences, so Consumers Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists weighed in against the nomination, Hagstrom reports. UCS noted that federal law requires the nominee to come "from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics."

Clovis was an economics professor at United Methodist Church-affiliated Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. He "holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the U.S. Air Force Academy, a master’s in business administration from Golden Gate University in San Francisco and a doctorate in public administration from the University of Alabama," Hagstrom reports. He has other credentials: chief ag-policy adviser and a national co-chair of the Trump campaign, during which he was "in an operation hoping to obtain Hillary Clinton emails from hackers," The Wall Street Journal reported. Now he is Trump's insider at USDA, as senior White House adviser to Secretary Sonny Perdue, who said Clovis "has become a trusted adviser and steady hand. . . . He looks at every problem with a critical eye, relying on sound science and data, and will be the facilitator and integrator we need."

A graduate of both Army and Air Force war colleges, Clovis served 25 years in the Air Force as a command pilot and the inspector general of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and the United States Space Command

General stores in rural New England are closing because of new competition from dollar chains

This store closed because of new competition.
(Photo by Ben Conant, Monadnock Ledger-Transcript)
All over New England, small-town general stores are struggling or closing, Jennifer Levitz reports for The Wall Street Journal. The Francestown Village Store in New Hampshire, which sold "everything from fresh-baked bread and live fishing bait to winter hats and groceries while offering a place where residents could gather and gossip" for 203 years, closed July 6; its owners said new competition is the main reason such stores are closing.

Chain stores such as Dollar General, which has expanded rapidly in rural areas all over the U.S. in recent years, have buying power that gives them a wide selection, national name brands and prices that make it hard for mom-and-pop stores to compete. Increased online shopping is also siphoning general-store shoppers away, and small-town residents who increasingly commute to cities may stop at larger grocery stores on their way home, Levitz reports.

Jack Garvin, chairman of the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores, told Levitz that the state is losing three or four general stores a year, "and is down to about 80 from more than 100 a decade ago," she writes. "Along with more competition, aging owners who retire is another factor in the decline, he said."

Some New Englanders are trying to save local general stores, saying that they're important to towns. In Putney, Vermont, the local historical society raised money and took over the local general store to keep it from closing. In other places, local individuals are stepping up to buy struggling stores. Some stores are doing well by offering new items such as craft beer or prepared foods, and some are marketing themselves as tourist attractions.

The Village Store “really felt like a community hub where people gathered, and there are not very many places like that anymore,” Francestown resident Maureen Troy told Levitz. “In rural towns, people live far apart and it can be lonely almost if you don’t have that social interaction.”

Editorial: Reasons for the health-insurance debacle, and things for Congress to consider

The health-insurance debacle in the Senate has prompted much commentary. One of the clearest and tightest pieces of analysis and agenda-setting comes from The Anniston Star, a small daily newspaper in Alabama. Here are excerpts and paraphrases from its editorial:

"If the Republicans anxious to rid the nation of Obamacare had a replacement plan they thought would be popular and easy to pass, they would have trotted it out" in past campaigns and held hearings on it. "The truth is repealing Obamacare was a great political strategy for Republican candidates. It gave them control of the both houses of Congress and the White House. However, as the world now sees, it became a policy bear trap when those lawmakers transitioned from politicking to governing. . . . Politicians should do more than tell us what’s wrong. They should campaign on their solutions."

While Obamacare "has drastically reduced the number of uninsured Americans, there are many who remain uncovered," including millions in Republican-governed states like Alabama that didn't expand Medicaid. "The marketplaces for insurance aren’t nearly as competitive as they should be. There aren’t strong-enough incentives to convince young, healthy people to enroll, something that would spread out the risk pool. Obamacare doesn’t focus enough on wellness and good health habits, a long-term project that would keep Americans from needing expensive medical treatments related to smoking, drug use, obesity and an inactive lifestyle."

"Republicans and Democrats can and should work together to improve these challenges. More importantly, they should do this work in view of the public, not behind closed doors."

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Is Trump changing how rural and small-city folks deal with each other in their communities?

Grand Junction, Colo., where the Gunnison River meets the Colorado. Until 1921, the
Colorado upstream from Green River was Grand River. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
In Grand Junction, Colo., President Trump's "tone has a deeper influence than his policies," says The New Yorker, in a subhead under a story by Peter Hessler titled "How Trump is Transforming Rural America." Colorado, which Hillary Clinton won by 5 percentage points, is a distilled version of America at large: a landscape that is mostly rural and Republican, with urban Democratic enclaves.

With 58,000 people, Grand Junction has the status of a metropolitan area, and Mesa County has about 150,000, but "There are dry mountains and mesas on all sides, and the landscape gives the town a self-contained feel," Hessler writes. It may not be rural by the numbers, but it is by landscape and culture. This is the Western Slope of the Rockies, bordering Utah.

