Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Bills, lawsuit address alleged abuse of guest visa farm workers

As demand soars for foreign farm workers, legislators and President Trump's administration are taking a hard look at revamping and expanding the H2A guest worker visa program while cutting down on the number of permanent resident visas. Critics say farmers have abused guest workers by not paying them enough and providing inadequate living and working conditions.

A slew of bills are addressing the issue. Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and Agriculture Committee member Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) "last month said it was 'well past the time to replace the outdated and onerous H2A program' and activists said they expect him to introduce a bill aimed at the program later this year," Alejandro Lazo reports for The Wall Street Journal. Another bill would create a pilot program to put each state in charge of its own guest worker program, possibly eliminating federal oversight. Rep. Rick Allen (R-Ga.) proposed a bill that favors farmers' interests by limiting the ability of legal aid attorneys to represent guest farm workers. "That bill would also move administration of the program to the Agriculture Department, change the methodology for how wage rates are calculated and eliminate the obligation to provide housing as long as a state’s governor certified that farmworker housing was available," Lazo reports.

The Labor Department is trying a different tack. This year they filed a federal lawsuit—the first of its kind—against G Farms, an operation just outside Phoenix that relies on legal migrant workers. The workers contacted the Mexican Consulate about their working conditions, and the Consulate contacted the Labor Department. Some guest workers at the farm told Lazos that they had no complaints about the farm. The Labor Department alleged in the suit that the farm's owner, Santiago Gonzalez, "underpaid some of its 69 workers by not offering a set, hourly wage and housed them in an 'encampment' consisting of yellow school buses and semitrailers that 'violated numerous safety, sanitation and fire code regulations,'" Lazos reports. In a first, the department won a preliminary injunction against a farm using guest farm workers. The judge ordered Santiago to stop housing his workers in the encampment and made him house them in apartments or a motel for the rest of the season.
This school bus was used as a kitchen for guest farm workers at G Farms.
(Photo by U.S. Department of Labor)

Jason Resnick, the vice president and general council for the Western Growers Association, said the lawsuit is proof that the Labor Department is on top of their game, and serves as proof that abuse is not rampant. The Western Growers Association represents the interests of farmers in Arizona, California and Colorado. But Bruce Goldstein, president of Farmworker Justice, says many migrant workers live in crowded group shelters, trailers, and sometimes even their cars.

Whatever new laws are passed to improve pay or living conditions, farmers will have little choice but to comply if they want workers. Because of the Trump administration's crack-down on illegal immigration, there are far fewer workers around to harvest crops and they can be more choosy about where to work. That affects even farmers who only hire legal guest workers. Michael King, the attorney representing G Farms, says it's worth it to defend the suit because "without the H2A visa workers it is very, very hard to harvest onions and watermelons in Arizona."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Monsanto blocked testing on its new dicamba herbicide that drifts easily and damage scrops

Monsanto prevented independent research on its new dicamba herbicide that is now being blamed for damaging millions of acres of crops, by drifting into fields unable to withstand it, reports Emily Flitter of Reuters.

"Typically, when a company develops a new agricultural product, it commissions its own tests and shares the results and data with regulators," Flitter writes. "It also provides product samples to universities for additional scrutiny. Regulators and university researchers then work together to determine the safety of the product. In this case, Monsanto denied requests by university researchers to study its XtendiMax with VaporGrip for volatility, a measure of its tendency to vaporize and drift across fields."

Monsanto’s vice president of global strategy, Scott Partridge, said it considered the testing unnecessary, and believed the product was less volatile than a previous dicamba formula that researchers found could be used safely. "To get meaningful data takes a long, long time, Partridge said. "This product needed to get into the hands of the growers."

There’s no evidence that independent testing would have prevented the crisis, but it would have given regulators more information about the formula’s properties and whether farmers should use it, Flitter writes. It is used in combination with Monsanto soybean seeds that are resistant to it.

In 2016, Monsanto agronomist Boyd Carey told the Arkansas Plant Board’s Pesticide Committee that universities were not allowed to test the new formula "for fear that the results may jeopardize the federal label," according to an official meeting summary.

The Environmental Protection Agency did not answer questions from Reuters about testing on the new formula, but an EPA spokeswoman said the agency did place "time limits on the registration to allow the agency to either let it expire or to easily make the necessary changes in the registration if there are problems."

With approval at the federal level, Monsanto faced less scrutiny from some states. Arkansas was the exception and blocked approval when the company declined to allow more testing. It was also the first state to ban sale and use of the new formula. Damage that farmers attribute to it is being studied by task forces in some states.

New U.S.-Mexico water-sharing agreement for Colorado River emphasizes preservation

Lake Mead's water level is at a historic low. (Desert Sun photo by Jay Calderon)
"Mexican and American officials are finalizing a water-sharing deal for the Colorado River, and a newly released summary of the accord’s key points shows negotiators have agreed on a cooperative approach geared toward boosting reservoir levels and trying to stave off a severe shortage," Ian James reports for The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, Calif.

The river is shrinking because of overuse and a 17-year drought, and scientists predict that climate change will cause the river's flow to go down 35 percent or more in this century. Lake Mead, the country's largest reservoir, is only 38 percent full. All of this threatens the nearly 40 million people and 5 million acres of farmland in the Southwest that depend on the Colorado and its tributaries.

The current five-year agreement expires Dec. 31; the new one, titled Minute No. 323 to the 1944 Mexican Water Treaty, builds on that and would remain in effect through 2026. It is expected to be signed this fall. Though relations between Mexico and the U.S. have been tense at times during President Trump's administration, negotiations on the river agreement within the International Boundary and Water Commission have gone smoothly. Talks began on the new agreement during President Barack Obama's administration and were mostly finished a year ago. The commission includes members of both the Mexican and American governments, and representatives of affected U.S. states have also participated in the talks.

Central Basin Municipal Water District map
"The agreement itself has not yet been publicly released. The summary provided by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation was presented Wednesday at a board meeting of the Imperial Irrigation District, which holds the biggest single entitlement to water from the river," James reports. The accord lays out a plan for Mexico and the U.S. to cooperate to reduce water use, secure water for environmental purposes, restore and monitor habitats along the Colorado River, and reduce the risk of Lake Mead hitting a critically low level. A too-low Lake Mead would affect not only water supply but hydroelectric power generation from Hoover Dam. The agreement also calls for the U.S. and Mexico to establish several joint working groups to focus on specific issues such as river salinity.

Imperial Irrigation board members said in a memo that several agreements must be made between states, water agencies and the Department of the Interior in order for the U.S. to implement the commitments it would be agreeing to in the deal. "Those agreements include a U.S.-funded program to invest $31.5 million in water conservation projects in Mexico, including infrastructure upgrades such as concrete lining for leaky canals and other improvements to reduce water losses from distribution systems," James reports.

