Saturday, December 15, 2018

Metro researchers say investment in smaller cities can help rural areas

"It would be a mistake to enact policy solutions to save rural America at the expense of cities," write senior research assistant Nathan Arnosti and Director Amy Liu of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

"Recent efforts to bail out farmers amidst a trade war and exempt rural counties from work requirements to receive Medicaid and other safety-net services in effect hurt people and businesses in cities and suburbs," they write. "While these policy moves seem like clever ways to rebalance urban-rural economic divides, they could ultimately harm rural communities, too, by choking off the very engines that make rural investments possible. In fact, one of the best ways to help rural America may involve helping cities: supporting a distributed network of economically vibrant small and mid-sized cities across the United States."

The researchers argue that cities are the main drivers of prosperity that enables federal and state governments to maintain subsidies to rural areas; "proximity to cities can contribute to rural communities’ well-being due to the spillover benefits that cities generate;" and cities are places of opportunity "for ambitious rural residents to gain new skills and experiences, benefitting workers and their home communities. As described in Vox, sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas found that some people who leave their rural hometowns end up returning, filling specialized jobs in medicine, law, and other professions using the skills they developed in cities." They say this “return migration,” animates economic development strategies in some cities.

Here's their policy prescription: "Rather than sprinkle limited resources across every rural county, state and federal policymakers could target efforts to small and mid-sized markets by helping them strengthen commercial corridors and modernize existing industries." They say such cities "are better positioned to offer social and economic benefits to rural communities than distant, high-cost cities." They quote J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy: "There’s a difference between out-migration from Eastern Kentucky to southwestern Ohio, and Eastern Kentucky and San Diego, because the former allows you to preserve some social connections; it’s cheaper to move there, it’s less culturally intimidating to move there. . . . If we can regionally develop big cities like Lexington, like Pittsburgh, like Columbus [it] enables people to maintain social connections even as they move to places with higher employment, and still play a positive role in communities back home."

The researchers have other prescriptions that are also likely to be controversial in rural areas. Read the article here.

Embattled Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is out

President Trump said in tweets Saturday morning that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke will resign and he will appoint a replacement next week. Here's the first tweet:
Ryan Zinke (Photo by Greg Lindstrom, Flathead Beacon)
"Zinke’s personal conduct and management decisions have spurred at least 15 investigations, several of which have been closed, The Washington Post notes. "The most serious one, which the Interior Department’s acting inspector general referred to the Justice Department, focuses on whether the secretary used his office for personal gain in connection with a land deal he forged in Whitefish, Mont., with Halliburton Chairman David Lesar and other investors." Zinke is from Whitefish.

The Post adds, "While the former Navy SEAL and Montana congressman worked aggressively to promote Trump’s agenda of expanding domestic energy production, administration officials concluded weeks ago that he ranked as the Cabinet member most vulnerable to congressional investigations once Democrats took control of Congress in January. . . . The White House had been pushing Zinke to resign for weeks, administration officials said. Last month, these officials said, Zinke was told he had until the end of the year to exit or be fired."

The Post story concludes, "The secretary’s final public appearance was Thursday night at his Christmas party, which he told White House staffers he wanted to have before his dismissal. He invited lobbyists and conservative activists to his executive suite, where he posed for photos in front of a large stuffed polar bear wearing a Santa cap, according to an attendee."

Friday, December 14, 2018

Ky. appeals court OKs release of records showing how Purdue Pharma promoted OxyContin, opioid epidemic

The Court of Appeals of Kentucky on Friday upheld an Appalachian judge’s ruling to release secret records about the marketing of OxyContin, the branded form of oxycodone that "has been blamed for helping to seed today’s opioid-addiction epidemic," reports Stat, the medicine-and-science publication of The Boston Globe, which fought to get the records.

Purdue Pharma is privately held. (AP photo by Douglas Healey)
In the court file is a deposition of Richard Sackler, a former president of Purdue Pharma, the family-controlled company that makes OxyContin and pleaded guilty in federal court to fraudulently marketing of as less addictive than other painkillers.

The deposition "is believed to be the only time a member of the Sackler family has been questioned under oath about the marketing of OxyContin and the addictive properties," Stat's David Armstrong and Andrew Joseph report. "Other records include marketing strategies and internal emails about them; documents concerning internal analyses of clinical trials; settlement communications from an earlier criminal case regarding the marketing of OxyContin; and information regarding how sales representatives marketed the drug."

The case was a lawsuit filed in 2007 by then-state Attorney General Greg Stumbo, alleging similar fraud and increased costs to the state for drug treatment and health care. It was transferred to federal court, where it lingered for several years under then-AG Jack Conway, who got it transferred back to Pike Circuit Judge Steven Combs. Depositions were taken, and in December 2015, as one of his last official acts, Conway settled the case and agreed to destroy 17 million pages of documents he had obtained through discovery.

However, some copies of the documents remained on file in Pike County, and Stat asked for them. in May 2016, Combs ordered them released, but stayed the order pending Purdue's appeal. He wrote, “The court sees no higher value than the public (via the media) having access to these discovery materials so that the public can see the facts for themselves.”

Jack Conway
Almost a year and a half after oral arguments in the case, the three-judge appeals panel unanimously agreed, saying it was the only way to hold Conway accountable. Without naming Conway, Judge Glenn Acree wrote, “Some agent of the government compromised the claim against Purdue; i.e., some agent sold the people’s property. . . . Without access to court records, how can the public assess whether a government employee’s decision to compromise a valuable claim of the people adequately protected their interest or maximized the claim’s value?”

Conway told the Louisville Courier Journal Friday, “Kentucky got many times over what any state has gotten from Purdue Pharma. After eight and a half years, I thought it was best to get what we could. I hope it all comes out, (that) all of the documents eventually get released, and sooner rather than later.”

Purdue has 30 days to appeal, and indicated that it would, either to the state Supreme Court or through a rehearing by the appeals court. Either could refuse further action.

