Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Rural people may notice climate change more, but they also have the grit to 'keep going' and adapt

Scientists know that the climate is changing, but it doesn't take data for many rural people to see it. Nikki Cooley, who grew up on a rural Diné Nation reservation in Arizona without electricity, said that the piñon pines don't smell like they used to in summer, and the wind sometimes feels like it's blowing the wrong way at the wrong time of year, Dan Zak writes for The Washington Post.

Cooley, who now co-manages a tribal and climate change program in her home state, said she isn't the first to notice. "If you talk to elders, who are some of the most revered people in our tribal communities," Cooley told Zak, "they’re like, 'We told you so, we have been saying this.'"

Yale and George Mason universities' report
Countless scientific reports back up Cooley's tribal elders, but it's hard for people to know what to do about climate change, which means it often gets ignored, Zak writes: "How do we live? Day by day, mostly. Many of those days are spent trying to be stable, happy, prosperous. Americans are increasingly certain that human activity is causing global warming, according to a report published Tuesday by Yale and George Mason universities, but who has the willpower or the luxury to always think generationally, geologically — to the end of this century, to the uncertainties beyond?"

Climate change is something to ignore at our peril, Zak writes, noting the increased wildfires, the wonky weather messing with crops, the increased invasive species and other creeping, subtle symptoms, many of which disproportionately hurt poorer, rural areas, especially in the U.S.

Alice Majors, a poet in Alberta, recently released a book called Welcome to the Anthropocene, referring to the name many scientists have given to the current epoch, in which humans are changing Earth. In one poem, she suggests that rural people, closer to nature, are in a better position to notice the shift: "Immured in cities, we forget we live on a planet that is more inventive than ourselves."

Zak suggests that rural people, especially Native Americans, may be also be particularly up to the challenge of enduring the change and working toward a solution. "The Diné know what it means to be driven from land, to adapt, to survive from one epoch to the next, even though things are not okay," he writes. Cooley puts it more plainly. Though knowing about climate change takes "an emotional toll," she says "I have to remember that these people keep going, and have been going since the colonial settler stepped foot on this land."

Scientists study bats' hibernation to combat white-nose syndrome, which kills them; some spelunkers object

Wildlife Conservation Society scientists collect bats for examination. (New York Times photo by Kim Raff)
Biologists all over western North America are searching mines and caves to try to see how a fungal infection called white-nose syndrome will behave when it spreads to local bat populations, Jim Robbins reports for The New York Times.

Since 2006, the disease has killed millions of bats in North America, mostly in the East and Midwest, and threatened some of the continent's 47 bat species. But the disease is spreading. "Having ravaged much of the East Coast and infecting an isolated, outlier region near Seattle, white-nose syndrome is heading deep into the West at the rate of about a state per year, and has appeared on the eastern edge of the region, killing bats in South Dakota, Oklahoma and eastern Wyoming, Robbins reports.

The loss of so many bats could have terrible consequences for agriculture and ecosystems overall: "Bats play a critical ecological role, pollinating plants in some places and controlling mosquitoes and other insects," Robbins reports.

So biologists are searching caves in the West to see where the disease will pop up next. They're also trying to better understand the physiology of how bats hibernate, since that could help them find a way to combat the disease.

Not everyone is on board with the scientists' efforts though. "The National Speleological Society, a group of cave explorers who also study and work for the conservation of caves, opposes these kinds of efforts, especially the blanket closing of caves to the public to keep the disease from spreading," Robbins reports. Bat expert Merlin Tuttle told Robbins that the efforts could harm the bats, since disturbing them during hibernation may stress their systems "at a time they can least afford it."

But scientists say the data is invaluable. By gathering information about how the bats hibernate, "in areas like this where it’s not yet arrived, we can form a predictive model based on ecology, physiology, genetics and skin chemistry," said Jonathan Reichard, assistant coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service's program on white-nose syndrome.

Scientists have floated a host of solutions; one that shows promise is exposing infected bats to ultraviolet light. It kills the fungus, Reichard told Robbins, but there isn't a feasible way to deploy it.

Federal agencies announce initiatives in telemedicine, housing to deal with opioid epidemic in rural areas

The federal government has taken several steps recently toward fighting the opioid epidemic in rural areas, including a program to help create transitional housing for recovering opioid addicts.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration will partner with the Department of Agriculture on the program, according to a press release. Through it, USDA-owned single-family housing units will be available for sale at a discount to nonprofits that provide housing, treatment, job training and other services for people in addiction recovery.

The USDA recently announced that it would give first consideration to opioid treatment projects that apply for its Distance Learning and Telemedicine program.

"The opioid epidemic is dramatically impacting prosperity in many small towns and rural places across the country," Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett said. "With this focused investment, we are targeting our resources to be a strong partner to rural communities to build innovative local responses to this significant challenge."

Hazlett will soon leave her role in Rural Development to serve as the senior advisor for rural affairs for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Rural Alabama publisher calls for KKK to 'night ride' against Democrats who want to raise taxes; outcry ensues

Goodloe Sutton in 2015
(Montgomery Advertiser photo by Alvin Benn)
A newspaper publisher in rural Alabama is drawing criticism after he wrote a Feb. 14 editorial calling for "the Ku Klux Klan to night ride again" against "Democrats in the Republican Party and Democrats [who] are plotting to raise taxes in Alabama."

Goodloe Sutton has worked at the Democrat-Reporter in Linden since 1964 and inherited the paper from his father in the 1980s, Melissa Brown reports for the Montgomery Advertiser. The paper has lost much of its circulation and struggled financially in recent years, the Advertiser reported in 2015.

When the Advertiser asked Sutton about the editorial, he said, "If we could get the Klan to go up there and clean out D.C., we'd all been better off." Asked to clarify what he meant, Sutton said "We'll get the hemp ropes out, loop them over a tall limb and hang all of them."

Sutton, who is about 80, told the Advertiser he was calling for the lynchings of socialist-communists, not Americans, and compared the Klan to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The Klan, he said, "wasn't violent until they needed to be" and "didn't kill but a few people." Sutton said he welcomed comments, calls or boycotts of the paper, Brown reports.

Red marks Linden in Marengo County;
Demopolis is at north border (Wikipedia)
An outcry against the editorial began after student journalists at Auburn University posted it on Twitter. The Southern Mississippi University School of Mass Communications and Journalism removed Sutton from its Hall of Fame, the Advertiser reports, and the Auburn University Journalism Advisory Council revoked a community journalism award it had given him, The Auburn Plainsman reports.

"Sutton and the newspaper received national acclaim in the 1990s for their reporting on a corrupt local sheriff," Brown reports. But in 2015 he landed the paper in the public eye for a different reason, after running a headline titled "Selma black thugs murder Demopolite Saturday night." Demopolis (2010 population 7,483) is home of the daily Demopolis Times and the largest town in Marengo County, which had 21,027 people in 2010. Linden had 2,123.

