Saturday, August 08, 2009

Mike Seeger, who explored and revealed the rural roots of American music in the South, dies at 75

"Mike Seeger, whose love for traditional songs and tunes inspired many other musicians — including Bob Dylan — to look for the rural roots of American music, died of cancer Friday night at his home in Lexington, Va." So reports Paul Brown for National Public Radio.

"Seeger was one of the most influential voices of the generation that rediscovered American vernacular music in the 1950s and 60s and, in doing so, gave a new shape to American culture as a whole," Folklore Productions reports in Sing Out! (Sing Out! photo) They quote from Dylan's autobiography, Chronicles: “Somebody holds the mirror up, unlocks the door, and your head has to go into a different place. Mike Seeger had that effect on me. He played on all the various planes, the full index of the old-time styles, [and] he played these songs as good as it was possible to play them.” (Read more)

"He was born into a prominent musical family," notes Brown, a friend of Seeger. "His half-brother Pete and sister Peggy are renowned musicians and social activists. His father, Charles, was a folklorist. His mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, was a music scholar, teacher and classical composer." (Read more) "In a 2000 interview, Pete Seeger told The Roanoke Times that Mike Seeger was 'by far, the best musician in the family'," Ralph Berrirer Jr. reports.

"Mike sought out undiscovered or disappeared musicians in the towns and countrysides of southwest Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina — all over the South," Brown recalls. "He brought dozens of ... traditional musicians to the stage, either on his own or with his group, the New Lost City Ramblers. Feeling they merited far more recognition than they were getting, he organized tours — some of them abroad — for these rural Southern players." (Read more)

Patte Wood reports for the Rockbridge Weekly in Lexington, "Seeger was recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and decided to forego further treatment and entered hospice care. He was surrounded by family and friends during his last days as he wished. Seeger was 75 years old. ... The family advises there will be a memorial concert for Mike Seeger at a future date." (Read more)

Overby says newspapers should charge for online content; sets goal of million Newseum visitors/yr.

Rural newspaper publishers who have been recluctant to put all or much of their news content online, for fear of losing print circulation, are looking smarter than most of their metropolitan counterparts, who are moving toward charging for online material. Last night a leading figure in journalism said the future of the craft depends on newspapers charging for news on the Web instead of giving it away, and they can do that successfully.

“A free press does not mean free news. The survival of the press as we know it depends on people paying for it,” Freedom Forum President and CEO Charles Overby said as he accepted an award from the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication, meeting in Boston.

Overby said newspapers are the only medium putting substantial resources into investigative reporting and accountability journalism, but made “a disastrous decision” about 10 years ago to put their material online without charge. He noted a recent Annenberg Public Policy Center survey that found 22 percent of respondents had stopped a subscription to a publication because they could get it free online.

Publishers now realize they can’t survive without revenue from online readers, Overby said, but wonder if those readers will be willing to pay for what they have been getting for free. “I believe the trend can be reversed,” he said, as long as readers see substantive value in the material for which they must pay. He cited the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which charges for online access and has seen its circulation grow.

Some other publishers have announced plans to charge for online content, or consideration of such plans. “The future of newspapers, and I would say journalism as we know it, hangs in the balance,” Overby told the journalism educators at a dinner in the Sheraton Boston Hotel.

The journalism-schools group gave Overby its Gerald M. Sass Award for Distinguished Service to Journalism and Mass Communication. The group is meeting in conjunction with the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, usually the largest journalism convention in the U.S.

Overby is also CEO of the Newseum in Washington, funded by the Freedom Forum. He said the question he most gets asked is, “How’s the Newseum doing?” His answer: “The Newseum is doing great,” with 700,000 visitors the first year, but “We’re not satisfied.”

He announced a goal: “I want to say for the first time publicly tonight that we want to have a million people come to the Newseum each year. It’s going to take us three to four years to do that.”

The key audience, Overby said, is young people – “that next generation who hasn’t made up their minds about the press. … We believe in good times and bad the Newseum can stand as a beacon for free press, not as a shrine, but to show how the press works, warts and all.”