Ohio senator picks up on investigative report about Case Farms, asks company to explain itself

A Case Farms plant in Goldsboro, N.C., was pictured in National Provisioner
magazine after readers of the trade publication voted it "Plant of the Year" in 2014.
Ohio's Democratic senator is asking a major chicken processor in the state to say more about how it protects workers safety and collective-bargaining rights, following investigative reporting that he says "uncovered numerous, grave examples of unsafe working conditions at Case Farms facilities and detailed descriptions of the company's refusal to address the dangers."

So said Sen. Sherrod Brown in an Aug. 9 letter to Case CEO Thomas Shelton, which continued: "When workers have tried to organize to advocate more effectively for a safer workplace, the company has retaliated against the organizers and blocked the formation of a union." Case said its reply would go directly to Brown.

In response to a May story by ProPublica and The New Yorker, Case said "worker safety is an integral component" of its culture, but Brown said in his letter that statement "does not appear to square with this recent report and the company's history of serious OSHA violations" at its plants and North Carolina, where it is based.

The story said Case, "which supplies Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell and Boar’s Head, has for decades relied on immigrant workers to staff its plants, which are some of the most dangerous workplaces in America," and "used their immigration status to get rid of vocal leaders, quash dissent and avoid paying for injuries. The story detailed how current immigration law makes it difficult for authorities to go after employers for hiring unauthorized immigrants, but easy for employers to retaliate against those workers," ProPublica reports.

Investigative reporting by small Vt. news site leads to fall of big businessman, federal fraud charges

Anne Galloway (Twitter photo)
Journalists at rural newspapers can feel like David fighting Goliath when covering local top dogs, but the story of how a small Vermont news outlet took down a local hero shows that any reporter can provide dogged, comprehensive coverage of a controversial issue—and prosper.

When Anne Galloway founded the nonprofit online news outlet VTDigger in 2009, she was its sole employee. But when one of Vermont's most important and beloved businessmen, Bill Stenger, announced a multi-million-dollar ski resort in 2012, she thought it was too good to be true. "It was to be built in a region known as the Northeast Kingdom — an impoverished area of the state near the Canadian border, mostly known for dairy and Christmas-tree farms — and it promised 10,000 jobs," Jessica Huseman reports for ProPublica.

Galloway's small crew threw themselves into the issue: they filed suit over records, published local people's complaints that the development felt scammy, reported on Stenger's close relationship with state oversight authorities, and gained the trust of disillusioned ski-resort investors who thought things looked fishy. Their persistence paid off. After four years and dozens of stories, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed federal fraud charges against Stenger and his Miami-based business partner Ariel Quiros. The SEC likened the project to a Ponzi scheme, saying in its complaint that Stenger and Quiros "collected millions of dollars from foreign investors, pocketed some and paid for past projects with the rest," Huseman reports. "Newer projects were left incomplete, and investors were left bilked." The criminal investigation is still ongoing, but civil charges were also filed. Stenger denied guilt but reached a settlement with federal regulators over the civil charges; Quiros' civil case has not yet been resolved.

Today, Galloway has a team of 11 reporters and an annual budget of $1.3 million. Almost all of it is because of the reputation they built for tough, watchdog journalism during their investigation into the ski-resort scam.

Obamacare repeal scenario: Name Manchin to Energy, replace him with a Republican senator

Republicans could get the 50th vote they need to pass an Obamacare repeal bill through a political shuffle by President Trump and West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.

Here's the deal: Trump would name Energy Secretary Rick Perry secretary of homeland security, replacing Gen. John Kelly, who recently became Trump's chief of staff. Then Trump would name Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia energy secretary, and Justice would appoint a fellow Republican to fill Manchin's unexpired term.

"Some congressional Democrats think it's possible, even likely," reports Harris Meyer of Modern Healthcare. "If the 49 GOP senators who voted for [Mitch] McConnell's stripped-down repeal bill last month backed the new legislation, the McConnell wouldn't need the votes of the three Republicans—Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and John McCain—who voted no last time."

"Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) said Monday morning at a health-care town hall in Chicago that she and other Democrats expect Manchin will be offered the job and he will accept it," Meyer reports. "Then, they expect McConnell to quickly launch a new drive to pass a repeal-and-replace bill. That's what Trump has been needling McConnell to do since the previous bill failed by one vote on July 28, when McCain dramatically turned his thumb down."

There is also the possibility that McCain could resign from the Senate if his brain cancer progresses, Christopher Condeluci, a health-care lobbyist and former Senate Republican staffer, told Meyer. Arizona also has a Republican governor.

"Ron Pollack, chairman-emeritus of Families USA, who helped build grassroots support for ACA's passage in 2010, said he is skeptical about the Manchin replacement scenario, but he cautioned that ACA supporters should remain vigilant," Meyer reports. "Even if Republicans succeed in executing this personnel switcheroo, McConnell wouldn't necessarily have 50 votes he needs to pass either the so-called skinny repeal bill or a broader repeal-and-replace package."

Tom Miller, a conservative health policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, told Meyer, "The next hurdle is finding 50 real votes for skinny repeal when McCain isn't available to bail out up to a half-dozen or more Republican senators who voted for it very reluctantly last time."

The Hill notes, "Manchin was reportedly considered for the job after Trump's election in November." Manchin, who faces a potentially tough re-election battle in 2018, represents a state that has swung sharply Republican, largely because of troubles of its signature industry, coal, during the Obama administration.

Community sharply divided over proposed mine in Minnesota canoeing haven

Residents in a small Minnesota town near the Canadian border are embroiled in a tense debate over whether to support (and help greenlight) plans for a proposed mine that would bring jobs and income, but could threaten the town's tourism industry.

Just 20 miles from the Canadian border, Ely, Minn., is a popular last stop for fishers and canoers heading to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The money local businesses make from tourists is critical to the town's economy, so some residents were concerned when Twin Metals Minnesota proposed a $1.7 billion plan to extract valuable metals and minerals from lands at or near the southern edge of the Boundary Waters. The company says that "the area south of the Boundary Waters holds one of the world's largest known reserves of copper, nickel, platinum and palladium, along with modest amounts of gold and silver," Daniel Cusick reports for Environment & Energy News. Another mine, proposed by PolyMet Mining Corp., would operate near Hoyt Lakes. Residents fear that copper-nickel mining from the sulfide-bearing rock would create acid waste runoff that could damage water and wildlife.