Democratic officials in the state swiftly denounced the editorial. "Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who prosecuted two members of the Klan for their role in the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls, called the editorial 'disgusting' and demanded Sutton’s immediate resignation," Antonia Farzan reports for The Washington Post. "Echoing the call for Sutton’s resignation was Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.), who wrote, 'For the millions of people of color who have been terrorized by white supremacy, this kind of ‘editorializing’ about lynching is not a joke — it is a threat.'"

Monday, February 18, 2019

5G will widen tech gap between rural and urban U.S., and U.S. and China, says Progressive Farmer editor emeritus

Urban Lehner
Though 5G wireless networks are up to 20 times faster than 4G, the new tech is unlikely to benefit rural America anytime soon, writes Urban Lehner, editor emeritus of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. He observes that China has been preparing for 5G for years, which puts the U.S. at a disadvantage. China has 5.3 5G relay stations per 10 miles; the U.S. has 0.4, according to The Washington Post.

"Trailing China matters because 5G will ultimately transform manufacturing and warfare, among many other things," writes Lehner, who was also once the executive editor at The Asian Wall Street Journal. "Trailing the cities matters because 5G could play a critical role in enabling farmers to make the most of precision agriculture. It could also improve rural health care by enabling telemedicine and slow rural depopulation by allowing more country folk to telecommute."

The Trump administration recently unveiled the American Broadband Initiative to try to beef up rural broadband, but Lehner writes that it will be a tall order, and notes that rural broadband coverage is even worse than Federal Communications Commission maps show; those maps are based on data provided by telecom companies that have an incentive to overstate rural coverage to get subsidies. 

Cutting red tape will help some, but in many rural areas, it's just plain population density that makes broadband buildout expensive, not regulations. "That said, the American Broadband Initiative includes some useful measures that will help narrow the urban-rural internet gap," Lehner writes. "Some 25 agencies are participating and the report lays out specific action items for many of them. These range from developing a common cross-agency permit application form (General Services Administration) to evaluating the economic benefits of high-speed internet for precision agriculture (USDA). It's good to see the government acknowledging the gap and proposing to do something about it, even if its proposal doesn't go far enough."

Some states consider limiting or banning tax incentives designed to lure big corporations to relocate

Legislatures in New York, Arizona, and Illinois are considering bills to end or limit the practice of offering tax incentives to lure big corporations to relocate; similar bills may be introduced soon in Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts and New Jersey, Liz Farmer reports for Governing.

That's particularly apropos after Amazon recently abandoned plans to open a second headquarters in New York City following mounting public objection to the $3 billion in subsidies offered to the business, one of the world's wealthiest.

New York Assemblyman Ron Kim, who co-sponsored New York's version of the bill, said tax incentives often aren't worth what they cost governments and called the competition to snag big corporations a "race to the bottom" in an opinion piece for Buzzfeed.

"An Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy study noted that most giveaways simply move pieces on a chessboard, rather than create actual growth," Farmer reports.

"In the case of retail, as much as 90 percent of the apparent direct benefits of tax incentives are offset by losses among the subsidized retailer's local competitors," according to the study. "While this figure is likely to be lower for industries serving a more national market, states constantly run the risk of harming existing businesses within their borders when they attempt to give some companies a competitive edge through the use of tax incentives."

Corporate tax breaks are tempting for more rural states, but Kim points out that the lower taxes and cost of living are already natural selling points for such places, and says states can better help their economies by beefing up infrastructure and focusing on programs that grow talent locally, Farmer reports. 

Bill would make online access to federal court records free

A bipartisan House bill has been introduced that would make accessing federal court records free to the public, and would also improve document accessibility. It would also be a boon to most journalists and news organizations, who aren't based in cities with federal courts.

"PACER, as the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system is otherwise known, currently charges between 10 cents and $3 for most searches, page views and PDF document downloads," Kayla Goggin reports for Courthouse News Service. "That would change under the [proposed] Electronic Court Records Reform Act, which is sponsored by Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill."

Collins, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, and Quigley, the co-founder and co-chair of the Transparency Caucus, said in statements last week that the bill would increase transparency and accountability, Goggin reports.

"Lawmakers introduced a similar bill in September but failed to get a hearing," Goggin reports. "The renewed proposal comes after a federal judge ruled last year that PACER fees have been unlawfully set above the amount authorized by Congress."

Could new strawberry harvester replace human workers?

One of three side-by-side photos by the Post's Zack Wittman: robotic claws that pick berries, and a hand that just did.
Engineers have been trying without success for decades to create a harvesting machine that can pick easily-bruised crops like strawberries, but a new model from agricultural automation company Harvest CROO Robotics shows promise, Danielle Paquette reports for The Washington Post.

Big ag companies like Driscoll's and Naturipe Farms are among funders who have helped raise $9 million to make the machine, nicknamed "Harv." Mechanical harvesting is a longstanding goal, but the incentive is greater now because the labor pool of farm workers is shrinking. Tighter immigration policies mean fewer Central Americans are coming to pick crops, and most Americans refuse to do the work even when offered higher pay, free housing and recruitment bonuses, Paquette reports.

"If we don’t solve this with automation, fresh fruits and veggies won’t be affordable or even available to the average person," third-generation Florida strawberry farmer Gary Wishnatzki told Paquette.

One "Harv" is meant to do the work of 30 people, but it has a ways to go before it can pick as well as humans. "During a test run last year, Harv gathered just 20 percent of strawberries on every plant without mishap. This year’s goal: Harvest half of the fruit without crushing or dropping any. The human success rate is closer to 80 percent, making Harv the underdog in this competition," Paquette reports. But Harv has a big advantage over humans: it "doesn’t need a visa or sleep or sick days."

Paquette starts her story with this description of picking: "Both human and machine have 10 seconds per plant. They must find the ripe strawberries in the leaves, gently twist them off the stems and tuck them into a plastic clamshell. Repeat, repeat, repeat, before the fruit spoils."

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Fact checkers find a lot to check in presidential presser

In the news conference he held Friday to announce he was declaring a national emergency at the southern border, President Trump "strung together a long list of false, misleading and unsupported claims on illegal immigration, drug smuggling, human trafficking, trade deficits and other issues," reports FactCheck.org, an independent, nonpartisan service of the University of Pennsylvania.

In The Washington Post's "Fact Checker" column, Glenn Kessler and Meg Kelly summarize "14 of the most noteworthy claims," including those involving national emergencies, the cost of illegal immigration, how most illegal drugs get into the country, the status of border-barrier construction, and the president's notion that the revised trade agreement with Mexico will pay for his wall, a claim the fact-checkers give four Pinocchios, meaning clearly false.

Fact Check looks at some of the same issues, as well as Trump's use of the terms "catch and release" and "chain migration," and more. FactCheck encourages republication of its material, free with credit. Kessler has told The Rural Blog that his Fact Checker columns may be republished free, as long as credit is given to the Post.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Federal Reserve chair notes rural lag in recovery from Great Recession, says it could hurt nation as a whole

Leflore County
(Wikipedia map)
The Great Recession officially ended in 2009, but the residents of rural Leflore County, Mississippi, are still hurting. Since 2009, "the number of jobs fell 4 percent and nearly 8 percent of the businesses disappeared," Howard Schneider reports for Reuters. "Average annual pay at private firms stalled. The median age spiked a full three years as working age adults voted with their feet and left. Home ownership rates tipped from just over half of families to below it."