“It's taken a long time, but we're now very optimistic that these records will see the light of day very soon,” Stat Managing Editor Gideon Gil, a former health reporter and regional editor for the Courier Journal, told Kentucky Health News.

Louisville lawyer Jon Fleischaker, who represented Stat, told the publication, “Really what the court is saying is these are public records. The public has an interest in them, and the public has a right to them.”

Stat Editor Rick Berke said, “More than two years after we filed this suit, the scourge of opioid addiction has grown worse, and the questions have grown about Purdue’s practices in marketing OxyContin. It is vital that that we all learn as much as possible about the culpability of Purdue, and the consequences of the company’s decisions on the health of Americans.”

The hard truths of trying to 'save' the rural economy

In the Sunday Review of The New York Times, economics reporter Eduardo Porter offers a 2,000-word analysis of rural America's economic problems and what might be done about them. Excerpts:

"Nobody — not experts or policymakers or people in these communities — seems to know quite how to pick rural America up. States, municipalities and the federal government have spent billions to draw jobs and prosperity to stagnant rural areas. But they haven’t yet figured out how to hitch this vast swath of the country to the tech-heavy economy that is flourishing in America’s cities."

"Overall, manufacturing employs about one in eight workers in the country’s 704 entirely rural counties. . . . But factory jobs can no longer keep small-town America afloat. Even after a robust eight-year growth spell, there are fewer than 13 million workers in manufacturing across the entire economy. Robots and workers in China put together most of the manufactured goods that Americans buy, and the high-tech industries powering the economy today don’t have much need for the cheap labor that rural communities contributed to America’s industrial past. They mostly need highly educated workers. They find those most easily in big cities, not in small towns."

"This is the inescapable reality of agglomeration, one of the most powerful forces shaping the American economy over the last three decades. Innovative companies choose to locate where other successful, innovative companies are. That’s where they can find lots of highly skilled workers. The more densely packed these pools of talent are, the more workers can learn from each other and the more productive they become. This dynamic feeds on itself, drawing more high-tech firms and highly skilled workers to where they already are."

"Consider a recent Brookings Institution study by Benjamin Austin, Edward Glaeser and Lawrence Summers. They focus on the alarming rate of joblessness in what they call the Eastern Heartland, the region roughly between the Mississippi River and the states on the Atlantic coast, where rural communities are doing particularly poorly.
Share of county population not employed, 2015 (Brookings Institution map)
"After examining a range of potential policy interventions, they conclude that a targeted employment subsidy, such as the earned-income tax credit, is probably the most powerful tool available to revive employment. But they, too, are not sure it will work. “Our call for a wage subsidy is us saying, ‘We can’t figure this out, and we hope the private sector will,’ ” Mr. Glaeser told me."

"What if nothing really works? Is there really no option but to do nothing and, as some have suggested, return depopulated parts of rural America to the bison? Instead of so-called place-based policies to revitalize small towns, why not help their residents take advantage of opportunities where the opportunities are? Geographic mobility hit a historical low in 2017, when only 11 percent of Americans picked up shop and moved — half the rate of 1951. One of the key reasons is that housing in the prosperous cities that offer the most opportunities has become too expensive."

"There are compelling reasons to try to help rural economies rebound. Even if moving people might prove more efficient on paper than restoring places, many people — especially older people and the family members who care for them — may choose to remain in rural areas. What’s more, the costs of rural poverty are looming over American society. Think of the opioid addiction taking over rural America, of the spike in crime, of the wasted human resources in places where only a third of adults hold a job. And if today’s polarized politics are noxious, what might they look like in a country perpetually divided between diverse, prosperous liberal cities and a largely white rural America in decline?"

Porter quotes Brookings' William Galston: “Think through the political consequences of saying to a substantial portion of Americans, which is even more substantial in political terms, ‘We think you’re toast.’” Porter concludes, "The distress of 50 million Americans should concern everyone. Powerful economic forces are arrayed against rural America and, so far, efforts to turn it around have failed. Not every small town can be a tech hub, nor should it be. But that can’t be the only answer."

UPDATE, Dec. 17: It's not, Roberto Gallardo writes for The Daily Yonder. And Jim Branscome writes for the Yonder that Porter has not written any news, but history.

Creators Syndicate refuses to run column calling out 'hedge-fund scavengers' in journalism; Texas Observer prints it

Jim Hightower (2015 photo/Flickr)
Progressive columnist Jim Hightower's latest column criticized venture capitalists who damage journalism for the sake of investors, and singled out Digital First Media and GateHouse Media as the worst offenders, calling them "hedge-fund scavengers" and "ruthless Wall Street profiteers out to grab big bucks fast" at the expense of newspapers and their readers.

Hightower paid the price when his distributor, Creators Syndicate, refused to place his column in any publications out of fear of retribution from Digital First and GateHouse. Creators Managing Editor Simone Slykhous defended the move in an email, saying they only wanted to protect Hightower, according to the editorial staff of The Texas Observer. Hightower's assistant said Creators didn't want to anger its powerful customers.

The Observer's editorial staff decided to run Hightower's column in full, saying "He's angering all the right people." Hightower's staff circulated the column to selected newspapers, such as The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky. Read it here; it's a scorcher.

Illinois hunter may have shot largest buck ever killed in U.S.

Kavin Szablewski with his possibly record-breaking kill (Photos by Illinois Department of Natural Resources)
Keith Szablewski of Johnston City, Illinois, may have shot the largest buck ever recorded in the United States: 51 points.

"The largest buck on record now is a 47-point buck taken by a Tennessee hunter in 2016, according to the Tennessean. Stephen Tucker of Gallatin, Tennessee, shot that buck in Sumner County with a muzzleloader rifle," Matthew Martinez reports for McClatchy Newspapers.

Szablewski shot his buck with a shotgun on private property in Williamson County, which is about 90 miles southeast of St. Louis, in November. "I was just sitting there, and I heard the deer behind me," Szablewski told WSIL Radio of Harrisburg. "When I walked up to him, I looked at it and thought, 'What a blessing.'"