Mesa County is a Republican stronghold that has been plagued by increased crime, drug addiction and suicide since what Hessler called "the collapse of the local energy industry" from lower oil and gas prices. So when Trump talked about solving those issues, locals sat up and took notice. Voters didn't necessarily like him personally, but wanted solutions, and felt Democratic candidates were ignoring or caricaturing them, while he felt like a champion for them.

"In Grand Junction, people wanted Trump to accomplish certain things with the pragmatism of a businessman, but they also wanted him to make them feel a certain way," writes Hessler. "And thus far the President’s tone, rather than his policies, has had the greatest impact." Hessler cites the behavior of Trump supporters toward journalists at rallies and fears that the Republican county clerk was "trying to throw the election to Clinton," after Trump said the election could be rigged.

Trump's ability to forge an emotional connection with rural voters struck home where Democratic campaign strategies missed. "This seems to be the weakness of the Democratic Party, which often gives people the impression that they are being informed of their logical best interests," Hessler writes. But emotional appeals hit deeper and last longer, and voters identified strongly with Trump. Trump activist Matt Patterson told Hessler, “I’ve never been this emotionally invested in a political leader in my life. The more they hate him, the more I want him to succeed. Because what they hate about him is what they hate about me.”

A good bit of Hessler's 6,460-word story is about the local newspaper, The Daily Sentinel, which ran an editorial just before the election defending the news media against Trump's attacks. Trump supporters accused the paper of liberal bias and being "fake news," and when a state legislator made that charge, Publisher Jay Seaton suggested in a column that he might sue. He backed off, telling Hessler, “Maybe those words have lost their objective meaning.” Seaton is part of a Kansas Republican family that bought the paper from Cox Enterprises in 2009. “The party is too accommodating of elements that I would consider fringe, bordering on hate groups,” he told Hessler.

"During the election season, it’s common for some people to cancel their subscriptions, but last year the Sentinel lost more of them than usual," Hessler reports. "That’s one of the ironies of the age: The New York Times and The Washington Post, which Trump often attacks by name, have gained subscribers and public standing, while a small institution like the Sentinel has been damaged within its community."

UPDATE, July 20: Megan Fromm of Grand Junction writes in The Denver Post that Hessler's "expert analysis" and similar stories are "not inaccurate," but "I feel a fragile potential for more" in her classrooms at Colorado Mesa University. However, most leave for Denver or other cities after graduation because they dislike "geographic isolation and an often oppressive uniformity of thought that comes with living in a relatively remote valley."

New app gathers data on important or vulnerable trees, especially in privately owned forests

Researchers try out TreeSnap. (University of Kentucky photo)
A new smartphone app encourages the public to help scientists with research to help protect and restore trees.

TreeSnap was developed by the University of Tennessee Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology and the University of Kentucky Forest Health Research Center as part of a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program. Washington State University and the University of Connecticut are also collaborating.

TreeSnap focuses only on species that are economically important or have been affected by insects or disease, Carol Spence reports for UK AgNews: "Every day, American forests fight for their health against invasive species and pests. The app will provide scientists with more eyes in the field, giving them a greater reach to locate resilient trees that will advance their studies, whether they are working on breeding efforts or genomics to help in forest restoration."

The app's developers are working with several tree research and breeding programs to use gathered data in different projects, Spence reports: The U.S. Forest Service's Northern Research Station "will use data on ash and elm to help them in their fight against the emerald ash borer and Dutch elm disease. The Forest Restoration Alliance and the Hemlock Restoration Initiative will use information on hemlock to find trees that are resistant to the hemlock woolly adelgid. The American Chestnut Foundation is gathering data on trees that are resistant to chestnut blight, in the hopes of adding them to breeding and research programs."

The app gives researchers a way to get data through reporting private land owners reporting data, important in the East, where most forests are privately owned. It prompts users to collect data including habitat, height and health, trunk diameter and quantity of seeds or cones. GPS will automatically log the user's location, but precautions have been taken to protect users' privacy. More information is available here.

Rural people less likely to get some cancers, more likely to die from them; need access, screenings

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that you're generally less likely to get cancer if you live in a rural area, but more likely to die from it, than someone living elsewhere in America. Though rural Americans are less likely to get most cancers, they are more likely to get colorectal and cervical cancer, as well as cancers related to tobacco use. And they're more likely to die from lung, colorectal, prostate, and cervical cancers than urban and suburban Americans.

The CDC says the rural death rate could be higher because people don't have access to health care services, or if they do have access, don't get screened, or wait until too late to get screened. The keys are getting people screened and getting them access to treatment, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-leader of the cancer control research program at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told Ann Pietrangelo of Healthline.

