Thursday, September 24, 2020

USDA creates unusual new channel to get pandemic stimulus money into tobacco farmers' pockets

"U.S. government aid payments to tobacco farmers will be channeled through a new account within the office of the agriculture secretary, an unusual move that bypasses the normal mechanism for distributing farm aid and stokes concerns about how the government is using covid-19 stimulus," P.J. Huffstutter and Tom Polansek report for Reuters. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday said it will pay up to $100 million to tobacco farmers from Congress’ coronavirus economic stimulus package, as part of a $14 billion assistance program for farmers hurt by the pandemic."

The new account has not previously been reported, but a USDA official told Reuters this week that "the agency opened the new account because of how Congress apportioned money from the CARES Act passed in March and to simplify the process of paying farmers," Huffstutter and Polansek report. "Lawmakers typically apportion emergency funds to an agency and existing accounts set up at the division that would handle a program, according to agricultural and government analysts."

Most federal crop subsidies are paid through the Commodity Credit Corporation, but the 2004 tobacco buyout barred tobacco farmers from receiving CCC funds, Huffstutter and Polansek report. Instead, Congress specifically allocated the non-CCC aid to the USDA Office of the Secretary. The USDA representative said that Congress would have specifically excluded tobacco farmers from receiving funding if it didn't want them to receive any money.

However, "some economic and legal experts said the 2004 law eliminated the government’s role in funding tobacco price supports and worry the Trump administration is not being transparent," Huffstutter and Polansek report.

"The reality is that Congress would have to explicitly authorize paying tobacco farmers," said former Obama administration official Jonathan Coppess, currently the director of the University of Illinois' Gardner Agriculture Policy Program.

Tobacco was excluded from the first round of pandemic aid announced in April. Graham Boyd, executive vice president of the Tobacco Growers Association of North Carolina, told Reuters that tobacco farmers in his state lost about $200 million in potential sales to China because of export shut-downs during the pandemic.

The new payments would benefit farmers in swing-state North Carolina, the nation's top tobacco producer, where President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden are neck and neck in the polls. However, the USDA representative told Reuters there was nothing improper about the account.

NPR graphics show how pandemic deaths are shifting to rural America

Weekly percentage of covid-19 deaths by county urbanization level. NPR graph.

The pandemic's death toll has surpassed 200,000, and an increasing share of those are rural, Sean McMinn, Ruth Talbot and Jess Eng report for NPR. The article has a series of maps and charts that can help readers visualize the trend. Read more here.

New report details pandemic's impact on rural households

Five new reports detail the coronavirus's impact on U.S. households, including in rural areas. NPR, Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation collaborated on the project, which gathered data through interviews with more than 3,400 adults across the nation (543 were rural).

The first report details the pandemic's impact on households in major cities, the second examines its impact on households by race and ethnicity, and the third focuses on the general impact to U.S. households. The fourth and fifth reports have not been released yet. The fourth will focus on households with children and the fifth will focus solely on rural households.

Though none of the first three reports focus on rural households, the third report has some interesting data on rural households. Among its findings:

  • 42% report facing serious financial problems during the pandemic.
  • 31% say they've used up all or most of their savings.
  • 21% report serious problems paying credit cards, loans or other debt.
  • 10% report not having any household savings prior to the pandemic.
  • 43% say that at least one adult in the household has lost their job, lost their business, been furloughed, or had their wages or hours reduced. 
  • Among rural households with job or wage losses during the pandemic, 66% report facing serious financial problems.
  • 34% report having either no high-speed internet connection at home or problems with their internet connection that interfere with their ability to do their jobs or schoolwork.
  • 24% say that someone in their household has been unable to get medical care for a serious problem when they needed it during the pandemic, and 56% of those respondents who were unable to get care report negative health consequences as a result.

New online course aimed at making mental-health care more accessible to farmers and other rural residents

A new online course, Rural Resilience, aims to make mental-health care more accessible to farmers and other rural Americans. The program, created by the Michigan State University and Illinois State University Extension programs, "helps participants learn to recognize signs of stress, identify effective coping strategies, respond to suicidal behavior, and connect with appropriate resources," Foodtank reports. "The course also offers specialized mental health crisis training for employees of institutions with direct contact with farmers, such as unions, insurance companies, and credit servicers."

The majority of rural counties, home to 273,000 small farms, don't have enough mental-health care practictioners, according to a 2018 report from the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. "Compounding the problem, some farmers lack health insurance coverage for mental health care. Instead, these services can require out of pocket payments, which 87 percent of farmers agree is a barrier to treatment, according to a survey from the American Farm Bureau Federation," Foodtank reports.

Stigma can also prevent many farmers from seeking help, but leaving mental-health problems untreated can be deadly: farmers have a higher suicide rate than the general population, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Foodtank reports.

Many rural hospitals on the financial brink as pandemic loans come due; stopgap funding bill has some relief

Federal loans in the form of advance payments from Medicare kept many struggling hospitals afloat during the earlier days of the pandemic, but the loans must be repaid this month, unless hospitals get a reprieve in a stopgap funding bill moving through Congress.

Officially, full repayment of the loan is due this month, and many hospitals say they still can't afford to pay up. If they don't, federal regulators are supposed to "stop reimbursing the hospitals for Medicare patients’ treatments until the loan is repaid in full," Sarah Jane Tribble reports for Kaiser Health News

The stopgap apprpriations measure passed by the House on Monday includes partial relief for all hospitals. It "would extend the start of the repayment period for hospitals and the amount of time they are allowed to take to repay," Tribble reports. "The continuing resolution that includes this language about relief for hospitals (among many, many other things) is still being hammered out, though it does face its own deadline: It must be approved by the House and the Senate within the next nine days or the federal government faces a shutdown."

Some rural hospitals are afraid to spend the loan money because losing Medicare reimbursements would be crippling; at many such hospitals, Medicare payments make up 40 percent or more of their revenue, Tribble reports.

"The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has not yet begun trying to recoup its money, with the coronavirus still affecting communities nationwide, but hospital leaders fear it may come calling for repayment any day now." Hospital leaders across the country told Tribble that CMS has not communicated with them about when or whether they'll adjust the payment deadline, and a CMS spokesperson didn't respond to questions by press time. 

More than 65 percent of the nation's small, rural hospitals, many of which were already struggling before the pandemic, took out loans from Medicare's Accelerated and Advance Payments Program because they were the first funds available, Tribble reports. CMS cut off new loan applications for the program in April.

"The program, which existed long before the pandemic, was generally used sparingly by hospitals faced with emergencies such as hurricanes or tornadoes. It was expanded for use during the coronavirus pandemic — part of billions approved in federal relief funds for health care providers this spring," Tribble reports. "A full repayment of a hospital’s loan is technically due 120 days after it was received. If it is not paid, Medicare will stop reimbursing claims until it recoups the money it is owed — a point spelled out in the program’s rules. Medicare reimburses nearly $60 billion in payments to health care providers nationwide under Medicare’s Part A program, which makes payments to hospitals.

Health officials and researchers fear the pandemic could accelerate the closure of rural hospitals, which would reduce rural health-care access, rural economies, and trigger a rise in local death rates. Another pressure many are facing: a federal appeals court recently ruled that the Department of Health and Human Services can continue to cut certain drug reimbursements for safety-net hospitals by nearly 30%.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Rural coronavirus infections jump 30% over the past week; see the latest county-level data

New coronavirus infection rates from Sept. 13-19. Daily Yonder map;
click the image to enlarge it or or click here for the interactive version.

