Friday, June 09, 2017

Minimum-wage job isn't enough to afford a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in U.S., report says

On average, how much income does someone in your state need to rent a two-bedroom apartment? The National Low Income Housing Coalition has run the numbers, and The Washington Post has a story and a map:
According to the report, "There is nowhere in this country where someone working a full-time minimum wage job could afford to rent a two-bedroom apartment," Tracy Jan writes for the Post. "Downsizing to a one-bedroom will only get you so far on minimum wage. Such housing is affordable in only 12 counties located in Arizona, Oregon and Washington states, according to the report."

"The gap between wages and rent is growing," Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the coalition, which has conducted similar analyses for 28 years, told the Post. "There's no doubt that the affordable housing crisis overall has increased since the foreclosure crisis in 2007."

"The picture is not expected to improve in the near future as the rental market remains strong and vacancy rates decline," Jan reports. "A record 43.3 million households were renters in 2016, a 27 percent increase since 2006, the report said. Household income, meanwhile, has not kept up with the pace of rent increases."

Fact Checker finds Trump made misleading claims about coal in recent speeches

President Trump has made misleading statements about coal in recent speeches, Michelle Ye Hee Lee writes in The Fact Checker column in The Washington Post.

Trump said in announcing U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate-change agreement, “The Paris accord is very unfair at the highest level to the United States. Further, while the current agreement effectively blocks the development of clean coal in America, which it does. And the mines are starting to open up, having a big opening in two weeks, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, so many places. A big opening of a brand, new mine. It’s unheard of. For many, many years that hasn’t happened.”

Six days later, in Cincinnati, Trump said, “Next week we’re opening a big coal mine. You know about that. One in Pennsylvania. It’s actually a new mine. That hadn’t happened in a long time, folks. But we’re putting the people and we’re putting the miners back to work.”

Here are the facts, as reported by Lee: "The new mines that are scheduled to open, including in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, are ones that will produce metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel. This coal is used to produce coke, which is then used to blast the furnace to create metal. It’s different from thermal coal, which is burned for steam to produce heat and electricity," the main concern of the Paris agreement.

The specific mine that Trump refereed to is the Corsa Coal Co. Acosta Deep Mine in Jennerstown, Pa., Lee reports. "Corsa began work on this mine in September — two months before the presidential election. This mine is expected to create 70 to 100 full-time jobs, according to the company." Don Dahler of CBS News has a report on the mine.

Trump said the Paris accord “effectively blocks the development of clean coal in America,” but Lee writes, "The nonbinding, voluntary agreement allows each country to decide the method and technology it wants to use to curb carbon emissions." She gives the president three Pinocchios on The Fact Checker's four-Pinocchio scale.

All 90 grads of high school in rural, majority-minority county plan to keep pursuing education

Warren County, N.C. (Wikipedia map)
Here's a piece of encouraging news on the rural-education front: All 90 graduates of the public high school in Warren County, North Carolina, "have been accepted into community colleges and universities and plan to pursue education beyond high school," Ferrel Guillory of the University of North Carolina journalism school reports in his weekly column for EducationNC.

"It is a promising transition in the lives of the students and an important achievement for a school in a completely rural, majority-minority, economically-distressed county where only 15 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree," Guillory writes. "The good news from Warren County comes at a time when rural communities and their schools have encountered severe economic and political headwinds. High-skill, higher-paying jobs have increasingly clustered in metropolitan areas, while many rural communities remain bruised and weakened by the jobs lost during the big recession of the previous decade."

The Warren County graduates' aspirations "suggest that rural students can stand against the headwinds" of state and national policy, which Guillory outlines, and links to articles about it. "Still, rural schools need local, state and national policymakers to bolster their capacity to give young people propulsion beyond the 12th grade, whether they choose to live in a city or in their hometown."

N.Y. finding more bald eagles dead from lead; ban on lead ammo applies only to waterfowl

A necropsy of a bald eagle is performed by the New York
Department of Environmental Conservation
. (WAMC photo)
Biologists in New York state have noticed more bald eagles dying from lead poisoning, and say the leading cause is lead from hunters' bullets and shotgun shells that accumulates in the wildlife food chain, which has predators such as eagles at the end.

"There were two deaths in 2009 and nine last year, and those are only the reported deaths from birds found by hikers or brought in from animal rehabilitators. The total may be higher," Angelica A. Morrison of WBFO in Buffalo and Jim Levulis of WAMC in Albany report for Great Lakes Today.