Szablewski is waiting for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to confirm the record.

Farm Bill includes help for rural hospitals, rural broadband

At 807 pages, the new Farm Bill takes a bit to read through. We've mentioned the SNAP debate and industrial hemp legalization, but here are a few more provisions of interest to rural Americans:

The bill could grant the U.S. Department of Agriculture more authority to dispense $350 million a year in grants and loans for local rural broadband buildout, but only for areas where service speeds are slower than 10 Mbps downloads and 1 Mbps uploads. That's lower than the Federal Communications Commission's threshold for broadband, which is 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads, Dave Nyczepir notes for Route Fifty. Also, USDA launched a pilot project Thursday to allocate an extra $600 million from the 2018 omnibus bill for encouraging private investment in rural broadband, using the 10 Mbps rule. That means some rural residents could be caught in the middle, with speeds too high for federal aid but too low to get first-class service.

Another problem with awarding such grants and loans is that the FCC's map of internet service provider coverage may be inaccurate.

"The Farm Bill does, however, direct grant funding more toward places with low population densities, while using loans for those with higher densities—a win for rural areas that limits providers’ ability to reserve service for more populated communities," Nyczepir reports. "Instead, the Farm Bill will enable co-ops to both modernize the electric grid and offer retail broadband to consumers." Rural areas that do well with the initial funds could be rewarded with more federal funding. The bill also requires USDA to restore an undersecretary for Rural Development.

The bill could also help rural hospitals. It "includes a provision that would allow rural hospitals to refinance substantial debt through lower-interest loans" from USDA, Susannah Luthi reports for Modern Healthcare. "Rural hospital lobbyists acknowledge the provision won't change much overnight for the 44 percent of rural hospitals which operate at a loss. The USDA requires applicants to show levels of financial viability that the really struggling hospitals likely can't currently meet." But longer-term, the provision could "transform finances" for rural hospitals, allowing them to get lower interest rates on USDA loans, Luthi reports.

China resumes some soybean sales after G-20 agreement; White House delays additional trade-aid payments

"Traders said on Wednesday that China, the world’s top soybean importer, had booked its first significant U.S. soybean purchases in more than six months after a trade truce was reached on December 1," Julie Ingwersen reports for Reuters. The U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed on Thursday the sale of more than 1.3 million tonnes of soybeans, though soy futures fell because traders are hoping for more deals.

The sales came after President Trump and China's President Xi Jinping negotiated a 90-day ceasefire in the trade war after the recent G-20 summit. 

It's not clear how many soybeans China will buy, since U.S. tariffs are still in place and Brazil has a record crop about ready for harvest, Ingwersen reports. Still, the renewed sales are a promising sign that will be undoubtedly well-received by soybean farmers.

China was once America's biggest customer for soy, and without those sales and few other customers forthcoming, many soybean farmers have been obliged to try to store their crops in hopes that the trade war will end soon and they can then get a better price, Adam Belz reports for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. Soybean prices have hit record lows since the start of the trade war.

StarTribune chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
One Minnesota soybean farmer, Tim Velde, said he sold about 40 percent of his crop on the futures market this year at a tiny profit, and has stored the other 60 percent at his farm and the local grain elevator. "It’s at a point where I can’t afford to sell them, because I can’t take that much of a loss," he told Belz.

Though the amount of soy the Chinese have purchased is a small fraction of what they buy annually from the U.S., the White House has delayed giving out the second round of aid for farmers hurt by the trade war in hopes that renewed sales will make the payments unnecessary, Humeyra Pamuk and Jarrett Renshaw report for Reuters.

Quick hits: more people want to live in the country than actually live there; two rural states top online sales

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

A new Gallup poll shows that 27 percent of Americans would rather line in a rural area than a city. Since about 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, sounds like a few city dwellers are yearning for the country. Read more here.

A news analysis predicts that, though President Trump has made a mighty effort to help the coal industry, he won't be able to save it. Read more here.

Holiday shopping is up almost 20 percent this year, recently hitting a record $80.3 billion. Though two of the top states for amount of stuff bought online are predictably states with large populations (California, New York and Washington), the other two in the top five are Alaska and Wyoming. Read why here.

Can gold mining save a fading town in Washington state? Read more here.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Chinese tech company, whose equipment is used by many rural wireless carriers, may be declared national security risk

House lawmakers are reportedly preparing to express concerns about Chinese tech companies whose equipment are used by a quarter of U.S. rural wireless carriers. A 2012 government report warned that the Chinese government could use Huawei and ZTE equipment for espionage, but carriers use it anyway because it's "apparently good and cheap," Mike Dano reports for tech site FierceWireless. The CEO of one wireless carrier, James Valley Telecommunications, said the company went with Huawei tech because it was 40 percent cheaper than the next cheapest option.

A group of House lawmakers is reportedly about to send a letter to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who heads the Committee on Foreign Investment, warning that the merger between Sprint and T-Mobile would increase the risk that Huawei tech could be used in developing the nation's 5G infrastructure, which could make the U.S. more vulnerable to espionage. "Interestingly, as Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner pointed out, the letter to Mnuchin apparently makes no mention of Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile’s parent company and the firm that will own 42 percent of the combined Sprint and T-Mobile," Dano reports.

There's a lot at stake for Huawei, ZTE and their customers: in April the Federal Communications Commission banned any U.S. company that receives government money from using equipment from companies deemed a national security threat, Dano reports.

Seven rural wireless network operators, all of which use Huawei tech for much of their network, filed a comment with the Federal Communications Commission expressing their support for the company: United TelCom, which has 20,000 wireless customers in southwestern Kansas; SI Wireless, which has 20,000 customers in western Kentucky and Tennessee; Viaero, which has 110,000 mobile customers across eastern Colorado, western Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota; JVT, which has almost 10,000 customers in South Dakota; NE Colorado Cellular and United Telephone Association (no customer count provided for either)' Nemont Telephone Cooperative, which has almost 12,000 mobile customers in Montana and North Dakota through its subsidiary Sagebrush Cellular; and Union Telephone Company, which has nearly 40,000 customers in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and Idaho.