"The number of new Covid-19 infections in rural America jumped by 30 percent last week last week, reversing a short-lived decline in new cases  Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. ""New deaths from covid-19 also grew last week, increasing by 20% and bringing the total number of rural Americans who have died as a result of the pandemic to 18,128." The Daily Yonder's analysis of new coronavirus infections and deaths covers Sept. 13-19. 

The jump put a record number of rural counties on the red-zone list."The number of rural counties on the red-zone list climbed to 909 last week. The previous record was set the first week of September, when 806 rural counties were on the list," Murphy and Marema report. The White House Coronavirus Task Force defines red zones as counties with 100 or more new cases per 100,000 in population. 

Click here for the latest county-level data on new coronavirus infections and deaths as well as more data breakdowns from the Yonder.

House passes bipartisan bill to fund government through Dec. 11; deal includes expanded farm aid, food assistance

In a 359-57 vote on Tuesday night, the House passed a bill to keep the government funded through Dec. 11, following a compromise on farm aid and food assistance.

"The bipartisan agreement between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, reached just hours before the vote, is expected to smooth the bill’s passage in the GOP-controlled Senate and avert a partial shutdown when the government’s funding expires next Thursday," Kristina Peterson and Lindsay Wise report for The Wall Street Journal. The Senate is expected to vote on it this week.

The bill "would add to the spending bill $21 billion sought by the White House for the Commodity Credit Corp., or CCC, a Depression-era program designed to stabilize farm incomes that permits borrowing as much as $30 billion from the Treasury to finance its activities. The agreement prohibits any payments from going to fossil fuel refiners and importers, a concern of Democrats, and includes roughly $8 billion in additional nutrition funding," Peterson and Wise report. "President Trump has tapped the CCC program to finance both trade relief and coronavirus-related aid for farmers, a second round of which he announced at a campaign rally in Wisconsin last week. But the program has traditionally been used to send out payments established under bipartisan farm bills, some of which the Agriculture Department had said could be subject to delays as soon as October."

The bill also adds $8 billion for food assistance. "That includes a one-year extension of a program expiring at month’s end that would provide funding to families of school-age children to buy groceries, replacing the free or reduced-price meals they would have received at school, "Peterson and Wise report. "They also expanded the program to include children at child-care centers affected by the pandemic."

Thursday webinar to provide overview of Rural Community Paramedicine Toolkit

A webinar at 1 p.m. ET on Thursday, Sept. 24, will provide an overview of a new toolkit designed to help small towns build community paramedicine and mobile integrated health programs. The webinar is presented by the Rural Health Information Hub and the NORC Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis and will last about an hour.

From the webinar website: "This webinar will provide an overview of how the community paramedicine model of care functions and benefits rural communities. It will feature existing programs that have successfully provided rural community paramedicine services and discusses lessons learned related to establishing and sustaining rural programs."

Click here for more information on the Rural Community Paramedicine Toolkit or to register for the webinar.

Four panelists from tomorrow's Radically Rural summit featured in article about community journalism

A recent article about the issues facing community journalism features four of the panelists from the Community Journalism track at the Radically Rural virtual summit on Thursday, Sept. 24. Tickets are still available.

Liz White, publisher of the Record-Journal in Meriden, Conn., says her paper was doing well before the pandemic, and thanks to the federal Paycheck Protection Program and grants from Facebook and Google, has been able to avoid staff layoffs, Susan Geier reports for the Granite State News Collaborative in New Hampshire. 

"All newspapers are challenged, but if you have an innovative culture and mindset, you can see a lot of opportunity for growth. I think what it has done, in general, is spark us to act even faster," White told Geier. Because the Record-Journal has little debt and no corporate bureaucracy to deal with, they can make decisions quickly, White said. Though they've embraced digital content, she said it's still a challenge converting viewers into paying subscribers.

Kristen Hare, who reports on the state of the newspaper industry for the Poynter Institute, told Geier that local journalism must pivot to new revenue models to survive. Cash-strapped small papers are increasingly snapped up by newspaper chains, which are increasingly controlled by hedge funds that don't have an incentive to innovate and ensure the long-term survival of journalism. 

Meanwhile, newspaper advertising revenue has dropped nearly 70 percent since 2004 because of social media. When the pandemic hit, newsrooms that diversified their revenue streams fared better, Hare said. Some promising new revenue models include seeking sponsors to fund different kinds of coverage (for example, a sporting goods store might sponsor high school sports coverage). Newspapers could also directly appeal to the community in a fundraising effort, she said.

Many small local newspapers are also at the mercy of disasters, just like other small businesses. The News Reporter, a twice-weekly paper in Columbus County, N.C., has suffered damage from three hurricanes in the past five years, and on top of that is dealing with the economic fallout from the pandemic, according to publisher Les High. 

He told Geier that the paper has been able to stave off layoffs by aggressively seeking grants, adding an online newsroom with help from an innovative partnership with the University of North Carolina. "We’ve learned a lot about change," High said. "We’ve moved a lot more to a digital model. If it goes online, you pay for that. We’ve also made key hires with a director of marketing and a super young editor. They are both digitally savvy and understand what it takes to make this model work."

Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon, said that his paper is very rural and relies disproportionately on ads from local businesses. When the pandemic hit, "traditional advertising vaporized for about a month," Zaitz told Geier. He was worried the paper would have to shutter, but it helped to focus on increasing digital subscriptions and remain clear in communicating with the town. The paper put out a call for financial aid and says readers responded immediately. 

After the paper stabilized, Zaitz shifted his attention to helping local businesses with advertising deals, saying that he believes the newspaper is a community partner. "The community needs essential information about the pandemic, and the newspapers can provide it for free with the community’s support," Zaitz told Geier. "It’s not just 'here’s our tin cup.' That just won’t work, nor should it."

National survey finds rural-urban differences in health depts.

Chart from NACCHO report; a similar chart in the report shows services and programs more prevalent in rural areas.

Local health departments serving rural jurisdictions are less likely to provide regulation, inspection, and licensing services, as well as environmental health services, with the exception of regulating public drinking-water supplies, according to a report from the National Association of City and County Health Officials.

The report, based on a survey of local health departments, found several other disparities. Rural health departments are less likely to be involved in preventing sale of tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, to minors; are half as likely as their urban counterparts to recruit employees from academic institutions; and are three to four times less likely to use social media, other than Facebook, which more than 80 percent of both types reported using.

On the other hand, "Local health departments serving rural jurisdictions are more likely to provide certain clinical services, including childhood and adult immunizations, maternal and child health services, and screening/treatment for various conditions," and they get more funding per person than their urban counterparts, the report says.

"The difference in clinical revenues among rural and urban LHDs is particularly striking (mean of $21 per capita for rural jurisdictions versus $6 per capita for urban jurisdictions)," the report says. That likely reflects a shortage of health-care providers in many rural areas and a higher reliance on local health departments. One funding source is the federal Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, in which 76 percent of rural health departments responding to the survey participate, compared to 59 percent of urban departments responding.