Friday, August 07, 2009

Congress doesn't fund farm stress hotline, services

Mental-health advocates were disappointed this week when the Senate followed the lead of the House and passed an agriculture appropriations bill without money for the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, which was authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill but not funded. They noted increased stress among farmers, refledcted by recent increase in suicides.

The network would have a "crisis hotline for rural workers and [require] behavioral health services in geographically rural regions," Lynda Waddington reports for the Iowa Independent. "While some states have hotlines and some capacity to provide behavioral health services designed for agricultural workers, others have nothing in place." (Read more)

Democratic senators from W.Va. to Minn. draw line in the sand, casting doubt on climate bill

"Ten moderate Senate Democrats from states dependent on coal and manufacturing sent a letter to President Obama on Thursday saying they would not support any climate change bill that did not protect American industries from competition from countries that did not impose similar restraints on climate-altering gases," John Broder reports for The New York Times. "The senators represent Midwestern and coal-producing states from which many of the 44 Democrats who voted against the measure in the House come from. Without their support, it is unlikely that the Senate can pass a major climate change bill. The 10 senators were Evan Bayh of Indiana; Sherrod Brown of Ohio; Robert C. Byrd and John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia; Bob Casey and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania; Russ Feingold of Wisconsin; Al Franken of Minnesota; and Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan." (Read more)

Keith Johnson writes for The Wall Street Journal that the senators demanded a “level playing field” for American manufacturing. "In plain English: If you want your climate bill, you better include 'carbon tariffs' to make sure U.S. jobs don’t scurry off to unregulated China. The list of senators includes some heavyweights, but all are swing votes for the bill . . . Without the support of these lawmakers, you can stick a fork in the climate bill — it’s done." (Read more)

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Writer: Rural needs public option in health reform

In the debate about health reform, which is actually about health-insurance reform, perhaps the most controversial and discussed point has been the "public option," a way to buy into government-run coverage like Medicare. Congress is moving away from the idea, perhaps toward non-profit insurance cooperatives, but some sort of public option is needed for rural areas, Jon Bailey writes for the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs.

"Nearly three-quarters of the rural uninsured own or work in small businesses, and cost/affordability is by far the most cited reason for being uninsured," Bailey writes. "The availability of affordable and quality health insurance is the primary barrier to entrepreneurship – the most effective rural development strategy – reaching its potential for rural people and rural communities. Most drafts of proposed health care reform bills in Congress contain individual and business mandates to carry or provide health insurance; such mandates – if they depend on the current health insurance system that does not work well for many rural people as the only health insurance option – are unlikely to address unique rural challenges."

For the details, click here.

Move to raise ethanol share in gasoline has hurdles

If the federal government raises the standard for ethanol in gasoline to 15 percent from the current 10 percent, that "will not be enough to get the higher-proof fuel in motorists' tanks across the nation," Philip Brasher reports for The Des Moines Register. "The hurdles include federal rules for underground storage tanks as well as state regulations on gasoline specifications and safety rules for pumps," according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The ethanol industry is trying to get states to change their regulations by Dec. 1, EPA's announced date for a decision on the issue, but "A coalition of environmental groups has told the EPA there are so many regulatory hurdles facing E15 that it could be "multiple years" before the fuel can be sold in significant volumes," Brasher reports. What's the situation in your state?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Nominee for top strip-mine official faces senators Thursday; some questions and ideas to consider

UPDATE: Pizarchik dodged queries from Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., about mountaintop removal, finally saying "I will be carrying out the course charted by the administration," Ken Ward reports.

A hearing tomorrow in Washington could give some clearer indication where the Obama administration is headed in its regulation of surface coal mining, which is stricter than that of the Bush administration but disappointing to foes of strip mining. Joe Pizarchik, left, a longtime environmental regulator in Pennsylvania, has been nominated to head the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and will face the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The nation's best coal reporter, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, has posted on his Coal Tattoo blog a list of questions he would ask Pizarchik. The first three are ones we would ask, too:

– Would you enforce the buffer zone rule in a manner that would truly limit the size of streams buried by strip-mine valley fills? Would you read the rule to apply to the footprint of these fills, or would you continue to exempt those areas, making the rule meaningless?
– How would you define the reclamation term “approximate original contour” and would you move quickly to write a national regulation to more clearly define AOC?
– What would you do about the continued failure of the coal industry to propose post-mining development plans for the mountaintop removal sites if flattens across Appalachia?

