Saturday, February 21, 2009

ABC follow-up touches on Appalachian solutions; how will the region and its journalists respond?

ABC News made good on its promise to explore solutions for Appalachia in last night's follow-up report on "A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains," though that exercise was only two minutes of the seven-and-a-half minute report on "20/20." The solutions segment was a blur of ideas (infrastructure and job training, green jobs, computers for every student, expanded health care) with only two methods of turning them into reality: stimulus money and philanthropy, one of the means suggested by this writer and the one that made it onto air.

Still, the reports could help accomplish what Kentucky native Diane Sawyer suggested in her eloquent closing line: "These Kentuckians say the beauty of the mountains is calling to all of us, to restart that conversation that began more than 40 years ago," when the Appalachian Regional Commission was created as part of the War on Poverty and Robert F. Kennedy campaigned in the Eastern Kentucky counties where ABC did its reporting.

While the nation as a whole, and the states involved, should continue to bear responsibility for helping Appalachia, the region's problems are also local problems. However, they are often not seen that way by some in local communities, who would prefer to dismiss the poverty, ignorance and depredation as unsolvable and the adults involved as incorrigible. But Sawyer and her producers showed how children are victimized by the failings of adults, and the fighting sprit the kids show in trying to overcome them. They are inspirations. For a good report from Samantha Swindler of The Times-Tribune in Corbin on football player Shawn Grim heading to Union College in Barbourville, click here.

Last night's final words, also inspiring, came from University of Kentucky professor Ron Eller, the leading historian of modern Appalachia: “There are ways to think about the future in the mountains in different kinds of ways than we’ve thought about them in the past. We just need to be willing to dream.” And Appalachian journalists should seek out those ideas and share the dreams, even if the stories are difficult to tell. Especially if they are. For a more detailed analysis and commentary on ABC's work and Appalachia, click here.

UPDATE, Feb. 23: Eastern Kentucky's sole commercial television station, WYMT-57 in Hazard, is doing a "mountain response" to ABC tonight at 7 p.m. EST. News Director Neil Middleton said in an e-mail that the show will have two Pikeville doctors, the director of a local resource center, a volunteer who started a Backpack Club in London and provides 1,400 bags of food a week, and a local math teacher who posted a video response to ABC on YouTube. "I want to concentrate on what we are doing as a region and what you and I can do to help in this effort," Middleton wrote."We will talk a little about their reaction to the piece, but I don’t want to spend an hour bashing ABC. That doesn’t help anyone."

Friday, February 20, 2009

Kentucky woman to lead USDA nutrition programs

Amid debate and speculation about the future course of the Department of Agriculture and the school-lunch program, the nutrition director for a large Kentucky school system will become deputy undersecretary of agriculture for food, nutrition, her hometown newspaper reports.

Janey Thornton of Hardin County Schools is chair of of the Child Nutrition Foundation and a member of the Global Child Nutrition Foundation Planning Team and Organization Board, reports Kelly Richardson of The News-Enterprise of Elizabethtown. Thornton was president of the American School Food Service Association in 2006-07 and president of the group’s foundation in 2007-08.

Though the White House has not announced the appointment, it was announced at Thursday night's county school board meeting. The deputy undersecretary oversees school lunch and breakfast programs, "the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which was formerly known as food stamps, and the Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children," Richardson notes. (Read more)

Iowa bill would give access to documents discussed at meetings of public agencies

A common obstacle for reporters covering public meetings is the lack of access to documents being discussed at the meeting by members of the public agency board. We wonder how many states have a law like one an Iowa legislator wants to pass.

The bill would require public agencies in the Hawkeye State to distribute to everyone in attendance "copies of all material distributed in connection with the meeting at the time the meeting is held, if practicable, or within three days after the meeting is held by posting such material on the Internet site of the governmental body or, upon request, by sending such material to a requester by regular mail or electronic mail."

The bill, House File 168, would also require government agencies to schedule at least half of their board meetings "in the evening hours" and require notice of meetings 72 hours in advance
instead of the current 48 hours. It is sponsored by Rep. Jodi Tymeson, R-Winterset, one of four assistant House minority leaders. She was the first female brigadier general in the Iowa Army National Guard, according to her caucus Web site.

Current school lunch system should be eliminated, famous chef and local-food advocate say

The National School Lunch Program has gotten a lot of heat over the past decade due to increasing rates of child obesity and Type 2 diabetes. Alice Waters and Katrina Heron contribute an op-ed piece to The New York Times, urging for reform of the system, partly in ways that could help rural areas.

Waters and Heron write that the Department of Agriculture spends around $9 billion annually for the prorgam, "a figure widely acknowledged as inadequate to cover food costs." In addition to this, schools can receive "commodity foods" that are cheaper and include obesity culprits like processed chicken nuggets and pizza. Because of the little preparation these foods require, they are an asset to schools without kitchens or an adequate cooking staff, but the impact on child health is mounting with this national program of "junk-food distribution."

Waters and Heron encourage a reformat of the entire system with the aid of several government departments and key figures. "Washington needs to give schools enough money to cook and serve unprocessed foods that are produced without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. When possible, these foods should be locally grown," they write. "Cash-strapped parents should be able to rely on the government to contribute to their children’s physical well-being, not to the continued spread of youth obesity, Type 2 diabetes and other diet-related problems." Read more here.