Departments were coded as urban or rural based on whether the majority of people they serve live in from urban or rural census tracts. Many rural census tracts are in metropolitan areas.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Free Friday Poynter webinar discusses how to better cover incarceration and criminal justice ahead of the election

At 2 p.m. ET on Friday, Sept. 25, Poynter will host a one-hour webinar meant to help journalists better understand and cover incarceration, justice, and criminal justice reform leading up to the 2020 election. Poyner senior faculty Al Tompkins and Jamiles Lartey of The Marshall Project will lead the webinar. The Marshall Project is a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system.

According to the webinar website, Tompkins and Lartey "will examine the Democratic and Republican platforms for justice reform, empowering journalists with the knowledge they’ll need to ask direct questions to candidates, including U.S. House of Representatives and Senate candidates."

The webinar, which received funding from the MacArthur Foundation, is free for those unable to pay, but those with the means to do so are encouraged to make a small donation. Click here for more information or to register.

In Wed. webinar, Report for America cofounder to discuss idea for how to save local papers squeezed by hedge funds

Rural newspapers are at a crisis point, one accelerated by the economic hardships brought on by the pandemic, Steven Waldman writes for Journalism & Liberty. But Waldman, the cofounder of Report for America, has an idea for how to help, which he will discuss in a free webinar at 3:30 p.m. ET. on Wed., Sept. 23. Click here to register.

Many rural papers are treading water, financially speaking, because the lack of broadband access makes print a more accessible source of news for locals. But that won't always be the case. Also, many rural newspaper owners want to retire but have no clear successor. Many of these papers will end up getting sold to private equity funds or struggling newspaper chains. "Among those likely to go underwater are family-owned weeklies, including many ethnic newspapers. The local news system will manage to get even less competent, less inclusive, and less diverse," Waldman writes.

But many of the nation's 6,700 privately-owned papers have "significant civic value – built up over decades, and of the sort that would take considerable time and money to replicate via a new venture, if that were possible at all," Waldman writes. "Until now, we have assumed that our options were: allow ghost newspapers to proliferate, accept news deserts, or build brand new media organizations. 

A better option, he writes, would be to transform for-profit newspapers into local nonprofit organizations and Public Benefit Corporations. Waldman likens the notion to repotting a sickly plant in healthier soil and watering it. 

The strategy requires two parts: a new, private nonprofit "replanting fund" that would identify likely candidates and help them make the transition, and public policy changes to ease such transitions and discourage news consolidation, Waldman writes. 

EPA allows pesticide atrazine and related chemicals to stay on the market — with some new caveats

Widely used herbicide atrazine, along with its cousins propozine and simizine, can stay on the market, but with new restrictions on its use. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the interim decision Friday at a farmer roundtable in Niangua, Missouri, Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. Atrazine is the second-most widely used herbicide in the U.S., and is mainly used on corn, sugarcane, sorghum, and landscaping.

The new restrictions are intended to reduce potential harm to human health and the environment; the EPA has found in recent years that atrazine exposure can pose developmental risks to children and reproductive risks to wildlife. The new measures include reducing atrazine and simazine use on residential lawns to protect children who play on them, requiring irrigation immediately after applying simazine to residential turf, and requiring workers who spray the herbicides to wear additional personal protective equipment.

"The agency is finalizing label requirements for all three triazines to include mandatory spray drift control measures, to minimize pesticide drift into non-target areas including water bodies, as well as updating label directions to reduce weed resistance to atrazine," Neeley reports.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a left-leaning nonprofit, plans to file suit against the EPA over the decision. The organization argues that allowing use of triazines at all endangers human health and wildlife, and notes that more than 35 countries have banned or are phasing out use of atrazine. The Center also argues that the EPA essentially modified lab test benchmarks to make atrazine seem safer for humans, and that the old benchmarks would have found atrazine unsafe for use on lawns and turf.

OPINION: Let's build agriculture back better together, say former ag aides from opposite parties, endorsing Biden

The Rural Blog welcomes short opinion pieces on current issues of interest to rural Americans.

By Larry Elworth and Dawn R. Riley

Throughout our careers in farming and public service, having worked in Republican and Democratic administrations, we have seen that when it comes to doing what’s best for agriculture, one’s political affiliation does not matter as much as a steady and serious commitment to farmers and their communities. We know that the well-being of the farm community depends on stable leadership that takes responsibility for its actions, gives credit to all who have contributed, and shares benefits with those who have need. We believe that Vice President Biden can best provide that leadership for America.

The past six months have shown more clearly than ever that farmers and farm communities are critical to America’s well-being. Unfortunately, the impacts of the pandemic, as well as failures in national leadership, have exacerbated problems farmers have faced for some time: low prices, high debt, record bankruptcies, and suicide rates. Even as farmers have been called upon as essential workers, the mishandling of the crisis at the national level has increased risk to farm families, crippled supply chains, and resulted in lost jobs and access to health care in their communities.

Farm families and communities have always been resilient and enterprising. They have invested their own money in conserving natural resources and growing crops that produce renewable fuels to create economic opportunities and meet our nation’s energy needs. They have invested their resources in cooperatives that bring economic benefits to rural communities across the country and market value-added products around the world. For many decades, agricultural exports have been the bright spot in our country’s balance of trade, thanks to the hard work and dollars that farmers and their communities have invested in developing reliable markets and trading relationships.

Farm communities have a legitimate reason to expect that their work and that of everyone involved in the food production chain will be valued. They have reason to expect that the nation will recognize how important a vital farm economy is to our society and reason to expect that markets will be expanded, not decimated. Farmers also have every reason to expect leadership at the national level that does not jeopardize years of investment in production capacity and critical markets by acting recklessly, heedless of the consequences and costs borne by our country.

Just as importantly, they have reason to expect leadership that values civility, human decency, and mutual respect; leadership with a record of personal commitment to working across the political spectrum in the best interests of agriculture and farm communities. Leadership, in other words, that values the work of those who have made our agricultural bounty possible.

Vice President Biden clearly embodies these values. No one is better suited to further the interests of American agriculture and preserve the immense value that farmers and ranchers provide to our country as a whole.

Dawn R. Riley of Louisville served in the office of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the George W. Bush administration. Larry Elworth of Burnsville, N.C., served at USDA and the White House in the Clinton administration and EPA in the Obama administration. They both continue to work on agricultural, food and sustainability issues.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Covid-19 deaths shift rural attitudes about pandemic

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the U.S. at the beginning of the year, it mainly affected urban areas, and rural residents tended to take it less seriously. But as federal efforts to limit the spread of the disease often faltered, the United States' "extraordinarily high case load — more than 6.5 million so far — and death count have translated into steadily growing acceptance of the preventive steps scientists recommend," The Washington Post reports.

In rural Vermont, for example, twin brothers Cleon and Leon Boyd died within days of each other, and 11 immediate relatives were infected. "The Boyd family’s harrowing experience rippled through the towns where they lived and worked, sharply altering attitudes toward the coronavirus and spreading adoption of social distancing and face coverings," the Post reports.

The Post story also notes the death of Pamela Sue Rush in rural Lowndes County, in Alabama's Black Belt, where a quarter of the residents live below the poverty line. Many live in small mobile homes that make social distancing difficult, and they also often lack a functioning septic system, which can encourage the spread of disease. Rush, 50, has two children. 

