Thursday, December 02, 2021

N.D. project trains future health professionals to write plain-language health stories for rural newspapers

University of North Dakota project is teaching future health professionals how to put health information in plain language for rural newspaper readers. Targeted Rural Health Education aims to improve rural health through better health literacy, which the pandemic has shown is vital to public well-being. The article includes a blueprint for the program so other medical schools can replicate it.

School of Medicine and Health Sciences students are taught health-literacy concepts and tools, the Rural Health Information Hub reports: "Participants write a newspaper-friendly, data-informed, public health-focused education article that embraces health literacy's emphasis on the use of plain language. Because rural newspapers are an important disseminators of informationincluding health information — rural newspaper editors are the strategic project partners." Since the project's launch in 2017, nearly 30 students have published  articles in Montana, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

The project is a collaboration of the North Dakota Rural Health Association, the University of North Dakota Center for Rural Health, and the UND Department of Family and Community Medicine.

New rural coronavirus infections and deaths fell last week, likely because of holiday data reporting disruptions

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Nov. 21-27
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

New rural coronavirus infections and Covid-related deaths fell during the week of Nov. 21-27, likely due to lags in testing and reporting over the long Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

"New infections in rural counties fell to about 100,000 last week, a drop of nearly 20% compared to two weeks ago. Covid-related deaths in rural counties dropped by nearly 30% to 1,380. New infections and deaths declined by similar percentages in metropolitan counties last week," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. "Before this week’s decline, rural infections had increased slightly for three weeks in a row." New York, Missouri and Pennsylvania had, in descending order, the highest rural infection rates last week.

"The death rate from Covid-19 in rural counties remained more than two times higher than the death rate in urban counties," Marema reports. "The rural infection rate was about 40% higher than the urban infection rate. Rural counties have had significantly higher rates of death and infections than urban areas since mid-August."

Click here for more charts, regional analysis, and county-level interactive maps from the Yonder.

Broadband roundup: Funds flow, but poor access maps may put it in wrong places; supply-chain issues delay updates

New federal broadband funding will be much needed and much welcomed in rural America, Jim Muchlinski writes for the Marshall Independent in Minnesota. Though many Americans believe private enterprise should lead rural expansion, he says it's not often cost-effective, so federal funding and incentives make a decisive difference in modernizing rural areas.

However, a lot of state and federal money may not go where it needs to go because the Federal Communications Commission's broadband-access maps are often inaccurate. That's partly because they rely on self-reported data from telecoms with a financial incentive to overstate their rural reach, John Hendel reports for Politico.

Rural internet carriers, scrambling to replace Huawei and ZTE gear, now face supply chain delays, Jodi Xu Klein reports for Hong Kong's South China Morning Post. Rural carriers have disproportionately relied on the companies' tech because it's much cheaper. In May 2019 the FCC banned use of equipment from "foreign adversaries." That included Huawei, ZTE and similar Chinese companies, which left rural telecoms scrambling to figure out their next move.

The FCC is distributing $1.9 billion to help mostly rural carriers replace Huawei and ZTE equipment, but it might not be enough, Jon Gold reports for NetworkWorld.

Farmer-owned cooperative Land O'Lakes is trying to facilitate rural broadband expansion by working with private organizations and government agencies. Land O'Lakes' chief technology officer recently discussed what the company is doing and why it matters in a recent webcast with eWeek, a site for internet technology professionals. Watch it here. The Appalachian Regional Commission published a report detailing trends in Appalachian computer and broadband access. Read it here.

Landowners' and environmentalists' objections to CO2 pipelines test future viability of carbon-capture programs

Navigator CO2 Ventures' proposed Heartland Greenway System
would store liquified carbon dioxide underground in Illinois
Heavy opposition to two proposed carbon-dioxide pipelines in the Midwest throws the future of carbon-capture programs into question. The pipelines would collect and liquefy carbon dioxide from Midwestern ethanol, fertilizer and other industrial-agriculture plants, then carry it thousands of miles and store it deep underground. But dozens of farmers are refusing to sell and other organizations are also rallying opposition, Leah Douglas reports for Reuters.

If the companies—Iowa-based Summit Carbon Solutions and Texas-based Navigator CO2 Ventures—are forced to resort to eminent domain to get the land, the pipelines could remain in limbo for years while messy courtroom battles play out, Donnelle Eller reports for the Des Moines Register. In Iowa alone, more than 400 people "have filed objections with the state's regulatory agency, questioning whether the pipelines are needed, safe and should be allowed to cross valuable farmland that's been passed down through multiple generations."

The technology is relatively untested, and landowners worry that it could damage crops or harm people. Douglas notes, "A 2020 liquid CO2 pipeline rupture in Yazoo County, Mississippi, for example, sickened dozens of people."

Summit Carbon Solutions' pipeline would store CO2 in North Dakota.
Iowa's Sierra Club chapter and other environmental groups think carbon capture and sequestration are "a lifeline to carbon-based industries, at a time when the world needs to be ending its dependence on fossil fuels in order to stave off the worst impacts of climate change," Kate Payne reports for Iowa Public Radio.

"The companies say the projects would help ethanol and other energy-intensive ag industries remain viable as the nation seeks to cut net greenhouse emissions in half by 2030 to address climate change. Summit says carbon sequestration would lower ethanol's carbon footprint to net zero by 2030 and allow it to be sold into California and other states with low carbon fuel standards," Eller reports. "Summit says it has the capacity to capture up to 12 million metric tons of carbon annually, an amount equal to removing 2.6 million vehicles from the road each year. Navigator says its pipeline has the capacity to capture about 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of removing 3.2 million vehicles from the road."

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Trade groups for weekly and daily newspapers team up for lobbying and helping members with postal and digital issues

The leading trade groups for daily and weekly newspapers are teaming up for lobbying in Washington, D.C., and to help small daily papers deal with the ins and outs of circulation by mail. 

The News Media Alliance (formerly the Newspaper Association of America) and the National Newspaper Association, which includes some dailies, "have created a joint policy group to assist their members in the newspaper industry with postal issues and public policy," they said in a release.

NNA, whose members make much more use of the mail, will take the lead on postal issues. Many small daily newspapers have shifted to mail delivery, and NNA will help NMA members with case-specific postal problems, and the NNA Foundation will make its postal training available to them.

NMA will advise NNA on digital publishing policies, "on which it has sharpened its expertise since the breakup of the Bell telephone companies in the 1990s," the release said. "NMA will continue to factor in the concerns of community newspapers in its advocacy on important industry issues like the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, and the two groups will form a consultative task force to help the industry to speak with one voice on other critical issues, such as journalism and First Amendment advocacy." NMA manages the news-media industry’s News Media for Open Government coalition.

“These are the two organizations that have been the voices for newspapers in Washington for more than a century, NNA representing the smaller newspapers and NMA the larger ones,” said NNA Chair Brett Wesner, a publisher in Cordell, Okla. “The demands and expenses of doing this work have accelerated in recent years and we see that this trajectory is going to continue. It seemed to both of us that we could do a better job if we eliminate duplication and amplify our voices wherever possible.”