Map credit: Claudine Hellmuth/E&E News
Environment & Energy News map by Claudine Hellmuth
Both Twin Metals and PolyMet Mining complain that their permit applications aren't getting a fair review because of policies they say were influenced and written by environmentalists and lawmakers who don't live in northeastern Minnesota. Many residents in the area agree, expressing antipathy toward government overreach. "We are locals in a rural area being oppressed by the Twin Cities. And it has always been that way, and we're just fed up with it." Joe Baltich told Cusick. Baltich is the third-generation owner of Northwind Lodge and Red Rock Wilderness Store on Jasper Lake, 16 miles northeast of Ely. Baltich and others believe that the mining wouldn't hurt the Boundary Waters.

As it stands, in December the Minnesota Forest Service blocked the renewal of federal leases that would allow Twin Metals access to the Superior National Forest to explore mining opportunities. They also made about 234,000 acres of the forest off-limits for development for two years, and will use the time to study whether sulfide mining will hurt the area. "If the study shows unacceptable risk, the Superior Forest will be off-limits to mining for at least 20 years," Cusick reports. If the study is favorable to Twin Metals and the leases are renewed, mining would not begin until at least 2024.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Town thought it had put racial conflict behind it; then an accident took out a Confederate statue

The Demopolis monument in 2013
The protests and violence in Charlottesville, Va., sparked by the City Council's decision to move a Robert E. Lee statue from a city park, have brought into sharp focus an increasingly contentious issue in Southern cities and towns: what to do with Confederate monuments. The town of Demopolis, Ala., has grappled with an unusual variant of that question. After a police officer accidentally crashed into the local Confederate statue and knocked it over, locals had to decide whether to put it back up. David Montgomery's Washington Post story about the Demopolis statue is a long read, but provides an excellent look at a town of 7,500 people who thought they had put issues about race behind them—until the crash put it back in front of them.

Demopolis defies easy stereotypes. It's not an integrated utopia—whites and African Americans generally live on opposite sides of town, and Mayor John Laney acknowledges that "We’ve got a city of 7,800, but it’s essentially two cities of 3,900 because the demographics is such that we don’t work together. We need to do things to change that." But the police chief is African American and oversees a racially balanced police force, the fire chief and building inspector are African American, and the first African American district attorney in Alabama history was a lawyer in Demopolis. And the townspeople are proud of the progress they've made in integrating their town. "Residents take pride in the fact that, during school desegregation in the middle of the 20th century, Demopolis distinguished itself from many of its Black Belt neighbors," Montgomery reports, using the regional term that first referred to the soil but now more to the people. "Black children and white children were funneled into the same schools, and the habit took. True, an all-white private academy cropped up, but it didn’t last, unlike in other towns where private schools still drain the public schools of white children. Today, Demopolis High School’s student body is roughly as balanced as the population of the town."

Copyright map by Sperling's Best Places
So when the Demopolis monument was knocked down in July 2016, residents worried that the debate over its fate would destroy the town's hard-fought progress. "The last thing I wanted to happen was Demopolis to become a battleground between the Sons [of Confederate Veterans] and the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Black Lives movement," said Mike Grayson, who was the mayor at the time of the crash. "We had worked too hard for too many years." He named a committee of six local civic and business leaders, half white and half black, to study whether the statue should be restored.

The public discourse in Demopolis is remarkable for its politeness; neighbors seem to want to preserve the peace, and listened to differing viewpoints calmly when the issue was discussed in a city council meeting in January. "As strong as the convictions were on both sides, they were expressed in a tone of mutual respect," Montgomery reports. But still, some residents were surprised by their neighbors' viewpoints on the statue. As in other communities, some white residents wanted the statue restored because they believe it has historical value. Phillip Spence told Montgomery that the statue "is not anything that glorifies slavery. It’s just to remember people who died. You always want to remember your ancestors."

But "to hear white people wax eloquent about the old soldier was a stunning revelation for their black neighbors," Montgomery writes. Former civil rights activist Annye Braxton told him that, to her, the statue means bigotry. "If we are the City of the People, it represents an exclusion of my people. And if we are the City of the People, I think we should be included in the monument. Put Dr. King up there. Put President Obama up there, along with your Confederate soldier." African American barber Reginald Gracie bemoaned the fact that the accident brought the whole issue to the forefront. "You find out the spirit that flows through that monument is still flowing through these people today. All these years you say this should be a model city as far as race relations are concerned, but you want to erect the one thing that keeps us divided?"

African Americans' feelings about the statue surprised many of their white neighbors. Kirk Booker, the white operations director of the Marengo County Historical Society, said the revelation was "a little eye-opening." Some white residents couldn't understand why their African American neighbors had never spoken up before if they disliked the monument. Black city council member Charles Jones Jr. said white citizens are learning that "there are some things that we suppressed," and that suppression was one reason Demopolis is able to function as a town where people of different races get along, at least on the surface.

A group that spent the night in an old slave cabin and some
friends made a foot circle during a next-day visit to the Safe
House Black History Museum in nearby Greensboro, Ala.
But residents are still trying to find their way. "I don’t know what it is about this town, but at the end of the day, we try to make it happen, make it work," Jones told Montgomery. "Yeah, there’s still some socioeconomic oppression going on, but at the end of the day, in this town we try to get along. . . . We’ve seen the all-white town, we’ve seen the all-black town, and we don’t like either of those. We like our 50-50 mix."

The issue remains unresolved. The statue is considered to be beyond repair. In April, the council voted to replace it with an obelisk honoring the dead in all wars. But in May 2017, Alabama passed a law forbidding the altering of any public monuments older than 39 years (a law that arguably seeks to specifically preserve Confederate monuments). Some residents said that the law means the statue should be replaced, but others said the law does not apply to a statue that was knocked down before the law passed. The council asked—and is still waiting for—an opinion from state Attorney General Steve Marshall, a Republican appointed early this year.
The monument today (Washington Post photo, and above, by Jahi Chikwendiu)

Des Moines Register's 'Changing Iowa' series leads to statewide and community forums

Reporter Donnelle Eller
The loss of mid-size farms depopulating rural Iowa, according to an ongoing series in The Des Moines Register called "Changing Iowa." "The quality of life in rural areas is inextricably linked to the vitality of nearby cities, which supply jobs for off-farm income, merchandise, medical care and other services," Executive Editor Carol Hunter writes in an editorial.
 
The reporter on the series, Donnelle Eller, is married to a corn and soybean farmer and lives in rural Iowa. She must drive up to an hour to get to places like a grocery store or a Walmart. So when rural farms shut down or consolidate, businesses in the city where farmers shop also take a hit in profits.

Not content to simply write about the problem, the Register is partnering with the Iowa Rural Development Council for a series of forums around the state so Iowans can "discuss the sweeping changes confronting our state and how we can rise to meet these challenges." Here are the first three events, starting at the Register’s Soapbox stage at the Iowa State Fair. On Friday, columnist Kyle Munson will interview young Iowans about their thoughts on making a life and a career in the state, and on Saturday, Tom Vilsack, former Iowa governor and U.S. secretary of agriculture, will discuss rural development and agriculture policy.