Biotechnology companies are preventing research on genetically modified crops, say scientists

Researchers are being prevented from comprehensively studying genetically modified crops, due to restrictions by the companies which create them, say 26 corn-insect researchers said in a statement given to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Biotechnology companies typically have clauses in their purchase contracts preventing buyers from using the crops for research. Instead, researchers must directly petition the companies for research rights, allowing the company the right to approve the research results before any studies are published. "If a company can control the research that appears in the public domain, they can reduce the potential negatives that can come out of any research," said University of Minnesota entomologist Ken Ostlie, one of the scientists who signed the statement.

"What is striking," writes Andrew Pollack in The New York Times, "is that the scientists issuing the protest, who are mainly from land-grant universities with big agricultural programs, say they are not opposed to the technology. Rather, they say, the industry’s chokehold on research means that they cannot supply some information to farmers about how best to grow the crops." Seed companies claim the restrictions protect intellectual property rights and meet federal regulatory standards, but federal agencies deny that their regulations prevent university research. (Read more)

Obama creates Office of Urban Affairs; still waiting to see if he plans to do likewise for rural concerns

President Obama signed an executive order yesterday creating the White House Office of Urban Affairs. We've asked the White House Office of Media Affairs, which handles press inquiries from outside Washington, if he plans to create an office for rural affairs. Stay tuned. UPDATE, Feb. 21: Still no word from the White House. Meanwhile, the headline in the Detroit Free Press says "Obama shows he's an urban guy."

Obama's order says "about 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas," but that stretches the truth to the breaking point. That is the figure for people who live in metropolitan areas, which include suburbs that most Americans would not consider "urban," and even large swaths of land that are still rural. The order adds that "The economic health and social vitality of our urban communities are critically important to the prosperity and quality of life for Americans." Rural advocates would say that's also true of rural areas.

The move comes as no surprise to insiders. Al Kamen reported on The Washington Post's "44" blog on Nov. 10 that such an office would be created because Obama had promised it and still believed in the idea. He quoted transition co-chair Valerie Jarrett: "Because he began as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, he understands at the local level is really where you can impact change and that local government can play a vital role as we try to jump start our economy. So having somebody in the White House, because there are so many different agencies that really can impact urban America and to have one person whose job it is to really pull all of that together, is really a critical position."

Brazilian meatpacker halts purchase of K.C. beef firm, which Justice Department was trying to stop

Last year, we reported that the expansion of JBS, a Brazilian meatpacking company that had bought up a number of U.S. operations, was raising anti-trust concerns. The company was slated to buy Kansas City-based National Beef, but announced today that it is backing out of the deal.

In October, the Justice Department sued to block the sale, saying the sale would limit competition in the beef industry. With the purchase, JBS would have owned 32 percent of the nation's beef market. Today's statement from the company said that "in the absence of satisfactory conditions [it] decided not to follow on with the acquisition." (Read more; subscription may be required)

Virginia passes a ban on smoking in restaurants

"Tobacco has been an integral part of Virginia's economy since its earliest days, and state legislators have historically steered well clear of any laws that might damage it. But as the state has shifted away from its rural, agricultural roots, that's changed, and both houses of the General Assembly voted Thursday to pass a historic bill that would ban smoking in nearly all restaurants except those where there is a separately ventilated smoking room," reports Mason Adams in The Roanoke Times.

Gov. Tim Kaine said he would sign the bill, which would take effect Dec. 1, and information from his office "suggested that Virginia's new ban would be the toughest among the nation's top five tobacco-producing states, which also include North Carolina, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee. Among them, only Tennessee has a statewide ban, which exempts private clubs and any establishments that require proof of age to enter," reports Jim Nolan of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. (Read more)

Adams reports Kaine "said that Southside Virginia is shifting from its reliance on tobacco to a more diverse economy based in part on 'energy crops' such as switchgrass. He said his energy initiatives will "provide a new opportunity for the agricultural sector, including folks who were in tobacco farming, to be profitable on family farms with energy crops." (Read more)

Digital TV transition hits bumps over technology, terrain, economics

Television stations that went ahead with the digital conversion Tuesday saw their switchboards light up as people tried to navigate the new waves of digital reception. The biggest problems people had could be fixed by rescanning the channels with the setup function on their TVs. However, as we warned weeks ago, others found their antennas insufficient to pick up digital signals from faraway stations. In Joplin, Mo., one man got so frustrated with the entire transition, he shot up his television set. (Read more)

This remains a big rural story. In Nebraska, Lincoln-based KOLN/KGIN received 220 calls by mid-day Tuesday, writes Timberley Ross for The Associated Press. And at KHGI-TV, general manager Vincent Barresi said, "With the rural area which we serve, a number of these homes have relied on rabbit-ear antennas, and in a lot of those cases, the antenna's won't cut it in the new digital world." (Read more)

Some rural areas are also at a disadvantage because of terrain. That is the case in Vermont, where Peter Martin of WCAX told Bruce Edwards of the Rutland Herald that those in more remote areas are losing signal because they are moving to a UHF signal that is not good with mountainous terrain. (Read more)