Post package shows its national readership of the dangers of local news deserts, but has problems defining them

Screenshot of introduction to The Lost Local News Issue of The Washington Post Magazine

In honor of Giving NewsDay yesterday, The Washington Post Magazine published a package of stories celebrating local journalism and warning of the dangers of expanding news deserts. It includes a suite of stories solicited from journalists across the country, reminding the paper's national readership of the breadth and depth of news that is being lost to readers as "news deserts" expand through closure and hollowing out of newspapers.

The stories range from one about how a West Virginia pastor cultivated a racially diverse congregation in an overwhelmingly white area, to an investigation into suspicious grizzly-bear deaths in Idaho.

"Some of these stories have been previously covered by outlets that are trying against long odds to preserve a market for local journalism, and we are indebted to their work; other stories are being told here for the first time," the Post says. "What all these stories have in common is that they deserved more space, scrutiny and attention than they have previously received.

The Post notes that "about 2,200 local print newspapers have closed since 2005, and the number of newspaper journalists fell by more than half between 2008 and 2020. In many places where papers still exist, a lack of resources prevents them from reporting thoroughly on issues vital to the community — issues like public safety, education and local politics." 

The phenomenon, which the pandemic has accelerated, "poses the kind of danger to our democracy that should have alarm sirens screeching across the land," writes Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan.

A note from Al Cross, professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog: 

The Post says "Every piece in this issue originates in a news desert," but that does not conform to reality (the West Virginia county is served by two dailies) or to the definition it cites from Northwestern University Visiting Professor Penny Muse Abernathy, who started tracking news deserts as the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She defines a news desert as "a community, either rural or urban, with limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grass-roots level." The Post misinterprets what that means: "In practice, this means counties with few — sometimes zero — print newspapers of any kind." What the Post seems to not realize is that one-newspaper counties have been the norm in the U.S. for a long time, and it seems to dismiss the ability of weekly papers to provide comprehensive reporting that feeds democracy. Maybe the Post folks need to get out more.

With each story, the Post gives what it calls "the newspaper landscape in the story's setting," but that information is limited to the number of newspapers and how many print editions they have each week. It doesn't say anything about the quality of journalism they provide, though it does provide links so readers with plenty of time can judge for themselves. In some cases, the Institute for Rural Journalism knows from previous experience that some of the communities are well served.

The first story comes from three people in Bethel, Alaska, which doesn't have a paper but has a good public radio station, KYUK, which employs one of the reporters. The grizzly-bear story comes from a community served by a locally owned weekly, the Island Park News, which says "This newspaper is CERTIFIED politically incorrect and 100% American." A story about a drug-court judge comes from Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, where the weekly Rio Grande Sun has won many awards, including some for coverage of the local drug problem. No news desert there. In seven of the 12 cases, the communities are served by dailies, and in several cases, they have covered the topics of the stories.

Telehealth popular in rural U.S. during pandemic; states pass laws to continue access and maybe make it permanent

Telehealth has been a boon to rural areas during the pandemic, "but its future depends largely on whether state lawmakers extend emergency measures that made telehealth a viable alternative for patients and providers wary of in-person contact," Michael Ollove reports for Stateline. "The most important changes most states made were to expand Medicaid coverage to different types of virtual appointments and to enact telehealth coverage requirements for private insurers."

Before the pandemic, 43% of providers used telehealth; that jumped to 98% early in the pandemic. Telehealth visits increased by up to 40%, and remain 30% higher than before, Ollove reports.

Telehealth has proved so popular that at least half the states "already have extended temporary telehealth measures that were set to expire with the lifting of public-health emergencies, and other states are considering doing the same," Ollove reports. More than 1,000 telehealth bills are pending in state legislatures, many of which would mandate that insurers cover telehealth and/or expand the number of telehealth services covered. Those bills generally apply only to individual or non-employer-funded plans, since the federal government regulates employer-funded plans.

It's unclear whether patients will continue to prefer telehealth after the pandemic, and broadband connectivity and computer literacy are still significant barriers to use. But providers say the service has helped them stretch staff resources and better care for patients, Ollove reports.

Climate change keeps pushing fall leaf change back; the shift may endanger forests and tourism dollars

A forest in Newark, Vermont, in October (Getty Images photo by Tayfun Coskun)

You may have noticed that the trees were especially late in changing colors this fall. Scientists say it's probably the new normal. "From Vermont to North Carolina, fall foliage appeared behind schedule this year—continuing a long-term trend that, according to one recent study of maples by researchers at George Mason University, has pushed the appearance of fall colors back more than a month since the 19th century," Sarah Gibbens reports for National Geographic.

Climate change is a cause: "This past October was the world’s fourth warmest October in a 142-year record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That’s no surprise: The eight warmest Octobers have come in the last eight years. And the Northeast, which is most famous for fall foliages, is warming faster than the rest of North America," Gibbens reports. But temperature isn't the only reason for the leaves' delay: "Precipitation or the lack of it, extreme weather, and insect infestations all play a role. As climate change affects all those factors, it’s making the timing of peak foliage harder to predict."

That could disrupt leaf-peeping and other fall-centered tourism that generates as much as $30 billion each year nationwide. Scientists say the delays in leaf coloration disrupt trees' annual growth cycles and could destroy some forests. "While nobody wants to be the 'sky is falling' kind of person, we do understand these changes are the plants telling us something is not right," GMU ecologist Rebecca Forkner told Gibbens.

Founder of Christian television network that discourages coronavirus vaccination dies from Covid-19

Marcus Lamb of Daystar
Marcus Lamb, the founder of Christian TV network Daystar, died of Covid-19 Tuesday. A spokesperson would not say whether the 64-year-old was vaccinated, but Michelle Boorstein reports for The Washington Post that during the pandemic "Lamb and his network went in big with anti-vaccine conspiracies, hosting daily interviews with skeptics who talked about dangerous, hidden forces pushing vaccines and stealing Christians’ freedoms." 

Lamb's wife Joni said he had diabetes and got pneumonia after being diagnosed with Covid-19, which he tried to treat with alternative medicines. Earlier this month, his son Jonathan said on the network that he believed the illness was a "spiritual attack from the enemy" in retaliation for the network's promotion of unfounded alternative treatments, Boorstein reports.

"Lamb was an outspoken skeptic of Covid-19 vaccines and eagerly promoted unproven, alternative treatments, including hydroxychloroquine, which the US Food and Drug Administration says has no effect on Covid-19, but has been linked to heart rhythm problems, kidney trouble, and liver failure," Daniel Silliman reports for Christianity Today. "In Lamb’s last fundraising newsletter, he touted Daystar as 'the only Christian TV Network that has made continuous efforts to warn you about the dangers of the Covid-19 ‘Vaccine’ and to help you with the truth' about alternative treatments."

"Daystar is the second-largest Christian network in the world, according to CBN News, a competitor, reaching 2 billion people worldwide. Its brand is a fluid, modern, charismatic faith, more about general good-vs-evil, miraculous healings and religious freedom than any specific denominational theology," Boorstein reports. The network was founded in 1998, and now owns more than 100 television stations all over the globe. In recent years Daystar has been rocked with scandal: first for an affair Lamb admitted to, and more recently for claims of fraud, Silliman reports. In 2011 an NPR investigation found that Daystar only gave away about 5% of the money it had raised for charity, and in 2020 the network "returned $3.9 million in Paycheck Protection Program money after an Inside Edition investigation found his ministry purchased a jet two weeks after getting a PPP loan meant to help employees struggling during the pandemic," Boorstein reports.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Ogden Newspapers goes west, buys Swift Communications

Swift Communications, which owns about a dozen daily and weekly newspapers and other publications  in the West, many in resort communities, announced Tuesday that it is selling them to The Ogden Newspapers, based in Wheeling, West Virginia. Swift is based in Carson City, Nevada.