Many other rural places in the U.S. are in the same boat, and federal lawmakers worry the slow rural recovery is increasing political tension between urban and rural areas, as well as hurting the nation's overall economy.

"There has been more of a recognition that what happens in low-income communities bubbles up," said Daniel Davis, assistant vice president and community affairs officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The average family in rural Mississippi must spend 40 percent of its household budget on housing, which Davis observed "makes it harder to save, for the future, for college, to make the decisions that households with more 'padding' can make."

At a conference on rural poverty earlier this week at Mississippi Valley State University, which is in Leflore County, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Jerome Powell acknowledged the gap between rural and urban recovery rates, Schneider reports.

"We say we are close to maximum employment and at the national level we are," Powell said. "There are pockets that are not. The obvious way to grow the size of the economy is to bring people in that are at the edges . . . Make it easier for people to get into the labor force and stay in the labor force." But rural entrepreneurs might not be able to get loans or mentorship to start their own business in the current economic conditions, he said, which could further slow rural recovery.

"The ability of monetary policy to affect local outcomes is limited, since the Fed’s main influence on the economy is through national financial markets. Some argue that the Fed’s two years of hiking interest rates may make progress harder," Schneider reports. "But with the current trend of concentrated growth and job gains likely to get even stronger as a next wave of technology arrives, the central bank and others feel it is something they need to understand, for the future of communities like Leflore County, and for the nation as a whole."

Report says increase in workplace automation could widen the rural-urban economic divide

The increase in automation could widen the economic divide between urban and rural America, says a report from the Brookings Institution.

Metropolitan areas tend to have the lion's share of large, digitally based businesses and manufacturers, while rural areas are home to lower-tech or older-tech companies. That divide, made clearer by results of the 2016 election, "reflected something important about the fundamental nature of emerging digital technologies, including various forms of automation, such as artificial intelligence," writes Mark Muro, director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. "The sharpened spatial divides did not just reflect random siting decisions, in this regard, or the decline of manufacturing (though those contributed). Instead, a significant body of academic literature now suggests the new technologies have introduced disruptive tools into the economy that, by empowering high-level work and substituting for 'routine' tasks, are also massively rearranging the nation’s economic geography."

In short, the availability of AI amplifies a skilled worker's value and impact, and over time that has snowballed as urban businesses become ever more successful and continue attracting more workers and businesses, while rural businesses are left in the dust, Muro writes.

"All of which suggests the need to add another item to the list of social and ethical dilemmas surrounding the coming AI era the fact that AI and its positive and negative impacts will not be distributed evenly, and will likely contribute to the nation’s troubling geographical divides," Muro writes. "Solving for this challenge will add yet another priority to problem-solving about the 'future of work,' worker 'adjustment,' and the ethical content of algorithms."

Wildlife officials consider shooting feral swine from air in Land Between the Lakes recreation area in Ky. and Tenn.

Feral hog (USDA photo via Paducah Sun)
State wildlife officials say they've seen a sharp increase in feral swine in western Kentucky and Tennessee since 2016, especially in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. That's cause for concern, they say, since "wild hogs are known to carry at least 30 diseases and 40 parasites that are communicable to humans, pets and wildlife. The swine destroy crops and ecosystems, displace native species and wreak havoc on cultural sites like graveyards, of which there are 270 in Land Between the Lakes," The Paducah Sun reports. Wildlife officials attribute the increase to people deliberately releasing the hogs into the wild in order to hunt them.

LBL staff have been trapping the hogs, but in November state wildlife resource agencies told them to adopt more aggressive measures. They're considering a method called aerial gunning, where professionals shoot the swine from helicopters, the Sun reports.

Allowing ground hunts has also been considered, but officials say it's not a good idea. Terri Brunjes, a Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources wildlife biologist who specializes in hogs, told the Sun, "Intensive hunting efforts only remove 10 to 30 percent of the population annually." Also, she said, pigs are so smart that firing a gun into a group of hogs teaches the survivors to avoid humans and become nocturnal. That makes them harder to hunt, she said.

"Land Between the Lakes hasn't yet made a decision about its eradication efforts or decided on a timeline," the Sun reports. "Closing the recreation area to allow for aerial gunning would be a large undertaking, and could prove disruptive, particularly to out-of-state visitors unfamiliar with local happenings."

Some advice for rural residents on accessing physical therapy: tap into your 'sheer cussed determination'

Living in a rural area makes it much harder to access physical therapy, to the point where "sometimes it takes sheer cussed determination and good neighbors to help get us back on our feet," Donna Kallner writes for The Daily Yonder. Kallner, a fiber artist living in rural northern Wisconsin, writes that she had a hard time accessing PT after she was hit by a drunk driver in 1998.

"For many people in rural areas, reaching these services might take a longer journey than the 52-mile round trip required where I live," Kallner writes. "More than 40 percent of rural residents spend more than 30 minutes traveling to rehab, compared to 25.3 percent of urban residents. And the distance is an even greater obstacle when you can’t drive yourself."

Some rural residents give up on much-needed PT because of the logistical nightmare involved. Kallner acknowledges rural residents' tendency toward independence, or "pure cussedness," as she calls it, and advises those who need PT to consider the following questions when deciding whether or not to do it:
  • What are my options? Visiting nurses or telemedicine therapy might be available. 
  • What would be required of me and my family, medically and financially? Medicare could pay for inpatient physical therapy.
  • Is it something you want to do? Ask your doctor what the consequences will be for your quality of life if you don't do PT.
Once you commit to doing PT, Kallner advises patients to keep the following in mind:
  • Communicate your PT goals clearly to your therapists, especially if you see different ones at some appointments. 
  • Ask your physical therapist to explain if you don't understand something.
  • Be honest with your physical therapist about whether you've done assigned exercises at home; they can tell anyway, and it affects your care. Bonus: if you have been doing your homework, you might not have to come in as frequently.
  • Be realistic about what exercises you can do at home. If they've assigned you a lot of different exercises, review the whole list with your physical therapist and ask if you can discontinue some.
"Even with specialized rehabilitation services, it helps to throw some sheer, cussed determination into the mix," Kallner writes. "But that doesn’t mean you have to do it all on your own. Be honest with family, friends and neighbors about what you need, and grant them the blessing of letting them help."

Eastern Ky. schools say they could be catalyst for economic, community development in region, examples for U.S.

A group of school superintendents from Eastern Kentucky is asking leaders of their state to take action to help disadvantaged rural students and look for ways to "make education the catalyst for community and economic development" in the region, hit hard by the loss of two-thirds of its jobs in coal mining in the last decade.

The superintendents' call to action is in a paper, "Public Education in Rural Eastern Kentucky: A Region’s Way Forward," released at the state Capitol this week by the 22 school districts in the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative. It notes many "innovative and successful practices" in their region that could "be replicated statewide and in other parts of rural America."