“No amount of lead is normal in a biological system,” said Julia Ponder, executive director of The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota, which tracks the deaths. The reporters write, "Eagles feast on the field dressings of animals shot with lead ammunition, which is used by hunters because of its affordability and availability. . . . Ponder said close to 90 percent of the eagles the center takes in have lead exposure, and 25 to 30 percent have lead poisoning. Most of the birds with lead poisoning die."

The reporters interviewed Krysten L. Schuler, a wildlife disease ecologist with the Animal Health Diagnostic Center at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in Ithaca. "The key to solving the problem, Schuler says, is teaching hunters not to use lead ammunition for game. The use of lead ammunition for waterfowl hunting is already banned nationwide," they report.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Study: Medicaid cuts would hurt rural people most

Getty Images
Recent gains in the number of people insured will be in jeopardy under health-care bills in Congress, largely from a proposed dramatic cut in federal funding for Medicaid, reports Phil Galewitz of Kaiser Health News.

"There is no doubt that children and families in small towns would be disproportionately harmed by cuts to Medicaid," Joan Alker, executive director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families, told Galewitz.

"According to the center's new report, Medicaid covered 45 percent of children and 16 percent of adults in small towns and rural areas in 2015," Galewitz explains. "Those figures are lower in metropolitan areas – 38 percent of children and 15 percent of adults. Rural areas have larger Medicaid populations because more people with disabilities live there, household incomes tend to be lower, unemployment rates higher and jobs with employer-paid insurance less common, the Georgetown report said. In states that expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, the rate of uninsured people in small towns and rural areas fell by 11 percentage points between 2008-09 and 2014-15 – from 22 percent to 11 percent, the report said. That was slightly larger than the decrease in metro areas of expansion states."

Other findings from the report: Rural areas tend to have larger Medicaid populations because more people with disabilities live there, household incomes tend to be lower, unemployment rates higher and jobs with employer-paid insurance less common. In states that expanded Medicaid under the ACA the rate of uninsured people in small towns and rural areas fell by 11 percentage points between 2008-09 and 2014-15, from 22 percent to 11 percent, a slightly larger decrease than in metro areas of expansion states.

The House bill would stop funding of the Medicaid expansion in 2020. Senate Republicans have not released a bill, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has proposed a phase-out through 2023, The Hill reports.

Transportation secretary says rural communities would benefit from privatized air-traffic control

AP photo
Senators on both sides of the aisle have questioned whether President Trump's endorsement of airlines' push to privatize air-traffic control would hurt rural areas.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao says no. She says small communities would actually benefit from privatization, Bart Jansen reports for USA Today. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said during a transportation committee hearing that the proposal raised many concerns in small communities. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) expressed concern that only the largest cities would benefit. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) called the proposal "a tough sell" in states where small airports are concerned.

"Chao said rural communities would benefit from moving air-traffic control from the Federal Aviation Administration to a non-profit corporation because the first cuts in a budget fight concern towers where controllers are hired under contract in communities with few flights," Jansen writes. Chao said, "The contract towers are very important to rural America. I’m very, very concerned about the impact on rural America." Her husband is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Chao said the proposal’s biggest advantage is avoidance of cumbersome federal procurement rules. "The rural areas are most hurt by the status quo," Chao told Jansen. "Access to rural America would actually be enhanced if the air traffic control system were taken out of the bureaucratic government budgeting and procurement processes."

Students at rural Georgia school file lawsuit after school-wide drug sweep, pat-down searches

Worth County High School students and parents
meet to discuss the lawsuit (WALB-TV image)
Students at Worth County High School in Sylvester, Georgia, have filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the county sheriff after he allegedly ordered a school-wide drug sweep involving pat-downs of more than 900 students.

The lawsuit alleges that Sheriff Jeff Hobby and dozens of deputies came to the high school April 14 to search for illicit drugs, Christopher Ingraham reports in The Washington Post. Hobby had a list of 13 students he suspected, but only three were present, and he "asked that they be brought to school administrative offices," The Associated Press reports.

"According to the students' legal complaint, they proceeded to go to every classroom and physically search nearly every student present for drugs," Ingraham writes. The deputies reportedly used 'pat down' searches, during which some students reported having their genitals touched. After the search, the sheriff's office acknowledged in a news release that at least one deputy had touched students in an inappropriate manner.

AP reports, "One student, identified in the lawsuit as K.P., was called out of her economics class into the hallway, where a deputy kicked her legs apart and told her not to look back. The deputy squeezed K.P.'s breasts and lifted the underwire of her bra through her shirt and put her hands into the pockets of K.P.'s jeans and, through the pockets, felt under K.P.'s underwear, the lawsuit says."