Tyler Childers drops a surprise album meant to raise money for Appalachia and raise awareness about racial injustice

Screenshot of Childers' album website

Eastern Kentucky-born country singer and songwriter Tyler Childers released a surprise album on Friday meant to raise money for Appalachian philanthropic efforts and raise awareness about racial injustice to rural white listeners, Joseph Hudak reports for Rolling Stone.

Long Violent History is mostly instrumental fiddle music but includes a track with the same name of the album, in which Childers "sings about the Appalachian upbringing of a 'white boy from Hickman' and how he and his kin have been sometimes labeled 'belligerent' and 'ignorant.' But, he points out, they’ve never had to fear for their lives," Hudak reports. "Could you imagine just constantly worryin'/Kickin' and fightin', beggin' to breathe?" he sings.

"The album arrives with a six-minute video message from the Kentucky songwriter, in which he directly challenges his fans, including his 'white rural listeners,' to empathize with black victims of police brutality," Hudak writes. "It’s a stunning speech, with Childers touching on his six-month sobriety, the covid pandemic, and the South’s misguided allegiance to the Confederate flag. But the focus of his address is on police brutality."

In the speech, Childers encourages rural, white listeners to empathize with the Black Lives Matter movement with a thought exercise: He asks them to imagine how they would feel if they constantly saw news headlines such as "East Kentucky man shot seven times on a fishing trip" for a story about a white man rummaging through his tackle box, shot by a game warden who thought he was reaching for a knife, Hudak reports. "If we wouldn’t stand for it, why would we expect another group of Americans to stand for it?" Childers asks.

All net proceeds from the album benefit the Hickman Holler Appalachian Relief Fund, which Childers and his wife established earlier this year to help fund philanthropic efforts in Appalachia. 

The new album isn't the first time Childers has waded into politics and philanthropy. The Martin County native began writing songs partly as a reaction to the negative portrayal of his home town an episode of ABC News' "20/20". And in 2018, after the Martin County Water District gained nationwide attention for failing to provide clean, reliable drinking water to residents, Childers donated—and helped distribute—500 cases of water to his home county.

Supreme Court vacancy spotlights America's red-blue, rural-urban, political-cultural divide, and rural voters' greater heft

The issues swirling in the battle over a vacant Supreme Court seat “encompass the broader culture war that divides red and blue America, from abortion to marriage equality to health care to the very structure of government,” writes Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post. “The battle could easily expand to an even more charged debate over whether the high court speaks for and represents the views of a majority of Americans, or even whether the democratic system of government more broadly has become undemocratic,” through Republican gerrymandering and the Senate’s built-in bias in favor of rural states, at a time when rural voters are more Republican than ever.

Republicans control the Senate, but "their members represent fewer than half the nation’s population," Balz notes. "Republicans in the House have routinely won more seats than their share of the vote, thanks to the makeup of congressional districts." He notes The Economist magazine's cover story of July 2018, "American democracy's built-in bias toward rural Republicans," which spotlighted "the consequences of a nation with an expanding urban-rural split as wide as it is now in the United States."

The Economist said, "The electoral system the Founders devised, and which their successors elaborated, gives rural voters more clout than urban ones. When the parties stood for both city and country that bias affected them both. But the Republican Party has become disproportionately rural and the Democratic Party disproportionately urban. That means a red vote is worth more than a blue one. . . . The 13 states where people live closest together have 121 Democratic House members and 73 Republican ones, whereas the rest have 163 Republicans and just 72 Democrats. America has one party built on territory and another built on people. . . . Rancorous political disputes—over guns, abortion and climate change—split so neatly along urban-rural lines that parties and voters increasingly sort themselves into urban-rural tribes. Gerrymandering and party primaries reward extremists, and ensure that, once elected, they seldom need fear for their jobs. The incentives to take extreme positions are very powerful." Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has a more detailed examination of "The Senate's Rural Skew."

Balz notes, "Former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said in August that if Trump were reelected a second time without winning the popular vote, it could force an examination 'of what’s become of our democratic system.' In recent years, ideas that have been put forth by those who believe it is time for such an examination. They include adding more justices to the high court (as Buttigieg recommended during his presidential campaign) and amending the Constitution to eliminate the electoral college and elect presidents by popular vote. More provocative have been suggestions that Democrats should push to bring D.C. and Puerto Rico into the union to affect the balance of power in the Senate. Up to now, this has been a discussion that animates many on the left, but it’s not one that has gained a wider audience. Nor is it in the current capability of Democrats to effect such changes. But if Republicans exercise their power brazenly in an attempt to install a new justice in the face of a Biden victory in November, who can say where this fight could go?"

Heads up: National Voter Registration Day is Tuesday

National Voter Registration Day is Tuesday. Click here for examples of social media coverage, webinars, press materials, helpful links, and other resources that can be helpful in planning your coverage.

Facebook (including its subsidiaries Instagram and Messenger) is trying to bring in more voters through a campaign with information on how and when to register and vote. The campaign will go beyond social media, with ads on nationwide cable TV channels, radio, and other websites.

Some things that may be of interest to rural journalists:

  • As city dwellers have fled for the countryside to escape the pandemic, some rural areas are seeing an uptick in voter registration from Democrats, Karen Rothmyer writes for The Nation.
  • Overall new voter registration is down because of the pandemic as motor-vehicle departments and other government service centers have closed or limited access, Business Insider reports
  • Voter registration is much lower than it was in 2016 in states like Texas that do not allow voters to register online, Alex Samuels reports for The Texas Tribune. At least 39 states allow residents to easily register online. In the others, registration is by mail or in person.
  • Democrats lead new voter registrations in four battleground states, Max Greenwood reports for The Hill.

Biden was sometimes off base in drive-in town hall on CNN

Joe Biden held a socially distanced, drive-in town hall on CNN Thursday night. "Biden tends to stick close to the facts but occasionally gets carried away with some over-exuberance," Fact Checker Glenn Kessler and Salvador Rizzo report for The Washington Post. Biden didn't make nearly as many false claims as President Trump did at his own town hall, he told a few "whoppers," they report.

Biden claimed that if Trump had "had done his job from the beginning, all the people would still be alive. All the people — I'm not making this up. Just look at the data." But there is no data to support this. Even if Trump had moved rapidly to contain the spread of the pandemic in January, some people would likely have died, as has happened even in countries that have been praised for their handling of the pandemic, Kessler and Rizzo report. In South Korea, which has a population of 51.2 million, there were 377 deaths. The U.S. has about 331 million people, nearly 6.5 times more than South Korea, but its death toll of around 200,000 is over 530 times higher than South Korea's. 

Biden said he wrote an article for USA Today in January saying "We've got a pandemic. We've got a real problem," but that overstates what he said in the Jan. 27 piece. Kessler and Rizzo say he should be commended for focusing early on an issue most Americans weren't concerned about, but didn't say a pandemic was coming. He said it was a possibility and would "get worse before it gets better." 

During the town hall in Moosic, Pa., Biden said the U.S. should expect another 215,000 to die from the coronavirus by January, and said that 100,000 of those would live if people simply wore masks. Those numbers are accurate, according to projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, Kessler and Rizzo report.