Small, needy towns wary of trying to draw crowds for eclipse, but plan modest events, and hope

The old saying goes, "You have to spend money to make money." Some small towns along the totality path of the Aug. 21 solar eclipse are doing just that: sprucing up local facilities, hiring extra law enforcement, and planning festivals that they hope will be big money-makers. They also hope visitors might see what a great place their town is to live and work. But some cash-strapped towns say they don't have the money to buy in on eclipse fever, and residents worry about committing resources to cater to crowds that may never show up.
A melon vendor and customers in Wickliffe, Ky. (New York Times photo: Andrea Morales)
Google map
Wickliffe, Ky., where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers meet, is one such community. The shrinking town of 670 has one defunct paper mill that closed in 2015, a few restaurants, and no longer has a police officer or a hotel. Because the town is in the path of totality, Mayor George Lane thought about cashing in on eclipse fever, as Hopkinsville, Ky., has done. "But the millions flocking to see the eclipse will also mean a logistical headache, a claim on local resources in places like Wickliffe that have few resources left," Campbell Robertson reports for The New York Times. "I kept reading more and more were coming," Lane told Robertson. "We’re just not geared up to handle this."

The nearby village of Barlow is similarly down on its luck, with no police officer, hotel, grocery store, gas station, or drug store. But Barlow's mayor, Jo Wilfong, says she's not going to pass up the opportunity. "The city is planning a big barbecue on eclipse day," Robertson reports. "Live music is lined up, and T-shirts are for sale ('I Blacked Out In Barlow, Ky')." The town, having recently voted to allow alcohol sales, "will even have a beer tent," he adds. Wilfong says making money isn't the point of the town's eclipse festivities. "We’re just opening up this area to people who have never been here before, who might see this as a business opportunity or a place to live," she told Robertson. Though there are few businesses in town, "maybe somebody will look around, see a nice, friendly town and decide to open a convenience store," Robertson writes. "That would be the jackpot. It is not impossible to imagine."

Sunday, August 13, 2017

EPA staff say Pruitt practices extreme secrecy, cite paper for repeal of WOTUS rule as an example

When the Environmental Protection Agency followed through on President Trump’s promise to repeal the rule defining “waters of the United States” in the Clean Water Act, deputies to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt told career employees to justify the changes without making any records, report Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton of The New York Times.

The move on “WOTUS” was part of a pattern, they report: “Pruitt is taking extraordinary measures to conceal his actions, according to interviews with more than 20 current and former agency employees. . . . Pruitt’s penchant for secrecy is reflected not just in his inaccessibility and concern for security. He has terminated a decades-long practice of publicly posting his appointments calendar and that of all the top agency aides, and he has evaded oversight questions."

The WOTUS rule, enacted by the Obama administration, included wetlands and small tributaries. “It was fiercely opposed by farmers, rural landowners and real estate developers,” the reporters note. “The original estimate concluded that the water protections would indeed come at an economic cost to those groups — between $236 million and $465 million annually. But it also concluded, in an 87-page analysis, that the economic benefits of preventing water pollution would be greater: between $555 million and $572 million.”

EPA employees told the Times that Pruitt’s lieutenants told them to produce a new analysis excluding the benefits of protecting wetlands, and “They did what they were told,” said Elizabeth Southerland, who retired last month as a senior official in EPA’s water office.

“Southerland and other experts in federal rule-making said such a sudden shift was highly unusual — particularly since studies that estimate the economic impact of regulations can take months or even years to produce, and are often accompanied by reams of paperwork documenting the process,” the Times reports. “The mere fact they are telling people not to write things down shows they are trying to keep things hidden,” Jeffrey Lubbers, a professor of administrative law at American University, told the newspaper.

EPA spokesperson Liz Bowman “categorically denied the accounts employees interviewed for this article gave of the secrecy surrounding Mr. Pruitt,” the Times reports, quoting her: “None of this is true. It’s all rumors. . . . It’s very disappointing, yet not surprising, to learn that you would solicit leaks, and collude with union officials in an effort to distract from the work we are doing to implement the president’s agenda.”

Meanwhile, another EPA spokesperson, Jahan Wilcox, threatened to call "security" on reporters who wanted to see Pruitt while he was on the University of North Dakota campus for a private meeting with farmers, reports Andrew Hoeffner of the Grand Forks Herald.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Coal firm owned by W.Va. governor demands Ky. officials personally pay it $4.5 million in damages

Gov. Jim Justice (AP photo)
A coal company owned by West Virginia's governor has taken the highly unusual if not unprecedented step of personally suing Kentucky environmental regulators who tried to get the firm to pay its fines and clean up its strip mines.

Kentucky Fuel Corp., owned by Gov. Jim Justice, blames Natural Resources Commissioner Allen Luttrell and Deputy Commissioner John D. Small "for their company's failure to meet reclamation deadlines, potentially costing more than $4.5 million in fines," James Bruggers reports for The Courier-Journal. The state Energy and Environment Cabinet said the suit was an attempt to intimidate the officials and would be vigorously defended.

Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council and the state's leading environmental lawyer, told Bruggers, "In my 37 years in the natural resources and environment field, I can't recall another instance where a regulated entity sought damages against an agency official in his individual capacity. . . . As a general rule, Kentucky courts have recognized a qualified immunity from tort liability for state agency personnel, subject to exceptions for intentional or malicious actions."

Company attorney Richard Getty replied, "When a regulator crosses a line, he ought to be held accountable." Bruggers adds that Getty "said the company is getting close to meeting its reclamation obligations and that regulators were preventing them from doing so."

Unreclaimed highwalls on Bent Mountain (state of Ky. photo)
Justice's companies had promised to reclaim, by September 2015, about 10 miles of highwalls left after strip mining. Last month, it told a Frankfort judge that only three miles had been covered, and the state said it had cited the companies for further violations, breaking the agreement and seeking payment of the $4.5 million. The judge said he wouldn't order that as long as reclamation was proceeding diligently.

The suit was filed in Pike County, Kentucky's easternmost. It alleges that the officials interfered with the Justice company's business relationship with a mining firm it had hired to to mining and reclamation on Bent Mountain, some of it on land that other companies had mined and failed to reclaim more than 20 years ago.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Despair hurts health among the poor and rural

"America today is as divided as it has ever been, in terms of incomes and opportunities, politics, and, perhaps most importantly, hopes and dreams. Hope matters," Carol Graham, Sergio Pinto and John Juneau III write for The Brookings Institution. "As our earlier work shows, individuals who do not believe in their futures are much less likely to invest in them—as in education, health, and job training. This increases the odds of America becoming even more unequal in the future. These divisions are corrosive to our society, our polity, our civic discourse, and to our health."