A Huawei executive in the U.S., Thomas Dowding, said in an FCC filing that the company doesn't threaten U.S. national security and said that the U.S. government had never found any deliberately compromised Huawei product in his his 15-year tenure at Huawei. 

"It’s hard not to link all the current noise over Chinese threats to national security back to Trump’s brewing trade war with the country. It seems clear that companies like ZTE and Qualcomm are probably being used as chess pieces in a broader game," Dano writes. "And if that’s the case, companies like United TelCom, Viaero and NE Colorado Cellular might need to prepare themselves to enter a chessboard where they will probably serve as pawns, not queens."

FCC investigates whether internet service providers lied about covering rural areas to access government funding

On the heels of its report showing that many internet service providers aren't giving customers the advertised speeds, the Federal Communications Commission is investigating whether those ISPs falsely said they covered some rural areas in order to access government funds to build out rural broadband.

The Mobility Fund II project is meant to allocate more than $4.5 billion to encourage building out mobile broadband service in rural areas. As part of the project, the FCC requested coverage maps from carriers, which it could then use to determine which areas needed support," Colin Lecher reports for The Verge, a publication of Vox Media. "The agency said a review of more than 20 million speeds tests raised serious questions about the accuracy of the data, and it has suspended the next steps of the project while it investigates."

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said his "top priority" is ensuring that rural Americans have access to broadband, and that the investigation will make sure coverage data is accurate before proceeding with the Mobility Fund II project, Lecher reports.

Suprise gift from HGTV stars helps struggling dairy farm

L-R: Joanna Gaines, Guy and Ginger Coombs,
Curtis and Carilynn Coombs and Chip Gaines
A family dairy farm in north-central Kentucky has received some badly needed help from an unexpected source: HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines. 

The Coombs family was hit hard this year after Dean Foods dropped their contracts with more than 100 small dairy farms; the family had to sell most of the cows from their farm Jericho Acres. After seeing an NBC News feature about the plight of the Coombs family, Chip Gaines called them in July to ask how he could help and the families became friends, Tammy Shaw reports for the Henry County Local.

The Gaines family owns an umbrella company called Magnolia, and under that, a crowd-funding apparatus called Chipstarter which they hope to use to help other families.
"The Gaines family invited the Coombes to attend Silobration, in Waco, Texas, Magnolia’s annual festival featuring a free vendor fair, food trucks, daytime activities and evening concerts," Shaw reports. "At a concert, Chip Gaines asked the family to come up on stage, then showed a clip from footage a film crew, on behalf of the Gaines family, shot during two days on the farm." After showing the film, Chip presented them with a no-strings-attached check for $50,000.

"We will be eternally grateful for their graciousness and the wonderful people they are. I’m blessed to be able to call them friends," Cherilynn Coombs told Shaw. The family plans to build and operate a micro dairy processing plant and perhaps open a farm store to sell agricultural products. If successful, they say they could create a place that could help other dairy farmers in the same situation.

Farm Bill goes to Trump on strong bipartisan votes

The new five-year Farm Bill is headed to the White House for President Trump's signature after getting strong, bipartisan support; 87-13 in the Senate and 369-47 in the House. The roll calls "masked months of partisan and sometimes personal debate between ag leaders in both chambers," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's "Morning Agriculture."

Outgoing House Agriculture Commottee Chairman Mike Conaway of Texas and his predecessor and successor, ranking Democrat Collin Peterson of Minnesota, "projected a positive working relationship for next year," McCrimmon reports, "despite the bitterly partisan experience in the House during this farm bill cycle. Peterson’s looking to build the Democratic bench on ag policy."

The House vote "shattered the record for most 'yes' votes for a farm bill, Conaway and Peterson said. The total for H.R. 2 included a nearly even number of Republicans (182) and Democrats (187) — a complete reversal from June, when the GOP-written Farm Bill squeaked through on a 213-211 vote with no Democratic support. Just three Democrats voted no on Wednesday: Reps. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Lloyd Doggett of Texas."

In the Senate, the "no" votes came mainly from fiscal conservatives such as Rand Paul of Kentucky, even though the bill included what was once one of his signature causes, legalization of industrial hemp. The 807-page bill is a veritable Christmas tree of spending, including "provisions to create a feral-hog control project; extend a federal ban on animal fighting to U.S. territories; develop a crop insurance policy for hop producers; and set up a USDA office for urban agriculture and innovative production," McCrimmon reports.

He adds, "The only drama Wednesday was a narrow 206-203 procedural vote on the House rule, setting up the final Farm Bill vote, after House Republican leaders inserted controversial language in the rule to essentially block any House action on the war in Yemen for the rest of the session." That passed thanks to votes from Peterson and four other Democrats interested in the Farm Bill: Reps. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger's (Md.), Al Lawson (Fla.), David Scott (Ga.) and Jim Costa (Calif.).

The bill expands the Conservation Reserve Program to 27 million acres, an increase of 3 million acres, "with the cost offset by a lower rental payment to landowners," Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming. "Funding for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program would expand while spending on the green-payment Conservation Stewardship Program would drop."

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

ProPublica picks 14 news outlets and reporters for support of investigative work on state governments and other topics

The non-profit investigative news outlet ProPublica has named 14 newsrooms and local reporters for the second year of its Local Reporting Network that supports investigative journalism at local and regional news organizations. Seven projects will focus on state government, while the rest will cover a broad range of subjects. None of the news outlets is rural, but several of them serve large rural audiences, such as the largest newspapers in Alaska and West Virginia and non-profit news organizations in Mississippi and Illinois.

"This expansion is an effort to help stanch the decline in statehouse and state government coverage nationwide, as fewer outlets have the resources to hold accountable those in powerful state offices, from executive and legislative branches to secretaries of state to attorneys general," ProPublica said in a news release. It said the newsrooms selected for 2019 were chosen from more than 215 applicants in all but seven states.