Senators could come up with many more questions by reading the speech Kentucky Resources Council Director Tom FitzGerald, right, made at an annual meeting of OSMRE employees at Dale Hollow Lake State Park in May. Speaking before Pizarchik was nominated, FitzGerald said the agency's new director must "rehabilitate an agency in distress and restore to the administration of the 1977 law the central principles that drove its passage – a belief that mining should be a temporary use of land, and that the rights of people living downhill and downstream should be fully protected." To read the speech, click here.

Pizarchik has run into opposition from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a leading foe of mountaintop-removal strip mining in Central Appalachia, Ward noted in an earlier post, based on his record in Pennsylvania.

Senate votes to cut animal-ID funding in half, limit its use; House has already voted to eliminate it

The Senate passed an agriculture spending bill yesterday that would cut in half funding for the controversial National Animal Identification System and allows it to be used only "for proposed rule making, not for implementation," Tom Steever reports for Brownfield Network. The House bill "eliminated all funding for the program for the next fiscal year," which begins Oct. 1. Now the two chambers must resolve their differences.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., "said the funding cut drives a stake into the program's heart," reports Tom Lutey of the Billings Gazette. "Most groups opposed to NAIS represent people with range animals. Program rules would require the animals' every movement from pasture to pasture to be reported," he explains. "Proponents, such as the American Veterinary Medical Association, contend that extensive identification would protects consumer and minimize livestock loss." (Read more)

TV stations keep raking in cash for ads on health; where's the reporting to help viewers sort it out?

We asked last week if local TV stations, boosted by sales of ads to both sides in the health-reform debate, would devote some resources to reporting the reality of the legislation instead of leaving the debate to misleading messages. Ben Pershing of The Washington Post has a story today updating the landscape, reporting that $52 million has been spent so far. Much of that has been on cable channels, but much has also been placed with local stations, so we're still asking. If you know of a station that has lived up to its responsibility, please let us know, and we'll tell the world.

UPDATE, Aug. 6: Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute, a broadcaster whose tips can usually help print reporters too, urges local news outlets to cover health-care protesters at town-hall meetings being held by members of Congress during the August recess. But he also urges them to fact-check the protesters' claims, through such sites as PolitiFact, operated by Poynter's St. Petersburg Times, or a site maintained by The Washington Post. There's also FactCheck, run by former CNN and Wall Street Journal reporter Brooks Jackson at the Annenberg Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. It has no separate health page, but is easily searchable. Get the facts and pass them on.

UPDATE, Aug. 7: One of our favorite business columnists, Steven Pearlstein of The Washington Post, says critics of health reform have gone too far: "There are lots of valid criticisms that can be made against the health reform plans moving through Congress -- I've made a few myself. But there is no credible way to look at what has been proposed by the president or any congressional committee and conclude that these will result in a government takeover of the health-care system. That is a flat-out lie whose only purpose is to scare the public and stop political conversation." That's opinion, but it shows how much we need more reporting of the facts.

Farmland value down for first time in 20 years; big drop in Mountain states because of cattle market

The value of agricultural land in the U.S. fell last year for the first time in two decades, according to the Land Values and Cash Rents summary from the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the Department of Agriculture. The average value was $2,100 an acre, down 3.2 percent from last year.

NASS said the data "ranged from virtually no change in the Northern and Southern Plains regions to an 11 percent decline in the Mountain region. The highest farm real-estate values remained in the Northeast region at $4,830 per acre. The Mountain region had the lowest farm real estate value, $922 per acre." Lauren Etter of The Wall Street Journal notes, "The Mountain states have seen bigger declines largely because of the prevalence of livestock. Cattle ranchers have been struggling amid low cattle prices and high feed prices."