Biden noted that the Trump administration is trying to nullify the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and said 100 million people with pre-existing conditions would see their insurance premiums go up if that happens. About 102 million people had pre-existing conditions in 2018, Kessler and Rizzo report. but premiums would not necessarily go up for all if Trump wins in court. 

Biden alleged that television journalists said that he would be the first person without an Ivy League degree to be elected president. "No reporter said that," Kessler and Rizzo report. "Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, was the last president who did not go to an Ivy League university."

Saturday, September 19, 2020

As campaigns hit the head of the stretch, editor says they should put more of their ad budgets into newspapers

Political candidates could get more bang for their buck, and help local democracy, by putting some of their advertising money into struggling local newspapers, Wilson (N.C.) Times Editor Corey Friedman writes in his column for Creators Syndicate.

"The prevailing wisdom on political advertising is that it can further entrench supporters and opponents, but it isn’t likely to sway many undecided voters," Friedman writes, citing research on TV ads. Meanwhile, the pandemic has shrunk newspaper ad revenue that was already shrinking, and "An infusion of campaign advertising may be enough to keep some struggling publications afloat."

Friedman cites research suggesting that when newspapers close, taxes and fees are likely to increase and government borrowing costs may go up. "Your federal, state and local lawmakers ought to care whether their constituents have a newspaper that covers city council and school board meetings and explains how proposed new laws would affect them," he writes.

"Too many candidates let consultants convince them print is dead and what they really need is another shouty TV commercial or a glossy mailer comparing their opponent to Hitler," Friedman writes. "Local papers have a rich legacy of serving their communities, and that translates to trusted and respected brands. Marketing research firm Comscore says advertisers on high-quality news websites enjoy a 'halo effect' where reader loyalty translates to positive association with sponsor messages."

Also, newspapers "serve the audience candidates need to reach. Seven out of 10 frequent voters say they read local news in print or online, and 77% make campaign contributions," Friedman writes. "Most importantly, candidates will be communicating their support for journalists’ work in a tangible way. That ought to be worth more goodwill than the YouTube ads we all skip with a swipe and a sigh."

Friday, September 18, 2020

Emails show meatpacking industry largely drafted Trump's order that kept plants open as the pandemic intensified

Meatpacking plants have been a major vector for the coronavirus in rural areas, and many states and counties were ordering them closed to slow the spread of the disease. But in late April, President Trump ordered that plants must stay open in order to supply food. 

"Emails obtained by ProPublica show that the meat industry may have had a hand in its own White House rescue: Just a week before the order was issued, the meat industry’s trade group drafted an executive order that bears striking similarities to the one the president signed," Michael Grabell and Bernice Yeung report. "The draft that Julie Anna Potts, the president of the North American Meat Institute, sent to top officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture was written using the framework of an official executive order and stressed the importance of the food supply chain and how outbreaks had reduced production — themes later addressed in the president’s order."

It isn't clear what USDA and White House officials did with the draft, and the final wording of the executive order wasn't verbatim, but Trump's order emphasized all the points Potts proposed, setting in stone her suggested order to keep meatpacking plants open, Grabell and Yeung report. The ProPublica story provides multiple examples of striking similarities between Potts' draft and Trump's order.

"The draft executive order was one of hundreds of emails between the companies, industry groups and top officials at the USDA since March," Grabell and Yeung report. "Together, they show that throughout the coronavirus crisis, the meatpacking industry has repeatedly turned to the agency for help beating back local public health orders and loosening regulations to keep processing lines running."

Trump promised Appalachian voters he'd save coal; he didn't, but they are expected to give him credit for trying

President Trump clobbered Hillary Clinton in Kentucky and West Virginia in 2016. His promise to revive the ailing coal industry wasn't the only reason, but it was a big factor. His failure to fulfill that promise won't likely hurt him much in the election though, Bill Estep and Liz Moomey report for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Eastern Kentucky coal jobs averaged 3,813 in 2016's second quarter. "In the same period this year ... the industry employed an average of just 2,256 people in the region, according to the most recent report from the state Energy and Environment Cabinet," the reporters write. "Statewide, coal jobs in the second quarter of 2020 averaged 3,760, down from 6,517 in the same period in 2016."

It could be tempting to attribute the coal-sector slowdown to the pandemic, "but the industry was at a low point in Kentucky even before that. The number of jobs in the state averaged 4,608 from Jan. 1 through the end of March, down by more than 2,000 from the 6,517 reported in the same time in 2016," Estep and Moomey report.

Before the pandemic struck, the industry was on the ropes already because of falling demand and cheaper alternatives, Rebecca Elliott and Jonathan Randles report for The Wall Street Journal.

Nationwide coal employment figures don't look much better: "The industry employed 50,400 people the month Trump was elected," Estep and Moomey report. "It rose for a time during his term, but in February, before the coronavirus recession took hold, U.S. employment was back at 50,400, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The coal industry's troubles aren't expected to dent Trump's popularity in Central Appalachia. Kentucky and West Virginia are considered such safe bets for Trump that neither campaign is focusing on them. Many voters are willing to give him credit for his efforts to help the coal industry even if they haven't worked, Estep and Moomey report.

Quick hits: Report slams FEMA for failing to help repeatedly flooded homes; abandoned gas wells left to leak methane

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at heather.chapman@uky.edu.

A top official at the Department of Health and Human Services has taken a leave of absence after posting a Facebook rant promoting conspiracy theories about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the pandemic. Read more here.

The pandemic has more people thinking about diseases that spread from animals to humans. Here's an overview of major outbreaks caused by such diseases over the past 200 years. Read more here.

The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general slammed the Federal Emergency Management Agency for failing to help tens of thousands of people whose homes have repeatedly flooded. Read more here.

Gas companies are abandoning wells, leaving them to leak methane indefinitely. Read more here.

West Virginia environmental regulators are proposing fine reductions for water pollution violations for a coal company owned by the state's billionaire governor Jim Justice. Read more here.

President Trump announced $13 billion in new pandemic aid to farmers at a rally in Wisconsin. Read more here.

Don't forget: Radically Rural virtual summit is Sept. 24

This year's Radically Rural Summit, an all-day, online-only event, is coming up on Sept. 24, and tickets are still available

The summit features six programming tracks: Main streets, community journalism, entrepreneurship, arts and culture, land and communities, and clean energy. The community journalism track includes these sessions:

What's at Stake? Newsrooms increase online revenue and readership using data: What causes a non-reader to subscribe? What can be done to better retain existing readers? Who is having success among small news operations using research? And how are reporters and editors leading the effort? With traditional advertising in sharp decline, community news organizations are using research and data to find ways to increase paid readership and membership. Amy Kovac-Ashley of the American Press Institute will lead a panel of Autumn Phillips, managing editor of the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier; Les High, publisher of The News Reporter in Whiteville, N.C.; and Liz White, chair of the Record-Journal Media Group in central Connecticut. (9-10:45 a.m. ET) 

Transformation: Rural news breaks out in all sorts of new ways: New journalism models with promise – digital start-ups, non-profit and co-op ventures, radical new thinking at small news organizations – are springing up across the country, suggesting ways these can be replicated at the small-town level. Kristen Hare of the Poynter Institute leads a panel of Jim Iovino, assistant professor of media innovation at West Virginia University; Larry Ryckman, editor and founder of The Colorado Sun; Les Zaitz, editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in eastern Oregon; and Tamika Moore, managing producer of Red Clay Media in Alabama. (11 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. ET)