The selectees for investigative reporting general subjects are:
Anchorage Daily News  — Kyle Hopkins
Illinois Newsroom (University of Illinois) — Rachel Otwell
Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting — Jerry Mitchell
MLK50: Justice Through Journalism (Memphis) — Wendi C. Thomas (The Times-Picayune, New Orleans) — Joan Meiners
The Public’s Radio (Providence, Rhode Island) — Lynn Arditi
Reckon by (The Birmingham News) — Connor Sheets

The state-government investigative projects will come from:
Charleston Gazette-Mail (West Virginia) — Ken Ward Jr.
Connecticut Mirror (Hartford) — Jacqueline Rabe Thomas
The Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, Ill.) — David Bernstein
Louisville Courier Journal — Alfred Miller
The Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.) — Joseph Cranney
The Sacramento Bee — Jason Pohl
WNYC (New York City) — Nancy Solomon

Buried FCC report shows many internet service providers aren't providing advertised speeds to customers

Federal Communications Commission chart; click on the image to enlarge it.
Many internet service providers aren't providing advertised speeds to customers, according to a new Federal Communications Commission report. The worst offenders are telecommunications companies selling "aging, slow and pricey DSL," or digital subscriber lines, Karl Bode reports for TechDirt. That's mostly because cable companies are increasingly monopolizing broadband service; phone companies like AT&T and Verizon are focusing on wireless, video and ads while ISPs like CenturyLink are focusing more on enterprise.

"As a result, millions of customers are stuck on aging, expensive, (and often unnecessarily usage capped) DSL lines nobody really wants to upgrade because the return on investment is too slow for Wall Street's liking," Bode reports. "The result: less competition, higher prices, slower speeds, and worse customer service as cable secures a monopoly over high speeds" which 5G wireless isn't likely to fix.

The report is notable not just for its data, but for the fact that it was released at all (albeit buried in the appendix of a 581-page report). FCC Chairman Ajit Pai refused to release last year's report, and dodged reporters' questions about why. But the news media's efforts appear to have nettled and prompted Pai: This year's report was released the day after a blistering Ars Technica piece calling out the FCC for stalling and speculating that the report wasn't released because slow ISP speeds would show that the net neutrality repeal has not improved broadband for customers.

Trump is net popular only in rural areas and small towns

The 2018 midterm election underlined the nation's rural-urban divide, with Democrats mostly winning votes in cities and Republicans owning rural areas. Two recent polls suggest that the 2020 election might play out the same way, Nathaniel Rakich and Dhrumil Mehta report for FiveThirtyEight.

The first one, by Iowa-based Selzer & Co., found that President Trump had a 43 percent approval rating and a 45 percent disapproval rating nationwide, but his approval numbers were far better in rural areas and declined with increasing population density. The president enjoys his highest approval rating in rural areas, with 61 percent approving and 26 percent disapproving. In small towns it's 44 percent approval and 42 percent disapproval. In suburban areas, he has a 41 percent approval rating vs. 50 percent disapproval, and in urban areas only 31 percent approve while 59 percent disapprove, Rakich and Dhrumil report. The poll was conducted from Nov. 24-27 for Grinnell College and was based on telephone interviews with 1,000 U.S. adults age 18 or older, including 828 likely voters in the 2020 voters and 769 who said they voted in the 2018 midterm elections. The answers have a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.

November's monthly Investor's Business Daily/TIPP poll echoed those results: Overall his approval rating was 39 percent while his disapproval rating was 55 percent. "Trump again got the highest marks from residents of rural areas — a 62 percent approval rating and a 35 percent disapproval rating. And yet again, his standing took a nosedive among suburbanites and urbanites," Rakich and Dhrumil report. In suburban areas his approval rating was 32 percent and his disapproval rating was 60 percent. And in urban areas his approval rating was 27 percent vs. 67 percent disapproval. It's worth noting that this pollster has been touted as the most accurate in the past four election cycles.

"This is perhaps stating the obvious, but Trump would do well to improve his standing among suburban and urban voters before 2020. Less than 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas," Rakich and Dhrumil report. "According to the Congressional Density Index from CityLab, a news website covering urban issues, just 70 congressional districts are 'pure rural,' and an additional 114 are a 'rural-suburban mix.'"

New Census study has county-level data on poverty, income, broadband subscriptions and more from 2013-2017

U.S. Census Bureau map; click on the image to enlarge it.
A new report from the U.S. Census Bureau features detailed profiles of more than 40 social, economic, housing and demographic topics in the U.S. from 2013 to 2017. The American Community Survey is the only full set of data available for the 2,316 least-populated counties in the country, whose populations are too small to produce a complete set of single-year estimates. Highlights from the report:
  • All five of the counties with the lowest median household incomes (with populations over 10,000) were rural: Holmes County, Mississippi; Sumter County, Alabama; and Bell, Harlan and McCreary counties in southeastern Kentucky.
  • Poverty rates declined in 441 of the nation's 3,142 counties and increased in 264 from the 2008-2012 period to 2013-17.
  • The overall poverty rate was 14.6 percent in 2013-17, compared to 14.9 percent in 2008-12.
  • On average, rural areas had higher poverty rates than urban areas.
  • Counties with the lowest internet subscription rates tended to be in rural areas in the upper Plains, the Southwest and the South.
  • Twenty of the 24 counties with populations above 10,000 with the lowest level of home broadband subscriptions were classified as mostly rural or completely rural. 