More broadly, "Farm real-estate values had been climbing steadily over the past decade, reaching record levels last year amid soaring grain prices and a growing interest in using corn and soybeans for biofuels," Etter writes. "The rural boom also attracted speculators and investors looking to profit from the rise in land prices across the Farm Belt. But a deflation of the commodity markets and the overall wilting of the economy are now trickling down to the farm."

"People will probably see it as a positive sign that there is rationalization in the markets," Douglas R. Stark, president and CEO of Omaha-based Farm Credit Services of America, told Etter. (Read more)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Coal interests mobilizing against cap-and-trade bill as alliance with oil-and-gas lobby breaks down

The battle over climate change has come to the coalfield of Central Appalachia. Thousands of people turned out Saturday in Eastern Kentucky, left, to protest the House-passed bill to create a cap-and-trade-system for greenhouse-gas emissions, and in southern West Virginia coal interests say they're fighting a war for their lives. “We are in a war,” Gene Kitts, a senior vice president of International Coal Group, said during a recent “Decision Makers,” a West Virginia public affairs TV program, reports Mike Ruben of The State Journal, a statewide, business-oriented weekly newspaper.

“We’re under siege,” coal executive James “Buck” Harless of International Industries told Ruben. “There’s a mass movement against coal.” Some coal interests in Appalachia argue that passage of the bill would eliminate mining in the region. That appears speculative, but they also point to stricter Environmental Protection Agency regulation of mountaintop-removal strip mines. (Read more) Those at the Kentucky rally, in Knott County, "call coal mining part of their heritage and these supporters say they hope to continue their way of life for years to come," reported Dara Rees of WYMT-TV in nearby Hazard. (WYMT-TV video)

But some Appalachian residents say mountaintop mining can be better regulated without being eliminated, and those who put more emphasis on environmental concerns say the region must look for alternatives to an industry that is on its way out. Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette writes on his Coal Tattoo blog that the conflicts in Appalachia "are actually happening to one extent or another all over the world. Coal is a major contributor to climate change. But it’s also considered an abundant and — if you don’t count the externalized costs — a cheap fuel. People around the planet are wrestling with what to do about it." (Read more)

Meanwhile, "A coal and utility industry coalition has launched a major campaign pushing industrial and farm state Democratic senators to boost coal-friendly provisions in the Senate climate and energy bill," Politico's Lisa Lerer reports. "The coalition also plans to deploy teams to question senators at town hall meetings, advertise at state fairs and other summer events and visit lawmakers’ offices back home." (Read more) The coal lobby appears to be responding to an effort by the oil and gas industry to make the Senate version of the bill less friendly to coal. "The struggle promises to increase in the weeks ahead," Anne Mulkern of Greenwire writes for The New York Times. The headline: "Fossil-fuel groups form circular firing squad."(Read more)

UPDATE, Aug. 6: Mulkern reports, "Coal's biggest lobbying group is launching a $1 million campaign to win support from Senate Democrats, an effort that employs the same public relations firm ensnared by a scandal over forged letters to Congress." (Read more)

Farm-district Democrats rein in liberals' agenda

We've chronicled the major moves and players on issues with strong rural angles in Congress this year, mainly the climate-change, health-care and food-safety bills. Now one of the best observers of agriculture and rural policymaking inside the Beltway, former Washington Post reporter Dan Morgan, has weighed in with a magisterial overview for his old paper.

Morgan notes the pivotal roles played by farm-district Democrats (whom he calls "Agracrats," though we would spell it "Agricrats") and their leader, House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota, left (Getty Images). Their power "may come as a surprise to those who thought the 'farm bloc' disappeared sometime around the end of the Eisenhower administration. In fact, its clout has been reshaping -- and in some cases halting -- the ambitious agenda of President Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi," Morgan writes.

Clout comes from numbers. Many of the Agricrats "are newcomers who defeated Republicans in 2006 or 2008. In the Senate, Democrats have 12 of the 18 seats in the central farm belt and northern Great Plains," Morgan notes. "The Agracrats overlap roughly with the Blue Dogs, a formal caucus of moderate-to-conservative (and mainly rural) House Democrats. They share a prairie-populist wariness of Wall Street and Washington that has been heightened by last year's financial meltdown and the ensuing government bailouts."