One of the major problems in the digital transition is basic economics. Tony Rutherford of West Virginia's writes, "If you can't afford cable or a dish, you likely will have a hard time in this weak economic time purchasing converter(s) (minus $40), amplifier(s), antenna(s), and/or a new TV." (Read more) In The Wichita Eagle, Stan Finger quotes Jesse Huxman, director of content for KPTS, the city's public television station: "[People] say things like, 'I'm on a fixed income, and I can't afford to upgrade to cable or satellite. Does this mean I'm not going to get KPTS anymore? Sadly, that might be the case unless they're able to upgrade their antenna or get it to a different elevation." (Read more)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Journal Register Co. closing many rural papers

We're a bit late in noting this, but it should be noted that many small towns and rural areas once served by Journal Register Co. newspapers are no longer, because the bankrupt company has closed them in the last few weeks. It's unknown just how extensive the closings are, or how great their impact is, because the company "has provided no details to the public," reported Erik Sass of Media Daily News. The company's papers are mainly in the Northeast and Michigan, as shown on the company map.

"The closing of these newspapers, which involved an unknown number of layoffs, is ironic in light of Journal Register's buying spree in the 1990s and earlier this decade. It built a portfolio of about 300 weekly newspapers around the Northeast and Midwest, but loaded the company with a significant amount of debt as well," Sass writes. "With the decline of newspaper ad revenues coinciding with a recession and credit crunch, Journal Register's finances imploded, and its myriad acquisitions proved unsustainable." (Read more)

IBM and partner expanding power-line broadband

IBM and International Broadband Electric Communications of Huntsville, Ala., announced this week that they would offer relatively slow broadband Internet service over power lines to five more rural electric cooperatives in Alabama, Indiana, Michigan and Virginia, making a total of six out of a planned 13 in seven states. We first reported the partnership in November.

"There appears to be pent-up demand in these areas," Saul Hansell of The New York Times writes on the newspaper's Bits (Business, innovation, technology, society) blog. "One Michigan cooperative signed up 5,000 customers in the first two weeks, said Raymond Blair, the director of advanced networks for IBM. These deployments have been subsidized by low-interest loans from the Rural Development program of the Department of Agriculture, which is going to get a big chunk of new money for loans and grants from the stimulus bill that was just signed."

With a signal amplifier on each mile of power line, "the signal can be sent 25 miles from a substation, far longer than DSL service over phone wires," Hansell reports. "Blair said this technology has been cost-effective in areas that have five to fifteen people living near each mile of line. The government grants might even encourage power companies to install it in even more sparsely populated areas. ... Blair said that delivery over power lines could be especially good for hilly terrain that blocks wireless signals."

While the service is relatively slow and expensive, $29.95 a month for 256 KB and $49.95 for 1 MB, even the slower version is 10 times faster than dial-up, which is "totally inadequate for the nature of the Internet in this world,” Blair told the Times. (Read more)

Green energy gets legislative push, while some investors get wary over coal, oil companies

The Obama administration's promise to increase the role of renewables in the nation's energy supply is making headlines again, as the top Senate leader promising legislation and big oil and coal companies are put on a "watch list" by a coalition of investors and environmentalists.

In the next few weeks the Senate may pass a new energy bill that would set a higher national standard for the percentage of energy coming from renewable resources, if Majority Leader Harry Reid has his way, writes Juliet Eilperin on The Washington Post's 44 blog on the new president's actions and plans. In an interview, Reid told Eilperin that the measure is "vitally important to the safety and national security of this country," reducing the country's dependence on foreign oil. Reid also said he hopes the Senate will pass climate change legislation once the energy bill is finished. (Read more)

In the face of this promised regulation, a group of U.S. investors and environmentalists have put Exxon Mobil Corp. and coal company Massey Energy Co. on a "Climate Watch" list, writes Timothy Gardner for Reuters. The coalition called Ceres says the companies have not adequately adjusted their business plans to respond to the growing interest in green energy. "For a company in a major emitting sector ... to not be thinking about how they are going to address a regulated environment created red flags for investors," says Mindy Lubber, Ceres' president. (Read more)

Deere earnings and profit outlook are down; how much of a barometer is it for U.S. agriculture?

Agriculture and major farming areas have been lingering bright spots as the economic outlook darkens, but the shadows grew longer yesterday when Deere & Co. "posted a drop in quarterly earnings and lowered its full-year profit forecast by more than 20 percent, citing weaker demand for its farm and construction equipment in the global economic downturn," reports Bob Tita of The Wall Street Journal.

"Deere's performance is widely watched as a barometer of conditions in global agriculture," Tita notes. "For the past five years, Deere's sales and profits have surged amid rising prices for farm commodities and livestock. But falling commodity prices, tighter credit conditions, higher material costs and volatile currency exchange rates are putting the brakes on the Moline, Ill., company's performance."

However, Deere's status may not be as good a barometer for U.S. agriculture as usual, because its NAFTA market appears stronger than those overseas. "The company sees North America as its strongest market for farm machinery, predicting that retail sales will be flat to up by as much as 5 percent," Vita reports. "Sales of large tractors and combines are expected to be a pocket of strength as commodity prices remain healthy and fuel and fertilizer costs moderate." (Read more)

TV transition may pleasantly surprise viewers

The transition from analog to digital television is exactly that, especially since the deadline to turn off analog signals was extended to June 12. Instead of ending analog signals this week as first planned, stations are now all over the calendar, and that means viewers should keep looking around for new digital signals, writes David Greer of the Kentucky Press Association.