Report highlights health risks of living near a surface coal mine, alleges Trump administration ignored science

Many peer-reviewed studies have shown that living near a large-scale surface mine increases health risks, but a new report produced by the left-leaning Human Rights Watch "draws attention to the ways that science has been suppressed, and how the costs of dealing with the mining’s health risks shifted from industry to communities," Sydney Boles reports for Ohio Valley Resource., a nonprofit radio news collaborative serving Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. Some of the report's key points:
  • A 2016 rule meant to protect streams from surface-mine pollution was jettisoned by Congress as one of its first acts under the Trump administration; that was the first of an "avalanche" of deregulation on coal mines.
  • Trump and his administration have appointed industry lobbyists and insiders to top regulatory positions, in effect putting the industry in charge of regulating itself.
  • The Interior Department canceled a study it had funded assessing the potential health impacts of strip mining (in a previous item we noted that an Interior official repeatedly met with coal-industry lobbyists but almost no conservation lobbyists before canceling the study).
  • Health experts consulted for the report said that other factors such as high levels of poverty, unemployment, drug addiction, smoking and obesity in areas near strip mines undoubtedly contribute to residents' poor health, but said the pollution from coal mining may worsen health problems.

New editor at rural N.H. paper, at 30 the youngest ever, aims to help it increase its digital presence

Maggie Cassidy
The new editor at the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H, is breaking barriers: Maggie Cassidy, 30, will be the paper's youngest-ever editor and its first woman when she takes over the 25-person newsroom next week, though neither of those things landed her the job, Kristen Hare reports for the Poynter Institute.

"She has really been the driving force behind our movement to more of a digital presence, and she has really earned the respect from all of her colleagues in the newsroom," said publisher Dan McClory in an article announcing the hire.

As the daughter of a journalist and a careful but dedicated advocate for digital news, Cassidy is well-placed to help a newspaper embrace new technology. "What I think strikes a lot of people about Maggie is the bridge that she provides between the old and the new," said Martin Frank, the 30-year veteran editor she's replacing. Frank has been the editor of the Valley News for the past five years.

West Lebanon, N.H., is across the Connecticut
River from White River Junction, Vt. (Google)
"The old, he said, are the principles of good journalism. The new is how to apply those principles to new forms of journalism," Hare reports. It will be a challenge: many residents in the area don't have much internet access and some still use dial-up. But Cassidy, who became the paper's first web editor in 2012, has been working to increase the paper's digital presence while still respecting old-school tenets of journalism such as factual accuracy even with breaking news; that can suffer sometimes in the report-it-now world of digital news.

The stereotype of small newspapers being slow to change is a little bit true, Cassidy said, but told Hare that her experience has been that "journalists want to do good work, they want to reach readers in the best way . . . but they don't want to do something for the sake of doing it."

The Valley News, named for the Connecticut River valley, serves 24 towns in Vermont and 22 in New Hampshire. It is owned by Newspapers of New England, a family company that owns 10 papers, including the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire's capital and the Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton, Mass.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Time magazine names journalists who risk their lives as People of the Year, cites 'war on truth'

Staff of the Capital Gazette
Journalism can be a dangerous profession to those who put themselves in harm's way to report the truth, putting them squarely in the cross-hairs of dictators and despots the world over -- and sometimes even at community newspapers in the United States. That's why Time magazine chose "The Guardians" against "the war on truth" as its 2018 Person of the Year.

Time issued four different covers of the magazine announcing the pick with different examples of journalists who have died or been imprisoned in the past year:
  • Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, an expatriate Saudi who wrote pieces criticizing the Saudi royal family. Khashoggi was murdered, which the CIA found was likely by Saudi operatives with the approval of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
  • The staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md. Five of its staffers were killed in June by a gunman angered by the newspaper's coverage of his legal troubles. Abby Vesolusis writes, "The Capital’s staff is accustomed to covering harrowing news — all community journalists are. They’re the ones who are there when fires incinerate buildings or when cars bend around utility poles. But they never imagined the hardest story they’d have to tell would be their own."
  • Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, whose news site Rappler has written stories critical of  authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte's administration, may face prison time. After her Dec. 3 arrest, she has posted bail and is scheduled to be arraigned in February. She has been charged with tax evasion, which a United Nations official has called "a censorship tool" that constitutes "an attempt to silence the news outlet's independent reporting."
  • Two Reuters reports in Myanmar, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone, who were sentenced to seven years in prison for reporting the deaths of 10 minority Rohingya Muslims.
"This year brought no shortage of other examples," Time reported. "Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was jailed for more than 100 days for making 'false' and 'provocative' statements after criticizing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in an interview about mass protests in Dhaka. In Sudan, freelance journalist Amal Habani was arrested while covering economic protests, detained for 34 days and beaten with electric rods. In Brazil, reporter Patricia Campos Mello was targeted with threats after reporting that supporters of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro had funded a campaign to spread false news stories on WhatsApp. And Victor Mallet, Asia news editor for the Financial Times, was forced out of Hong Kong after inviting an activist to speak at a press club event against the wishes of the Chinese government. Worldwide, a record number of journalists—262 in total—were imprisoned in 2017, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which expects the total to be high again this year."

Farm Bill poised to pass by end of week, with hemp, and without FOIA exemption sought by SNAP retailers

"The compromise Farm Bill unveiled Monday night avoids partisan minefields on food stamps and commodity policy that would have jeopardized its chances of clearing Congress before the end of the year," Catherine Boudreau and Helena Evich report for Politico. "Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees rejected sweeping changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that House Republicans and President Donald Trump had sought, clearing a path for bipartisan support in both chambers. The final bill also sidesteps a Senate attempt to tighten limits on subsidies for wealthier farmers."

The bill also legalizes industrial hemp, a pet project of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. McConnell said in a tweet that he signed the reconciled bill with a pen made of hemp.

The estimated price tag for the Farm Bill is $867 billion over the next decade. Supporters hope the bill can be quickly approved by the House and Senate so President Trump can sign it before next week. If the bill isn't signed by then, it could become a hostage in negotiations on the year-end government spending package.

The bill does not include House language that that would overturn a court ruling allowing the public to see how much Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp) revenue a retailer gets in a year. The National Newspaper Association, the main lobby for weeklies and small dailies won the battle with the grocery industry and big-box stores. The Sioux Falls Argus Leader has been fighting in court for seven years to get the data.