Losing hope can be fatal. Those who fall behind and despair tend to die earlier from causes such as suicide, drug overdoses, and heart, lung and liver cancers. This trend is most pointed among under-educated, middle-age whites in rural areas. African-Americans and Hispanics tend to be more resilient, even though they're objectively no better off, partly due to higher levels of community and family support, and recent advancement; they tend to report being better off than their parents.

Where you live also matters. "Places come with different economic structures and identities, community traits, physical environments and much more," the researchers write. Their study reveals that the most optimistic and least worried among poor minorities are in the Southeastern U.S., while poor whites are almost the opposite. Results for levels of pain reporting are a mixed bag, but the study says that "For minorities, Western states with high levels of immigrant labor display higher reported pain levels, but so do states with very different economies, such as New York and Connecticut. For poor whites, pain levels for the most part link to places with dying industries." Here are maps of optimism, worry and pain, by state (click on each one for a larger version):
Optimism levels:
Worry Levels:


Pain Levels:

Scientists argue forest fires should be allowed to burn; critics say that idea, and fires, go too far

A black-backed woodpecker chick peeks from its nest.
(New York Times photo by Noah Berger)
A debate is raging among scientists, firefighters, government officials, and the public: Should forest fires be allowed to burn? And if so, how much? Scientists know that fires are healthy for a forest: the fires clear away dead branches so undergrowth can get better sunlight, the ash fertilizes the trees and other vegetation, and some organisms need the fires: evergreens like the lodgepole pine produce seeds only after a fire.

Some scientists "argue that the century-old American practice of suppressing wildfires has been nothing less than a calamity. They are calling for a new approach that basically involves letting backcountry fires burn across millions of acres," Justin Gills reports for The New York Times. "In principle, the federal government accepted a version of this argument years ago, but in practice, fires are still routinely stamped out across much of the country. To the biologists, that has imperiled the plants and animals — hundreds of them, it turns out — that prefer to live in recently burned forests." That includes the black-backed woodpecker.

The John Muir Project of the Earth Island Institute in Berkeley, Calif., has filed a petition to list the black-backed woodpecker as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. "A listing for black-backed woodpeckers would almost certainly require a new approach to forest fires that would include allowing some fires caused by lightning to burn. The lucrative, and scientifically controversial, practice of logging trees just after a fire might well be banned across large areas, since those dead trees turn out to be important habitat for many types of creatures, including the woodpeckers," Gills reports. The Interior Department must rule on the petition by Sept. 30. If it is turned down, environmental groups will likely sue.

U.S. Forest Service scientist Malcolm North says the group's efforts to preserve habitats helped by fire are admirable, but go too far in suggesting that even the biggest fires are beneficial. Such fires can imperil human lives and property, like the 2016 wildfire at Gatlinburg, Tenn., that killed 14 people and destroyed over 2,000 structures. Fire-friendly advocates say that redirecting resources from firefighting to fireproofing homes would increase safety, but that's a hard sell. Timothy Ingalsbee, a former firefighter who now runs advocacy group Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, told Gills: "People like to do whatever they damn well please on their own land. But when a wildfire comes, they’re calling Uncle Sam saying, 'Please, come save me.'"

Ingalsbee says the families of firefighters killed in forest fires are increasingly suing the government, alleging that fighting the fires is unnecessarily dangerous. "The lives of young people are not worth saving trees that really need to burn anyway," says Ingalsbee.

Trump declares opioid crisis national emergency

UPDATE: On Aug. 10 President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency. A White House statement said he "has instructed his administration to use all appropriate emergency and other authorities to respond to the crisis caused by the opioid epidemic," the New York Times reports.

Among other benefits, "the emergency declaration may allow the government to deploy the equivalent of its medical cavalry, the U.S. Public Health Service, a uniformed service of physicians and other staffers that can target places with little medical care or drug treatment, said Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. He said the DEA might be able to use the emergency to require prescriber education for doctors and others who dispense opioids," the Times reports.
Original post:
In a July 31 interim report, the bipartisan White House Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis asked President Trump to declare the opioid crisis that's killing more than 142 Americans every day a national emergency. But after an Aug. 8 meeting with members of his administration and health officials, the president declined to do so—yet. "Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price later told reporters that declaring a national emergency is a step usually reserved for 'a time-limited problem,' like the Zika outbreak or problems caused by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Declaring a state of emergency allows the government to quickly lift restrictions or waive rules so that states and local governments don’t have to wait to take action. Price said that the administration can do the same sorts of things without declaring an emergency, although he said Trump is keeping the option on the table," Jenna Johnson and John Wagner report for The Washington Post.

Price said the president is giving "incredible attention" to the issue. In a brief address to reporters, President Trump focused on preventative measures, saying that the best way to prevent opioid addiction is to prevent people from using drugs in the first place. "If they don’t start, they won’t have a problem. If they do start, it’s awfully tough to get off," Trump told reporters at the clubhouse at his private golf club, where he is on a 17-day working vacation. "So if we can keep them from going on — and maybe by talking to youth and telling them: 'No good, really bad for you in every way.' But if they don’t start, it will never be a problem."

President Trump won over rural voters in opioid-ravaged areas with promises to end the opioid crisis by increasing funds for treatment programs and building a border wall with Mexico to stop the flow of drugs into the country. But detractors say little of that has materialized. The border wall is years from completion, and funds for drug treatment may be effectively cut. "Republicans in Congress have proposed cutting Medicaid in ways that health-care advocates say would reduce access to drug treatment for many, and the president’s budget proposal calls for reducing funding for addiction treatment, research and prevention efforts. Several Republican lawmakers who did not vote for their party’s plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act this summer said that the legislation would make it more difficult for their states to combat the heroin epidemic," the Post reports.

According to the bipartisan commission's preliminary report, declaring a national emergency could allow lawmakers to waive a federal rule that restricts where Medicaid recipients can receive treatment. The Department of Health and Human Services would also gain the power to negotiate lower prices with the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture overdose prevention drugs. The price on many such drugs has skyrocketed in recent years, hampering the ability of first responders in small towns with small city budgets to respond to overdoses.

U.S. about to become a net exporter of natural gas for the first time in 60 years

For the first time since 1957, the United States is poised to become a net exporter of natural gas. "That's according to data from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Energy Information Administration. While imports of gas are flat or falling, exports continue to rise, and the data give weight to government analysts' conviction that the United States is on track to become a net energy exporter, possibly as soon as within a decade," Nathanial Gronewold reports for Environment & Energy News.