The CDC researchers' suggestions for reducing rural cancer incidence and death include promoting healthy behaviors and increasing screenings and vaccinations. Government must get involved too, they say. States need to participate in comprehensive cancer-control programs and work with local governments, researchers, health-care providers and advocates to enact better health policies.

Paskett worries that as some people or regions gain better access to health care, others will be left behind. She told Healthline that urban Chicago, which has also suffered from a lack of access to health care, is a good example of such coordination. "Chicago reduced disparity significantly. There’s still work to do but you can see that what they’re doing is working. We need buy-in from the top governors’ offices and state legislators. That’s what has to happen. When you have a whole city or state working on this problem together, you have an impact on disparities." (Read more)

Could Pruitt's religious beliefs shape EPA policy?

Scott Pruitt, center, prays at his church in Broken Arrow, Okla.
(First Baptist Church Facebook page photo via E&E News)
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is famously skeptical of climate change; Niina Heikkinen of Environment & Energy News recently explored whether Pruitt's religious beliefs might help shape his attitude toward his work. She spoke with his pastor, Nick Garland, of the First Baptist Church in Pruitt’s home of Broken Arrow, Okla. Garland said Pruitt, a deacon who taught Sunday School, “came with deep, deep convictions. His Christian training and strength has always been significant. . . . He's not a wild-eyed weirdo. There are some weird ducks out there. Scott is a great student; he doesn't do anything on hearsay.”

Pruitt is a trustee of fundamentalist-run Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of Louisville, in his native state. The Southern Baptist Convention places great importance on the virtues of both human beings' stewardship of the earth and their dominion over it, Heikkinen says in an Environment & Energy News video interview. That may pose conflict, especially on a political level. Stewardship is the idea that God wants people to take care of the earth and be responsible for what is done to it. Dominion emphasizes that God has granted man control over the earth and everything on it, Heikkinen says, “so that gives a little bit more leeway, in a way, to act differently, to, for example, maybe engage in hydraulic fracturing because you are using the resources of the earth to benefit people.”

Pruitt attended three Bible study sessions in March run by Capitol Ministries, whose president is more fundamentalist than the SBC and issued a supplemental reading that strongly stressed a dominionist attitude. "EPA did not respond to numerous requests for comment," Heikkenen reports. "Requests for Pruitt's schedules past March 31 have not yet been returned."

In the video, Heikkinen shies away from saying that this admittedly circumstantial evidence describes Pruitt's feelings: "I haven't spoken to Mr. Pruitt about his beliefs, and so I'd be hesitant to say exactly how his religion may play into it. But people who I spoke to for this article were saying that, you know, if someone really strongly holds this idea of dominion, then you might have this idea that you have authority to use the earth . . .  instead of focusing on more of the stewardship side. There's also this idea that if God is in control and has a divine plan for the planet, that there isn't really a need to act as a person because God has already preordained what will happen."

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Defeat of health-insurance bill is a relief for many rural health interests, but debate will go on

Provisions that would reduce Medicaid coverage may have helped kill Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's health-insurance bill. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, one of two Republicans whose joint announcement Monday night killed McConnell's revised bill, "faced pressure at home about how the bill would affect Kansas, including its rural hospitals," The New York Times noted. "The Kansas Hospital Association said last week that the latest version “comes up short, particularly for our most vulnerable patients.”

"Moran said he was concerned the bill wouldn't lower overall consumer costs and wouldn't provide adequate protection for those with pre-existing conditions. He also expressed concerns that deep cuts in Medicaid over the next decade could threaten the survival of already struggling rural hospitals and nursing homes," Jim McLean reports for NPR.

Because President Obama was unpopular in rural America, many loyal Republican voters criticized the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, but it helped rural communities deeply, Jennifer Steinhauer writes for the Times: "This was true for communities ravaged by the opioid crisis, which health care money helped treat; for rural states where hospitals had become all but dependent on increased Medicaid payments that covered the bulk of their patients; and for poor constituents with chronic medical conditions who had come to take it as an article of faith that their insurance companies could not deny them coverage for pre-existing conditions."

Many Republican governors expanded Medicaid under the ACA and have worried in recent months about how to keep their constituents covered if the Senate bill passed. Moderate Republicans such as Susan Collins of the very rural state of Maine, who was one of four to publicly oppose the bill, said she had been inundated by messages from Republican voters who urged her not to support the plan.

McConnell did not follow through on the warning he gave Republicans last month, that if they couldn't pass a comprehensive bill on their own, they would have to join with Democrats to stabilize the market for private health insurance. Instead, he said he would use the bill the House passed May 4 as a vehicle for a repeal-now, replace-later strategy advocated President Trump. But that strategy fell apart Tuesday, as three senators from rural states -- Collins, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska -- said they could not support it, the Times reports.