"While the changeover to digital might mean some people lose reception of past favorite channels, other signals might actually come in much better than they did before," Greer said in an e-mail to The Rural Blog. "During this transition period, frequently put your TV or converter box in the automatic channel scan mode. You might pick up something new. Do this every few weeks -- or even days -- between now and the June digital deadline."

Greer gives the latest example at his house in the state capital: "A month ago, using my $10 set of rabbit ears/UHF loop antenna purchased at the Frankfort Big Lots, I scanned the available digital TV signals at my home using the cheap, indoor antenna sitting on my home entertainment center and found I could get eight. ... Last night, just for grins I rescanned and this time I came up with 11 channels. Wow, I thought. Three more. I wonder who they are? I was awestruck when the three new digital channels were WAVE 1, 2 and 3 from Louisville."

Greer says the NBC affiliate "had never produced a good picture on the rabbit ears with its analog signal," but now the evening news anchor "never looked better," the second channel offered movies, syndicated shows and cartoons, and the third was a local weather channel. "It appears WAVE-TV has made some significant change to its HD signal in the past month, perhaps an increase in transmitter power output. ... Much has been written about how analog reception in fringe areas might have been snowy but it still produced pictures and sound that you could watch. And that's true, of course. But in this instance, on the very same antenna in the same spot, the HiDef picture is vastly superior to the analog signal."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Vilsack signals greener farm policy under Obama

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has given some clues at the future of farm policy under the Obama Administration. He told delegates to the National Cotton Council’s annual meeting in Washington Monday, "producers must begin to think creatively and innovatively about how they can use their land to absorb carbon, how they can structure a financial market for the use of their land and provide additional support for everyone who farms."

Vilsack seemed to be echoing policy favored by environmental groups and Tom Harkin, the Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman. "Those groups and Harkin have argued that traditional farm program payments should be dismantled and replaced with “greener” conservation program payments that would reward producers for reducing the carbon footprint in the farming practices," reports Forest Laws of the Southwest Farm Press.

Citing the latest farm census figures, which point to an increase in the number of smaller and larger farms, Vilsack pointed to a need to buoy middle sized farms throughout the country. Those middle sized farms consist of "125,000 U.S. farmers who procduce 75 percent of the nation's agricultural output," writes Laws.

Vilsack's comments met with a mixed repsonse. Many of the cotton farmers in attendence "have long fought for the more traditional price support programs contained in the farm bills," adds Laws. (Read more)

EPA to consider regulating carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants

With a change of presidents, the Environmental Protection Agency is reconsidering whether to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. A Bush administration memorandum that said EPA would not impose such limits.

"The decision could mark the first step toward placing limits on greenhouse gases emitted by coal plants, an issue that has been hotly contested by the coal industry and environmentalists since April 2007, when the Supreme Court ruled that carbon dioxide should be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act," report Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post.

Federal regulation of carbon dioxide is strongly opposed by the coal industry, which says the decision should be made by Congress, not EPA, and that technology for reducing emissions is expensive and untested. Environmental groups argue that the construction on any new coal-fired power plant ensures that carbon dioxide will be pumped into the atmosphere for the lifetime of those facilities, estimated at 30 to 40 years. That would make combating global warming increasingly difficult, they argue. (Read more)

Second national conference will highlight inhumane treatment of gaited horses

The Friends of Sound Horses have announced plans for their second national conference to end soring of Tennessee Walking Horses and other gaited horse breeds. "The purpose of the conference is to bring together a wide complement of experts, research and resources to address alternatives and solutions so that gaited horses do not continue to face this abuse in the future," FOSH says.

The conference will be held March 20-21 in Gainesville, Fla. and is hosted by the University of Florida School of Veterinary Medicine. It is designed for owners of any gaited horse breed as well as individuals concerned about treatment of horses. The conference hopes to educate people about the inhumane treatment of gaited horses. For information on the conference, click here.

Fewer reporters in state capitals could mean less accountability for state legislators

Reflecting a national trend, the Washington Legislature is meeting with fewer reporters watching. "During the past 15 years, the state population has increased by 25 percent and the amount of tax money spent by the state has more than doubled," reports The Washington Newspaper, the journal of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and Allied Daily Newspapers of Washington. "Yet the number of print, television and radio journalists covering the state Legislature full time has dropped by about 70 percent."

The number of journalists covering the Legislature has dropped from 34 in 1993 to 17 in 2007. There is growing concern that without journalists to monitor the Legislature it will be harder to keep tabs on the politicians in Olympia. "That's not to say all politicians are crooks, but even some state lawmakers say journalists are needed to rat out the Legislature on occasion, especially when it comes to the budget," TWN reports. As newspapers across the country are forced to make staff cuts and budget cuts many are left wondering how much longer they will be able to finance quality reporting. (Read more)

Amid anger in Appalachia, some see lessons in 20/20 documentary; ABC working on follow-up

As reactions to Diane Sawyer's documentary on Central Appalachian children continue, many seem to feel the show enhanced stereotypes and brought no fresh perspective or possible solutions to problems facing the region. "For some, legions of whom shared their ire on online discussion boards and by word of mouth, it was because the '20/20' special report seemed to touch on the worst stereotypes of mountain people as missing teeth, being mired in hopeless poverty and strung out on drugs," report For others, there was a sense of déjà vu because the ABC News program put a national spotlight on the harsh existence that festers when rampant drug addiction escalates the already substantial struggle of the poorest of the poor."