"We believe our region has reached a tipping point that has been decades in the making. Concerted action must be taken to reverse negative trends and build a healthy sustainable future," the report says. "We believe untapped physical, fiscal and human resources exist and can be elements of a strategic effort to rapidly and dramatically shift the region’s trajectory."

The paper calls for several state policy changes, mainly for funding; a wide array of steps to create collaborations between schools, local governments and community partners; development of an "education equity assessment" that would also "explore changes in policy and legislation to ensure academic equity for all students."

Thursday, February 14, 2019

'Waters of the U.S.' redefinition open for public comment

The federal government is taking public comments on revisions to the rule defining "waters of the United States" in the Clean Water Act. Though the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers signed the proposed changes Dec. 11, the partial federal shutdown pushed back the public hearing and comment period.

Two public hearings will be held in Kansas City, Kan., Feb. 27 and 28 in the Wyandotte Ballroom of the Reardon Convention Center. The Feb. 27 session will run from 4 to 8 p.m. and the Feb. 28 session will go from 9 a.m. to noon. Click here for more information about the hearings, including how to register as a speaker. Click here for more information on how to submit a public comment. The 60-day public comment period will close on April 15.

The proposed revisions would dramatically decrease the number of wetlands and waterways covered by the Clean Water Act, eliminating federal protections from groundwater, some artificially irrigated areas, streams that only flow after rainfall and wetlands that aren't connected to large waterways.

Union says T-Mobile hurt rural wireless customers after acquiring an Iowa telecom; implications for Sprint merger

The Communications Workers of America claims that T-Mobile hurt rural wireless customers in Iowa last year when it bought a major wireless carrier in the state. The Rural Wireless Association and the National Wireless Independent Dealers Association agreed with the labor union's report in a reporters' call this week, Mitchell Schmidt reports for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

The CWA report compared Iowa's wireless market before and after T-Mobile acquired Iowa Wireless Services, branded as iWireless, in early 2018. It claims rural customers, prepaid customers, and former authorized dealers suffered. According to the report, "before the acquisition, iWireless — which served about 75,000 customers in Iowa, western Illinois and eastern Nebraska — had one of the largest retail footprints of any wireless carrier in Iowa with 129 corporate and authorized dealer locations," Schmidt reports. T-Mobile "discontinued the network and closed 86 percent of the provider’s retail locations and its two customer service call centers."

Though T-Mobile claimed it expanded service in rural areas, it has not opened a T-Mobile branded store outside urban areas since the purchase, said Debbie Goldman, research and telecommunications policy director with CWA. In essence, she said, "The company gutted a carrier that previously provided convenience and choice to thousands of rural customers."

CWA, RWA and NWIDA representatives said they fear that the proposed merger of T-Mobile and Sprint could have a similar effect nationwide. In joint comments filed with the New York Public Service Commission, T-Mobile and Sprint promised the merger would result in at least 600 new stores in small towns and rural areas nationwide, along with thousands of new retail and customer service jobs by 2021. The companies also said they would need to hire about 1,800 workers by 2021 to transition the T-Mobile and Sprint networks in rural areas and expand rural coverage, Schmidt reports.

TVA to close last coal unit at Paradise, despite oppositon


Directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority voted 5-2 Thursday morning to close the last remaining coal-fired generating unit at the federal utility's Paradise Fossil Plant in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, despite opposition from President Trump, Gov. Matt Bevin, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Kentucky's other senator, Rand Paul.

"Residents had warned that closing Unit 3 at the plant, which employs 131 people, would hurt the local economy and force people to move away for work, and Trump sent a tweet earlier this week urging TVA to consider all factors before voting to close viable power plants like Unit 3 at Paradise," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "However, an analysis by the utility said the aging Unit 3 had deteriorated, had a relatively high rate of unplanned shutdowns, and would require significant costs for mechanical and environmental upgrades to keep it running."

TVA President Bill Johnson told the board that the utility could save more than $1 billion by closing the Paradise unit by December 2020 and the Bull Run Fossil Plant at Oak Ridge, Tenn., by 2023. “This decision is about economics. It’s about keeping rates as low as possible,” he said.

Estep notes that the three-unit Paradise plant "was once the largest coal-fired facility of its kind in the world," and TVA replaced two of its coal units with a new plant fired by natural gas, the abundance and cheapness of which recently made it the top fuel for generating electricity in the U.S. (The hamlet of Paradise, which no longer exists, was made famous in 1971 by John Prine's eponymous anti-strip mining song.)

"TVA said 40 percent of the plant employees are retirement eligible and Johnson said those wanting to stay could be offered jobs elsewhere in the utility," reports Dave Flessner of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. TVA Director Kenny Allen, a retired Western Kentucky coal executive, said “The impact and ripple effect on community cannot be fully quantified.” Allen he was "also concerned about the reliability of TVA's power without these units. Other types of fuel supplies like natural gas and renewable power are not as resilient."

Allen asked the board to postpone the decision on the Paradise plant until the May meeting. McConnell had pleaded for a delay until Trump can replace two of President Obama's appointees, whose terms expire May 18; the board's next meeting is May 9. Board members are subject to Senate confirmation and serve five-year terms. "Trump appointees have a 4-3 majority on the TVA’s board at the moment, but the president’s tweet was not enough to persuade them," reports Adam Beam of The Associated Press.
TVA service region and facilities; Paradise plant is near top center, on the edge of the area. (Click on image for larger version)

GateHouse lays off at least 60 journalists nationwide

GateHouse Media, the largest owner of newspapers in the U.S., has reportedly laid off at least 60 journalists from at least 18 publications in recent weeks, though the exact figure is hard to determine because of nondisclosure agreements required as part of severance packages. "GateHouse, which says it owns 145 daily newspapers, 325 community publications, and over than 555 local websites in 37 U.S. states, seemingly focused cuts on photo departments and local sports coverage," Benjamin Goggin reports for Business Insider.

The layoffs follow GateHouse's $30 million purchase of Schurz Media's print division in late January, which included 20 local and regional newspapers and several special publications across Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota. Some of the layoffs occurred at acquired Schurz papers, according to tweets and local news stories, Goggins reports.

"One source familiar with the layoffs said eight staffers were cut at The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in Florida. Another, who works in Pennsylvania media, said that 15 to 20 media workers were cut at Pennsylvania's Bucks County Courier Times and the Doylestown Intelligencer and New Jersey's Burlington County Times," Goggins reports. "At least five people were cut at The Beaver County Times in Pennsylvania, according to a source who was close to the publication. Other papers lost one or two staffers, according to tweets and statements by those affected."

Both the acquisition and the layoffs are a familiar one-two punch for GateHouse. "Since filing for bankruptcy in 2013, GateHouse has made numerous multimillion-dollar acquisitions as part of a strategy to digitize local papers," Goggins reports. "In September, GateHouse acquired The Oklahoman, where it laid off 37 staffers, according to Poynter. In April, GateHouse acquired Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal for $16 million."