Trump administration will use rhetoric and indictments to challenge China's behavior, complicating trade war

In a move that will not be welcome news for American farmers and other exporters to China, "The Trump administration is preparing a series of actions this week to call out Beijing for what it says are China’s continued efforts to steal America’s trade secrets and advanced technologies and compromise sensitive government and corporate computers," report Ellen Nakashima and David Lynch of The Washington Post.

"In perhaps the most significant move, the Justice Department is expected to announce the indictments of multiple hackers suspected of working for a Chinese intelligence service and participating in a long-running espionage campaign that targeted U.S. networks," the Post reports. "The announcements represent a major broadside against China over its mounting aggression against the West and its attempts to displace the United States as the world’s leader in technology, officials said. They are part of an intensifying government-wide approach to confronting China and would come as the two countries have reached a momentary detente in their trade war."

Ely Ratner, executive vice president of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank, said tit-for-tat tariffs are “a bit of a sideshow to the broader geopolitical competition that is almost inevitably going to heat up.” Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “People don’t really understand the depth or breadth of the Chinese government’s actions, so this will be an important statement by the administration. This is long overdue.”

Copper theft from state highways dangerous to drivers and an expensive headache for state transportation departments

"Thieves have been stripping copper wire from abandoned houses, commercial buildings and construction sites for years. But they also have taken aim at public rights of way, creating a rash of headaches for public safety and transportation officials," Jenni Bergal reports for Stateline.

Copper wire is found in boxes at the base of light poles and on highway barriers, which make attractive targets for thieves. Some dress in fake safety gear to make them look like utility workers. Many thieves are drug addicts looking for cash; they take the copper to scrap recycling yards, where copper can net more than $2 a pound, Bergal reports. Some states have enacted laws that require scrapyards to document the name and license plate of would-be copper sellers, and some have increased penalties for stealing metal.

The state highway department in Missouri has paid $850,000 on light repairs because of copper theft, as much as it spent in 2016 and 2017 combined. But the expense is only one part of the problem. Lack of lighting (until the state can repair the light poles) makes driving more dangerous for motorists. "Roadway lighting can reduce night-time crashes by about 35 percent, according to a Federal Highway Administration study," Bergal reports.

Could health care jobs replace coal in Appalachia?

The hospital in Pikeville, Ky., employs 3,100 people.
A recent PBS NewsHour broadcast explored whether health care can replace coal as the main source of jobs in rural Appalachia, a region with more than its share of health problems. It was the first installment in a series called "The Future of Work," examining how jobs are being affected by increasing automation and globalization.

Amna Nawaz focused on Pikeville, Ky., population 6,700, in a county of about 65,000. High-paying coal jobs were once its lifeblood, no longer. "Some experts say to make up for the wages and revenue lost in that time, it would take 30,000 new jobs today. Pikeville is now trying to fill some of that gap by shifting to health care, and investing in its hospital system, serving 450,000 people across three states," Nawaz reports. "It also employs 3,100 people, nearly half of Pikeville's population."

Nawaz spoke with second-year medical student Olivia Boyette, who comes from a long line of coal miners. Boyette wants to become a doctor because "We have some of the sickest of the sick, when you talk about respiratory cancer or heart disease."

Burton Webb, president of the University of Pikeville, says he's trying to fight brain drain and keep more promising students like Boyette in town. "One of the major purposes of being in a place like this is so that we can retain people who live here," Webb told Nawaz. "They can train here, they can learn here, grow here, and then keep their families here. And it helps that we have an enormous hospital in town. It's a regional medical center. And so there's a place for them to come and to practice and to live."

Boyette said wants to stay in her home town after college because "I don't just want to help people. I want to help my people. Pikeville, Kentucky, and the surrounding areas is a very unhealthy area. There's a lot of tobacco. There's a lot of alcohol abuse. There's a lot of obesity. I feel like I want to give back to my community."

Jessi Troyan of the Cardinal Institute, a the conservative think tank, said he worries that Pikeville's medical boom might not last, since most of the region's patients rely on Medicaid. He asked Nawaz, "Pikeville has really capitalized on the Medicaid type of expansion dollars coming from the federal government, and should the political winds shift, you know, does Pikeville have to rewrite their story again?"

Monday, December 10, 2018

Report: New definition of 'waters of the U.S.' would strictly limit the Clean Water Act to always-flowing streams

Most wetlands wouldn't qualify under the new definition.
(Photo by Petr Kratochvil,
This week the Trump administration is expected to "propose to severely restrict the number of wetlands and waterways covered by the Clean Water Act," Ariel Wittenberg reports for Energy and Environment News. "The proposed new definition of 'waters of the United States,' or WOTUS, will erase federal protections from streams that flow only following rainfall, as well as wetlands not physically connected to larger waterways, according to a copy of EPA talking points obtained by E&E News."

According to those talking points, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers will make the announcement on Tuesday. It's unknown how much of our nation's wetlands and waterways will lose federal protection, but Wittenberg notes that the talking points give some indications. The talking points say that "ephemeral streams and related features" that only exist after rain will be entirely excluded from WOTUS. The proposal aims to protect only wetlands that are "physically and meaningfully connected" to other waters protected under WOTUS.

"It's not clear how the administration would define 'physically and meaningfully connected,' Wittenberg reports. "But the agencies have set out to write a regulation based on a 2006 opinion written by the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who said the Clean Water Act should extend only to waters and wetlands with a 'continuous surface connection' to nearby rivers and streams where it is 'difficult to determine where the 'water' ends and the 'wetland' begins.'"

Invasive (but tasty) rodent threatens California agriculture

Photo courtesy of Tilapia Film
A voracious pest that's been aggravating Louisiana for years is now threatening California agriculture. The nutria (sometimes called a swamp rat) is a 20-pound rodent that resembles a "rat crossed with a beaver" and it can eat up to a quarter of its body weight in a day, Lisa Morehouse and Angela Johnston report for Food and Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative publication.