"It's hard not to look at that program and think about 50 years of reporting on Appalachia," Art Menius, director of Appalshop, an arts and education center in Whitesburg, said. "The stories that get all of the attention are the ones that the producers think have the greatest reach in terms of pulling heartstrings, and it misses a whole lot of what's going on." Particularly troublesome, even for some of the documentary's defenders, was the mention of an incest allegation in one of the families featured.

Dee Davis, executive director of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg and a former Appalshop filmmaker, had a somewhat different reaction. He said he was disturbed by the incest segment and the stereotypical representation of Appalachians, but said Sawyer "didn't get them from Central Casting. She didn't get them in a lab, she didn't use a detective agency to find them." (Read more)

While understanding how people can be angry at the documentary's portrayals, Davis insisted that people have to move beyond their anger and focus on the depth of the problems facing the region. He told The Rural Blog, "We don’t say to ourselves, how in the hell have we let this happen? How have we sat here and tolerated this situation and let it get this way? … Why aren’t we doing a better job looking after each other, and I am responsible as anybody."

Other critics said the show was long on emotion and short on cause and possible solutions. Producer Claire Weinraub told The Rural Blog earlier this week that ABC was interested in pursuing those angles as follow-ups, and in fact her associates are conducting interviews in Kentucky this week for a "20/20" segment planned to air Friday night.

Alaska sees renewable energy as cheaper option

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin championed the cry of "drill baby drill," but she and her state are now looking at green energy to solve its rural energy crisis. "Alaska is fast becoming a testing ground for new technologies and an unlikely experiment in oil-state support for renewable energy," reports Stefan Milkowski of The Daily News-Miner in Faribanks,, for The New York Times. "Alaskans once cast a wary eye toward anything smacking of environmentalism, but today they are investing heavily in green power, not so much to reduce emissions as to save cash."

Energy prices have skyrocketed on the Alaskan tundra, partly because winter fuel contracts were signed at a time when prices were much higher than now. Residents are having to dedicate a huge percentage of their income to simply heat their homes. Increasingly it looks like a move away from fossil fuels could help stabilize energy prices for rural Alaskans.

"Advocates of renewable energy here say Alaska, with its windy coasts, untapped rivers and huge tidal and wave resources, could quickly become a national leader," writes Milkowski. "The state already generates 24 percent of its electricity from renewable sources — almost exclusively hydroelectric — and Ms. Palin last month announced a goal of 50 percent by 2025." (Read more)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Montana legislator wants a horse slaughterhouse

After the last horse slaughterhouse in the U.S. closed two years ago, horse owners have had few options when their animals become sick or injured. But one Montana legislator says his state is uniquely poised to host a new equine slaughterhouse, and has introduced legislation to help establish it.

Supporters told a legislative committee that "without slaughterhouses owners are forced to pay to have horses euthanized and disposed of, shoot them and bury them on their property, or illegally abandon them. Several county commissioners said that abandoned horses are creating serious problems in rural counties," writes John S. Adams for the Great Falls Tribune. Opponents say slaughterhouses encourage inhuman treatment, especially in transport, and that the medical treatments horses receive during their lifetime make the meat unfit for consumption.

The sponsoring legislator's name? Rep. Ed Butcher. (Read more)

Pepsi says it will mitigate Mountain Dew mouth; broadcaster asks, 'What are we doing to help?'

Diane Sawyer's ABC documentary “Hidden America: Children of the Mountains” continues to provoke reaction. Tonight on "World News Tonight," Sawyer reported that Pepsico will provide another van for Dr. Edwin Smith of Barbourville, Ky., who turned a trailer truck into a dental office and tagged Pepsico product Mountain Dew as a major source of tooth decay in the region. Sawyer also said Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi "told me personally" that the company wants to work with Smith on education and recruiting more dentists to the region.

Critics say the piece portrayed only one side of Appalachia, and contributed to stereotypes. A leading Appalachian broadcaster says the "20/20" program made him "mad as hell," but not for the reasons one might expect. "That anger is not directed so much at Diane Sawyer and ABC, but instead at me, my friends and my associates. What are we doing to help?" asks Neil Middleton, news director at WYMT-TV in Hazard, Ky.

"If we are honest, we must admit the facts of the documentary are true and sometimes the truth hurts," writes Middleton in his blog. "Are we really mad at Diane Sawyer for reporting on a serious problem, or are we upset that someone is reminding us of images we would rather ignore? Remember, our mandate as journalists is to 'give voice to the voiceless,' or as newsman Harry Golden once described his job: 'To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.' The images we saw the other night should make us all uncomfortable." Middleton says that, instead of complaining about the representation of the region, "maybe we should ask ourselves, 'What have I done to help correct this problem?'" (Read more) To that we say "amen."