Apply by Monday, Feb. 18 for Abrams Nieman Fellowship for Local Investigative Journalism at Harvard University

Monday, Feb. 18 is the deadline to apply for an Abrams Nieman Fellowship for Local Investigative Journalism. "Funded by the Abrams Foundation, this fellowship will fund up to three Nieman fellowships for U.S. journalists who cover news in areas of the United States where resources are scarce," says the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University.

"The fellowship additionally will fund up to nine months of fieldwork at the fellow’s home news organization after two semesters at Harvard — or in the case of freelance journalists, a newsroom partner," Nieman explains. "During the fieldwork period, the Abrams Nieman fellows may expand or develop an investigative project that will provide better, more in-depth coverage of issues important to the communities they serve."

Applicants must provide a short (no more than 500 words) fieldwork proposal. They must be working journalists with at least five years of full-time media experience, including freelancing. Those who work in a news organization must request a letter of support for the fieldwork project from their employer, who must state the organization's intent to permit the applicant to work on the project for the duration of the fieldwork period. If the immediate supervisor who is writing one of the three letters of recommendation will also submit the letter of support, that person may do so within a single letter. Freelancers are not required to have a letter of support but will be asked to indicate potential partner organizations for their fieldwork project. Information is available here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Feb. 22 is deadline to enter International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors' annual editorial-writing contest

The International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors has extended the entry deadline for its Golden Quill editorial-writing contest to Feb. 22.

The winner will get a scholarship and travel expenses up to $500 to ISWNE's annual conference in Atlanta June 19-23. Any of the 11 runners-up who have not attended an ISWNE conference will also get a scholarship.

All newspapers that publish fewer than five days per week are eligible. Entries must have been published during 2017 and should identify local issues that are, or should be, of concern to the community; offer an opinion; and support a cause of action.

You can nominate someone else's editorial(s) or send your own, and you can enter two editorials per person. The cost is $20 per person for ISWNE members or $25 for non-members. If two people are entering from the same newsroom, the cost is $40 for ISWNE members and $50 for non-members.

Click here for more information about the contest, and click here for a printable entry form with more specifics about how to enter. ISWNE prefers that entrants submit original tearsheets with the Golden Quill entry clearly marked, but it is acceptable to submit PDFs. Grassroots Editor, ISWNE's quarterly journal, will republish the 12 best editorials in the Summer 2018 issue.

Big conservation and historic-sites bill passes Senate 92-8

"The Senate on Tuesday passed the most sweeping conservation legislation in a decade, protecting millions of acres of land and hundreds of miles of wild rivers across the country and establishing four new national monuments honoring heroes including Civil War soldiers and a civil rights icon," Juliet Eilperin and Dino Grandoni report for The Washington Post.

The measure enjoyed broad bipartisan support, passing 92-8, and is expected to pass the House after the mid-February recess. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed out, "It touches every state, features the input of a wide coalition of our colleagues, and has earned the support of a broad, diverse coalition of many advocates for public lands, economic development and conservation."

The bill designates 1.3 million acres as wilderness, bans mining on more than 370,000 acres around Yellowstone National Park in Montana and the Methow Headwaters in Washington, and permanently funnels offshore drilling revenue into the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which it reauthorizes. The Congressional Budget Office projects that the bill would save taxpayers $9 million.

The bill creates five new national monuments: St. Francis Dam Disaster in California, Jurassic in Utah, the home of civil-rights leaders Medgar and Myrlie Evers in Mississippi, and the Mill Springs Battlefield and Camp Nelson, both Civil War sites in Kentucky. (President Trump made Camp Nelson, where black troops were recruited and trained, a national monument last year.) The bill significantly expands five national parks: Death Valley and Joshua Tree in California, and Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield, Ocmulgee Mounds and Fort Frederica in Georgia.

"The bill reauthorizes and funds the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act through 2022, which provides habitat protection for more than 380 bird species, and codifies a signature program of President Barack Obama’s," the Post reports. "The Every Kid Outdoors Act, allows U.S. fourth-graders and their families to visit national parks free."

Native American Journalists Assn. to help Native media outlets cover tribal governments, which are often secretive

The Native American Journalists Association says it is creating a network of North American indigenous reporters and newsrooms to provide training, resources and support to Native American reporters covering tribal governments. The Indigenous Investigative Collective aims to promote transparency and accountability for tribal governments and protect whistleblowers by acting as a conduit for sensitive documents and news tips, according to a press release.

"NAJA believes that to safeguard tribal sovereignty and self-determination, tribal citizens must have access to information about their governments as well as their associated institutions and enterprises. This includes, but is not limited to, budgets, meeting minutes, records, business dealings, and deliberations. NAJA also believes that tribal sovereignty and self-determination are dependent on the transparency and accountability of tribal governments."

Many tribal governments have newspapers under their thumbs or have a hostile relationship with them. A few months ago, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's National Council passed a law repealing press-freedom protections for its tribally funded media outlet.

USDA rules ‘pink slime’ can be classified as ground beef

U.S. Department of Agriculture investigators have determined that so-called "pink slime" – the controversial processed beef trimmings sometimes added to ground beef – should be labeled as ground beef, Joe Fassler reports for The New Food Economy

The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service also ruled that the product, which is sold by South Dakota-based Beef Products Inc., should be classified as a new ground beef product, since BPI’s manufacturing process has changed greatly since it first began selling the substance, Fassler reports. 

The ruling is a significant win for BPI, which has been battling public disgust since a 2012 segment by ABC News first brought attention to the product, which BPI calls “boneless beef trimmings” or “lean finely textured beef.” BPI sued, and ABC's parent, the Walt Disney Co., paid a $177 million settlement that short-circuited the trial of the case in South Dakota.

The ruling is an about-face for USDA. “Since 1994, the government’s stance has been clear. Lean finely textured beef (LFTB) has been a ‘qualified component’ of hamburger, meaning it can be included in ground beef without being independently disclosed, Fassler reports. “But it could not itself be called ground beef, suggesting that, in the eyes of regulators it was something else—a padding or additive, but not the real deal.”

Though the USDA says it changed its stance because BPI’s process changed, Fassler noted it wasn’t clear how it had changed, and said he wasn’t able to get details. 

Study: Recreation-dependent rural counties recovered more quickly than other rural counties, but wages are lower

Recreation-based rural counties in 2017 (Headwaters Economics map; click the image to enlarge it)
Rural counties whose economies depend on recreation recovered better and more quickly after the Great Recession, says a study by rural researchers Headwaters Economics. "Recreation appears to drive varied economic benefits, including short-term support for tourism-related businesses and longer-term support by recruiting new residents who may be business owners, entrepreneurs, or workers, supporting growth in earnings per job across a community," the report says.

From the end of the Great Recession in 2010 through 2016, rural recreation counties slightly gained in population through migration while most other rural counties lost population the same way. The average rural recreation county gained more than 1 person per 1,000 residents while the average non-recreation rural county lost 20 people per 1,000 residents, according to the report.