When nutria eat all the plants in marshes, they can damage the local ecosystem by taking the food of the birds, frogs and other animals. More alarmingly, "They can also tear up crops and levees, damaging the state’s water infrastructure, and threatening farms," Morehouse and Johnston report. They're prolific too, producing up to 200 offspring a year. 

Nutria are native to South America. Fur farmers brought them to southern California in the late 1800s as a more affordable alternative to mink. When nutria fur failed to catch on, farmers let them loose and the rodents went feral. "The nutria problem is potentially so big that the Department of Fish and Wildlife is pulling staff from all over the state for on-the-ground training in finding and eradicating the pest," Morehouse and Johnston report.

Farmers, worried about the damage nutria can do, have been donating sweet potatoes to the scientists to use as bait (nutria love them). Sweet potato farmer Stan Silva said he's never seen a nutria, and never heard of them until a few months ago, but wants them eradicated to be on the safe side. Nutria "can basically ruin the ag industry here — they get in your fields, burrow into your canal ways, your waterways. They’re just a menace," he told Morehouse and Johnston.

California officials are looking to see how Louisiana has dealt with nutria. Louisiana has tried a few different approaches, from offering hunters a bounty for catching them, to promoting them as a delicacy to local chefs. 

California might take inspiration from Louisiana, and Russia for that matter. Muscovites, it seems, can't get enough of nutria in their restaurants, Todd Masson reports for The Times-Picayune. Nutria live wild in southern Russia, where fur farmers likewise released them after failed business ventures. One Russian chef raved about the nutria, saying that the herbivore is a "very clean animal" that washes all its food before it eats, and is very high in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Dozens of patients have died from errors in Indian Health Service hospitals, Sioux Falls newspaper reveals

Native Americans have received substandard care and many have died needlessly because of errors Indian Health Service hospitals. The federal agency provides health care to 2 million Native Americans, but in South Dakota alone, thousands of residents in the state's rural reservations face "limited access to primary care providers, long wait times for basic medical treatments and outstanding medical debt for necessary care sought outside the federally-funded facilities," Dana Ferguson reports for The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls.

The federal government has mostly ignored these conditions or failed to make meaningful change, which violates its treaty with Native Americans to provide for their health care. The Argus Leader investigated Rosebud and Pine Ridge Indian Health Service hospitals in South Dakota for months, reviewing records and legal filings and interviewing patients to glean information, Ferguson reports.

The "horror stories" they uncovered included an incident where doctors restrained and used pepper spray on a patient overdosing on methamphetamines, which triggered a fatal heart attack. And at the Rosebud, faulty temperature controls and mold on the walls sickened staff and patients, sometimes preventing the staff from working.

Attempts to sue the government for violating its treaty haven't gone anywhere, and neither have feeble Congressional attempts to improve the situation. Now, Rosebud is once again at risk of losing federal funding because of repeated errors, and Pine Ridge lost its ability to bill to Medicare last year after failing to meet quality standards for the program, Ferguson reports.

A major part of the problem is that Congress has underfunded IHS hospitals since the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed in 1868, according the Donald Warne, chair of the Department of Public Heath at North Dakota State University. "Congress has been in breach of contract for decades," he told Ferguson.

Medicaid expansion could help Native Americans living in poverty, but South Dakota has refused to entertain the notion, and a bill to make it easier to fire incompetent doctors from IHS hospitals stalled out because of "lawmaker apathy," Ferguson reports.

Virginia files suit against Mountain Valley Pipeline, alleging hundreds of environmental violations during construction

The pipeline crosses a mountain near Roanoke,
into the shadow of another. (Roanoke Times photo)
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring alleges in a lawsuit that the builders of the Mountain Valley Pipeline have violated environmental regulations more than 300 times. The lawsuit was filed Friday on behalf of state Department of Environmental Quality Director David Paylor and the State Water Control Board.

"Since work began earlier this year, inspections have found that crews failed to prevent muddy water from flowing off pipeline construction easements, often leaving harmful sediment in nearby streams and properties," Laurence Hammack reports for The Roanoke Times. "Covering a span of seven months and nearly 100 miles of the pipeline’s route through five counties, the lawsuit is one of the most comprehensive summaries to date of the environmental toll taken by running a 42-inch diameter pipeline across rugged slopes and through pure mountain streams."

If the court rules against Mountain Valley's builders, led by Pittsburgh-based EQT Midstream Partners, the penalties could cost them up to $32,500 per day for each violation. The builders have already agreed to pay Virginia $27.5 million before construction began to compensate for expected environmental damage, Hammack reports.

The natural-gas pipeline has faced considerable resistance from citizen activists and environmental groups from the beginning, and watchdog groups have been regularly filing complaints alleging violations, Hammack reports. Builders were faced with legal setbacks in July when a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rescinded permits for the pipeline, saying they had not properly vetted the project or assessed its environmental impact.

Hammack reports, "It’s rare for such a case to end up in court, said David Sligh, a former environmental engineer for DEQ who is now fighting the pipeline as conservation director of Wild Virginia. Most notices of violations are handled administratively, with the most severe action a fine that is generally less than what a judge might impose, he said."

'Damning' report details Interior Department's anti-science practices and policies, writes dismissed Interior executive

The Trump administration is "clamping down on science, denying dangerous climate change and hollowing out the workforces of the agencies charged with protecting American health, safety and natural resources," according to Joel Clement in an opinion piece for Scientific American magazine. Clement was one of dozens of senior executive targeted by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke for reassignment six months after Trump's inauguration.

Clement alleges that Zinke and his staff have consistently tried to undermine scientists while promoting the interests of coal, oil and natural gas. Clement may be suffering from sour grapes, but a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, for which he is now a senior fellow, documents some of Interior's most egregious practices.

The report, which Clement calls "damning" and "required reading for anyone who values public lands, wildlife, cultural heritage, and health and safety," describes a laundry list of anti-science policies and practices such as "suppression of science, denial of climate change, the silencing and intimidation of agency staff, and attacks on science-based laws that help protect our nation’s world-class wildlife and habitats," Clement writes. You can read the report here.