Crazy Good: 50 idea that will make a difference: A romp through some of the best ways to increase audience and revenue from game-changing news organizations, with a lively show-and-tell on tactics, techniques and products (including examples of outstanding covid-19 coverage). "You will leave with a magazine profiling new approaches and ideas," the website says. "Looking for an ROI on attending Radically Rural? This is it." Led by Linda Conway, executive director of the New England Newspaper and Press Association, and Terrence Williams, CEO of the Keene Sentinel, co-sponsor of the conference. (2-3:45 p.m. ET)

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Appalachian commission says 22 of its counties raised their economic-status grade in the last year, while 11 fell a notch

Twenty-two counties in "official Appalachia" gained a grade in economic status in the past year, while 11 fell a notch on the Appalachian Regional Commission's five-point scale, according to the ARC's latest County Economic Status map. The Rural Blog has added plus signs in counties that moved up a level and minus signs in those that dropped. Most gains were in Southern Appalachia. For an Excel spreadsheet of the county-level data on which the map is based, click here.
ARC map, adapted by The Rural Blog; for a slightly larger and sharper version, click on it.

Investigation shows how CDC's slow, cautious response to pandemic contributed to its spread, especially in rural areas

Harrison County, Kentucky, Judge-Executive Alex Barnett leads the pledge of allegiance for a county Fiscal Court meeting as Magistrate Dwayne Florence and Treasurer Melody McClure join in. Barnett told USA Today, "I am no expert in health . . . I am an expert on growing cattle and tobacco. I rely on the CDC for guidance." (USA Today photo by Jack Gruber)

A bombshell USA Today package details how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to effectively respond to the growing coronavirus pandemic, contributing to its spread across the U.S.—especially in small towns and rural areas.

"Reporters reviewed 42,000 pages of emails and memos obtained from health departments and interviewed more than 100 community leaders and public health experts, including current and former CDC officials," Brett Murphy and Letitia Stein report. "The agency has received widespread scrutiny for yielding to political pressure from the White House. These interviews and records provide the most extensive look yet at how the CDC, paralyzed by bureaucracy, failed to consistently perform its most basic job: giving public-health authorities the guidance needed to save American lives during a pandemic."

State and local authorities sought help and guidance from the CDC starting in January, but the CDC ignored questions, gave conflicting advice, brushed off calls to take the pandemic more seriously, and as late as April, continued to downplay the potential harm of the coronavirus, USA Today reports.

"In the most extreme cases, the CDC undermined health officials advocating a more aggressive approach to control the spread," Murphy and Stein report. "The agency went so far as to edit a government science journal in late March to remove a Washington state epidemiologist’s call for testing throughout senior assisted-living facilities. 'I would be careful promoting widespread testing,' the CDC editor noted."

Julia Donohue (USA Today photo by Jack Gruber)
The story highlights how the CDC's missteps hurt small towns such as Cynthiana, a Kentucky town of 6,400 that took the agency's advice to continue life as normal, Murphy and Stein report. In early March, Cynthiana resident Julia Donohue got covid-19, the first confirmed case in the state. But the local hospital she went to had received no urgent warnings about community spread, and the more than 50 hospital workers who came into close contact with her did not wear masks or other protective gear that was in short supply. Cynthiana became the epicenter of a statewide outbreak.

Harrison County Judge-Executive Alex Barnett told USA Today that heeded the CDC's advice that it wasn't that big of a threat. He spent the next two weeks posting pictures on Facebook of himself and his wife eating lunch at different local restaurants, hoping to convince others that it was safe. "For the two weeks from when Donohue fell ill until the governor shut down the state, Barnett said he did not realize how much the small city of Cynthiana was at risk," Murphy and Stein report. 

"I am no expert in health when it comes down to it. I am a farmer," Barnett told USA Today. "I am an expert on growing cattle and tobacco. I rely on the CDC for guidance." However, Barnett did try to help the local newspaper inform Cynthiana residents. Two days after Donohue's test came back positive, Barnett agreed to fund delivery to every mailbox in the county of a special edition of The Cynthiana Democrat explaining the best known facts about the coronavirus. 

Editor Becky Barnes, who won the 2020 Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian, said she proposed the extra because people needed to know the facts, and not everyone had access to the internet. Meanwhile, Kentucky health officials were getting impractical advice from the CDC, if they received any replies to questions at all, Murphy and Stein report.

16 newsrooms, few with much rural reach, get in journalism philanthropy project; most rural is The Aspen (Colo.) Times

On Wednesday, the Local Media Association announced the first 16 news organizations that will participate in a pilot project aimed at better understanding how philanthropy can support journalism. But none of the organizations are truly rural, and few have significant rural audiences; that matters because rural papers are more likely to be in financial dire straits and less likely to have the know-how or resources to pursue badly needed philanthropic funds.

The Center for Journalism Funding, operated by LMA with funding from the Google News Initiative, is a six-month lab with two goals: to drive at least $2.25 million in funding for journalism projects to the 16 news organizations combined, and to learn enough in the process to "publish an extensive industry playbook on funding journalism through philanthropy," says a news release.

Of the 16 news organizations chosen, the most rural by population is The Aspen Times in Colorado; Aspen's population is around 7,000, but it's a major resort area with a high median income. Nogales International is in the Tucson metropolitan area, and the Bozeman Chronicle is in a city that will surely exceed 50,000 population in this year's census and thus become a metro area. The list includes two larger news organizations with rural audience, The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. and NOLA.com.

Biden courts Black farmers in Southern swing states

Joe Biden knows he's not going to win the overall rural vote, but narrowing President Trump's lead in rural areas, especially in battleground states, could make a big difference in the electoral college math. So the Biden campaign has been pursuing rural voters, especially Black farmers, who make up a small but potentially significant share of the rural vote, Ximena Bustillo reports for Politico

"Black farm producers, who number almost 49,000 nationally, are concentrated in Southern swing states, including North Carolina, Florida and Georgia. When combined with other farmers of color, also a focus of the Biden campaign, the total swells to 260,000 producers. Many say it's the first time in years a presidential nominee has paid attention to their needs," Bustillo reports. "Black farmers have long struggled to get equal access to USDA programs that help build credit and address civil rights complaints. They have pushed the government for more enforcement to retain land that has been in their families for generations at a time when farmers, generally, are facing unprecedented economic headwinds due to the pandemic and trade war disruptions." Biden has released a plan meant to help non-white farmers better access credit and capital, campaign senior policy adviser Seema Sadanandan told Bustillo. 

Though Trump likely has a narrower lead in rural areas this year than he did in 2016, Biden still has an uphill battle to win over rural voters, especially farmers. A poll conducted in late July found that 75 percent of farmers surveyed said they would vote for Trump.

Trump census plan might lower congressional representation for some rural residents

"A Trump administration plan to use the census to exclude from congressional representation immigrants who are living here illegally might inadvertently exclude many U.S. citizens living under the radar in states such as Alaska, New Mexico and West Virginia,"  Tim Henderson reports for Stateline. "Last week, a federal appeals court in New York blocked the administration’s strategy, ruling that 'the President does not have the authority to exclude illegal aliens' from congressional representation since the Constitution calls for 'total population' as the basis for apportioning seats. But the ruling allowed federal work on identifying immigration status to continue, in case the ruling is overturned by a higher court."