No matter what Appalachian residents are doing or not doing, people around the country have sent more than $60,000 to the Christian Appalachian Project to help the three children primarily spotlighted in the program, reports Mary Meehan of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Eastern Ky. University starts extension program to help schools in its service area

A pilot program at Eastern Kentucky University is hoping to help schools in 22 Kentucky counties by placing seven education extension agents in the school's service area (right). "The agents -- who will be similar to agricultural extension agents -- will work with education and community leaders in those counties and use EKU's resources and expertise to identify education needs," writes Nancy Rodriguez in The [Louisville] Courier-Journal.

The extension agents will provide data and research to local schools and to assist with and provide educational programs and service, with the goal of improving school achievement through plans individually tailored to the area. They also hope to involve students from the university's Educational Leadership and Policy Studies doctoral program. (Read more)

Monday, February 16, 2009

Salmonella outbreak makes peanut outlook bleak

The recent scare from salmonella-tainted peanut products could not have come at a worse time for peanut farmers. They were already facing a bleak year before 500 hundred people got sick and at least eight people died from eating peanut products that originated at a plant in South Georgia.

"Last year brought a bumper crop with record prices," reports Russell Grantham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "This year, companies that buy peanuts —- brokers, shellers and food and snack manufacturers such as Mars and J.M. Smucker Co. —- already have warehouses full of last year’s crop." Farmers got top dollar last year because of a peanut shortage. This year, however, prices have dropped nearly 50 percent in some cases, and peanut contracts are practically nonexistent.

The latest salmonella outbreak "seems to have sharpened a looming recession for Georgia’s agricultural industry," writes Grantham. "While prices for this year’s expected crop were already plunging because of the oversupply of peanuts, the salmonella scare threatens to drive down demand for an extended period." Georgia is the largest peanut producer of peanuts, accounting for nearly half of last year's crop. Estimates suggest that the income loss to Georgia farmers could be as much as $2.5 billion. (Read more)

EPA scientists wanted lower limit on chemical C8

"Federal government scientists originally sought a much tougher standard for the toxic chemical C8 than was included in a nationwide health advisory issued last month, according to an internal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency memo," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. According to that memo, EPA experts pushed for a limit of 0.2 parts per million, which is less than half the limit as the Bush administration ended in January.

EPA struck a deal with DuPont, the maker of C8, that would allow levels up to 0.5 parts per million in November 2006. EPA declined to comment how the standard more than doubled. The 0.5 ppm was a reduction from the previous level of 150 parts per billion. Research worldwide has pointed to the dangers of elevated levels of C8 in humans. Click here for a previous post on C8. (Read more)

Would Chinese oysters save or ruin Chesapeake?

An upcoming decision could have huge ramifications for the future of the Chesapeake Bay. Three officials will decide whether "to transplant an Asian species to supplement the decimated Eastern oyster, which can no longer fill its role in the bay's ecosystem and the region's deep-fat fryers," reports The Washington Post. "Environmental groups, states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency say it's not clear whether the new oyster would become a kind of kudzu on the half shell, crowding out the old one, or simply die and waste everyone's money," David A. Fahrenthold writes. (Post photo)

Two cabinet secretaries from Virginia and Maryland and a colonel in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers appear to be split, with one favoring the move, one opposing it and another neutral for now. "A favorable ruling could pave the way for watermen and shellfish farmers to put millions of the Asian oysters in the Chesapeake," writes Fahrenthold. "That makes it the most important decision in a long regional debate -- all arising from the odd-sounding idea that one of America's great shellfish grounds needs a Chinese transplant to save it."The Chesapeake's Eastern oysters have dropped 99 percent below historic levels because of overfishing and disease.

It appears unlikely that the newcomers would be allowed to spread unchecked. A plan that would create a network of shellfish farms where sterilized Asian oysters would live in mesh bags or cages preventing them from breeding on their own. Still, many environmental groups favor trying to save the native oysters as opposed to introducing a new species. (Read more)

Industry wins in case over mountaintop mine rules

A federal appeals court has overturned a judge's 2007 decision to require more thorough permit reviews mountaintop-removal-mine permit applications.

The 2-1 vote by a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., was based on the notion that District Judge Robert Chambers of Huntongton, W.Va., "did not defer to the federal Army Corps of Engineers' interpretation of its own rules when granting Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal coal operations," writes reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. (Read more)

The two judges who voted to overturn the earlier ruling said the effects of mountaintop removal on surrounding valleys and forests should be regulated by state agencies under the federal strip-mine law. Click here to read the ruling.

FCC prevents some stations from turning off their analog transmitters; almost 500 planned to do so

Television stations were supposed to end analog broadcasts tomorrow, until Congress voted to extend the deadline to June 12. But the extension also allowed stations to stop analog broadcasting, and almost 500 stations planned to do so. Now the Federal Communications Commission is telling some stations that they can't shut down the old signals just yet.

"Wednesday night, the FCC said that it would not allow 123 stations to switch next week, saying it was worried that in some markets all the major commercial stations or network affiliates were planning on turning off analog signals," wrote Kim Hart of The Washington Post. This move comes highlights concerns that those unprepared for switch to digital will be left without access to important alerts. UPDATE, Feb. 17: Television Week reports that the FCC gave the go-ahead to additional stations, bringing to 421 the total that will stop analog signals at midnight.