People who moved to rural recreation counties tended to make $8,700 more per year than people who moved to non-recreation counties. It's less clear what effect those high earners are having on their local economy; most recreation jobs tend to be notoriously low-paying. The average job in a rural recreation county pays $5,100 less per year than in non-recreation rural counties, but average wages in rural recreation counties grew six times faster than in their non-recreation counterparts between 2010 and 2016, the report said.

Rural telcos fear executive order banning Huawei tech

Many rural telecommunications companies are objecting to President Trump's tentative plan to issue an executive order banning certain Chinese telecommunications equipment, The Wall Street Journal reports.

"While the executive order would likely not identify companies by name, Huawei Technologies Co. is considered the prime target," reporters report John D. McKinnon and Stu Woo write. "U.S. officials say that Huawei has close ties to the Chinese government and could use its systems to monitor and disrupt U.S. telecommunications."

Rural telecoms, "many of whom have built their networks on low-cost Chinese gear, have been quietly lobbying against such a ban. The federal government and analysts estimate Chinese hardware makes up less than 1 percent of U.S. telecom networks, after Congress in 2012 effectively banned it from nationwide phone and internet providers." But many small carriers that account for little of the overall hardware account for a disproportionate share of the Huawei hardware.

Carri Bennet, general counsel of the Rural Wireless Association, told the Journal, “We’ve obviously been in touch with the administration to make sure they understand whatever they do in that [order] doesn’t have the unintended consequence of hurting rural America,” said. What nobody in the administration or government or Congress seems to have looked at is how pervasive is all this gear in our networks.”

"RWA’s members estimate it might cost from $800 million to $1 billion for them to replace all the potentially affected gear from their wireless networks—costs they believe the government is legally required to reimburse, the Journal reports.

Scientists warn deer's chronic-wasting disease could spread to humans; guide shows hunters how to minimize exposure

Experts are warning that a fatal disease infecting deer, moose and elk in at least 24 states could spread to humans. Chronic wasting disease is a progressive ailment that attacks the brain and central nervous systems of infected animals by way of prions, which are a kind of mutated protein. CWD will likely spread to humans in the future and should be treated as a public-health issue, experts from the University of Minnesota said at a legislative hearing last week, David Orrick reports for the Twin Cities Pioneer Press.

Michael Osterholm, director for UM's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, tracked the emergence of mad-cow disease, which is also spread by prions. He said at the hearing, "It is probable that human cases of CWD associated with the consumption of contaminated meat will be documented in the years ahead. It is possible that number of human cases will be substantial and will not be isolated events." He also noted that public-health officials and the beef industry didn't believe mad-cow disease could spread to humans until research confirmed it in 1996.

Canadian researchers found that some macaque monkeys that ate CWD-infected meat developed neurological disorders, but a different group of researchers could not replicate those results in another experiment. Still, the Canadian government was concerned enough to issue an advisory about eating meat from animals in the deer family, Orrick reports.

"The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization recommend against eating CWD-infected deer, but without anything conclusive, wildlife agencies throughout America say the decision is a personal choice, and some hunters do eat the meat," Orrick reports.

An online field guide from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection provides guidelines for hunters on how to field-dress deer to minimize exposure to the disease. Hunters are advised to wear rubber or latex gloves while cutting and processing the meat, minimize contact with the animal's brain, spinal cord, spleen and lymph nodes, and thoroughly clean any knives or utensils with a 50/50 bleach and water solution.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Trucker shortage forces companies to get creative in hiring

The shortage of long-haul truck drivers is prompting trucking companies to get creative in order to attract and keep more workers. The need is critical, since trucks move almost all items Americans purchase, and the shortage is driving up shipping rates for consumers, Frank Morris reports for NPR. That can be especially true in rural areas.

Truckers have been in shortage for about 25 years, but a recent increase in demand for freight, high turnover rates, and baby boomer retirements have made the problem more acute in the past few years. "The American Trucking Associations figures companies need about 60,000 drivers, a number that could top 100,000 in just a few years," Morris reports.

Trucking companies are employing a variety of tactics to hire and keep more drivers, such as increasing pay, making the job easier, and recruiting drivers who don't traditionally go for the job.

Companies have increased driver salaries by almost 10 percent on average, making the typical pay as much as $60,000. Drivers also demand health insurance, paid time off, and a retirement fund. Many companies are going the extra mile, offering free online college tuition for drivers or bonuses for drivers who sign on, stay put, or refer friends. But even with the pay increase, drivers make less now than in the 1980s when incomes are adjusted for inflation, Morris reports.

Trucking companies are also cracking down on shipping facilities that keep drivers tied up for hours unloading or waiting to unload freight. That cuts into drivers' pay, since most truckers are paid by the mile instead of by the hour, Morris reports.

Companies are also trying to add numbers by recruiting people who don't usually go for trucking jobs, such as women, minorities, and LGBTQ drivers. Only 8 percent of long-haul truck drivers are women, but that is double what it was a dozen years ago. Some might hesitate to take a trucking job because of safety issues inherent in being a solo female driver obliged to take food and bathroom breaks at truck stops every night. Ellen Voie, president and CEO of Women in Trucking, told Morris her organization is working with truck stops to improve lighting and other safety measures.

Columnists offer a Valentine to rural life

Just ahead of February 14 comes a Valentine to rural life from columnists Annette Tait and Katy Kassian at AgWeek. What's to love about living in rural America? Plenty, they write.

Though they name the usual suspects -- the gorgeous views and the good neighbors -- they also meditate thoughtfully on the power of tradition in rural areas:
Yes, we talk a lot about "we've always done it that way" needing to change. But there's a big difference between that and tradition. Tradition is local culture, from the unsung acts of kindness to full-fledged celebrations. Like the unsung, understood gathering of neighbors helping neighbors in times of need. It's a finely tuned, quietly organized system that takes care of others. And then there are the opposite, the full-fledged celebrations of centennials, milestones and local lore that bring people home from all corners of the country. In the middle we cheer sports teams on their ways to major tournaments, help Legion Posts honor and remember our military members, and commemorate whatever other occasions just happen to float the local boat.
Read more here.

Trump, McConnell urge TVA not to close two of its oldest coal-fired units, one at Paradise; board meets Thursday

The Tennessee Valley Authority's Paradise Fossil Plant in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky. The town of Paradise, which
no longer exists, was made famous in 1971 by John Prine's eponymous anti-strip mining song(Photo by Kathleen Cole)
President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are trying to convince to the federally owned Tennessee Valley Authority not to close two of its oldest coal-fired power plants. "Coal is an important part of our electricity generation mix," said Trump in a Feb. 11 tweet, and implored TVA to "give serious consideration to all factors" before deciding to close the Bull Run Fossil Plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the Unit 3 generator at the Paradise Fossil Plant in Western Kentucky, where two of the three units have already switched to natural gas.

McConnell tweeted in support of Trump, saying that "Coal has helped fuel our country's greatness & it needs to be part of our energy future," Will Wade reports for Bloomberg. "But even though the TVA is a federal government agency rather than an investor-owned utility, their ability to sway the board may be limited," Wade reports. "That’s because the agency doesn’t receive any taxpayer money and has to make its revenue through sales of electricity, just like a private generator."