Ingraham reports, "In the aftermath of the search, the sheriff told local media that the pat-down searches of students were legal because school administrators were present," Ingraham writes. "He also said . . . a separate drug search performed several weeks earlier by police from the City of Sylvester had not been thorough enough. Neither search turned up any illicit drugs."

Representative-elect apologizes, says he will give $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists

Rep.-elect Greg Gianforte (New York Times photo)
Montana's new representative-elect in the U.S. House, Greg Gianforte, formally apologized to The Guardian's Ben Jacobs for body-slamming him on the eve of Gianforte's election, Ryan W. Miller reports for USA Today. The Republican also pledged to donate $50,000 to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"My physical response to your legitimate question was unprofessional, unacceptable, and unlawful," Gianforte said in a letter to Jacobs. "As both a candidate for office and a public official, I should be held to a high standard in my interactions with the press and the public. My treatment of you did not meet that standard."

Jacobs seemingly accepted the apology: "I hope the constructive resolution of this incident reinforces for all the importance of respecting the freedom of the press and the First Amendment and encourages more civil and thoughtful discourse in our country," he said.  Gianforte faces a misdemeanor charge for the altercation; however, a judge granted an extension to June 20, The Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The altercation happened May 24, the night before the special election, when Jacobs pressed Gianforte about the budget scoring of the health-care bill passed by the House

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Today is deadline to apply for Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting fellowship to IRE Boot Camp

Today is the deadline to apply for the Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting Fellowship to one of the next Investigative Reporters and Editors computer-assisted reporting boot camps in Columbia, Mo. The data boot camp will be held Aug. 6-10 and the mapping boot camp will be held Aug. 11-13.

The fellowship is open only to journalists who work in rural areas. Journalists are eligible for a fellowship if they work outside of a metropolitan area (with a core urban population of 50,000 or more), for a newspaper with a circulation of less than 40,000, a television station outside of the top 100 Nielsen markets, or a radio or online news organization with a record of covering rural areas. Freelancers should submit a letter from such an outlet testifying to their working relationship with that outlet.

The fellowship includes a one-year IRE membership, registration fee for the selected boot camp and up to $500 in reimbursement for travel expenses. It does not cover food or incidentals. It is financed by the Fund for Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting, established by IRE member Daniel Gilbert to give rural reporters skills that will help them uncover stories that otherwise would not come to light. The fellowship is offered in conjunction with the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Required application materials include a resume, three clips showcasing investigative work, a letter of support from your news organization, and a statement of interest (preference is given to applicants who outline a project that includes the need to analyze databases). To apply, click here.

EPA Administrator Pruitt's claim of 50,000 new coal jobs claim is off base, Fact Checker says

The Trump administration's claim that the coal industry has added nearly 50,000 jobs since the fourth quarter of 2016 is largely exaggerated, writes Glenn Kessler in The Fact Checker column for The Washington Post.

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, made essentially the same claim on three Sunday TV shows: "We’ve had over 50,000 jobs since last quarter — coal jobs, mining jobs — created in this country. We had almost 7,000 mining and coal jobs created in the month of May alone," Pruitt said on ABC's "This Week." 

There are several problems with Pruitt's claim, Kessler writes. "According to an EPA spokeswoman, Pruitt bungled the line on one show and did not accurately express it on other shows. (He kept saying 'since the fourth quarter,' which sounds like the end of the year, when she said he meant to say since October.) But even if he had gotten it right, it still would have been deeply misleading," he explains.

From September to January, the end of the Obama administration, there was a gain of 1,400 jobs in the industry, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the first four months of the Trump administration, there has been a gain of 1,000 jobs.
Washington Post image
"On the other programs, Pruitt more carefully referred to 'mining and coal' or 'coal jobs, mining jobs,'" Kessler explains. "You can see how he tries to slip in the word 'mining.' That’s a sign that this is a carefully crafted spin. He emphasizes coal while trying to be technically correct by slipping in a reference to mining."

If you look at BLS data on mining jobs as far back as October, you end up with a gain of 47,000 jobs. "That’s Pruitt’s 'nearly 50,000.' (From April to May, there was a gain of 6,600 jobs — that’s Pruitt’s 7,000.) Of course, Trump only became president on Jan. 20, so it’s more appropriate to look at what has happened since January. That’s a gain of nearly 33,000," Kessler reports. "But the biggest problem with Pruitt’s statistic is that most of the gain in 'mining' jobs has nothing to do with coal. Most of the new jobs were in a subcategory called 'support activities for mining,' which accounted for more than 40,000 of the new jobs since October and more than 30,000 of the jobs since January." What's more, 75 percent of the jobs in the "support for mining" subcategory are in oil and gas, and the latter industry has helped cause coal's decline.

"So, rather than the gain of 47,000 jobs touted by Pruitt, the reality is that 1,000 coal jobs have been added since Trump became president," Kessler writes. "For the month of May, the gain was 400 jobs, not 7,000." Kessler notes that coal-industry officials would argue that figures for mining and coal are too narrow and that an additional 3,000 to 4,000 support jobs can be attributed to the industry.

Young reporter receives Livingston Award for documenting the tribulations of Appalachia

Claire Galofaro, left, accepted the award from
Maria Elena Salinas of Univision. (AP photo)
Claire Galofaro, a Louisville-based reporter for The Associated Press, received the Livingston Award for Local Reporting from the University of Michigan Tuesday, "in recognition of her outstanding work documenting economic despair in Appalachia," reports Lauren Easton of AP.

"The Livingston Awards for Young Journalists honor the best reporting and storytelling in any medium by journalists under the age of 35," Easton notes. Galofaro was awarded a $10,000 prize at a luncheon in New York for her series "Surviving Appalachia."

"Her stories examined the rise of Donald Trump, described the effects of the heroin epidemic on a small West Virginia city and detailed the plight of hundreds of families entangled in a disability fraud scheme," Easton writes.

Galofaro said, "The lesson I learned most vividly from reporting these stories is that a generally-improving American economy means nothing to people who look out their window and see only devastation and decay. There is a consequence of forsaking these blue-collar places."

Galofaro is one of three Livingston Award winners. "Brooke Jarvis of The California Sunday Magazine received top honors for national reporting, and Ben Taub of The New Yorker won for international reporting. The late Gwen Ifill was honored with the Richard M. Clurman Award for on-the-job mentoring," Easton reports. Find more information about the winners here. Read the full AP story here.

Small weekly in rural Oregon wins battle for records when governor intercedes on its behalf

Les Zaitz (Poynter photo)
The publisher of a weekly newspaper in rural Vale, Oregon, won his battle to release records about a murder suspect who had earlier admitted feigning insanity to avoid prison, when the governor ordered a recalcitrant state agency to turn over the documents.

Les Zaitz of the Malheur Enterprise, circulation 2,000, and his reporters discovered Anthony Montwheeler "had a criminal background stretching back 25 years; he previously kidnapped his former wife and 3-year-old son; and — most importantly — he was released by Oregon officials just 23 days before the latest crimes,' reports Benjamin Mullin of The Poynter Institute. "But Zaitz knew he was looking at one of the biggest stories of his career when the team discovered that Montwheeler had avoided a seven-year prison sentence by convincing a psychologist that he was mentally ill. Then, years after he was confined to a mental hospital, he was released by the state Psychiatric Security Review Board when he admitted to faking his mental illness."

Zaitz got an audio recording of the board's meeting and wrote a story, but the board refused to release 15 exhibits it used in making its decision. The state attorney general, who has the power to require agencies to release documents, ordered it do do so, but it refused and planned to file a lawsuit to block the release. Zaitz set up a defense fund through the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association.

Then Gov. Kate Brown "took the rare step of intervening in the case, calling the review board's lawsuit 'plain wrong' and ordered the records released," Mullin recounts. "No one requesting public records should be at risk of being sued by a state agency," Brown wrote. "I believe the public is best served by bringing this matter to an end now, rather than after a lengthy and costly litigation."

Zaitz is offering refunds to those who donated to the defense fund. "If they do not want their money returned, it will be used to create a new fund at ONPA, one aimed at helping the state’s small newspapers," the Bend Bulletin reported in an editorial.

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Small airports and rural interests don't like Trump's plan to privatize and modernize air traffic control

A Jet Blue pilot navigates a next-generation simulator with FAA
Administrator Michael Huerta. (2012 AP photo by John Raoux)
"Despite a campaign full of pledges to aid rural areas, President Trump’s first big move on infrastructure – privatizing key functions of the Federal Aviation Administration – is quickly drawing fire from small airports, rural communities and their federal lawmakers," Stuart Leavenworth reports for McClatchy Newspapers.

The plan, announced Monday, is backed by airlines, the traffic controllers' union and former transportation secretaries, "partly because of the agency’s slow track record in modernizing its technology," Lewvenworth reports, but "Opponents fear the plan could hand over government assets and more power to the airline industry, which will have representatives on the new non-profit board. Small airports and the general aviation industry fear they could become an aviation afterthought."

Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas told McClatchy, “Proposals to privatize air-traffic control threaten the reliable transportation options provided by small airports and the general-aviation community for millions of Americans. All but our largest airports nationwide stand to be hurt by this proposal. Privatization eliminates the chance for Congress and the American people to provide oversight, creates uncertainty in the marketplace and is likely to raise costs for consumers.”

Leavenworth writes, "Nearly all interests agree the nation’s air-traffic-control system is safe but antiquated, relying on radar while other nations long ago started using GPS," the global positioning system. "Trump’s claim on Monday that his FAA plan will 'maintain support for rural communities and small airports' was immediately disputed by the Alliance for Aviation Across America, a group that represents small airports and other groups."

The president didn't actually propose anything new, just sent "routine letters to Congress" endorsing "a minimally detailed plan" in Trump's budget" and proposed for several years in Congress, Noah Bierman of the Los Angeles Times reports, but "Trump employed all the trappings traditionally reserved for signing major bills into law." James Hohmann of The Washington Post cites Bierman and writes, "But low-information voters may not be able to tell the difference when they see the B-roll of the ceremony on TV or an image in the paper."

Abuse of federal tax deduction for conservation easements is rising, tax-policy researcher says

A new analysis from the Brookings Institution's Tax Policy Center finds that abuse of a tax deduction meant to encourage conservation of important land and historic buildings is on the rise, and it's costing the federal government billions in lost revenue. For a national database of conservation easements, click here.

Conservation easement deductions tripled between 2012 and 2014, rising from $971 million in 2012 to $1.1 billion in 2013 to $3.2 billion in 2014, Brookings Senior Fellow Adam Looney found in the analysis.

"Created 40 years ago, the provision allows property owners to take a charitable deduction for donating qualified conservation easements—legal agreements that permanently limit the development or use of a property—to a charitable organization," he explains. "But some donors are abusing the provision by applying grossly inflated appraisals to the value of the easement to increase their charitable deduction or by taking donations for easements that do not fulfill bona fide conservation purposes. Some real estate developers exploit these vulnerabilities by selling the rights to claim charitable deductions to investors and using the proceeds to finance development, which costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars per year and undermines the program’s conservation goals."

Looney cites a subdivision southwest of Watkinsville,
Ga., south of Athens, with the conservation easement
in blue: "Because the property is in a suburban area and
because the homes are likely to be valuable, the
valuation of the development rights could be high."
One problem, Looney writes, is that donations are concentrated in transactions unrelated to conservation benefits. "The dollar value of donations of conservation easements is highly concentrated in certain types of transactions, in certain geographic areas, and in a handful of donee organizations," he reports. Another problem is that just a few organizations are responsible for a disproportionate share of donations. Between 2010 and 2012, just 25 organizations (out of about 1,700 land trusts nationwide) received about half of all donations of easements, when measured in dollar value, Looney notes.

Additionally, "most organizations that receive donations of easements do not report them as gifts or revenues on their public tax returns," he writes. "The tax returns of charitable and tax exempt organizations are public to provide information about the activities of the charitable sector, to provide transparency and accountability, and to help reduce any abuse of tax-exempt status." However, transparency only works if organizations report charitable gifts on their public tax returns.

Read Looney's full report here.

Maine's rural nature creates health issues, but state also has some examples to use in reforms

If Congress passes a health law this year, Maine could be one of the states most affected because it is one of the most rural states, with an unusual number of jobs tied to seasonal industries such as fishing, agriculture and tourism, reports Jennifer Steinhauer of The New York Times.

About 22 percent of Mainers hold part-time jobs; the national average  is 17 percent. "As a result of their short-term spike in income, many of Maine’s working class will likely lose some or all of their health-insurance subsidy, a feature of the federal health-care law, which has been a complicated blessing for the citizens of Maine," Steinhauer reports.

Sen. Susan Collins (NYT photo by Yoon Byun)
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who "once oversaw Maine's insurance bureau," told Steinhauer that he has spent a lot of time on the health-care issue because Maine is "disproportionately affected." The state also has a median age of 43, highest in the nation, and is relatively poor, Steinhauer notes.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell "omitted" Collins from a working group of senators he picked to draft the Senate bill, but she "has formed a bipartisan working group that may help build a foundation for future changes should Senate Republicans fail on their own, which seems increasingly likely," Steinhauer writes.

Maine could be a model for some reforms. It was one of a handful of states that included a “guaranteed issue” policy of health insurance, regardless of pre-existing medical conditions, has one of the few remaining health-insurance cooperatives, and formed high-risk pools to help sick people buy insurance, while stabilizing the markets. Collins says the House bill doesn’t fund high-risk pools anywhere near the level that Maine has.

'Pink slime' defamation trial of ABC News begins in South Dakota town of 2,000

Photo by Tim Hynds, Sioux City Journal
The trial of ABC News for its  2012 "pink slime" reports on beef, which is poised to be the biggest defamation trial in U.S. history, began Monday "in Elk Point, S.D., a town with a population of just 2,000," Eriq Gardner writes for The Hollywood Reporter.

ABC reported on the product labeled "lean finely textured beef" and dubbed "pink slime" by critics. With billions of dollars on the line, representatives of Beef Products Inc. told jurors that the reports were to blame for the loss of 75 percent of its business. "Those who attended Monday heard two vastly different stories," Gardner reports. "BPI's was one of entrepreneurship and destruction. ABC's was about politics and secrecy."

BPI attorney Dan Webb said ABC's use of the term "pink slime" shows a preconceived negative image that ABC wished to portray to the public, 350 times over the course of the series of reports. "They ignored the proper name," said Webb. "When you have a major news organization that is calling the product 'slime,' witnesses will say they can't imagine anything worse. It connotes something disgusting, inedible."

Webb acknowledged that the term came from a 2002 email by Dr. Gerald Zirnstein, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist interviewed by ABC, "but Webb asserted that the 'pink slime' term got 'minimal coverage' before ABC repeated it ad nauseum on air and to BPI's supermarket customers when reporters at the network aimed to figure out who was carrying the product," Gardner reports. Because a judge deemed BPI to be a "public figure," the group also has to demonstrate "actual malice" with reckless disregard for the truth to win damages, Gardner notes.

ABC attorney Dane Butswinkas said BPI "kept the process behind its meat product secret for years and had continually failed until recently to gain federal regulators' coveted approval that would enable LFTB to be mixed and sold in ground beef," reports Nick Hytrek of the Sioux City Journal. Butswinkas said, "The evidence will show the other side of the story is one BPI did not want told. The secret ingredient is secrecy."

Butswinkas cited BPI internal documents that illustrated problems with the product and "recounted the years-long process where the USDA was bombarded with lobbying letters and how Joann Smith, the former undersecretary of agriculture at the time, would go on to work for BPI's main supplier," Gardner reports. "None of this was illegal," Butswinkas said. "Just another day in the swamp. Politics as usual."

Only rural journalists can get this fellowship to a computer-assisted reporting boot camp of IRE; application deadline is Wednesday, June 7

Wednesday, June 7 is the deadline to apply for the Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting Fellowship to one of the next Investigative Reporters and Editors computer-assisted reporting boot camps in Columbia, Mo. The data boot camp will be held Aug. 6-10 and the mapping boot camp will be held Aug. 11-13.

The fellowship is open only to journalists who work in rural areas. Journalists are eligible for a fellowship if they work outside of a metropolitan area (with a core urban population of 50,000 or more), for a newspaper with a circulation of less than 40,000, a television station outside of the top 100 Nielsen markets, or a radio or online news organization with a record of covering rural areas. Freelancers should submit a letter from such an outlet testifying to their working relationship with that outlet.

The fellowship includes a one-year IRE membership, registration fee for the selected boot camp and up to $500 in reimbursement for travel expenses. It does not cover food or incidentals. It is financed by the Fund for Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting, established by IRE member Daniel Gilbert to give rural reporters skills that will help them uncover stories that otherwise would not come to light. The fellowship is offered in conjunction with the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog.

Required application materials include a resume, three clips showcasing investigative work, a letter of support from your news organization, and a statement of interest (preference is given to applicants who outline a project that includes the need to analyze databases). To apply, click here.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Trump to outline infrastructure plan that could help rural areas, but details are still in the works

Following criticism that his proposed budget would hit rural areas hardest, President Trump will travel to Ohio and Kentucky on Wednesday to announce details of his infrastructure plan that he says will help rural areas. Rural voters have called his budget a 'slap in the face' due to the cuts in funding to Medicaid, rural loan programs, crop insurance for farmers and other services.

The plan is not yet finalized, but Trump is expected to outline the proposal to dedicate "$200 billion in spending on infrastructure over several years," writes Lindsay Wise for The Sacramento Bee. A portion of the budget will be focused on "funding rural infrastructure projects, White House officials say. But they didn’t say how much," Wise notes.

Trump has talked about public-private partnerships for transportation and other infrastructure projects, but some Republicans from rural states have been skeptical that private companies would be willing to invest in rural projects with less usage and potential revenue than urban projects.

Trump will talk about his plan in two states that he carried thanks in part to rural voters, who overwhelmingly voted for him over Hillary Clinton. White House representatives say his speech will "stress his commitment to rural communities," Wise writes. "A bill to allocate the funds, however, still does not exist. White House officials couldn’t say when such legislation might appear, or exactly how the president proposed to pay for his investment in rural infrastructure."

Administration officials have said that portions of the proposed infrastructure budget "will be used to provide financial incentives for private companies to invest in roads, rails, bridges and other projects in more highly populated areas, which are more likely to provide a revenue stream to make such investments profitable," Wise writes. It is not yet clear to what degree rural areas would benefit.

'Rural is hot' in news coverage since the election, but the same can't be said of rural education

Rural areas and issues affecting them have often been overlooked in mainstream media, but since Donald Trump was elected president with 61 percent of the rural vote, urban news outlets have paid more attention to rural issues such as agriculture, unemployment, drug abuse and poverty. This has "made rural America a trendy subject in mainstream media," but rural education still lags in attention, writes Ben Felder, education reporter for The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City.

Felder reports on the 70th annual Education Writers Association conference in Washington, D.C., last week, where he heard Alan Richard, chair of the Rural School and Community Trust, speak at a seminar titled "Education in Trump Country and the rest of Rural America." Richard said with a laugh, “Rural is hot; who knew?”

Still, rural school advocates are concerned that rural education remains overlooked. They also are concerned about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' lack of rural experience and Trump's education budget that pushes school choice, without addressing rural-urban disparities. "Richard also reported the large disparity in rural education funding across America," Felder writes. "For example, Alaska pays nearly $12,000 per rural students in public school funding, while Oklahoma is below $4,400, according to his analysis."

Fedler reports that "nearly 30 percent of Oklahoma public school students attend a school district with fewer than 1,500 students," and many people "fail to understand just how challenging it is in rural communities where the school is often the largest employer and the heart of the town." Funding cuts in rural communities "can often ripple well beyond the school."

Folks in Wyoming coal town 'beginning to feel the comeback they voted for;' from market or Trump?

A coal train runs near Gillette, Wyo. (Washington Post photo by Matt McClain)
In the Wyoming town that likes to call itself "the energy capital of the nation" and voted overwhelmingly for President Trump, people are "beginning to feel the comeback they voted for," Robert Samuels reports for The Washington Post. "Unemployment has dropped by more than a third since March 2016, from 8.9 percent to 5.1 percent. Coal companies are rehiring workers, if only on contract or for temporary jobs."

"Maybe it was President Trump," Samuels writes. "Much was surely because of the market, after a colder winter led to increases in coal use and production. But in times when corporate profits are mixed with politics, it was difficult for people here to see the difference. . . . They felt optimistic about the tangible effects of the Trump economy, which favors fossil fuels, and the theoretical ones, which favor how they see themselves. Once on the fringes, their jobs had become the centerpiece of Trump’s American mythology."

Samuels reports, "There was a time when residents here were thankful for big government. In the 1970s, as the federal government stiffened environmental regulations, energy companies looked westward in search of cleaner coal. They found it here in the Powder River Basin, a prairie 4,500 feet above sea level, where coal was just below the surface. It created less energy than the coal of Appalachia, but it also emitted less carbon dioxide and sulfur. There was oil and gas under the city, too, and a place whose best-known landmark was literally once a pile of rocks turned into an American boomtown. . . . The problem with being a one-industry town is that the economy lives and dies on how the market performs."

Gillette Mayor Louise Carter-King "said the city didn’t despair too much in those down times because the market was cyclical. If oil and gas production were down, that would generally mean companies were buying coal. If coal prices were too low, jobs in oil and gas provided some relief," Samuels reports. But last year President Obama " issued a moratorium on leasing federal lands for coal exploration that was a direct hit to Gillette, where most mining was done on federal land. The environmental regulations that had helped propel the industry were now stifling it. Carter-King said Obama’s antipathy toward fossil fuels stripped the city of the ability to develop more environmentally friendly ways to burn coal, prevented leaders from researching different uses for the material and complicated efforts to export the city’s prized possession to China and other fast-growing markets."

U.S. coal use for electricity falls to a 33-year low

Coal consumption for electric power in the U.S. has fallen to its lowest since 1984, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Natural gas is a cleaner, more flexible fuel, and has become cheaper; economists say that makes coal, compared to gas, the most expensive in 40 years.

The EIA Today in Energy report released Friday showed that in 2016, coal consumption has dropped 35 percent from its peak in 2008, Myra Saefong writes for MarketWatch. Saefong notes that 93 percent of all coal consumed in the U.S. is for electric power. "The report was about the methods used to transport coal, but the information on how much coal utilities burned underscored the challenges facing the industry," notes Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader.
U.S. Energy Information Administration chart; click on chart for larger version.
Under the Obama administration, coal took heat from the Environmental Protection Agency and others, and burning natural gas produces about half the greenhouse-gas emissions that burning coal does. “Coal is almost always less expensive . . . and natural-gas plants respond faster to changes in power demand than coal plants,” James Williams, energy economist at WTRG Economics, told Saefong. “The primary reason that coal use was down was the price of natural gas.”

Saefong notes, "Natural-gas prices have also fallen more sharply than coal so far this year. On Thursday, the price for July natural gas settled at $3.008 per million British thermal units on the New York Mercantile Exchange. According to S&P Global Platts, spot prices for the Central Appalachia coal markets traded at $58.20 a ton at the end of 2016. It traded at $54.30 Thursday, so it is down about 6.7 percent year to date."

Teaching about climate change, a highly politicized topic, can be tricky; stories look at how to do it

James Sutter and his students on a field
trip (NYT photo by Maddie McGarvey)
Teaching about climate change can be difficult in rural areas where the topic has become highly politicized. The New York Times and The Washington Post have stories about it, from different perspectives: a teacher with rebellious students in Appalachian Ohio, and one in Northern Idaho who deals with skeptical parents and changing state standards. Both stories get at the interaction between teachers, students and parents, and provide ideas for how the story can be told in other places.

In Wellston, Ohio, straight-A student Gwen Beatty challenged teacher James Sutter's instruction, and he "occasionally fell short of his goal of providing Gwen — the most vocal of a raft of student climate skeptics — with calm, evidence-based responses," Amy Harmon reports for the Times. "Gwen, 17, could not put her finger on why she found Mr. Sutter, whose biology class she had enjoyed, suddenly so insufferable. Mr. Sutter, sensing that his facts and figures were not helping, was at a loss. And the day she grew so agitated by a documentary he was showing that she bolted out of the school left them both shaken."

Despite such resistance, "Public-school science classrooms are also proving to be a rare place where views on climate change may shift, research has found. There, in contrast with much of adult life, it can be hard to entirely tune out new information," Harmon writes. "Some 20 states, including a handful of red ones, have recently begun requiring students to learn that human activity is a major cause of climate change, but few, if any, have provided a road map for how to teach it, and most science teachers, according to one recent survey, spend at most two hours on the subject."

Jamie Esler and students (Washington Post photo by Rajah Bose)
Among the states not adopting the new standards was Idaho, where "in February, the state legislature urged the state board of education to rewrite the science curriculum to eliminate what one lawmaker called 'an over-emphasis on human-caused factors'," Sarah Kaplan writes for the Post. Her story is about biology teacher Jamie Esler, who takes his students into the field to witness the effects of climate change in Kootenai County, where "fewer than half of adults think that human activities contribute to global warming, surveys show."

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Lawyer convicted in huge disability-fraud conspiracy has disappeared; may have fled U.S.

Eric Conn in earlier, happier days
(Lexington Herald-Leader photo)
The Eastern Kentucky lawyer who pleaded guilty to defrauding taxpayers out of $550 million in Social Security disability benefits has disappeared. Eric Conn's former employees "heard him say he would flee to Cuba or Ecuador to avoid criminal charges, and Conn had wired substantial sums of money out of the country at times, an FBI agent testified at one hearing," report Bill Estep and Linda Blackford of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The FBI office said Conn had removed his electronic monitoring device in violation of his bond and that authorities didn’t know where he was. Anyone with information about Conn has been asked to contact the FBI at 502-263-6000.
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"Conn pleaded guilty to stealing from the Social Security Administration and paying bribes to a judge to rubber-stamp disability claims for thousands of his clients," Estep and Blackford write. "Conn remained free on bond pending his sentencing next month, but a judge had ordered him to be on home detention with electronic monitoring." The FBI said he had removed the monitoring device and his whereabouts are unknown.

"Conn faced up to 12 years in prison," the Herald-Leader notes. "He had also been ordered to pay more than $80 million — $5.7 million to repay fraudulent earnings; $46.5 million to the Social Security Administration; and $31 million to the government and two whistleblowers who helped expose his wrongdoing and their attorneys. After Conn was arrested in April 2016, prosecutors argued he should have to stay in jail pending trial, partly because of the risk that he could flee."

“It was totally predictable,” Ned Pillersdorf, a Prestonsburg lawyer who helped Conn’s former clients win a class-action lawsuit for which he will also owe damages, told The Associated Press. “There has been a betting pool going on in Prestonsburg on not if he would flee, but when.”

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