Before stations are allowed to switch, they must demonstrate that at least one other station in their market is still broadcasting in analog, and continue to keep an analog signal available for information about the transition and emergencies for 30 additional days. Even with these restrictions, it is expected that more than 350 analog transmitters will go dark at midnight Tuesday. (Read more)

Broadband funding isn't a 'bridge to nowhere,' but a key to help rural areas keep up, advocates say

The broadband provision in the stimulus package is creating much disagreement. Advocates say high-speed Internet access is necessary to economic survival in rural areas and it won't happen without federal funds. Critics argue, however, that too much money is being spent on sparsely populated areas. Howard Berkes of National Public Radio covered the controversy.

"The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs that they impose on society is misguided from an efficiency point of view and an equity one," former Federal Communications Commission economist Michael Katz said at last week's American Enterprise Institute panel discussion on the topic. The comments followed a New York Times article that called the provision a "cyber-bridge to nowhere."

The director of the Center for Rural Strategies says these comments "betray arrogance." Dee Davis said, "When people think of rural as 'nowhere,' they're saying the people who live in those places aren't worth working with and they're not worth helping. He says Internet access has become a vital component in providing quality health care and education in rural areas, and is necessary for job creation and sustainability. Berkes reports, "Rural advocates recall the decisions the nation made decades ago to use federal funds to extend electricity and phone service to all Americans, including those in the most remote and least-populated places. They view broadband as a similar kind of right to infrastructure."

A survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 57 percent of people nationwide have broadband Internet service, but the number for the rural population is only 41 percent. An analysis of the 2007 Census of Agriculture by Daily Yonder's Bill Bishop and Tim Murphy found that rural broadband is typically found in counties with large farms and areas which have a lot of second homes and tourists. (Read more)

Is America ready to quit coal? Not now, obviously

Is coal, a mainstay in American energy since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, fast becoming its albatross? Increased concern over climate change has many expecting new regulations and restrictions that could send coal's relatively cheap price skyrocketing. "Is America ready to quit coal?" asks Melanie Warner in The New York Times.

“Coal is the dirtiest possible fuel,” said Patrice Simms of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We need to move away from our 19th-century fuel source.” This sentiment is echoed by a number of environmentalists, who say that "clean coal" is an oxymoron (and least for now) and that it is time to abandon the fuel in favor of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

Coal supporters say that this view ignores both economic and technological realities. “The costs for those customers in the heartland who get more of their electricity from coal, not only residential but commercial customers, could be significantly higher, at a time when we can least afford it,”says Jim Owen, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute. And there is not yet a national infrastructure which would support solar or wind power. The cost of constructing power lines to transmit the energy from windy and sunny regions is estimated at almost $100 billion.

While there is no commercial technology to remove emissions from coal-fired power plants, "the industry sees clean-coal technologies as its best hope for joining the ranks of green power," writes Warner. "The problem is that the technology, called carbon capture and storage, is still being developed and could make electricity generated by coal more expensive than power from other sources."

The effects of this battle, and the increasing costs associated with it, are being seen already. Warner notes that "in the last two-and-a-half years, plans for 83 plants in the United States have either been voluntarily withdrawn or denied permits by state regulators." (Read more)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Appalachian reaction to '20/20' story is mixed, but the complaints appear stronger than the praise

Diane Sawyer and ABC News have elicited strong reactions to their "20/20" documentary, "A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains." As of 4 p.m. Monday, 1,633 comments had been posted on the story's Web page. In Central Appalachia, the focus of the Friday night report on poverty and social ills in the region, the initial complaints appear to be stronger than the praise. But the dialogue continues.

Chris Green, a teacher of Appalachian literature and culture at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., told the local Herald-Dispatch "that while the broadcast touched on the severe problems faced by some in the mountains, it was ultimately a gross stereotype," Bill Rosenberger reported. Green said, "Sawyer has selected special cases and represented them in a way that blames the victim by providing almost no discussion of the larger social economic realities, both in Appalachia and in America. We would all have been better off without it."

But Dee Davis of the Eastern Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies, who appeared on the show, said it told some uncomfortable truths that need to be told about persistent poverty, low education, poor health status and prescription-drug addiction. In an interview with The Rural Blog, he noted the report's point that that southeastern Kentucky's 5th Congressional District has the nation's lowest life expectancy life expectancy, "less than Mexico and China," and asked, "Who’s dealing with it? The newspapers aren’t spending a lot of time dealing with it, the television stations aren’t dealing with it. Where are our journalists dealing with it?" If Sawyer and her producers "weren’t gonna tell that, who’s gonna tell it?"

Perhaps the most common criticism was that in 39 minutes of journalism, the report offered little explanation for causes of the problems, and no menu of solutions. "I wondered why Sawyer didn’t go into more depth on the probable cause of the poverty and the vicious cycle that kept these places poor," Betty Dotson-Lewis wrote for the Daily Yonder. "I wondered why she did not bring in a panel of experts to give viewers ideas on how this cycle can be broken and if people want to help, how." (Read more)

The ABC team did conduct reporting on causes and solutions, and Producer Claire Weinraub told The Rural Blog that Sawyer and ABC are considering more reports that would address public-policy questions. "We want to have a dialogue [to] figure out what policies are out there that are viable," she said. Meanwhile, we will continue to follow the dialogue -- and encourage journalists in Appalachia to do their own reporting on the issues, not just the complaints.