The U.S. exported more gas than it imported for four out of the first six months in 2017, selling $593 million in natural gas to foreign countries and importing $566 million from gas pipelines from Canada and as liquefied natural gas (LNG). Exports to Mexico are rising, especially as Mexico relies increasingly on gas-fired power plants. Exports to Canada have risen steadily since the Vector pipeline went into service in 2000. The U.S. remains a net importer of natural gas from Canada, but Canadian imports are slowing since the "shale gas revolution unlocked huge new volumes of U.S. gas reserves," Gronewold reports.

Not all natural gas is the same though: imports and exports of natural gas this year overall are about equal at around $4.2 billion each, but the subset of liquefied natural gas sales is much more lopsided: The U.S. has exported $1.7 billion in LNG in 2017, but only imported $346 million worth. LNG exports are poised to grow even more, as Cheniere Energy's Sabine Pass "is now poised to expand export capacity. Freeport LNG south of Houston expects to begin liquefaction and shipments in late 2018 or early 2019. Dominion Energy's Cove Point LNG in Maryland will be in service by the end of this year, the company says. More projects are coming in Corpus Christi, Texas; elsewhere in the Gulf of Mexico region; and at Georgia's Elba Island," Gronewold reports.

Proponents of natural gas say natural gas exports will help close the U.S.'s trade deficit; there is no evidence it is doing so yet, but that may change in the future if the natural gas boom continues. The deficit created by goods trade with China and other countries is so large that energy exports have a ways to go before they'll make a substantial dent.

Uncle and nephew win Kentucky award for public service through community journalism

Ryan Craig and his late uncle, Larry Craig
Ryan Craig was majoring in history and public relations at Western Kentucky University when his uncle Larry, a rural journalist who was teaching journalism there, told him to try journalism: “You would do a lot more good, and wouldn’t have to worry about having too much money.” He followed in his uncle's footsteps, buying a weekly paper and turning it into a respected watchdog. This week the Craigs won the Al Smith Award for public service through journalism by a Kentuckian, presented by the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. The awards will be presented at an Oct. 12 dinner.

Larry Craig, who died in 2011, was a Baptist minister who took up journalism because he loved to write. At the Green River Republican in Morgantown, the night after he was offered a list of people willing to sell their votes, someone shot through a front window of his office. He got his gun and spent the night there, earning him the appellation "pistol-packing preacher-publisher." His watchdog work extended to the general public; he published names he found on trash at illegal dumps. He loved to tweak politicians, and others prone to self-importance, and could be both deft and blunt. After he became a journalism teacher and told WKU's student newspaper that the Ku Klux Klan was a "putrid cancer on the body of America," a Klan member and sympathizer burned his church.

Craig said in 2009 that one man told him “He couldn’t see how I could raise hell all week and then preach against hell on Sunday,” but he said both professions prize truth, justice and accountability. David Hawpe, former editor of The Courier-Journal, who succeeded Craig as Kentucky Press Association president, said when his friend died at 62, of liver failure, that he was “a special person who actually was an intellectual, sophisticated guy hiding in a country preacher's persona." His first editor, Al Smith, for whom the award is named, called him “one of the most unforgettable editors I ever knew.”

Ryan Craig bought the Todd County Standard in 2005 after working at daily and weekly newspapers in the area. He transformed the paper into an example of excellent reporting, editing and presentation. When it won its first General Excellence award from KPA, he heard from Uncle Larry, he recalls: “He called me and told me I was putting out a great newspaper,” then said, “Now they know you can do a great job, turn the heat up to boil and see what happens.”

In 2011, The Standard investigated the murder of a girl in foster care in a home where abuse had been substantiated, and used open-records laws to uncover serious flaws in the Kentucky social-services system. It went to court to have the girl's files made public when state officials tried to cover up her case. The newspaper’s investigation, along with stories in the state’s two largest dailies, helped lead to the resignation of the cabinet secretary, the retirement of the social-services commissioner, legislative hearings and a governor-appointed panel to examine child-abuse deaths and near-deaths, Todd Circuit Clerk Mark Cowherd wrote in his nomination of Craig. (Read more)

South Dakota journalists concerned that 'fake news' meme from D.C. hurts their credibility, too

Tim Waltner, Freeman Courier; Dave Bordewyk, S.D. Newspaper Assn.; Jeremy Waltner,
Courier publisher; Jonathan Ellis, Argus Leader; Cara Hetland, S.D. Public Radio;
 Karen Sherman, KELO-TV; Terri Finneman, S.D. State University (SDNA photo)
Better journalism is the best answer to the "fake news" meme that has spread to rural journalism from the national political conversation, a news-media panel told about 60 people at the Freeman Chautauqua on July 29, Dana Hess of the South Dakota Newspaper Association reports in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader.

“I think journalists are going to get better,” said Cara Hetland, news director of South Dakota Public Radio. "She said journalists need to hear from more people like former Gov. Bill Janklow who was noted for holding reporters accountable if he didn’t agree with their reporting," Hess reports.

"While national news organizations are often on the receiving end of the fake news label, notably from President Donald Trump, it has worked its way into South Dakota," Hess writes. "Jeremy Waltner, publisher of the Freeman Courier, said a reader labeled as fake news his reporting about a school board decision to ask for a property tax opt out. While he had once 'scoffed' at fake news as a problem for larger news outlets, now 'It’s in my inbox,' Waltner said. 'This is having an impact, folks, on everybody.'”

SDNA Executive Director David Bordewyk said if journalists were more open and transparent about how they report and write stories, they could “go a long way to debunking” the use of "fake news" as a criticism of them and their news outlets.

The real, original meaning of "fake news" was false stories, usually written to gain audience. That remains a problem on social media, where people don't like to be told that posts they share are untrue.
“People don’t want to be told that what they believe isn’t right,” she said. “They get their fur up a little bit and get defensive.” But she said pointing out the truth would slow the spread of fake news, and "advised people who question the veracity of what they read on the Internet" to check it out at politifact.com, The Washington Post'The Fact Checker or Snopes.com, Hess reports.

Paxton Media Group buys three weeklies from Civitas, including one in a competitive market

The News-Gazette ran a photo
of its storefront with its story.
(Photo by Matt Lasley)
Civitas Media Group continues to sell newspapers. The latest are a pair of twice-weeklies in Kentucky and one in Tennessee, sold this week to Paxton Media Group, based in Paducah, Ky.

The Kentucky papers are the Grayson County News-Gazette in Leitchfield and the News Democrat and Leader in Russellville. The Tennessee paper is the Macon County Times in Lafayette, which is about 30 miles from another Paxton paper in Portland, Tenn., which is 30 miles from Russellville. Leitchfield is 55 miles from Owensboro, home of a Paxton daily, the Messenger-Inquirer, from which Paxton Group Publisher Bob Morris will oversee the papers.