After the Dec. 31 sale, terms of which were not released, Ogden will publish 54 dailies and scores of weekly newspapers and magazines in 18 states, according to a story in The Aspen Times, which Swift owns. Its other publications include the Vail Daily, the Tahoe Daily Tribune, the Park Record in Park City, Utah; The Union in Grass Valley, Calif.; Steamboat Pilot & Today in Steamboat Springs, Colo.; Goat Journal, Backyard Poultry Magazine and The Fence Post, an agricultural magazine for Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming. Ogden will retain the Swift name for the group.

Robert Nutting (Twitter photo)
Ogden has three papers in Utah (Provo, Mount Pleasant and, fittingly, Ogden) but most of its papers are in Appalachia and the Midwest. The company was founded in 1890 by H.G. Ogden and is owned by the family of his grandson, G. Ogden Nutting. CEO Robert Nutting said, “Our company’s goal is to be a positive force in the communities we serve — celebrating each market’s unique strengths while also working to provide realistic solutions to areas of concern. We believe that strong, responsible and connected local newspapers are critically important to building and supporting strong communities now more than ever.” Nutting is principal owner and chairman of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

UPDATE: For Ogden's news release, click here.

Coal prices highest in more than a decade as stockpiles dwindle after hot, dry summer boosted use of electricity

"Coal piles at power plants have dwindled to their lowest point since the 1970s, and the race to build up inventories ahead of heating season has sent domestic thermal-coal prices to their highest levels in more than a decade," Ryan Dezember reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Inventories in the U.S. power sector are about two-thirds of the five-year average for this time of year, according to the Energy Information Administration. Richard Nixon was in the White House the last time there was so little on hand, EIA data show."

Extreme weather driven by climate change bears some of the blame: "A lot of coal was burned this summer to power air conditioning during some of the hottest weather on record," Dezember reports. "The western drought reduced hydropower output, and coal plugged some of the generation gap, along with natural gas. The price of gas, which started out the heating season at its highest in more than a decade, has made switching to coal attractive to power producers that can burn both."

Most coal is sold in advance, and there isn't much available to buy for immediate use. "Coal has lost market share to natural gas, wind farms and solar installations over the past decade, drying up financing for speculative production," and it's challenging to produce more than previously set quotas, Dezember reports. "Backed up ports and railways would make delivery difficult, even if there were more coal coming out of mines."

Gas and renewable energy have increasingly crowded out coal's market share and depressed its production, Dezember reports, "yet coal remains an important source of power generation, serving as a swing fuel to augment other sources when output from renewable sources, like wind farms, is insufficient or natural-gas prices are high, as they are today."

Rural households are hurt more by inflation than urban ones

Inflation is at a 30-year high in the U.S., and rural households are some of the hardest hit. 

"Inflation has hurt lower-income families, families of color, and rural households more than other demographics, a Bank of America research report found last week," Jason Lalljee reports for Business Insider. "Breaking down demographics by race, geography, and income, the bank found that the 'inflation shock' of 2021 has disproportionately affected the marginalized: Households without college graduates, African American, Hispanic and Latino communities, and those not living in cities have been spending more of their post-tax income on goods and services."

Rural households are paying an average of 5.2 percent more of their post-tax income because of inflation, compared to 3.5% of households in metropolitan areas. "All of the high-inflation categories, particularly energy and new and used cars, make up a larger share of the consumption basket for rural households," researchers wrote. "They also earn and save less than urban households, and so inflation is a bigger drag on their income, and they have less buffer against the shock."

Inflation has been blamed on everything from corporate greed to President Biden, but it's mostly a function of reduced supply and increased demand.

Lee Enterprises adopts 'poison pill' stock strategy to ward off hostile takeover by hedge fund Alden Global Capital

Newspaper group Lee Enterprises has adopted what's known as a "poison pill" strategy to try to fend off a hostile takeover from New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

The plan "would kick in if Alden gets control of 10% or more of Lee’s stock in the next year," Austin Huguelet reports for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a flagship paper for Lee, which is based in Davenport, Iowa. "At that point, other shareholders could buy shares at a 50% discount or get free shares for every share they already own. Flooding the market with additional shares would dilute the stock, making it more expensive for Alden to acquire a controlling stake. Alden said in a filing Tuesday it owns 6.1% of Lee."

The plan would give shareholders and the board more time to consider Alden's unsolicited offer of $141 million "without undue pressure while also safeguarding shareholders’ opportunity to realize the long-term value of their investment," Lee Chairman Mary Junck told Huguelet.

The poison-pill strategy might not work. Tribune Publishing tried the same thing but Alden acquired the company in May 2021 after a years-long campaign.

The stakes are high for Lee, the hundreds of communities it serves, and maybe more: Alden is known for slashing newsrooms to increase profits. If Alden bought out Lee, a "clear majority" of U.S. dailies would be owned by hedge funds. Moreover, it would "essentially create a local news duopoly between Alden and Gannett/Gatehouse, which merged in 2019," Sara Fischer reports for Axios.

UPDATE, Dec. 2: Unions at Lee papers urged the board of directors to fight the takeover, Gateway Journalism Review reports.

Two weeks ago, new rural coronavirus vaccinations fell for fifth week in row; new rural infections went up; deaths fell

Vaccination rates as of Nov. 18, compared to national average and adjusted to account for vaccinations not assigned to specific counties. Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Two weeks ago, the pace of new rural coronavirus vaccinations declined for the fifth consecutive week as rural coronavirus infections rose slightly and Covid-related deaths declined.

Rural counties reported 144,000 newly completed vaccinations Nov. 12-18, a 9 percent drop from the week before. "Newly completed vaccinations in metropolitan counties declined even more sharply, dropping by more than 25% to about 890,000 new vaccinations," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "It was the first time newly completed vaccinations in metro counties fell under 1 million residents since the widespread rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations began this spring. The rural vaccination rate grew by 0.3 percentage points last week. That brings the rural rate to 45.2%, or about 20.7 million of rural America’s 46 million residents. The metropolitan vaccination rate of 57.3% is 12.2 percentage points higher than the rural rate."

Meanwhile, new infections increased by about 6% and Covid-related deaths fell by about 9% Nov. 14-20, Murphy and Marema report. While the infection and death rate gaps narrowed slightly between rural and urban counties that week, the rural infection rate remained 50% higher than the metro rate, and the rural Covid-related death rate remained twice as high as the metro rate for the fifth week in a row.

New coronavirus infections, in ranges by county, Nov. 14-20
Map by The Daily Yonder; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

Rural hospitals face widespread nursing shortages and lagging employee coronavirus-vaccination rates

"Vaccine hesitancy among rural health facilities remains rampant even as providers faced a major surge of Covid-19 due to the more transmissible Delta variant, a new study finds," Robert King reports for Fierce Healthcare. The study, released last week by the Chartis Group, "also found that nurse staffing shortages are contributing to suspensions in care in vulnerable communities." About 30 percent of respondents said the nursing shortage had caused their facility to suspend medical services, mainly surgeries, and another 22% said they were considering that.

Over 98% of the facilities surveyed reported staff shortages, mostly nurses. Burnout, retirement, and going for a better-paying job at another hospital are the main causes of the shortages, not mandates; in fact, about 75% of respondents said their facility doesn't have a mandate, King reports. The lack of mandates may have contributed to lower vaccination rates, the study noted.

However, vaccination rates are rising: "Chartis spoke with rural hospitals across the country from Sept. 21 to Oct. 15 and found that 44% of respondents said 50% to 69% of professionals in their facility were fully vaccinated," King reports. "That is an improvement on an earlier survey conducted in March and April of this year, where 37% of respondents said 50% to 69% of professionals were vaccinated."

The vaccination numbers will have to ramp up if the federal government's mandate takes effect. The rule would require all staffers to be vaccinated by Jan. 4 or risk losing federal reimbursement for Medicare and Medicaid patients. But 10 states have challenged the mandate in court, so its future is uncertain.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Rural banker survey finds record-high farmland price index, 12 straight months of sunny local economic outlook

Creighton University chart compares current month to last month and year ago; click here to download it and chart below.

A November survey of rural bankers in 10 Midwestern states that rely on agriculture and energy marked 12 straight months of positive outlooks on economies in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The Rural Mainstreet Index rose to 67.7 from October's 66.1, and the farmland price index hit a record-high 85.5, up from 81.5. "Readings for farmland prices and equipment sales over the last several months represent the strongest consistent growth since 2012" writes Creighton University economist Ernie Goss, who compiles the index. "Solid grain prices, the Federal Reserve’s record-low interest rates, and growing exports have underpinned the Rural Mainstreet Economy."

However, labor shortages continue to plague rural businesses; Bureau of Labor Statistics data show nonfarm employment in Rural Mainstreet states remains 2.5% lower than before the pandemic. Some bankers also worry about the infrastructure bill; asked what parts of it would most help agriculture, 30% said it has too many negatives to help at all, while more than a fourth each said it would help most with broadband and waterways. 

Interior declares 'squaw' derogatory word, creates speedier process for renaming federal sites with racist names

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland declared "squaw" a derogatory term for Indigenous women and created a task force to find new names for sites on federal lands that use the word. "The order, which takes effect immediately, stands to affect more than 650 place names that use the term, according to figures from the U.S. Board on Geographic Names," Bill Chappell reports for NPR.

Haaland, a registered member of the Laguna Pueblo, said in a press release that "racist terms have no place in our vernacular or on our federal lands. Our nation's lands and waters should be places to celebrate the outdoors and our shared cultural heritage — not to perpetuate the legacies of oppression."

Haaland created two groups to facilitate name changes, Chappell reports. In a nutshell, the Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names will help identify other derogatory place names, and the Derogatory Geographic Names Task Force will help vet proposed replacement names. Both are required to have Native American representation. The new committees "will accelerate the process by which derogatory names are identified and replaced," Native News Online reports. "Currently, the Board on Geographic Names is structured, by design, to act on a case-by-case basis through a process that puts the onus on the proponents to identify the offensive name and to suggest a replacement. The process to secure review and approvals can be lengthy, often taking years to complete a name change. Currently, there are hundreds of name changes pending before the Board."

The move follows previous Interior moves to remove racist names from federal sites. "In the 1960s and '70s, the agency said, place names containing slurs for Black and Japanese people were replaced on a wholesale level," Chappell reports.

How a local radio station and newspaper, and The New York Times, enabled prosecution of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery

The convictions of three white men for last year's murder of Ahmad Aubery, a Black man in coastal Georgia, probably wouldn't have happened unless a lawyer for defendant Greg McMichael, trying to quash rumors about the killing, hadn't taken a cellphone video of it to local radio station WGIG.

"Instead, the video published online by the radio station surfaced questions nationwide about racial profiling and the lack of criminal charges," Meryl Kornfield reports for The Washington Post, recounting early reporting by the Brunswick News, Georgia Public Broadcasting and WSB-TV

University of Maryland sociology professor Rashawn Ray told Kornfield, "I think part of what the McMichaels were trying to leverage was what their defense attorneys were trying to allege: That the mere presence, the mere physical body of Ahmaud Arbery as a Black person just running through the street, should pose a big enough threat to justify their use of force."

Brunswick News reporter Larry Hobbs told Kornfield that he had doubts about the incident from the start, and "said police wouldn’t answer his questions or even tell him Arbery’s name, which he discovered by calling the coroner. He published four stories before he obtained the police report, based almost entirely on an interview with Greg McMichael, who said he told his son to grab his gun when he saw a Black man running. . . . Prosecutors were also not forthcoming."

"Jackie Johnson, the Brunswick district attorney who was later indicted over her handling of the investigation and was voted out of office," gave the case to Waycross DA George Barnhill, who justified the shooting as a lawful "citizen’s arrest" but told Hobbs he was still investigating, Kornfield reports.

“The main thing I did was just not let go of it,” Hobbs said. “I didn’t do any great writing. I didn’t do any investigative reporting. I’m a small-town newspaper. We don’t really have time to invest. I come in every day and there’s an empty newspaper I have to do my part to fill up.”

Kornfield writes, "The New York Times reported reported on the shooting, bringing national exposure and emerging details of the video that would later be released. Still, Hobbs has been credited for his dogged reporting, as he stayed on the case, covering the trial every day until he wrote Wednesday’s story of the conviction."

Hobbs told Kornfield, “In times of reckoning, we’ve come up wanting so many times, especially people from my demographic. The South got it right today.”

Interior may make make oil, gas companies pay more to drill on federal lands; wouldn't affect home energy costs much

The Interior Department announced plans Friday to make oil and gas companies pay more to drill public lands and waters. The federal leasing program is outdated, fails to serve taxpayers, and worsens climate change, said an18-page report from the department.

"The document calls for increasing the government’s royalty rate — the 12.5 percent of profits fossil-fuel developers must pay to the federal government in exchange for drilling on public lands — to be more in line with the higher rates charged by most private landowners and major oil- and gas-producing states," Sarah Kaplan reports for The Washington Post. "It also makes the case for raising the bond companies must set aside for cleanup before they begin new development." Raising the royalty rate could generate between $1 billion and $2 billion a year annually, and wouldn't significantly impact energy prices for American households.

The report focuses on fiscal rather than environmental benefits of updating the law, but "Interior officials say they will also consider how to incorporate the real-world toll of climate change into the price of permits for new fossil fuel extraction," Kaplan reports. "Economic analyses suggest the changes to royalty and bonding rates will increase revenue, but they will not significantly curb carbon emissions." That's because "Less than 10 percent of oil and gas produced in the United States comes from Interior-controlled land, and cuts to U.S. production will be partly offset by increases in other countries."

Interested parties on both sides of the issue expressed dissatisfaction with the proposal. A representative of the American Petroleum Institute said it would increase the cost of production, Kaplan reports. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity noted that one-third of Americans experienced a disaster driven by climate change this summer, and called for the Biden administration to end drilling on public lands rather than reform it.

The administration is under pressure to deliver on President Biden's campaign promises to protect the environment, especially after the recent United Nations climate agreement. "Even as he has come under criticism for not moving quickly or boldly enough to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs in a greener economy and alleviate pollution impacting poor and minority communities, Biden has continued to pursue swaths of his climate agenda," Juliet Eilperin, Brady Dennis and John Muyskens note for the Post. "Less than a year after taking the oath of office, Biden has now targeted half of Donald Trump’s energy and environmental policies." Click here for the Post's frequently updated list of the Biden administration's environmental actions.

Biden administration is giving out billions to rural health-care providers, passed as part of last pandemic relief bill

"The Department of Health and Human Services has begun distributing billions of dollars to rural health care providers to ease the financial pressures brought by the coronavirus pandemic and to help hospitals stay open," Mark Walker reports for The New York Times. "The agency said on Tuesday that it had started doling out $7.5 billion to more than 40,000 health care providers in every state and six U.S. territories through the American Rescue Plan," a relief bill that Democrats passed in March. "The infusion of funds will help offset increased expenses and revenue losses among rural physicians during the pandemic, the agency said."

Many rural hospitals and other medical providers were already struggling before 2019, since they often had to deal with more costs than suburban and urban providers. That's a function of supply chains and an overall older, sicker and poorer populace, Walker reports. The pandemic has worsened those struggles; 21 rural hospitals have closed since the start of 2020. 

"Rural physicians serve a disproportionate number of patients covered by Medicaid, Medicare or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which often have more complex medical needs," Walker reports. "Under the program, every eligible provider that serves at least one Medicare, Medicaid, or CHIP beneficiary in a rural part of the country will receive at least $500. Payments will range up to $43 million, with an average of $170,700; the size is based on how many claims a provider submitted for rural patients covered by these programs from January 2019 through September 2020."

Providers can use the money for a wide range of needs, including salaries, recruitment and retention; capital investments; information technology; supplies such as personal protective equipment or ventilators, and more, Walker reports.

"The administration has also allocated billions of dollars through the American Rescue Plan for coronavirus testing for the uninsured, increased reimbursement for Covid vaccine administration, improving access to telehealth services in rural areas, and a grant program for health care providers that serve Medicare patients," Walker reports. "On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris said that the administration would be investing $1.5 billion to address the shortage of health care workers in underserved tribal, rural and urban communities. The funds — which will provide scholarships and pay off loans for clinicians who commit to jobs in underserved areas — come on the heels of a report from the White House’s Covid Health Equity Task Force that made recommendations on how inequalities in the health care system could be fixed."

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Texas weekly highlights helpers of the needy each Thanksgiving: 'The hands that give are never left empty'

The top of the first of four pages devoted to charities in this week's edition of The Canadian Record

For six years, The Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle has published a Thanksgiving feature that reminds readers that many of their neighbors have a lot less to be thankful for, and how to help them. Editor-Publisher Laurie Ezzell Brown told The Rural Blog, "The nonprofit organizations that we mention are always appreciative of the light it shines on them, and I am always hopeful that it helps them continue the good work they do." Here's what she wrote for this week's feature:

"The hands that give are never left empty. There is no better time to be reminded of that than now, when we are awash in consumer-oriented Christmas messages urging us to spend our money—even as many in this community struggle to feed and clothe their children, care for the elderly and infirm, and pay for life’s basic necessities.

"As we each prepare our Thanksgiving meals and celebrate this great bounty in the company of friends and family, please remember—in thought, word, and deed—those for whom this day offers fewer blessings and far greater uncertainty. Those who have lost jobs, whose businesses are struggling, whose health is in jeopardy, or who care for one who is ill. Those who are alone, who live in fear, who wrestle with addiction, who are without hope in a season whose persistent message is one of great hope. Those who labor and are weary. Those whose children are hungry or cold. Those who have no home, and no family to offer them shelter and kindness.

"We live in a time of great promise, in a country that enjoys enormous wealth; and yet, there are many who have neither. We live in a community that has always given generously to those in need, but we can never take the generosity of others for granted. It is for each of us to give according to our ability. With these things in mind, we asked representatives of local nonprofit charities to describe each organization’s mission and to tell us how we can contribute.

"In the following pages, you will read about the daycare center that nurtures our youngest children; the hospice program that gives comfort to the dying, and to their families and loved ones; the food bank that delivers groceries to those who have fallen on hard times; the ministerial alliance that aids families and individuals in crisis; and the group of mothers whose efforts are focused on ensuring that children receive needed dental and medical care—even if their parents are not able to afford it.

"Your gifts, however small or large, offer comfort and sustenance. They send a much-needed message to all who suffer, that they are neither forgotten nor lost, and that this is a community that cares, even for the least of these. And in giving, we are reminded of all we have—the blessings that are ours—for which we give thanks, today and every day."

Rural women face dwindling access to hospital childbirth services; Connecticut woman's ordeal is an example

A rural Connecticut woman's recent ordeal highlights a recent study noting that rural women, especially in communities of color, often have more difficulty accessing hospital childbirth services.

Shantell Jones lives in Windham, a town of 25,000, 41 percent Latino. She lives six blocks from a hospital, but when she went into early labor the ambulance had to drive to another one 30 minutes away because Windham Hospital shuttered its labor and delivery services last year, Jean Lee reports for NBC News. Ten minutes into the drive, Jones gave birth in the ambulance as it parked by the side of the highway, and though she and her son are healthy, others are not so lucky sometimes. 

Pregnant women without easy access to a hospital with obstetric services could be at an increased risk of giving birth prematurely, giving birth in an emergency room, or outside of a hospital entirely, public-health experts say. Thousands of other pregnant rural women are facing that risk as hospitals reduce or close obstetric services to cut costs. "Nationwide, 53 rural counties lost obstetrics care from 2014 through 2018, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association." It also found that 1.045 of the out of 1,976 rural counties "never had hospitals with obstetrics services to begin with."

Communities of color and those with high poverty rates are especially at risk. Not only are they more likely to lose or never have local obstetric services, but they're more likely to have transportation issues or lack insurance that would cover a pricey ambulance ride to a hospital further away, Lee reports. Local ambulance services might not be able to respond as readily because they're stretched thin too.

Major retailers found liable for opioid epidemic in 2 Ohio counties; ruling bolsters public-nuisance legal strategy

Recent court rulings in Oklahoma and California rejected claims that drug companies were responsible for the opioid epidemic, but an Ohio court ruling this week was a positive signal for other lawsuits using the strategy of claiming a public nuisance. Those cases could bring billions of dollars in payouts to states and municipalities to mitigate the addiction crisis.

On Tuesday a court ruled that major retailers CVS, Walgreens and Walmart helped fuel the opioid epidemic in two Cleveland-area counties. Jurors in a federal court concluded that the pharmacy chains' actions in Lake and Trumbull counties "helped create a public nuisance that resulted in an oversupply of addictive pain pills and the diversion of those opioids to the black market, Nate Raymond reports for Reuters. The verdict is the first the companies have faced over the issue.

The prosecutor will seek more than $1 billion from the companies to help the two counties address the toll of addiction, but "Judge Dan Polster will decide how much the companies owe to abate the epidemic in the counties and is expected to hold a trial on that question in April or May," Reuters reports.

The companies say they plan to appeal the verdict, citing recent Oklahoma and California rulings as proof that the public-nuisance claim was inappropriately applied. "The pharmacy chains have blamed drugmakers for marketing the addictive medications, and doctors for overprescribing, arguing that others were significantly responsible for the flood of legal opioids that were diverted to illegal use," Meryl Kornfield and Lenny Bernstein report for The Washington Post. "But federal law puts a 'corresponding responsibility' on the pharmacist to determine that a prescription he or she fills is for a legitimate medical purpose." Other chains such as Rite Aid and Giant Eagle have previously settled with the counties for undisclosed sums in the matter.

It's unclear whether the public-nuisance strategy will ultimately prove effective. Similar claims are ongoing elsewhere, in state courts in New York and Washington, and a federal court in West Virginia, Kornfield and Bernstein report.

New rapid antibiotics test could bring more transparency to meat supply chain

Veteran cattle rancher Bill Niman has co-founded a company, FoodID, that can quickly test meat for the presence of antibiotics. He believes adopting the tech will force meat companies to be honest about whether they're using antibiotics on animals, Lisa Held reports for Civil Eats.

The question matters because, scientists say, "antibiotic resistance—the growing number of 'superbugs' that are resistant to treatment—is 'widely considered to be the next global pandemic,'" Held reports. "And while a number of countries have successfully reduced dependence on them, the U.S. is behind the curve. For example, the U.S. cattle industry uses medically important antibiotics four to six times more intensively than four of the top livestock-producing countries in Europe, according to analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council."

Major meat brands sell product lines labeled antibiotic-free, but it's difficult for consumers or consumer agencies to test those claims. "While tests for antibiotic residue in meat already exist, FoodID’s version uses flow-through technology, the same technology used in at-home pregnancy tests, to make the process faster, cheaper, and more sensitive than ever before," Held reports. "Using that tech, the company’s first application seeks to partner with companies to validate their 'no antibiotics' claims, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires testing just .0025 percent of animals each year. With chicken, FoodID’s team tests multiple birds pulled from each chicken house; with cattle and pigs, they test carcasses at the slaughter facilities."

Smaller producers may be more likely to adopt the tech, since it will bolster their claims of selling superior meat. Larger meat companies may be less inclined, but Niman hopes independent watchdog groups will test the meat, a la Consumer Reports, and publicly pressure the companies to change their practiciess, Held reports.

Thanksgiving roundup: Native Americans reflect on Indigenous People's Day and more

Just in time for Thanksgiving, here's a roundup of news concerning the nation's original inhabitants, whose communities and concerns today are often rural.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims. The Wampanoag Nation, whose ancestors were at that first Thanksgiving, say what actually happened in 1621 is much different from what most children are taught in grade school. Read more here.

More states are heeding tribal leaders and banning Native American sports mascots. Read more here.

For centuries, Native Americans lived and fished the area, often called the Everglades of the West. But now climate change is fueling a water-rights conflict in the Pacific Northwest's Klamath Basin. Read more here.

Tribal members across Oklahoma reflect on Indigenous Peoples' Day. Read more here.

A three-part podcast from Wyoming Public Media's "The Modern West" explores the U.S. government's historic failure to keep its promise to provide adequate medical treatment for Native Americans, and how that has made the coronavirus even more deadly among many tribes. Listen to the series here.

Last week the Senate confirmed Charles Sams III to lead the National Park Service. Sams, a member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes, is the first Native American to lead the agency, and the first permanent head of the agency in years. Read more here.

Comedian Adrianne Chalepah keeps crowds laughing while highlighting Native American life and issues. Read more here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Lee Enterprises sale to Alden would create hedge fund-owned duopoly for U.S. dailies, include dozens of weeklies

Locations of Lee Enterprises' daily newspapers
"Lawmakers, local reporters and journalism advocates are sounding the alarm over a takeover attempt of local newspaper group Lee Enterprises by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund known for cutting journalists at local papers to maximize profits," Sara Fischer reports for Axios.

If Alden bought out Lee, a "clear majority" of U.S. dailies would be owned by hedge funds. Moreover, it would "essentially create a local news duopoly between Alden and Gannett/Gatehouse, which merged in 2019," Fischer reports.

"It was pretty clear this day would come," Joshua Benton writes for Nieman Lab. "Lee is the biggest acquisition target left out there, with papers in 77 markets across 26 states — not to mention nearly 350 weekly and specialty publications." Benton adds, "At some previous companies that Alden has tried to acquire, there’s been resistance — from management, employees, civic leaders, or all of the above. . . . But frankly, I’d be surprised if Lee put up much of a fight this time," since it's offering cash and a 30 percent more than the price of Lee stock last week.

As Lee's stock spiked 26 percent on Monday after Alden announced its offer, policymakers and reporters expressed concern. Sara Gentzler, a state-government reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, tweeted that it was a "gut-wrenching scenario for Nebraska newspapers and anyone who cares about preserving robust local news."

Scores of Lee's papers were once owned by Warren Buffett, "who soured on the business in recent years and said most newspapers were 'toast'," Katie Robertson of The New York Times reports. Lee "managed the 31 daily newspapers and dozens of weeklies owned by Mr. Buffett for a time before he sold them to that company in 2020."

Lee was recently in the news after reports that Iranian hackers broke into the company's computer systems the day after the 2020 election and tested how to create fake news.

UPDATE: Editor & Publisher hosts a discussion among Gordon Borrell, founder and principal of Borrell Associates; Rick Edmonds, media-business analyst for The Poynter Institute; Steven Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America; and Gretchen A. Peck, contributing editor at E&P.

Farmers get 14 cents of dollar spent on Thanksgiving meal

National Farmers Union graphic; click on it to enlarge
"For every dollar Americans spend on Thanksgiving meals this year, farmers and ranchers will earn approximately 14.3 cents," says the National Farmers Union.

“Ordinarily, Thanksgiving is a time to gather with our loved ones and enjoy a big meal,” said NFU President Rob Larew. “But for many Americans, the cost of traditional holiday foods may simply be out of reach for some families.”

NFU says that while consumers are paying more for food, "almost none of that is being passed on to America’s family farmers and ranchers. Multiple waves of mergers and acquisitions during the last several decades have resulted in agriculture and food supply chains that are uncompetitive, fragile, and underpay farmers. The farmer’s share of every dollar consumers spend on food has fallen from 50 percent in 1952 to less than 15 percent today."

Supreme Court decision on groundwater rights could have implications for interstate water wars in era of more droughts

Aquifer being tapped by Memphis and Mississippi
(Wall Street Journal map, adapted by The Rural Blog)
On Monday the Supreme Court unanimously found that Tennessee was not stealing Mississippi's groundwater; the ruling has broad implications for how states manage natural resources, especially as climate change continues to drive droughts, Bobby Magill reports for Bloomberg.

Over a century ago, the Supreme Court established the equitable apportionment doctrine as a rubric for deciding interstate conflicts over common bodies of water. This case is the first to extend that doctrine to groundwater, Jess Bravin reports for The Wall Street Journal.

"Mississippi accused a Memphis utility of improperly pumping water out of an interstate aquifer spanning the region, claiming it wasn’t a 'shared resource.' The dispute centered on whether the utility interfered with Mississippi’s authority over its land and waters," Magill reports.

Mississippi sought at least $615 million in damages, claiming it was more difficult and expensive to access water because the Memphis utility was drawing so much out of the Middle Claiborne Aquifer—some 120 million gallons per day, Bravin reports. The aquifer lies under eight states in the Mississippi River Basin.

Free webinar TODAY at 2 p.m. ET to celebrate Native journalism and Freedom Forum Institute's 30th anniversary

The Freedom Forum Institute, a nonprofit that raises awareness about First Amendment rights, will celebrate its 30th anniversary with the latest in a series of free webinars at 2 p.m. ET today, "Celebrating Native American journalism and 30 Years of the Freedom Forum." Click here for details or to register.

Here's some more info from the website: "As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, join us to look back at the Freedom Forum’s longtime commitment to Native American journalism, talk about representation of Native journalists today and discuss the issues that are being covered in the community. Three journalists who have participated in Freedom Forum programs will share how the initiatives impacted them and talk about their work today:
  • Katie Oyan, West Desk editor, The Associated Press
  • Shondiin Silversmith, indigenous affairs reporter, The Arizona Mirror
  • Mark Trahant, editor, Indian Country Today

EPA finds glyphosate, atrazine and simazine can hurt endangered species or habitats; new rules could be coming

"The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized biological evaluations concluding that three common herbicides can adversely affect endangered species or their habitats," Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service will use the EPA's findings on glyphosate, atrazine and simazine to determine whether the weed-killers actually jeopardize the existence of any endangered species. The biological opinions that those agencies issue could result in additional restrictions being placed on the herbicides."

The report suggests new measures to mitigate the herbicides' impact, "including buffers to sensitive habitats, use deletions, and restrictions regarding where applications can occur," Brasher reports.

EPA reauthorized atrazine and simazine (part of a class called triazines) in September 2020, but put new restrictions on their use designed to limit potential harm to human health and the environment. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup. Manufacturer Bayer AG announced this summer that it will remove the weedkiller from the lawn and garden market in 2023, but it will remain available for farmers.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Rural journalist, dying of cancer, reflects in weekly columns

Dave Taylor
This spring, Dave Taylor found out he had Stage 4 esophageal cancer. The veteran journalist, editor of the weekly Hancock Clarion in Hawesville, Kentucky, began writing about the experience the week afterward in a column series called "What I Learned From Dying."

"If things go well this will be a long-term column that could serve as catharsis for me or a peek behind the gown for those who are curious," Taylor wrote in the first column. "If things don’t go as well, then maybe it’s just a long, rambling goodbye."

Since that first column in May, Taylor has reflected not just on his life, but on journalism and the value of local reporting. "While the stories I’ve covered haven’t always been earth shattering, they’ve been important to the people in those stories and maybe important to those who read them," he writes.

The Clarion—and other rural newspapers—play a vital role in their communities. "Nowhere else are you going to find pictures of your kids at the fair or an action shot of the homerun your grandson hit in the big game last week," Taylor writes. "But we also play the role of local historians. We mark history with every story we write and photo we print. When someone wants information about anything in the past they turn to the newspaper."

Staffers at the paper, owned by longtime Publisher Donn Wimmer, do their best to cover local happenings "because generally speaking, we’re the only ones covering Hancock County at all," he writes. "Please continue to read and support the Clarion. It’s the only paper we’ve got."

Iranian hackers got into Lee Enterprises systems the day after the 2020 election, and tested how to create fake news

Lee Enterprises newspaper locations; click the image to enlarge, or click here for the interactive version and a list.

"Iranian hackers last year infiltrated the computer systems of Lee Enterprises Inc., a major American media company that publishes dozens of daily [and weekly] newspapers across the U.S., as part of a broader effort to spread disinformation about the 2020 presidential election," Dustin Volz reports for The Wall Street Journal. "On Thursday, the Justice Department said the alleged hackers broke in to the digital systems of an unnamed media company in fall 2020 and tested how to create false news content. People familiar with the matter on Friday identified the company as Lee."

Lee, based in Davenport, Iowa, is one of the nation's larger newspaper chains, especially since acquiring BH Media Group's 31 papers in early 2020. It has more than 350 non-daily papers.

"The Federal Bureau of Investigation warned the unnamed company about the intrusion, prosecutors said. The day after the November presidential election, the hackers tried to get back into the media company’s system but failed, prosecutors said. The federal charging document in the case doesn’t indicate the hackers successfully published fake information under the unnamed media company’s news brands," Volz reports. Last year, U.S. intelligence found "that the leaders of Russia and Iran ordered their governments to attempt to influence U.S. voters’ choices in the 2020 presidential election and undermine the public’s faith in American democracy."

News media can used to spread disinformation without hacking. That happened last November while votes were still being counted: "A coordinated network of Twitter accounts posed as the Associated Press and CNN to prematurely declare election victories for Democrat Joe Biden," Volz reports. "Those tweets, which Twitter removed quickly, were nonetheless retweeted dozens of times and amplified by at least a handful of journalists and other verified Twitter users." 

The incident is a good reminder to be vigilant and cross-check even tweets that seem legitimate. State election officials, increasingly concerned about disinformation campaigns, have called on the public to only trust official vote tabulations instead of news media reports or projections, Volz reports.

UPDATE, Nov. 23: Lee is a takeover target of Alden Global Capital, The New York Times reports.

Ken Burns: The one national historic site with 'massacre' in its name shows we should teach history, not mythology

The Sand Creek Massacre, from History of Colorado; the national historic site was dedicated in 2007.
By Ken Burns
I’ve been making films about American history for more than 40 years. In all of those years, there’s something central that I’ve learned about being an American: Veneration and shame often go hand in hand.

Today, however, I fear patriotism is presented as a false choice. It seems that for many, to be patriotic is to remember and celebrate only our nation’s triumphs. To choose otherwise, to choose to remember our failings, is thus somehow anti-American.

But it is not so simple.

When the National Park Service opened its 391st unit — the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site — the site became the first and only to include the word “massacre” in the title, a reminder of the Nov. 29, 1864, attack on Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho people that was misrepresented as a “battle” for nearly a century. In a video, I reflect on the legacy and contemporary resonance of this massacre.

Being an American means reckoning with a history fraught with violence and injustice. Ignoring that reality in favor of mythology is not only wrong but also dangerous. The dark chapters of American history have just as much to teach us, if not more, than the glorious ones, and often the two are intertwined.

As some question how to teach American history to our children — and even question the history itself — I urge us to confront the hard truth, and to trust our children with it. Because a truly great nation is one that can acknowledge its failures.

Ken Burns is a filmmaker whose digital history project UNUM connects scenes from his documentaries to current events.

Rural communities may miss out on infrastructure funds; experts recommend states stage outreach programs to help

Though the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package has plenty of money specifically earmarked for rural America, rural communities are concerned they'll miss out on much of it.

Most of the funds "will flow to state governments, with the most populous states getting the largest amounts. Then cities, towns and counties will compete for grants and loans, with state officials deciding who gets what. Federal officials will maintain control of about $120 billion, part of which will be doled out through competitive grants," Aallyah Wright reports for Stateline. "Rural leaders worry that they lack the staff and matching dollars to compete with bigger cities for their fair share of the bounty."

Some smaller, more conservative states have had difficulty with federal stimulus money because they don't have processes in place to decide how it should be spent, develop regulations to govern distribution, and then actually distribute it, Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs, told Wright.

Even when states clear those hurdles, rural municipalities often have trouble accepting and spending grants for similar reasons: lack of personnel, decision-making processes and know-how. Communities also worry they can't accept money that requires cost-sharing or matching funds, Wright reports. Hladick recommended that state agencies market their stimulus fund plans to localities to maximize the money's potential.

Kansas state officials hid public information at private firm's request; it's part of a national trend against transparency

The Kansas state government hid large parts of an audit to please a private company. The audit, which cost taxpayers $100,000, "was meant to watchdog about $160 million in prescription drug spending on state employees, though experts say it came nowhere near achieving that, despite its hefty price tag," Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports for KCUR in Kansas City. "Kansas bowed to the auditor’s wishes for secrecy, even though an attorney for the state couldn’t find anything in the report that qualified for protection from public view."

The incident is part of a larger trend: "In Oregon, a city is hiding from a newspaper how much of the region’s precious water Google uses to cool its servers — claiming it’s a Google trade secret. A Utah county refused to show a disability rights center its jail manuals for things such as hygiene and medical care — because the author had copyrighted them," Llopis-Jepsen reports for the NPR affiliate. "Virginia pre-emptively promised Amazon it would redact as much as it could get away with if any citizens asked for public records involving the company — to please the retail behemoth."

State and local governments regularly duck transparency laws by citing private companies' intellectual property rights. "And in the case of Kansas, it effectively outsources the redaction process to private companies that don’t work for the public, that don’t have any legal obligation to follow open records law and that can’t be hauled before a judge for breaking it," Llopis-Jepsen reports.

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, told Llopis-Jepsen he worries that governments are increasingly allowing businesses control what the public can see: "This is not a Kansas problem. It’s not an Oregon problem . . . It’s an everywhere problem."

Friday, November 19, 2021

What's in the Build Back Better bill for rural America

Today the House passed a $2 trillion social spending and climate bill 220-213, with all Republicans and one Democrat, Rep. Jared Golden of Maine, opposed. It goes to the Senate, where changes are likely to satisfy Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. 

"The package retains most of its original major elements, including funding for clean energy, universal prekindergarten, subsidized child care, and billions more for health care, affordable housing and elder care," The Wall Street Journal reports. "Many of these programs are set to expire within several years, a deliberate effort to lower the package’s top-line price. Making the programs temporary as opposed to permanent also represents a bet by Democrats that future voters will vote for candidates who promise to renew them. The package would be financed by changes to the corporate tax code, including a new corporate minimum tax, while raising taxes on high-income individuals."

Here's some of what's in it that affects rural America:

  • $555 billion for climate, including "$320 billion in 10-year expanded tax credits for residential and utility-scale renewable energy, transmission, electric vehicles and clean-energy manufacturing; $105 billion to boost resilience to the effects of climate change, such as wildfires and droughts; $110 billion to grow U.S. supply chains for renewable energy technology; and $20 billion to motivate the government to purchase cutting-edge energy technologies," the WSJ reports.
  • $200 billion to extend the expanded child-tax credit through 2022.
  • About $200 billion for four weeks of paid parental, sick or caregiving leave, starting in 2024.
  • $150 billion for providing at-home medical care for seniors and disabled Americans.
  • $18 billion for "job-promoting investments to ensure those living in rural America, on tribal lands, and our insular areas have access to clean water and reliable and efficient renewable energy, says the Agriculture Department. "This funding will also support investment in renewable biofuels infrastructure important to farmers and our fight against climate change, and flexible funding for rural community growth." That includes $9.6 billion in debt relief for farmers and $1 billion for farmer loan modifications. It also includes more than $1.3 billion in assistance and support for underserved farmers, ranchers and foresters.
  • $2 billion for agricultural research and infrastructure. Click here for a detailed breakdown.
  • $5 million through Sept. 30, 2031, for audits and other oversight to make sure USDA spends all that money on what it's supposed to. USDA has been widely criticized for sparse oversight.
  • About $27 billion for programs to help prevent and fight forest fires, restore forests and promote tourism in under-served areas. That includes the creation of a Civilian Climate Corps, modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the Great Depression.
  • $28 billion for conservation, including support for farmers.
  • $10 billion for child nutrition programs, which would make 9 million more children eligible for free school meals.
  • $200 million for additional pandemic relief payments to frontline grocery workers.
  • pathway to legal residence, but not citizenship, for undocumented immigrants. About 7 million of the 11 million undocumented in the U.S. could apply for work permits, permission to travel abroad, and state driver's licenses. "To qualify, immigrants must have arrived before Jan. 1, 2011, and lived here ever since. Work permits would be valid for five years, and could be renewed one time, extending protections through September 2031," The Washington Post reports.
  • Restoration of more than 400,000 green cards that went unused because of bureaucratic or pandemic-related delays.
  • A fee on methane emissions and funding to help facilities lower such emissions.
  • Enhanced subsidies for health insurance through Affordable Care Act exchanges would be extended through 2027. They are now set to expire after 2022. "The changes would mean more people would continue to remain eligible for subsidies and lower-income people would also continue to see more generous subsidies," the WSJ reports.
  • Subsidies in 2022-25 for the 4 million uninsured Americans in the 12 states that haven't expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
  • Many Medicare recipients would pay less out of pocket for health care, and the program would cover hearing care for the first time.
  • Consumers with private insurance would never have to pay more than $35 for insulin before a deductible is applied.
  • A $2,000 a year cap on out-of-pocket costs for the voluntary prescription drug benefit, starting in 2024.
  • More than $18 billion for the first three years for universal pre-kindergarten. "After that, the program would be funded with a 90% federal, 10% state split in the fourth year, then 75%-25% in the fifth year and 60%-40% in the sixth year. The program would end after six years," WSJ reports. A coalition of conservative religious groups opposes the measure, saying a non-discrimination clause could disqualify them.
  • About $100 billion over three years to address child-care shortages and raise workers' wages by building new facilities, training teachers, and subsidizing low- and middle-income families' child-care expenses. "After the first three years, the entitlement expands to nearly all families. It guarantees that no family making less than 250% of their state’s median income would pay more than 7% of their income on child care," the WSJ reports. "Families making less than 75% of their state’s median income would pay nothing. The program ends after six years."
  • For the first time, the federal government would be able to negotiate the prices of some medications covered by Medicare. The measure would begin with 10 drugs starting in 2025 and will increase.
  • $150 billion for affordable housing, including $65 billion to repair public housing, $35 billion for rental assistance and $15 billion for affordable housing grants through the Housing Trust Fund. The plan will also provide down-payment assistance for first-time home buyers whose parents are also not homeowners.
The bill is notable for how much funding will go to rural and agricultural interests. The American Farm Bureau Federation opposes it; President Zippy Duvall said in a statement the bill would hurt rural America because it "raises taxes and spends more taxpayer money at a time our country can afford to do neither."

However, a diverse group of conservation, agricultural, and sporting groups voiced their support for the bill. Conservation funding in the bill "underscores the central role that farmers, ranchers and private forest owners play in addressing the climate crisis," Aviva Glaser, the National Wildlife Federation's senior director of agriculture policy, said in a statement. "This transformative investment into popular and effective USDA conservation programs and practices will create jobs, support rural communities, reduce emissions, and create benefits for soil, water, and wildlife.