UPDATE, Feb. 17: As often happens with such projects, the documentary has prompted charity for its subjects. Sawyer reported on "Good Morning America" today that a child with a drug-addicted mother is getting a tutor and an education trust fund; another is getting clothes and house repairs; and a high-school football star who lived in a truck to escape his dysfunctional family has been offered college scholarships and jobs. Also, Pepsico will help a dentist who tagged its Mountain Dew as a major cause of tooth decay; "We will tell you about that later this week," Sawyer promised.

How the analog-to-digital TV mess happened

The transition from analog to digital television, bungled almost from the start, "is in many ways a classic Washington story," write Kim Hart and Peter Whoriskey of The Washington Post. It's a big issue for rural areas, and this story provides useful background.

Partisanship "time and again complicated its implementation. The heads of the two federal agencies charged with managing the transition barely spoke to each other. And in the end, the rifts between Republicans in the Bush administration running the program and the congressional Democrats overseeing it stymied efforts to right the transition as it steered off course."

There's much more detail, but the story's last paragraph gives the immediate impact: "On Tuesday, more than 400 stations are expected to drop their analog television broadcasts. It is not known how many people will lose programming." Earlier, there's a key point: "The idea that the government might deprive people of television reception strikes some as unjust and, in the event of emergencies, possibly dangerous." (Read more)

Pilgrim's Pride bankruptcy leaves farmers holding the bag for mortgages on huge chicken houses

"A chicken housing crisis has cropped up in the U.S., and it's producing some of the same bleak results as the human one -- foreclosures, lawsuits and devastated homeowners," reports Lauren Etter of The Wall Street Journal. It's the result of the bankruptcy of the Pilgrim's Pride chicken company, which canceled contracts with at least 300 farmers in Arkansas, Florida and North Carolina, in areas where processing plants were closed or cut back.

"Under these contracts, farmers receive a set price per pound for raising chicks supplied by Pilgrim's until they are ready for slaughter. The company turns the birds into nuggets, wings and other food," Etter explains. "Pilgrim's still has contracts with more than 5,000 growers nationwide, and executives say they are trying to cut as few as possible. "Chicken houses without chickens or contracts have virtually no resale value," Etter notes. "And with the poultry industry in retreat, rival producers aren't looking for new growers."

That makes the mortgages unpayable, and the mortgages are big. A chicken house can cost more than $200,000, and it's typical for a farmer to have several. "In Arkansas, 74 chicken farms have banded together to sue Pilgrim's," Etter writes. "In their lawsuit ... the farmers say company representatives induced them to build chicken houses by making promises like their 'grandkids will have chickens,' according to court documents." (Read more)

Coal controversy, costly campaign coincide to make court case that could alter judicial elections

Two intersecting brawls by Appalachia's largest coal operator, one in a business deal and the other in a judicial election, have created a U.S. Supreme Court case that "has the potential to change the way judicial elections are conducted and the way cases are heard in the 39 states that elect at least some of their judges," The New York Times reports.

The exploits of Massey Energy Chairman Don Blankenship, left, are also the subject of a report in the latest ABA Journal of the American Bar Association. The case involves a dispute with coal operator Hugh Caperton over a Southwest Virginia mine, a 3-2 ruling in Massey's favor by West Virginia's highest court, and the $3 million Blankenship spent to elect one of the judges who voted his way. When the Supreme Court said in November that it would hear an appeal, based on Justice Brent Benjamin's refusal to disqualify himself from the case, "much of the legal establishment cheered," the Times' Adam Liptak reports. "Here was an opportunity, bar associations and law professors said, to draw a line separating big money from judicial decision making." (NYT photo at Matewan, W.Va., train station by Don Petersen)

But Liptak notes that the facts of the case may not lend themselves to a Supreme Court decision about judicial elections and the increasing prevalence of big contributors who stand to gain or lose at the hands of judges. And in an interview in his unassuming office near Belfry, Ky., Blankenship told Liptak that he spent millions in 2004 to defeat Justice Warren McGraw, whom he did not like, rather than to ensure favorable rulings from Justice Brent Benjamin, who is in the fifth year of a 12-year term.

“I’ve been around West Virginia long enough to know that politicians don’t stay bought, particularly ones that are going to be in office for 12 years,” Blankenship said. “So I would never go out and spend money to try to gain favor with a politician. Eliminating a bad politician makes sense. Electing somebody hoping he’s going to be in your favor doesn’t make any sense at all. . . . Massey always has cases,” Liptak notes, "The company is a frequent plaintiff, and it has attracted lawsuits over environmental, workplace safety and labor issues." (Read more)

The Charleston Gazette has been on this story from the start, and the Sunday Gazette-Mail has a story by Paul Nyden debunking an assertion in a Massey brief that there was no indication that Blankenship and Benjamin had met. It also notes that oral arguments in the case are scheduled for March 3. To read it, click here.