Sept. 21 virtual summit to explore connections between food security and national security

Agri-Pulse will host a virtual summit on from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET Sept. 21, in which a host of experts will discuss how food security and national security are interconnected.

The 2020 Agri-Pulse Ag & Food Policy Summit will feature a diverse array of speakers, including world-famous chef José Andrés, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, American Farm Bureau Federation president Zippy Duvall, Senate and House Agriculture Committee leaders, and more.

Click here for more information or to register.

Dick Cardwell, leader for open government in Indiana and longtime defender and advocate of newspapers, dies at 86

Cardwell with his wife Marcia
Services will be held this weekend for Richard "Dick" Cardwell, who served more than 35 years as executive director and general counsel of the Hoosier State Press Association and led the fight in the late 1970s for passage of Indiana's open-meetings and open-records laws, of which he was the chief author. He died Sept. 1 and was 86. A private interment will be held Saturday and a celebration of his life will be held from 2 to 6 p.m. ET Sunday at the Country Club of Indianapolis. He was a big golfer.

Cardwell represented the newspaper industry before the Indiana General Assembly on First Amendment causes and chaired the publication board at Indiana University. He won many awards for his work and was a member of the course-rating panel for Golf Digest, which let him "travel all over the country and world playing the finest golf courses," his obituary says. "He kept meticulous records of his golf rounds, including number of holes played, strokes, and which clubs he used. As an example, his stroke average for over 140 rounds played in 2000, at 67 years old, was 75. His family never tired of hearing his stories of playing golf with Arnold Palmer or Sam Snead. Dick never met a stranger and could strike up a conversation and find common ground with virtually anyone." Cardwell and his wife Marcia, who died in 2017, had four children, 11 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Rural spread of coronavirus eased a little last week, but rural counties still disproportionately hard-hit

New coronavirus infection rates from Sept. 5-12. Daily Yonder map;
click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
Though coronavirus deaths and new infections fell a little in rural America last week, more than one-third of the nation's 2,000 rural counties continued to have high rates of new coronavirus infections. "In addition, for the fifth week in a row, rural counties continued to produce a disproportionately larger share of the nation’s new covid-19 infections and deaths," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder's weekly analysis of the pandemic in rural America.

Rural covid-19 deaths fell below 1,000 last week for the first time in two months, clocking in at 970, Murphy and Marema report.

The number of red-zone rural counties fell from 806 to 701 during the week of Sept. 6-12, the first significant drop in more than two months. Red zones are defined by the White House Coronavirus Task Force as counties with 100 or more new cases per 100,000 in population. The number of rural red zones has held steady or increased since mid-July while metropolitan red zones have fallen consistently in the same time period, Murphy and Marema report.

Wildfires weaken watersheds and set the stage for flooding; presidential candidates weigh in

The wildfires that are ravaging the American West "are weakening watersheds and setting the stage for deadly mudslides and flooding and, in some places, threatening to poison critical water supplies," Hannah Northey reports for Energy & Environment News.

Such has been the damage that the fires have become a campaign issue for President Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden. "With more than two dozen major fires in California alone last week during an unprecedented wildfire season, they're no longer an afterthought for campaigns that – seven weeks from Election Day – would typically be hyper-focused on engaging voters in swing states such as Florida, Michigan and Ohio rather than addressing disasters in California, Oregon and Washington, three states solidly in the Democratic column,"  Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post.

Both candidates held competing press conferences about the wildfires on Monday, Grandoni reports. Biden called Trump a "climate arsonist," criticized his record on the environment, and warned of worsening environmental disasters should Trump be re-elected. "Donald Trump’s climate denial may not have caused these fires and record floods and record hurricanes,” Biden said from Wilmington, Del. "But if he gets a second term, these hellish events will continue to become more common, more devastating and more deadly."

Trump, who spoke from Sacramento, blamed the fires entirely on poor forest management and did not comment on climate change though several public officials encouraged him to during the press conference, Grandoni reports. Last year, Trump frequently blamed California wildfires on state-level forest management; he alluded to that view in Monday's press conference, but Gov. Gavin Newsom noted that 57 percent of the state's forests are managed at the federal level and only 3% at the state level. Newsom also asserted that climate change, not just forest management, is to blame for the fires.

"Fire researchers say a century of rising temperatures and decades of fire suppression policies, which have allowed flammable material to build up in forests, are both contributing to the blazes," Grandoni reports.

No fund-raising dinner this year, but today and today only, your gift to the publisher of The Rural Blog will be matched

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

When I was running or helping run weekly newspapers, every couple of months we would have a sponsorship page, promoting a good cause with the help of advertisers who were recognized with a small box or just a line noting their sponsorship. My favorite publisher called them "tin cup" ads, because we were sort of like a beggar on the street, rattling a tin cup. Today, we rattle the tin cup.

The biggest fund-raising activity for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is the annual Al Smith Awards Dinner, when we present the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism by a Kentuckian (co-sponsored by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and often the national Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism, if that's where the recipient(s) want to receive it. But there's no dinner this year, due to the pandemic. We hope the situation will be different at this time next year.

In the meantime, today offers us a one-time chance to make up that deficit. Today and today only, gifts to the institute will be matched, as part of a University of Kentucky initiative and a donor to our college. Click here for the special matched-giving page, then click on "Communication and Information Match." It will ask you to designate a fund. Click "Other" and you will get a box into which you should type, "Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues Endowed Fund." We wish it were simpler, but this special procedure is needed to get the matching money.

Thanks for your support, and thanks for reading The Rural Blog, our national publication. We also publish Kentucky Health News, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, and the Midway Messenger, a mostly online newspaper for a rural town, with most of the work being done by students in my Community Journalism classes in the UK School of Journalism and Media. Your gift helps support all three publications, and the Institute's mission, to help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities. That mission has recently expanded to include the sustainability of rural newspapers; they are getting more of their revenue from their audiences these days, and we hope you will help us do likewise.

New program aims to help seniors discern social-media 'fake news', especially critical during election and pandemic

It can be difficult to tell real news from fake on social media, especially for seniors who aren't as internet-savvy. But a new digital-literacy project from the Poynter Institute aims to help. MediaWise for Seniors offers free online courses to help older Americans sniff out and fight online misinformation, Paula Span reports for The New York Times.

The MediaWise program began in 2018 with funding from Google, and at first focused on teens and college students. But they recently decided to retool the program for seniors. "The online behavior of older Americans during the last presidential campaign alarmed scientists who study communications, politics and technology," Span reports. Seniors were at least twice as likely to share fake news on Facebook, the social media platform they use most, during the 2016 election. That's especially concerning because older adults are far more likely to register and vote than younger adults.

"There was a desperate need to educate this older age group, not only because of the election but because of the coronavirus," program manager Katy Byron told Span. Seniors are the highest-risk age group for poor outcomes from the coronavirus.

Navajo leader says the key to slowing the coronavirus in his community was listening to public health officials

"Earlier this year, the Navajo Nation Reservation was a major hot spot for coronavirus cases. Now, it's seen a day without a single positive case," Sacha Pfeiffer reports for NPR. "It's a turning point in its battle against the virus. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez attributes that to Navajo leaders and citizens heeding the advice of public health officials."

Nez said that Navajo leaders not only accepted recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, but that they also elevated them into law by making them public health emergency orders, Pfeiffer reports. Further, Navajo leaders have required residents to wear masks since mid-April, and have limited outside visitors via roadblocks. 

The Navajo have also aggressively tested residents: 99,000 people on the reservation, more than 50 percent of its population, have been tested for the novel coronavirus, with about 10,000 positive results, Pfeiffer reports. They have also hired contract tracers and people who have been infected or are at high risk voluntarily quarantine themselves for the good of the community, Nez said.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

More major agriculture events canceled due to pandemic

"The ongoing covid-19 pandemic claimed two more agricultural-related events on Monday. For the first time, events slated for early 2021 were canceled," Russ Quinn reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "The 2021 National Western Stock Show and 2021 World Ag Expo were both canceled due to health and safety restrictions. The events were called off as organizers of both shows said they were not able to figure out plans to allow for large crowds and still follow local and state health and safety restrictions, according to separate news releases."

The NWSS will resume Jan. 8-23, 2022, in its normal home of Denver, according to event organizers. They considered holding a modified show with a reduced capacity, but couldn't figure out a way to do it safely. They note that the event draws more than 700,000 attendees and had an economic impact of nearly $120 million in the month of the show alone.

The cancellation of the World Ag Expo will be the first in the event's 52-year history, organizers said in a press release. It is scheduled to resume Feb. 8-10, 2022, in Tulare, California.

Read more here for a list of many North American agriculture events that have been canceled because of the pandemic, including the Calgary Stampede, the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin, the World Pork Expo in Iowa, and at least a dozen state fairs.

Trump administration courts ethanol sector with help for E15 fuel and denial of old oil-refinery waivers still pending

The Trump administration courted the ethanol sector this week with a pair of announcements.

Over the weekend, President Trump tweeted "that he’ll remove federal roadblocks to the sale of 15 percent ethanol gasoline in standard fuel pumps that currently facilitate the 10 percent blend," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "As far the administration is concerned, just about any filling station can now sell gas with the higher blend of ethanol without having to replace its entire underground infrastructure, a major obstacle to increased E15 sales."

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will deny all pending gap-year small-refinery exemptions to the Renewable Fuel Standard for 2011-2018. "The EPA has yet to decide the fate of 31 pending waiver requests for 2019 and 2020, but the announcement ends what has been an agonizing period for the ethanol and agriculture industries. The ethanol industry stood to lose billions of gallons of fuel demand had the waivers been granted," Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer.

The moves could help Trump's chances with corn growers and biofuel producers frustrated by his ethanol policies, McCrimmon reports.

Trump/Biden fact check: Inaccurate claims on a coronavirus vaccine, mail-in voting, the trade deficit and more

President Trump and Joe Biden are increasingly seeking to discredit each other as election season enters its final weeks. That often means exaggerated, misleading or false claims that leave voters misinformed. So starting today, The Rural Blog will run a more-or-less-weekly fact check of major claims from both campaigns that have been conclusively found less than factual.

Though the Biden campaign is responsible for a few whoppers, the Trump campaign has been churning out a virtual Gish gallop of claims at such a volume that it's difficult to respond to. "All presidential candidates depict opponents in the worst possible light. Trump uses outright fabrications against ... Biden," John Harwood writes for CNN. Here are some recent fact-checks from FactCheck.org:

In a Labor Day press conference and the next day at a North Carolina rally, Trump made several unsupported or inaccurate statements about a coronavirus vaccine, and also distorted comments made by the Biden/Harris campaign, Jessica McDonald writes. Trump said Biden and running mate Kamala Harris had spread anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. Biden and Harris say they support properly approved vaccines but have echoed concerns in the scientific community about releasing a vaccine that hasn't been well-vetted. Trump also said 30,000 people were being tested with one vaccine and the results are "looking unbelievably strong." That's false, McDonald reports: no trial has yet enrolled 30,000 people, and no one knows how well the vaccines are performing yet.

In a Michigan campaign speech, Biden falsely claimed that the U.S. trade deficit had "hit an all-time high" under Trump. "It is true that the trade deficit for goods and services has grown under Trump compared with the levels under his predecessor, Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president. But the deficit was at much higher levels between 2004 and 2008 under President George W. Bush than it has been under Trump," Rem Rieder reports.

At campaign rallies in Nevada, Trump twisted remarks made by Biden, Lori Robertson and Robert Farley report. Biden said that local law enforcement using surplus military equipment in a neighborhood looks "like the military invading" and said that "they become the enemy." Trump took those words out of context and said that "Biden called law enforcement the enemy."

Also at the Nevada rallies, Trump also called Biden "a complete disaster on swine flu" and mischaracterized comments from Biden's former chief of staff that the Obama administration "did every possible thing wrong" in 2009. Trump repeated that comment and said it was about the administration's overall response. The former aide said he was talking only about delays in vaccine production, Robertson and Farley report.

"A Biden campaign TV ad falsely claims that a government analysis of President Donald Trump’s 'planned cuts to Social Security' shows that 'if Trump gets his way, Social Security benefits will run out in just three years from now," D'Angelo Gore reports. "The Social Security Administration’s chief actuary analyzed 'hypothetical legislation' that would eliminate the payroll tax that funds Social Security — not a proposal from Trump. The president has said he won’t cut benefits."

Trump has repeatedly made false, misleading, and unsubstantiated claims about mail-in voting in recent weeks. He said that Democrats are "cheating" and "dirty fighters" who are mailing out "80 million unsolicited ballots" in order to help Biden win the election. None of that is supported by fact, Eugene Kiely reports.

Smithfield and JBS face federal fines for failing to protect slaughterhouse workers from pandemic

"The U.S. Labor Department has cited Smithfield Foods and JBS for failing to protect employees from the coronavirus, making them the first two major meatpackers to face a federal fine after outbreaks at slaughterhouses infected thousands of workers," Tom Polansek and P.J. Huffstutter report for Reuters. The Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed fining Smithfield $13,494 and JBS $15,615."

Specifically, Smithfield's plant in Sioux Falls was cited for "failing to provide a workplace free from recognized hazards that can cause death or serious harm," OSHA's complaint said. At least 1,294 plant workers were sickened and four died from the coronavirus this spring, Polansek and Huffstutter report.

OSHA cited JBS's plant in Greeley, Colorado, where six workers have died from the virus and 290 have tested positive. According to the complaint, employees were unable to remain socially distant at work. JBS has already been fined twice for coronavirus-related safety violations at Minnesota plants: $28,000 for four violations a Pilgrim's Pride chicken processing plant in Cold Spring, and another $29,400 for five violations at a pork plant in Worthington, Polansek and Huffstutter reports.

Both companies said the citations were undeserved. They have until about the end of the month to respond and put safety measures in place, Polansek and Huffstutter report. The citations "did little to quiet complaints from labor unions and safety advocates, who said the Trump administration needs to do more to protect workers critical to the nation's food supply," they report. David Michaels, a George Washington University environmental and occupational health professor, who was the assistant labor for OSHA in the Obama administration, said the fines are "not even a slap on the wrist."