The sale leaves North Carolina-based Civitas with only two Kentucky papers, small dailies in Harlan and Middlesboro in the state's southeast corner. It earlier sold weeklies in Prestonsburg and Hazard, also in the state's economically struggling eastern coalfield.

Paxton's purchase of the Leitchfield newspaper was unusual, because the paper has a competitor, and newspaper groups rarely buy into competitive markets. But that has happened before in Leitchfield, when Landmark Community Newspapers bought The Record from its local founder and hired her to run a subscription campaign that gained the paper the in-county circulation lead and the paid public notices that go with it under Kentucky law. A story in the News-Gazette said it would continue to publish on Wednesdays and Saturdays, "and the staff will remain the same."

The Leitchfield market is the only one The Rural Blog knows of where newspaper groups own competing weeklies. If you know of another, please tell us.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Bipartisan bill aims to improve access and lower costs for rural broadband

A bipartisan pair of senators introduced a bill Aug. 8 that aims to improve wireless internet access and affordability in rural areas. Republican Cory Gardner of Colorado and Democrat Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire "propose opening up spectrum space for commercial licensed and unlicensed use with the hope that doing so will drive down wireless costs and increase its accessibility," Ali Breland reports for The Hill.

"The bill instructs the Federal Communications Commission to auction off the government-controlled spectrum of radio frequencies used for wireless communication, with the first auction to be held by next December," Mariam Baksh reports for Morning Consult. A provision of the bill would set aside 10 percent of the proceeds from the auctions to invest in rural broadband development. Gardner, who represents a state with an area that has possibly the worst internet access in America, said the legislation "offers innovative ways to avoid a spectrum crunch, pave the way for 5G service, and provide critical resources to rural America to continue rural buildout in unserved and underserved areas throughout Colorado and the country."
Estimated benefits of faster internet (Daily Yonder graphic; click on it for larger version)
The response has been largely positive. CTIA, a trade group representing the wireless industry, praised the bill for providing "a much needed long-term plan to unlock valuable licensed spectrum as demand for wireless data and content continues to skyrocket," Breland reports. Other stakeholders are more focused on the unlicensed spectrum. Michael Calabrese, director of New America's Wireless Future Project, said in a statement that he wants lawmakers to let unlicensed spectrum users share some frequencies licensed by fixed satellite owners. Companies holding licenses for parts of the spectrum are reluctant to share with unlicensed users, but they may have to. The new bill would require the FCC to "create opportunities" for unlicensed users right above the 5 GHz band, right next to a space licensed by automakers. "The car companies say such sharing could cause disruptions in vehicle-to-vehicle communication," Baksh reports.

Trump administration eases the way for coal mining on federal lands

"The Trump administration is wading into one of the oldest and most contentious debates in the West by encouraging more coal mining on lands owned by the federal government. It is part of an aggressive push to both invigorate the struggling American coal industry and more broadly exploit commercial opportunities on public lands," Eric Lipton and Barry Meier report for The New York Times. The U.S. has 643 million acres of public lands, mostly in the Westmore than six times the size of California. More than 40 percent of all coal mined in the U.S. comes from federal land.

The Interior Department temporarily banned new coal leases on public lands during the Obama administration, citing concerns about climate change. The administration also ordered mining companies to pay the government higher royalties and eliminated a loophole that coal companies selling to foreign buyers often used to avoid paying as much in royalties. The Trump administration is more sympathetic to mining companies. Led by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Montanan, it is working quickly to reverse those measures and may reduce the number and footprint of wilderness and historic national monument areas that are off-limits for mining. On Aug. 7, the department officially repealed the Obama-era rule that effectively required oil, gas and coal extractors to pay more royalties to federal and state governments, Dino Grandoni reports for The Washington Post. The Trump administration stayed the rule in February.

Richard Reavey, the head of government relations for mining company Cloud Peak Energy, said he was glad for the recent increase in coal production and exports, following a major decline last year. Cloud Peak operates several open pit mines in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, the nation's most productive coalfield, which accounts for 85 percent of all coal extracted from federal lands. It ships coal to power plants in the Midwest and Asia. Because so many U.S. coal-burning plants have shut down, Reavey said, overseas markets were the only way mining companies can grow. By restricting federal lands, the Obama administration's goal, "in collusion with the environmentalists, was to drive us out of the export business," Reavey told the Times.
Map by WildEarth Guardians
Coal companies still have a long way to go before they can open more mines on federal land, "in part because environmentalists have blocked construction of a coal export terminal, and there is limited capacity at the port the companies use in Vancouver," the Times reports. There's other resistance too, not just by Democrats and conservationists. New Mexico and California sued the Interior Department in April to undo Trump's rollback in coal mine royalties. And Art Hayes, a rancher who lives near the Powder River basin, says he worries that increased mining will pollute his stock's water supply. Hayes and a local Cheyenne tribe sued the government in March to challenge the decision to lift the moratorium on new coal leases.

The cash-strapped local Crow tribe is more optimistic about the future of coal in the region, since they signed an agreement with Cloud Peak in 2013 to allow the company to extract up to 1.4 billion tons of coal from the tribe's lands. "The tribe estimates the Cloud Peak operations could generate $10 million in payments for a community where the unemployment rate in June was 19.4 percent, five times the state average," the Times reports. "Coal, for us, is the ticket to prosperity. We are rich in coal reserves. But we are cash poor," the tribe's vice secretary Shawn Backbone told The Times. But Cheyenne Donna Fisher says preserving the area is more important. "We are wealthy in life here," she said. "We don’t have money. But we have land, water and air. Snuff that out and we are gone."

Eclipse could cause historic traffic jams, hazards

The nation is gearing up for the Monday, Aug. 21, solar eclipse, which will cross 14 states from Oregon to South Carolina in about 90 minutes. As excited citizens buy eclipse glasses and book hotel rooms, communities are preparing for the huge influx of visitors and the strain they could place on local infrastructure such as cell phone networks. But another big problem to watch out for? Traffic. About 200 million people live within a day's drive of the path of totality – the narrow cross-country line where the sun will be completely hidden for up to two minutes and 40 seconds.

Officials are expecting millions to clog the roads, Jenni Bergal reports for Stateline, the the nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts. Dave Thompson, a spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Transportation, told her: "People are thinking they're just going to pop in, see it, and then turn around and head back home. They're not. They need to be prepared for long backups and have a full tank of gas and stuff in their car like water and food and medications they might need."