However, members of the TVA board, which meets Thursday in Chattanooga, are appointed by the president to five-year terms with the advice and consent of the Senate. One of the seven members is a former executive of a major coal company with operations near Paradise. "McConnell, in a video, urged TVA to wait until the TVA board gets two new Trump appointees," notes James Bruggers of Inside Climate News. The terms of two members appointed by President Obama expire May 18.

Bruggers notes that the Paradise plant is one of the nation's least reliable and most of the coal it burned in the first three quarters of 2018 came from Murray Energy Corp., run by Robert Murray, the nation's largest independent coal operator and a leading political supporter of Trump.

Despite the opposition from Trump, McConnell and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, TVA released final environmental assessments on the evening of Feb. 11 concluding that both plants should be shut down by 2023 because of the projected expense of maintenance and complying with environmental laws, as well as a high forced-outage rate and stagnating or declining power demand in the seven-state region it serves, Dave Flessner reports for the Times Free Press in Chattanooga. The assessment also noted that gas is cheaper than coal and likely to remain so, and that more customers are using energy-efficient appliances and furnaces as well as generating their own power with renewable sources such as solar panels and windmills.

Coal has been a declining part of TVA's energy mix for some time; it once supplied more than two-thirds of TVA's energy in the 1980s, but has now shrunk to 20 percent. Its board "is scheduled to discuss the future of the two aging coal plants, and could vote to phase out the fossil units over the next four years," Flessner reports. "TVA has already either shut down 32 of the 59 coal-fired units it once operated and has been considering since last August shutting down Bull Run by 2023 and shuttering the final coal unit at Paradise by 2020."

Federal hemp legalization opens up new avenues of promotion and protection for growers and sellers

The legalization of industrial hemp in last year's Farm Bill has opened up a slew of new avenues for growers of the crop and purveyors of its products to help their operations, Liam Niemeyer reports for Ohio Valley Resource, a public-radio cooperative that serves Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

When the 2014 Farm Bill allowed states to grow strictly regulated hemp crops, products such as CBD oil and everything from hemp lotion to hemp pasta began to hit markets in those states. But hemp existed in a legal limbo: the Drug Enforcement Administration still considered it a controlled substance like LSD and cocaine, though hemp has little or no THC, the psychoactive substance in marijuana its kick. THC is the only defining difference between marijuana and hemp.

Because hemp was illegal on the federal level, growers couldn't get crop insurance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, qualify for research grants, or ship hemp seeds across state lines for faster and cheaper processing; and sellers of CBD oil and other hemp products couldn't produce televised ads, Niemeyer reports. And most banks wouldn't allow either growers or sellers to open bank accounts, which forced them to deal mostly in cash.

But in the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp was redefined as a legal crop, opening up more opportunities to serve the booming hemp market, which the USDA estimated was worth $820 million in 2017.

In the Ohio Valley, once a tobacco mecca, many farmers have welcomed the crop, which has been profitable because there's an existing labor pool of former tobacco workers ready to help, and because profit margins are so high for CBD oil, said Brian Parr, assistant dean of Murray State University's agriculture school. The crop must be harvested, dried, and extracted quickly to remain profitable, which he says can be iffy. "Parr said he thinks investing in hemp right now is risky because promised safety nets under the new Farm Bill, such as crop insurance, are probably still a year away," Niemeyer reports. "But that hasn’t stopped Ohio Valley farmers and some state government officials from charging ahead."

Some growers hope to replace declining coal jobs with hemp. "Pine Mountain Remedies manager Nathan Hall isn’t growing hundreds of acres of hemp like some farms in Central Kentucky," Niemeyer reports. "Instead, he’s growing hemp on a two-acre plot of land in Letcher County," on the Virginia border. Hall said he hopes hemp can bring income to the community and strengthen it. "Hemp is definitely a part of it, but it’s almost like a vehicle for how to create opportunities for people in the region who have access to these small, but productive acreages,” Hall told Niemeyer. "To me, that’s a big social impact opportunity to have them work with us."

In Maine, the most rural state, deaths outnumber births; the only other state with that demographic is West Virginia

In Maine, the nation's most rural state in population percentage (61.3%), seniors account for a rapidly increasing share of the population; demographers say the trend has reached a tipping point.

"As baby boomers head into retirement, and many young people move away in search of opportunity, Maine is one of only two states, along with West Virginia, where deaths now outnumber births," Brian MacQuarrie reports for The Boston Globe. "That gulf is reshaping life here in myriad ways, from shrinking the workforce to intensifying the demand for services for the elderly, and it will only widen in the coming years, demographers predict.

Maine already has more seniors than minors, partly because of rising life expectancy and falling fertility rates: the statewide median age is 44.7;  the national average is 38. By 2026 the number of seniors (65 and older) is expected to increase another 37 percent from the 2016 level, while all other age groups are forecast to decline, MacQuarrie reports.

Portland Press Herald chart
The state's lopsided demographics are already causing headaches for employers as they struggle to fill jobs from a labor pool that isn't growing -- especially in the health-care industry, a primary need of seniors. Local taxes are increasing, sometimes because of the need to fund programs for seniors, MacQuarrie reports. Because many seniors are no longer able to drive, figuring out transportation is an important issue for local leaders, as well as food, isolation, and access to cellphone and internet service.

"We’re definitely under the gun,” Jessica Maurer, executive director of the Maine Council on Aging, told MacQuarrie. "It’s a mixed bag, because there’s obviously really good news in that we’re living longer than ever. But we haven’t done a good job of planning for what’s next."

Monday, February 11, 2019

Newspapers' probe details decades of sexual abuse by Southern Baptist pastors and staff, and leaders' failure to act

The headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention in
Nashville (Associated Press photo by Mark Humphrey)
Nearly 400 Southern Baptist leaders and volunteers have been accused — and about 220 took plea deals or were convicted of — sexually abusing as many as 700 victims in 20 states, some of them children as young as 3 years old, over the past two decades, and dozens of cases are still pending, says an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News.

The problem has persisted because the denomination has an informal ordination process, pastors tend to move around frequently, and church leaders have mishandled, hidden or ignored complaints —and because the Southern Baptist Convention has refused to enact substantive reforms.

The newspapers dug deep, spending more than six months collecting and cross-checking news stories, prison and court records, sex offender registries, and other documents, as well as conducting hundreds of interviews with victims, church leaders, offenders and investigators. They focused on Texas, but looked at documents from 20 states and cited examples from several, and produced an online database and multimedia package in their three-part report, the first piece of which ran Sunday.

Since 1998, more than 380 people who worked or volunteered at Southern Baptist churches have been charged with sex crimes. Many confessed, or were convicted or successfully sued, and more than 90 are in prison today. "Scores of others cut deals and served no time. More than 100 are registered sex offenders. Some still work in Southern Baptist churches today," the papers report. Many of the more than 700 victims were shunned by their churches, encouraged to forgive their abusers or even get abortions following rape. The news package includes a database of 220 convicted church officials.

The Southern Baptist Convention has 47,000 churches, but its oversight of them is almost nonexistent. The churches are particularly vulnerable to predators because of the denomination's practice of local ordination. "It's a perfect profession for a con artist, because all he has to do is talk a good talk and convince people that he's been called by God, and bingo, he gets to be a Southern Baptist minister," said Christa Brown, who wrote a book about being molested as a child by her Southern Baptist pastor. "Then he can infiltrate the entirety of the SBC, move from church to church, from state to state, go to bigger churches and more prominent churches where he has more influence and power, and it all starts in some small church. It's a porous sieve of a denomination."

Victims have pressed for reforms for years with little success; several of the perpetrators have been presidents and prominent leaders in the SBC. In 2007, victims asked SBC leaders to create a registry of current and former pastors or volunteers who had been convicted or credibly accused, but it didn't happen. In 2008, victims asked SBC leaders to track sexual predators and take action against churches that harbor or hide predators, but the leaders rejected almost every proposed reform. In 2018, victims once again asked leaders for such a registry but were denied. Wade Burleson, former president of Oklahoma's Baptist convention, told the papers that leaders rejected the reforms because of the local autonomy that is fundamental to the denomination, and because some feared lawsuits if the reforms didn't prevent sexual abuse.

August Boto, interim president of the SBC's Executive Committee, helped write the rejection of reforms proposed in 2008. He told the Chronicle and the Express-News that there is only so much SBC leadership can do to stop sexual abuse: "The fact that criminal activity occurs in a church context is always the basis of grief. But it's going to happen. And that statement does not mean that we must be resigned to it." 

Though SBC leaders said they were troubled by predators, they said they couldn't interfere with local church problems. However, the papers note that the SBC has dis-affiliated from at least four churches in the past 10 years for welcoming homosexuals. "The SBC governing documents ban gay or female pastors, but they do not outlaw convicted sex offenders from working in churches," the papers note.

Meanwhile, "At least 35 church pastors, employees and volunteers who exhibited predatory behavior were still able to find jobs at churches during the past two decades. In some cases, church leaders apparently failed to alert law enforcement about complaints or to warn other congregations about allegations of misconduct," the papers report. "Some registered sex offenders returned to the pulpit. Others remain there, including a Houston preacher who sexually assaulted a teenager and now is the principal officer of a Houston nonprofit that works with student organizations, federal records show. Its name: Touching the Future Today Inc."

Southern Baptist leaders have appeared more concerned about public blowback than in reform. A few years after popular Southern Baptist preacher Leslie Mason's 2003 conviction on two counts of sexual assault, he returned to the pulpit. When Michael Leathers, then the editor of the Illinois Baptist State Association's newspaper, published a story about it, state Baptist leaders told him he might be fired and lose his severance pay. Leathers resigned. 

J.D. Greear
SBC President J.D. Greear of North Carolina told the Chronicle in an email that any church that "proves a pattern of sinful neglect — regarding abuse or any other matter — should absolutely be removed from fellowship from the broader denomination." But he also wrote in the email that his authority is limited because of local autonomy. "Change has to begin at the ground level with churches and organizations," Greear wrote. "Our churches must start standing together with a commitment to take this issue much more seriously than ever before." Greear, 45, was elected last year on a platform of reaching out to and listening to women and minorities. 

One victim, Anne Marie Miller, said Greear has been supportive of her pending case against a missionary whom she says assaulted her as a teenager in the late 1990s, but that she doubts Greear's election will bring about change. "I was really, really hopeful that it was a turning point, but I've been disappointed that there hasn't been any meaningful action other than forming committees and assigning budgets, which is just good old Baptist red tape," Miller told the papers. "That's just what you do — you form a committee, and you put some money towards it and no change actually happens."

UPDATE, Feb. 12: How did Baptist media operations handle the story? A senior editor at Baptist Press wrote an 1,170-word story focusing on Greear's reaction; at midday Tuesday, it was the top-trending story on Kentucky Today, an online newspaper of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. It did not have a story on Kentuckians in the database, as the Louisville Courier Journal did.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Slotted for Best New Artist, but she can't get on big radio: Margo Price shows country music's growing political divide

Margo Price, a native of northwest Illinois, is up for Best New Artist at tonight's Grammy Awards. (Entertainment Tonight)
UPDATE: The Grammy for best new artist went to English singer-songwriter Dua Lipa.

Margo Price, a country singer-songwriter nominated on tonight's Grammy Awards for best new artist, has a great voice but can't get play on big country radio. That's "a testament to the way America's poisonous politics are scrambling country music," reports Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post.

"Study after study has documented the widening social gulf that separates the major parties," Jaffe notes. "Republicans and Democrats report increasing levels of animosityfor those on the other side of the political divide, according to surveys. They have few close friends from the opposing political party. They watch different television shows. Those same pressures are fracturing one of America’s most distinctive art forms, giving rise to separate musical genres aimed at liberal and conservative fans." Price told Jaffe, “I’m just singing the truth. That’s what country music is supposed to be — three chords and the truth.”

"Increasingly, though, that truth is shaped by America’s political war," Jaffe writes. "Hit country songs tended to celebrate small-town life. Often, they responded to the growing partisan rancor by emphasizing America’s essential goodness, as Luke Bryan did in his hit “Most People are Good.” . . . Price was offering a different view of America. She sang about sin and struggle and the sorts of misfits who never felt comfortable in football stadiums. 'I’m an outcast, and I’m a stray / And I plan to stay that way,' she sang. Her songs were about small, depressed towns that people longed to escape. These were the very places country music expected her to celebrate."

Nate Deaton, general manager of country station KRTY in San Jose, told Jaffe, “There’s a lot of people in big cities that came from small towns, and there’s an awful lot of us that never lived in small towns, but nonetheless there’s an appealing nature to it.” Price is from a farm family in northwest Illinois; for a story on her in today's Quad City Times, click here.

For most of its 90-year history, commercial country music "accommodated different sounds and styles — the Bakersfield Sound, Outlaw Country, Urban Cowboy country and alt-country among others. What united them was a working-class sensibility that rose above politics," Jaffe writes. "These days the divide in country music has become more obviously partisan, reflecting the political division among its main supporters: white Americans. Mainstream country music has little patience for messages that fail to celebrate small-town America or tilt even remotely anti-Trump.

"Liberal country music fans, meanwhile, want assurances that their favorite singers are sufficiently to the left. . . . For left-leaning country singers, like Price and Sturgill Simpson, there’s pressure to signal to their fan bases that they are on their side. . . . A few years ago there was an expectation that stars such as Simpson and Price might bring a new sound and sensibility to country music. Instead, they became their own subgenre and today are often classified as 'Americana' artists, a subset of roots music aimed largely at liberals. Americana music isn’t always easily defined, but the Milk Carton Kids, who opened this year’s Americana awards show in Nashville, took a stab at it in a song: 'A country song that’s a little too political / A feminist anthem that’s a bit too literal / Your lyrics are biblical / Your Twitter feed is liberal . . . '"