The rural Democrats' handmaidens are the farm lobbies. Morgan reports "an effort by major farm organizations to raise their lobbying and public relations profile in Washington," and examines Peterson's role: "While many liberals smart at his activism, Pelosi has praised him publicly for helping pass the climate bill. And more accommodations may be coming on immigration and the administration's plan to help African farmers grow more food." Michael McLeod, a Washington lawyer-lobbyist who was chief counsel for the Senate Ag Committee in the 1970s, told Morgan, "We have never had an Agriculture Committee chairman get into other areas of jurisdiction on behalf of rural America the way this chairman has." Clearly, Peterson is a man to watch.

UPDATE, Aug. 5: Peterson and Rep. Tim Walz "were questioned closely" about the climate-change bill by highly skeptical farmers at a Minnesota farm event. Peterson said "he voted for the bill only because he knew it wouldn't become law immediately," reports Norman Merchant of The Associated Press. "In spite of the fact that they gave me everything I wanted in agriculture ... it needs some more work," Peterson said. (Read more)

FCC chief calls broadband top strategic priority; feds must still decide how best to spend stimulus

The new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said yesterday that the FCC's top "strategic" priority will be to encourage expansion and adoption of high-speed Internet service, or broadband. Julius Genachowski spoke in a meeting with editors and reporters at the San Jose Mercury News.

Genachowski "noted that some 40 percent of U.S. households don't currently have broadband access," Troy Wolverton reports. "That rate rises to 60 percent among some sectors of the population, such as minorities and low-income or rural residents. But it's not just that adoption rates aren't as high as they should be. Transmission speeds are too slow, and there may not be enough competition, he said. Meanwhile, he suggested that broadband is too expensive for some consumers and the government hasn't done enough to tout its benefits." (Read more)

"Government agencies are now considering the costs of providing high-speed Internet access to rural areas and which technologies might be the most cost-effective," and will begin to make decisions once the deadline for applications in the first round of funding from the economic stimulus passes Aug. 14, Rachael King reports for Business Week. The FCC said in may that rural broadband should "be cost-effective to install, provide consistent performance at an affordable price, and be able to upgrade to higher speeds over time," King notes. (Read more)

Postal Service wants to close, merge post offices

With its revenues plummeting along with mail volume, because of the recession and correspondence moving to the Internet, the U.S. Postal Service yesterday sent the Postal Regulatory Commission a list of 700 post offices it plans to close or consolidate. The list appears to be entirely urban branches, but Randolph Schmid of The Associated Press notes, "The post office also filed a petition with the . . . commission indicating that managers are looking at closing many post offices to save money." And that might affect rural areas. (Read more)

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Youth, other Americans losing contact with nature

Will baby boomers “constitute the last generation of Americans to share an intimate, familial attachment to the land and water,” as suggested by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods? Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times ponders that question after a hike with his daughter, cut short by lack of money to maintain the Timberline Trail around Mount Hood in Oregon.

"Only 2 percent of American households now live on farms, compared with 40 percent in 1900," Kristof writes. "Suburban childhood that once meant catching snakes in fields now means sanitized video play dates scheduled a week in advance. One study of three generations of 9-year-olds found that by 1990 the radius from the house in which they were allowed to roam freely was only one-ninth as great as it had been in 1970. A British study found that children could more easily identify Japanese cartoon characters like Pikachu, Metapod and Wigglytuff than they could native animals and plants, like otter, oak and beetle."

Louv argues that this “nature deficit disorder” is partly responsible for depression, obesity and attention deficit disorder in young people. Kristof isn't sure about that, but does worry that "The American environmental movement has focused so much on preserving nature that it has neglected to do enough to preserve a constituency for nature. It’s important not only to save forests, but also to promote camping, hiking, bouldering and white-water rafting so that people care about saving those forests." He notes that visits to national parks have been declining for more than a decade. (Read more)

Maybe next month's Ken Burns PBS series on the parks will help boost the parks. But more visitation will increase the need for maintenance, much of which has been deferred. And the private sector has a role to play, too. Rural Americans can help their citified cousins get back in touch with the natural world through agri-tourism, for example.