States are doing what they can to mitigate traffic issues. Many plan to suspend construction projects for the day. Idaho officials are identifying potential bottlenecks and ways to manage traffic. Missouri will monitor capacity at interstate rest areas and welcome centers so they can be closed to new entries when they fill up. Geographic information systems expert Michael Zeiler, who operates GreatAmericanEclipse.com, a great one-stop source of eclipse information, created a map of potential traffic bottlenecks for the eclipse:

FiveThirtyEight.com map; click to view a larger version
Transportation officials are concerned about wrecks that could be caused by the congestion, confusion and people pulling onto road shoulders to observe the eclipse. They're particularly worried that drivers might take pictures while driving, or look up at the sun instead of at the road. Looking up at the sun is a no-win scenario: drivers who aren't wearing eclipse glasses could damage their eyes and become temporarily blinded, and those who are wearing eclipse glasses won't be able to see the road. Federal Highway Administration spokesperson Doug Hecox has simple advice for drivers: "Don’t stand on the interstate. Don’t pull your car over. Don’t take a selfie from a bridge. The risk of driver distraction from this once-in-a lifetime event has never been greater. We don’t want anyone to have an 'eclipse in judgment'."

Morris Communications sells all its newspapers (11 dailies, 29 weeklies) to GateHouse Media

Morris Publishing Group, one of the largest family-owned newspaper chains, is selling to one of the largest venture-capital newspaper companies. New Media Investment Group, parent of the GateHouse Media chain, said it will pay $120 million for the 11 dailies and several weeklies owned by Morris, based in Augusta. Ga.

The far-flung Morris owns the Augusta Chronicle, the Athens Banner Herald, the Savannah Morning News, the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, The St. Augustine Record, The Topeka Capital-Journal, the Amarillo Globe-News, the Lubbock Avalanche Journal, the Juneau Empire and The Peninsula Clarion in Alaska, the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark.

Its 29 weeklies include Beaufort Today, Bluffton Today and the Jasper County Sun Times in South Carolina, The Homer News in Alaska and the News and Farmer in Louisville, Ga. William S. "Billy" Morris will remain publisher of the paper in Augusta, where his Morris Communications is based, and oversee editorial policy for the Georgia papers. The company said in a news release that "focus its business on lifestyle and niche publications, broadband operations, property development and new business." It quoted Morris as saying, "Every newspaper company in America is battling trends and redirected advertising dollars, so it is necessary for newspapers to be part of a large newspaper group to build and maintain the necessary resources to compete."

"The deal represents further consolidation of the struggling industry," Rick Edmonds writes for The Poynter Institute. "GateHouse, with more than 120 dailies, offers scale with a centralized editing and production center in Austin and a group of system-wide advertising and marketing products . .  . New Media Investment is publicly traded but also has the backing of the huge Fortress Investment Group fund. It has been on a run of acquisitions over the last several years, buying The Columbus Dispatch and Fayetteville Observer among other properties. It has promised to spend $1 billion on acquisitions and with the latest deal is almost there -- at roughly $900 million.  An early acquisition was Halifax Media which included what once were the New York Times Regional Group papers."

BuzzFeed editor: Fake news is a historic challenge that local news outlets are well suited to fight

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

CHICAGO – Online misinformation, or fake news, "is the biggest information challenge in the history of humanity," and local news outlets should do something about it, the media editor of BuzzFeed News told America's largest journalism convention Wednesday night, Aug. 9.

"This is a challenge we have never encountered before in the history of human communication," Craig Silverman said in the keynote address to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications' 100th annual meeting, in Chicago.

Silverman outlined the tremendous reach of fake-news publishers based in countries like Macedonia, whose advertising revenue from one social-media post can easily exceed the monthly average income in the Balkan country – which was the source of much misinformation about Hillary Clinton before last year's presidential election.

"Misinformation about American politics is actually an international business opportunity now," Silverman said, adding that one 20-year-old in Macedonia is "knocking the pants off a lot of American publishers." He presented results of an analysis of partisan news sites from January 2015 through March 2017, which showed a boom in such sites in the past year.

In the question-and-answer session, Silberman was asked how journalists and academics could fight the phenomenon. He suggested that local news outlets hold community media-literacy seminars: "a bottom-up approach, because there's trust among people" of their local newspaper editors.

In his speech, Silberman said the topic needs more research, and suggested that academics and journalists collaborate, sharing data and ideas before publication. He said journalists are able to elicit answers from business and government officials that academic researchers are often unable to get.

With democratic institutions under attack in the United States and fake-news publishers preying on the public's doubts, he said, "We need all hands on deck with this."

Silberman's speech reminded me of a point I made earlier in the day in a panel discussion about the news media at The Louisville Forum. I said journalists must do a better job of explaining how they do their jobs, and if I were publishing a newspaper today, its editorial page and home page would have a standing box saying what the paper stood for, that opinion is separate from news, that readers should blow the whistle when they see otherwise, and that the newspaper follows the principles outlined in the book The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, which says "The essence of journalism is a discipline of verification" – something absent in social media.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

'Rhinestone Cowboy' singer Glen Campbell dies at 81 after public battle with Alzheimer's disease

Wikipedia photo
Grammy-winning Country Music Hall of Fame singer Glen Campbell, who rose from his rural roots to sell more than 45 million records, died Aug. 8 from complications related to Alzheimer's disease at the age of 81. "Campbell was a rare breed in the music business, with various careers as a top-level studio guitarist, chart-topping singer and hit television host," Patrick Doyle writes for Rolling Stone.

Campbell was born in Delight, Ark. in 1936, only 30 miles away and 10 years before another famous local, Bill Clinton. "Glen Campbell was an iconic American artist," Clinton said. "His legacy will be his great talent & how he decided to live with Alzheimer's." One of 12 children of sharecropping parents, he never forgot his roots and was known for his "country-fried quips," Adam Bernstein writes for The Washington Post. When asked about his quick rise to fame, Campbell said, "I been busier than a three-headed woodpecker!"

The self-taught singer and guitarist behind such Top 40 hits as "Wichita Lineman" and "Rhinestone Cowboy" started out as a studio musician in the early 1960s, playing rhythm guitar on more than 500 records of all genres. He got a taste of stardom when he filled in for Brian Wilson with the Beach Boys in 1964-1965, and hit the spotlight as a solo singer in 1967 with a slew of Grammies for singing John Hartford's "Gentle on My Mind." He branched out to television with a variety show, "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour" and dabbled with acting, in the John Wayne movie "True Grit." But his music and the clean-cut image that went with it were his main draws, even when his real life was at odds with that image. Campbell struggled with cocaine and alcohol addictions, was married four times, and was involved in a tumultuous relationship with singer Tanya Tucker, who was 22 years younger.

In 2008 Campbell earned fans from a new generation with "Meet Glen Campbell," "a recording session that included covers of songs by such disparate rock bands as Green Day, U2 and the Velvet Underground," Bernstein writes. "He followed with the well-received “Ghost on the Canvas” in 2011, featuring admirers such as Smashing Pumpkins guitarist Billy Corgan and Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen."