Friday, June 28, 2019

Remembering the Capital Gazette shooting one year later; moment of silence at 2:33 p.m. EDT

The victims, L-R: Rob Hiaasen, Wendi Winters, John McNamara, Rebecca Smith, and Gerald Fischman. (CG  montage)
One year ago today, five newspaper staffers died when a gunman opened fire in the newsroom of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., population 40,000. The paper has published an impressive news package marking the occasion, including an update on how survivors are faring in the aftermath, a moving photo portrait project, and an editorial calling for stronger gun control laws.

The Gazette published the day after the shooting, but left its opinion page blank except for the words, "Today, we are speechless." The best-remembered line of the day was probably a tweet from reporter Chase Cook: "I can tell you this: We are putting out a damn paper tomorrow."

One year later, an editorial titled "We have something to say" lists dozens of names of people killed in mass shootings since the Capital Gazette shooting and says, "Until we take steps to cure the sickness of our American soul — with stronger regulation of firearms, improved mental health services and law enforcement that fairly identifies individuals likely to commit mass violence — none of us is safe. The list will grow. Today, we urge you to join us in a moment of silence at 2:33 p.m. to remember our friends. Remember these names, as well. Because none of us can truly be free until, together, we stop this madness."

Mississippi farmers say chicken processors discriminated, drove them out of business; federal probe seems to lag

John Ingrum
(ProPublica photo by Annie Flanagan)
A large chicken processor used new regulatory freedoms granted by the Trump administration to fleece black farmers in Mississippi, Isaac Arnsdorf reports for ProPublica and The Clarion Ledger in Jackson.

Koch Foods, the nation's fifth-largest poultry processor, persuaded a black farmer named John Ingrum to raise chicks for a few weeks until they were ready to slaughter. A company representative promised they would deliver flocks and feed, and told Ingrum he could make a lot of money, Arnsdorf reports.

"What Ingrum didn’t know was that those financial projections overlooked many realities of modern farming in the U.S., where much of the country’s agricultural output is controlled by a handful of giant companies. The numbers didn’t reflect the debt he might have to incur to configure his chicken houses to the company’s specifications. Nor did they reflect the risk that the chicks could show up sick or dead, or that the company could simply stop delivering flocks," Arnsdorf reports. "And that growing concentration of corporate power in agriculture would only add to the long odds Ingrum, as a black farmer, faced in the United States, where just 1.3% of the country’s farmers are black."

Carlton Sanders
(Photo by Annie Flanagan)
Black farmers are especially vulnerable because their farms tend to be smaller and they tend to make lower sales numbers than average, partly because of historic laws that excluded them from owning land and accumulating wealth, and accusations that the U.S. Department of Agriculture discriminated against them by denying or slowing loans for land (the USDA settled that class-action lawsuit for more than $1 billion in the Obama administration), Arnsdorf reports.

"Along with these historical disadvantages, black farmers say they have also encountered bias in dealing with some of the corporate giants that control their livelihood. In complaints filed with the USDA between 2010 and 2015, Ingrum and another black farmer in Mississippi said Koch Foods discriminated against them and used its market control to drive them out of business," Arnsdorf reports.

After Ingrum signed a contract with Koch, company representatives kept requiring him to make expensive modifications, about which they sometimes changed their minds. Such updates are usually meant to improve safety or respond to customer preferences, but Ingrum said there wasn't much logic to their demands, which cost him more than $50,000 between 2002 and 2009. He also caught feed-truck drivers failing to fill his feed bins all the way; the company said it was a mistake, but Ingrum said he had heard of drivers demanding payoffs to provide more feed, Arnsdorf reports.

Koch began delivering Ingrum chicks less often, which meant he made less money and fell behind on his loan payments. He considered selling his farm, but a Koch employee scared off a prospective buyer by telling him the farm needed $100,000 in repairs. "The employee also swore at Ingrum’s real estate agent and spread a rumor that the bank had foreclosed, according to the affidavit. That wasn’t true, but it was becoming increasingly hard to avoid," Arnsdorf reports.

When Ingrum complained about the company's practices at an agricultural forum in 2010 attended by Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Koch Foods abruptly canceled his contract. Ingrum lost his farm and couldn't get back on his feet for another five years.

After Ingrum went out of business, only three other African American chicken farmers were working for Koch. Two left the business about the time Ingrum did, leaving Carlton Sanders as the last. Sanders was a successful longtime chicken farmer, but when Koch bought out the company he had been contracting with, changes began immediately, he says: Koch mandated upgrades that cost him nearly $200,000, then demanded changes that would have cost another $318,000 and stopped delivering chickens to his farm; Sanders asked around and realized none of the white farmers had been told to make those changes. In 2015 he filed a complaint with the USDA. Meanwhile, his bank foreclosed and he filed for bankruptcy.

A USDA investigator found "evidence of unjust discrimination" and concluded that Koch Foods violated the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921. However, the Trump administration has cut back on enforcement of this law, and Koch hasn't been penalized for discriminating against Ingrum or Sanders. "A USDA spokesman said the investigation is 'ongoing' and the agency is coordinating with the Department of Justice," Arnsdorf reports.

Supreme Court rejects Trump administration's 'contrived' reasoning on census citizenship question

On Thursday, the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration's stated reason for adding the citizenship question to the 2020 Census, but left the door open for the administration to provide a better reason if it wanted the question added, Adam Liptak reports for The New York Times.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images)
The ruling was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts siding with the court's liberal judges. In the majority opinion, Roberts wrote that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross's explanation for adding the question "appears to have been contrived" and wrote the executive branch must "offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public . . . Accepting contrived reasons would defeat the purpose of the enterprise. If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case."

Ross testified before Congress in 2017 that he decided to add the question "solely" to help the Justice Department enforce the Voting Rights Act; three federal trial judges have ruled that Ross was not being truthful. Evidence suggests that Republican party leaders added the question because they knew it would benefit the GOP.

"The practical impact of the decision was not immediately clear," Liptak reports. "While the question is barred for now, it is at least possible that the administration will be able to offer adequate justifications for it. But time is short, as the census forms must be printed soon."

Second Democratic debate: Post fact-checks claims; Buttegieg sees rural role in fighting climate change

Last night a second raft of Democratic primary contenders debated in Miami. The topics were much the same as those brought up the first night, and the NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo moderators continued to make candidates squirm with questions about past decisions.

Mayor Pete Buttegieg of South Bend, Indiana, said rural communities had a significant role to play in fighting climate change: "We have to look at the leadership of local communities. The networks of mayors and cities not waiting for the national governments to catch up. We should have a Pittsburgh summit as well as rejoining the Paris agreement."

Here's some fact-checking from The Washington Post on a few other topics:

Sen. Kamala Harris of California said: "I’m meeting people who are working two and three jobs. ... People in America are working. They’re working two and three jobs."

The Post reports: "Harris carefully suggests this is anecdotal. That’s because is not borne out in official data . . . There are more than 162 million people with jobs. But only 325,000 people had two full-time jobs in May, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another 4.4 million had both a full-time job and a part-time job, while nearly 2 million were juggling part-time jobs. In all, there are 7.8 million people who hold more than one job — just 5 percent of Americans with jobs. The percentage has been roughly steady since the Great Recession, and in fact is lower than in the mid-1990s, when it hovered around 6 percent."

Businessman Andrew Yang said: "We automated away 4 million manufacturing jobs due to automation."

The Post responds: "This is too simplistic. Automation is not the only reason for the loss of manufacturing jobs. There is varying research on the exact number of jobs lost due to automation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics research from 2018, there are many reasons that are cited for the decline in manufacturing employment. Among the main culprits: Competition with China; mismatch between the skills that workers have and skills employers need; and decline in cross-regional migration."

Former Vice President Joe Biden said: "I got Mitch McConnell to raise taxes $600 billion by raising the top rate."

The Post says: "Biden is only telling half the story. The 2013 deal did raise individual tax rates, to the tune of $600 billion over 10 years. But . . . the 2013 deal also made permanent President George W. Bush’s tax cuts for people making under $250,000, even though Democrats had long campaigned to repeal the tax cuts. The deal added to the federal deficit. Many Democrats at the time thought McConnell outfoxed Biden in the negotiations. Indeed, if the tax cuts had expired as planned under the Bush law, tax revenue would have soared."

Buttegieg said: "Tariffs are taxes. And Americans are going to pay on average $800 more a year, because of these tariffs."

The Post says: "Buttigieg quotes from a May study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which estimated that because U.S. purchasers of imports from China must pay tariffs imposed by President Trump, the costs will largely be borne by U.S. households. The total annual cost of the new round of tariffs to the typical household would be $831 from the president’s latest round of tariffs. That’s on top of $414 a year from tariffs imposed by Trump in 2018."

Quick hits: New poet laureate is first Native American for the post; Pride event at small-town Ky. library draws opposition

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

Can we move away from fossil fuels without destroying communities that rely on them? Sam Adler Bell looks to the devastated coalfields of Appalachia:

Joy Harjo has been named the U.S. poet laureate, making her the first Native American to fill the post:

Some residents in small Kentucky town opposed a LGBTQ+ "Pride Panel" at a local public library.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Annual economic classification of Appalachian counties shows more moving up, but coal country still struggles

ARC map, augmented by The Rural Blog with plus or minus signs to show counties whose status changed from last year
"An annual report from the Appalachian Regional Commission shows that while Appalachia is seeing some economic improvement, the heart of the region and its coal-producing communities are still struggling. Several counties in the Ohio Valley are moving in a negative direction in this year’s report," Becca Schmidt reports for Ohio Valley ReSource.

The report assesses county-level data in Appalachia on unemployment, per capita market income, and poverty, and divides the results into five tiers. On the low end are "economically distressed" counties that rank among the lowest 10 percent economically. Top performers are "attainment" counties, and in between are counties labeled "at risk," "transitional" or "competitive."

Most of the counties that moved down in class from last year were in Ohio and West Virginia, which is likely a function of coal's decline, Schmidt reports. Kentucky continued to have the lion's share of economically distressed counties. There were lots of gains, mainly in the southern half of Appalachia, but there were no gainers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, or New York.

Fact-checking Democratic presidential candidates' claims about health issues in their first debate

The first of a pair of debates among Democrats running for president aired on MSNBC last night, with 10 of them vying to stand out in a crowded field; the other 10 qualifiers will debate tonight.

Rural America wasn't specifically mentioned, beyond a handful of references to the need to reduce President Trump's advantage ther. However, health care, a major rural concern, was a frequent topic. Here's some fact-checking from The Washington Post on candidates' health care claims:

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said: "The overhead for insurers that they charge is 15 percent, while Medicare, it’s 2 percent."

The Post says: "The Medicare figure of 2 percent is artificially reduced because some key functions are undertaken by other agencies — and because Medicare’s patients are unhealthier. Booker said administrative costs for private insurers are 15 percent. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has claimed that the cost falls between 12 percent to 18 percent, and Booker seems to have picked the midpoint. But previous estimates of the administrative costs per patient indicate that Medicare is actually more inefficient than private insurance, as we found in this fact check."

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said: "2,500 drugs have gone up in double digits since [Trump] came into office."

That statistic comes from a 2018 tweet by former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services administrator Andy Slavitt that listed 2,500 drugs with such price increases, "but the big picture is brighter," the Post reports. "The consumer price index for prescription drugs fell by 0.6 percent for the 12 months ending in December, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The decline would be the first time in 46 years in the December-to-December time frame, but there have been other 12-month periods with index declines, mostly recently in 2013. The index dropped also in January, February, March and May — a string of monthly declines not seen since 1973."

Beto O'Rourke, a former congressman from Texas, said: "Despite what Purdue Pharma has done, their connection to the opioid crisis and the overdose deaths that we’re seeing throughout this country, they have been able to act with complete impunity and pay no consequences."

"In terms of money, O’Rourke is wrong," the Post says, noting that the maker of OxyContin agreed in March to pay a $270 million civil settlement in Oklahoma and faces lawsuits around the country. In 2007, three executives were spared prison time and sentenced to probation after agreeing to plead guilty to charges that they misled federal regulators about the addiction risks of the drug."

Supreme Court rules that federal judges have no role in deciding whether partisan gerrymandering goes too far

Video report by the News & Observer, Raleigh

The Supreme Court ruled today that federal courts have no business deciding whether partisan gerrymandering, which Republicans have increasingly used to empower conservative rural voters, goes too far. The vote was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the decision that "appeared to close the door on such claims," Adam Liptak writes for The New York Times.

"While the Supreme Court regularly scrutinizes electoral districts for racial gerrymandering, the justices have never found a state’s redistricting map so infected with politics that it violates the Constitution," Robert Barnes reports for The Washington Post. "Such a decision would have marked a dramatic change for how the nation’s political maps are drawn."

Roberts wrote: Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions."

In the minority opinion, Justice Elena Kagan wrote: "For the first time ever, this court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities."

Washington Post graphic shows, in example No. 3, how gerrymandering works but violates two principles of redistricting.
One of the cases was from North Carolina, where in the last two federal elections Republicans have won 53 percent or less of the statewide vote but have won 10 of the state's 13 congressional seats, 77 percent. The other was from Maryland, in which Republicans alleged that the Democratic legislature's 2011 redistricting plan violated the First Amendment by diluting their voting power, resulting in defeat of a longtime Republican congressman, Roscoe G. Bartlett.

The court has had the opportunity to rule on partisan gerrymandering before but has declined for various reasons. Last term the court considered challenges to Wisconsin, Maryland, and North Carolina's maps, but sent those cases back to lower courts for technical reasons.

"There’s been less reticence outside the Supreme Court. With recent decisions in Ohio and Michigan, federal courts in five states have struck down maps as partisan gerrymanders," Barnes reports. "And last fall, voters in Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, Missouri and Utah either took redistricting away from politicians or limited their power."

Rural Women's Summit in Greenville, S.C., Oct. 27-29

Hotel booking opens today for the Rural Women's Summit, Oct. 27-29 in Greenville, South Carolina. The event will convene a diverse group of rural officials, business and nonprofit leaders, funders and advocates to discuss and help along policy and public-interest efforts that benefit rural America. It's run by the Rural Assembly, a group that seeks to build a "smarter, greener, more inclusive rural America," according to their website. Click here for more information.

Study: Rural residents more likely to have alimentary-canal cancers, less likely to get other cancers of digestive system

Rural residents are more likely than urbanites to get cancers of the alimentary canal, from the esophagus to the rectum, but less likely to get cancers of the liver, pancreas or gall bladder, a study has found.

The differences are small; during the study period, alimentary-tract cancers appeared in 37.2 rural people per 100,000, and in 33 urban residents per 100,000. The rates for the other forms of cancer studied were 16.4 among rural residents and 19.4 among urbanites.

The study was conducted by Amir Khan of Southern Illinois University and presented at the Digestive Disease Week conference in San Diego this week, Healio reports.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

At Q-and-A with Ken Ward Jr., 'Heartland' author Smarsh critiques simplistic media portrayals of rural America

Sarah Smarsh and Ken Ward Jr. talk at the Life in Rural America Symposium on May 21.
(Robert Wood Johnson Foundation photo by Shawn Poynter)
At the recent Life in Rural America Symposium, journalists Ken Ward Jr. and Sarah Smarsh spoke about the relationship between "good journalism, community health, and our collective future," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. Ward is an award-winning Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter known for covering West Virginia's coal industry, and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." Smarsh is up for a National Book Award for her memoir Heartland, which shows readers how her rural Kansas family went from working class to the working poor.

The Yonder provides a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and clarity. Some highlights:

Smarsh said there's a "great dissonance" between what urban residents and the news media think is happening in rural areas and what is actually happening in rural areas. "If you’re a cable news network, and you like conflict, and you want to whip up the idea of cities versus country (which drives up ratings and enforces some sort of unfortunate cultural identities), then you put up a map of the United States where each state is colored either red or blue, as though that monochromatic color would represent everyone in that state," Smarsh said. The reality is not so simple or monolithic.

Ward observed that it might not be appropriate to talk about "one rural America, and to assume that farmland in Kansas and the people who live there have all the same ways of doing things, and thinking, and talking as people in the coal fields of southern West Virginia, or steel country in western Pennsylvania and Ohio."

Smarsh agreed, saying "Of course, there's not just one rural America." She said that those who "set the narrative" often offer a reductive view of rural America, whether through malice or ignorance. But rural America is more diverse, politically and demographically, than is often reflected in the news media, she said. For instance, she said, about 100 rural Kansans showed up at a recent county health event and "every single person in there" supported expanding Medicaid. The bottom line, she said, was to be humble and not make assumptions about people or areas you're unfamiliar with.

Many people have no idea how deep economic equality is in the U.S., and part of the reason is that many rural people are ashamed to talk about poverty or poor health, Smarsh said.

Ward asked how people can find information to better understand what's happening in rural America. Smarsh said paying attention to local news was a good start, but noted that rural local reporting has been weakened in recent years, and many rural people only have access to national news: "We have half the country watching Fox News and half the country watching MSNBC. While I’m all for increasing efforts on the local level, there is something that is so toxic in that top-level system being broken from the rest of the information sphere that that’s, I think, a bigger problem to contend with."

Smarsh said the simplistic, frequently negative narrative about rural America hurts rural communities and people. "If every story being told about you is that you’re backwards, ignorant, your community is dying, why don’t you just leave, and meanwhile, you’re doing the work of picking the lettuce in California or raising the wheat in Kansas that’s on the plate of the people who are carelessly levying those condescending comments, that is a bitter pill to swallow spiritually and psychologically," she said. "That has reverberations in the way of wellness and health, whether it’s that shame or a sense of not being validated somehow. It’s related to a general malaise and a need to self-medicate. The stories that we tell about ourselves and about specific populations within our country, they affect the wellness of those communities."

New EPA rule gives chief more power over FOIA requests

"The Environmental Protection Agency is making changes to its transparency rules that include explicitly granting the administrator the authority to decide which public records the agency will release or withhold," Gregory Wallace and Ellie Kaufman report for CNN. "The change in the Freedom of Information Act rule comes without the normal process of public input. It was not announced but instead was placed in the Federal Register for formal publication."

The move is the agency's latest response to the unusually large number of FOIA requests to the EPA during President Trump's administration. It could also be an attempt to reduce fulfillment of such requests, since information obtained from previous requests has proved embarrassing to the agency. EPA chief of staff Ryan Jackson testified before Congress in 2018 that he and other aides would try to delay "politically charged" requests, Wallace and Kaufman report.

The new rule takes a different tack. It "appears to allow, for example, the administrator to personally review his own documents, such as emails and calendars, and decide what to release and what to withhold, though he still must comply with the applicable laws governing the release of public documents," Wallace and Kaufman report. "At federal agencies, that process is typically in the hands of career employees and attorneys."

The agency said that the new rule brings it into compliance with congressional amendments to FOIA, and that the Obama administration failed to meet a 2016 deadline to update EPA guidelines.

The move is the latest in a series of actions that weaken public access to information. The Interior Department tightened control over FOIA requests in 2017, and this week the Supreme Court limited access to business-provided government records by expanding what can be considered confidential.

States try to get lawyers to fill 'legal deserts' in rural areas

When Columbus, Nebraska, lawyer Thomas Maul headed the Nebraska State Bar Association in 2016 he was instrumental in getting the state to start a program to recruit lawyers to its rural areas. (Photo by Nati Harnik, The Associated Press)
Though the number of lawyers in America has increased by 14.5 percent since 2009, attorneys in rural America are in short supply. About 2% of small law practices are in small towns and rural areas, according to a 2014 study, and state-level data confirms that lawyers tend to cluster in urban areas.

"Their disproportionate coverage creates 'legal deserts' or patches of the state with few if any lawyers in private practice. Meanwhile, many of the existing rural lawyers are approaching retirement age, with too few law-school graduates moving in to replace them," reports Stateline's April Simpson. "Legal deserts disproportionately affect rural and especially poor people, who may have to travel hundreds of miles, or experience lengthy and expensive delays for routine legal work. Lawyers often handle complicated cases, but also standard fare such as divorces, contract disputes and eviction threats. With limited access to legal representation, vulnerable populations may be exploited by those in positions of power."

Map from Access to Justice in Rural Arkansas, March 2015
Though law schools and some states are encouraging law school graduates to practice in rural areas, it's a difficult sell for the same reason other professionals hesitate to move to rural areas: a tighter job market, lower salary, isolation, and more. And rural lawyers face unique challenges: "Small-town lawyers must be generalists, while the legal profession is becoming more specialized. Rural areas often have poor broadband access, creating technical challenges to accessing legal information," Simpson reports. Also, more rural residents may have a hard time paying for legal services, which means lawyers have a harder time making a living.

In 2017, South Dakota rolled out a five-year pilot program to recruit lawyers to rural areas. It pays lawyers $13,000 a year on top of their salaries to practice in counties with a population of 10,000 or less. Local county governments cover 35% of that, the state pays for 50% and the South Dakota Bar Foundation pays for 15%. Simpson reports that 24 lawyers are in the program.

No other state has such a program, but other tactics are being tried. Nebraska recruits college freshmen, and Arkansas provides lawyers with continuing education and helps them network with rural attorneys and judges, Simpson reports.

Oregon Senate president says climate-change bill is dead; Republicans fled the state to block its passage

A small group of people demonstrated outside the Oregon Capitol
to support the walkout. (Photo by Mark Graves, The Oregonian)
"Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney said Tuesday that the climate change bill that prompted Republicans’ walkout lacks the votes necessary to pass because not enough Democrats support it," The Oregonian reports. Courtney said a long list of other important bills with bipartisan support needed to be passed by the June 30 deadline for adjournment.

Senate Republicans fled the state last week to prevent a vote on a bill that would attack climate change with a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse-gas emissions. Without the Republicans, the Senate could not achieve a supermajority quorum and could not act. Republicans said it was the best way they could represent their conservative rural constituents. Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, ordered state police to round them up, but armed militias, who promised to protect the Republicans from capture, threatened the state Capitol and prompted a temporary shutdown.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Census using more satellite imagery to find rural minorities of color, who are historically reluctant to respond to it

The Census Bureau plans to use more satellite imaging to better count rural people of color. "The agency is using aerial images of rural communities and hard-to-reach areas to verify addresses and determine where to send workers to ensure everyone is counted," Russell Contreras reports for The Associated Press. "Satellites and planes take photos, and bureau employees compare the housing captured in the images to digital maps from the last census, in 2010. It takes a fraction of the time needed by workers in the field."

The agency has been using the geographic information system technology since 2013, and has been double- and triple-checking its work to ensure accuracy, Contreras reports.

The high-tech solution is a response to a problem partly caused by the bureau's high-tech plans: people will be encouraged to fill out forms online in 2020, and census workers will be sent door-to-door mostly as backups. But rural residents are far less likely to have broadband, and therefore will have a harder time filling out the forms online, Contreras reports. That could lead to undercounting, and rural areas losing government funding for programs.

Also, some areas with heavy African American, Hispanic or Native American populations are historically reluctant to respond to the census. Compliance among Hispanic-heavy areas will also likely decrease if the controversial citizenship question is added to the census, a question the Supreme Court will decide tomorrow.

USDA mum about studies on effect of climate change; agencies no longer have to estimate projects' effect on it

Two recent actions by the Trump administration reflect its reluctance to deal with climate change.

The Agriculture Department has broken with longstanding practice by refusing to publicize dozens of peer-reviewed studies from its Agricultural Research Service that carry warnings about the effects of climate change.

"The studies range from a groundbreaking discovery that rice loses vitamins in a carbon-rich environment — a potentially serious health concern for the 600 million people world-wide whose diet consists mostly of rice — to a finding that climate change could exacerbate allergy seasons, to a warning to farmers about the reduction in quality of grasses important for raising cattle," Helena Evich reports for Politico.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has allegedly retaliated against USDA researchers whose findings conflicted with the administration's environmental policies. His planned move of two major scientific and research agencies to Kansas City is seen by some as an attempt to force researchers to quit rather than relocate, so they can be replaced with employees of Perdue's choosing.

Last week the White House Council on Environmental Quality proposed that federal agencies no longer need consider a project's long-term climate impact when assessing how it will affect the environment. The proposal "would change the way the U.S. government evaluates activities ranging from coal mining to gas pipelines and oil drilling by limiting the extent to which agencies can calculate their greenhouse gas emissions," Juliet Eilperin reports for The Washington Post.

In April 2016 under President Obama, the council mandated that agencies quantify how much a project would contribute to climate change. Under the proposed directive, "Agencies conducting reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act only have to calculate an action’s greenhouse gas emissions when 'a sufficiently close causal relationship exists' between a project and greater carbon emissions," Eilperin reports. "It also tells agencies they can opt not to assess a project’s climate impact if they decide it 'would be overly speculative,' and they can put any projected emissions in the context of the local, regional or national carbon output."

Legal experts say the move could hurt the administration in court cases, since some judges have suggested that officials need to better consider how their decisions will affect the climate. According to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, the Trump administration has lost a dozen court cases over agencies' failure to consider climate issues in NEPA reviews, Eilperin reports.

Farmers' struggles starting to hurt fragile rural economy

Many farmers are having a hard time these days for a multitude of reasons, including the trade war with China, low crop prices, and six months of Midwestern weather that's alternated from frozen to flooded. All of that has started to have a big impact on the rural economy, Mario Parker, Denitsa Tsekova, and Michael Hirtzer report for Bloomberg.

When farmers struggle, it has an outsized impact in rural areas. "The communities they live in and the businesses that supply them with seeds, fertilizer, equipment and services are struggling as credit conditions steadily deteriorate in a fragile rural economy," Bloomberg reports.

Not only are farmers buying fewer supplies, but, since trade on the flooded Mississippi River has been closed for most of the month, suppliers are having a hard time getting their products to farmers, and farmers are having a hard time selling their surviving stored produce, Bloomberg reports.

"The deluge is just the latest blow to the farm economy. Even the $28 billion in promised tariff aid may not be enough to rescue rural America from the onslaught of bad news," the reporters write. "There’s been a steady deterioration in agricultural credit conditions, the Kansas City Federal Reserve [Bank] said in its May report. Farmer sentiment has plunged to levels not seen since October 2016, the month before Donald Trump’s election victory, a Purdue University/CME Group index showed this month. Net farm income last year was about half of the $123 billion earned in 2013."

There are a few bright spots: Chicago corn futures have increased about 30 percent since May, so farmers who were able to plant and can get a decent yield will likely get a good price, Bloomberg reports, and worries of a smaller corn harvest have led ethanol plants and animal feeders to bid higher prices on stored corn harvests from last year.

Supreme Court ruling on SNAP data bodes ill for journalists

"The Supreme Court limited . . . access to government records by expanding a federal law's definition of what can be deemed confidential," in a decision Monday, Jonathan Ellis and Richard Wolf report for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. "At issue was whether confidentiality, as used in a section of the Freedom of Information Act, means anything intended to be kept secret or only information likely to cause harm if publicized."

Reporter Jonathan Ellis and News Director Cory Myers of the
Argus Leader at the Supreme Court in April. (USA Today photo)
The Argus Leader fought for almost a decade to get Department of Agriculture data on how much money grocers and other food retailers get from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The paper won the initial round in court, but the Food Marketing Institute, a retail trade lobby, appealed, arguing that releasing the records would harm some businesses' ability to compete with other retailers.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of FMI 6-3, with justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissenting.

During oral arguments in April, the justices "appeared conflicted between upholding the spirit of the freedom of information law, and the desire to stick to the literal meaning of the word 'confidential,'" Ellis reported then. "FMI and the federal government 'had argued for a broad definition that would leave ample room to keep data from the public. Media organizations and public-interest groups favored a more narrow definition requiring harm, which would make confidentiality apply to fewer FOIA requests," Ellis and Wolf report.

In the decision, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote: "At least where commercial or financial information is both customarily and actually treated as private by its owner and provided to the government under an assurance of privacy, the information is 'confidential' under the meaning of" the FOIA.

In the dissent, Breyer wrote: "Given the temptation, common across the private and public sectors, to regard as secret all information that need not be disclosed, I fear the majority's reading will deprive the public of information for reasons no better than convenience, skittishness, or bureaucratic inertia."

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and publisher of The Rural Blog, wrote on Twitter, "I fear for freedom of information when Justice Gorsuch writes, 'The USDA tried to meet the paper halfway.' It was nowhere close to halfway! USDA gave the Argus Leader the names of groceries, but not what it needed for a story: how much SNAP money they got."

Community-newspaper consultant scoffs at NYT editor's prediction that most local papers will be gone in five years

Dean Baquet
When New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said last month that "Most local newspapers are going to die in the next five years," people in the community newspaper industry dismissed Baquet's declaration as ill-informed and went on about their business. Now community-newspaper consultant Kevin Slimp has challenged Baquet to put his money where his mouth is.

Kevin Slimp
"He’s saying what so many have said over the past 10 or 15 years: 'Just give them ___ years and they’ll be gone'," Slimp writes on his State of Newspapers site. Noting that Baquet said 'I don’t know what the model is for covering the school boards in Newark,' he says, "To assume Newark, N.J., is small-town America just goes to show how out-of-touch newspaper executives are these days. Most newspapers aren’t in places like New York City or even Newark, N.J. They’re in towns like McKenzie, Tenn., Fergus, Ont., Worcester, Va., Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Winona, Texas. These are all places I’ve visited recently with newspapers that won’t be closing in the next five years."

Slimp quotes Joey Young, a publisher of several papers in Kansas: “In communities where there is local ownership that cares and puts out a quality product, then there will continue to be newspapers that are vital to their communities.” And Dale Gentry, publisher of The Standard-Banner in Jefferson City, Tenn.: “Though no one can accurately predict the future, I believe newspapers – independently owned ones that cover their communities well – will remain in business for many years to come. . . . We were all supposed to be out of business by 2000, then 2019. In places like Jefferson County, Tennessee – and many, many others across the U.S. – the newspaper is still well-supported, vital to the community, and read thoroughly. I don’t see that changing any time soon.”

Slimp writes, "So here’s my offer. I would like to make a wager with Dean Baquet. I’m not angry. Not picking a fight. I just wish I’d made that bet 10 years ago. Everybody was betting against me back then. I will bet that most newspapers in the U.S. will not be dead in five years. Tell you what, let’s make it six. I’ll give Dean the benefit of the doubt."

As Trump issues an order about health-care costs, Democrats try to capitalize on the issue with rural voters

Recent polling in small towns and rural areas of battleground states has informed a new $50 million campaign for Democratic group American Bridge to win over some of President Trump's base, Scott Bland reports for Politico. "The survey was conducted online by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research from June 3-9, surveying 1,700 voters in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin."

Republican-leaning voters in small towns and rural areas of battleground states said they approved of Trump overall, but were far less positive on key issues that affected voters' wallets and well-being. Half rated Trump negatively on "cutting taxes for people like me," and responses were even less favorable on several health-care questions. "Just 25 percent of respondents gave Trump a positive rating for 'reducing health care costs,' compared to 67 percent who rated him negatively, while they split against Trump 39-51 on 'taking on the drug and pharmaceutical companies,'" Bland reports.

American Bridge President Bradley Beychok told Bland that the group isn't trying to win over most of Trump's rural voters in 2020, but even modest gains compared to 2016 would be a big boost: "We’re trying to go from losing these segments [of voters] 85-15 to maybe 75-25."

Trump does polls, too, and surely sees the same weakness. Yesterday he issued an executive order for price transparency by hospitals and insurance companies, but left it up to the Department for Health and Human Services how detailed the transparency would have to be. "After failing to carry out his biggest 2016 health-care promise — repealing Obamacare — the president is trying to reinvent himself as the champion of consumer choice in the often-befuddling American health-care system., Paige Winfield Cunningham reports for The Washington Post.

Report knocks rural electric cooperatives' reliance on coal; co-ops say they are moving to 'cleaner energy sources'

This item has been updated.

Rural electric cooperatives' loyalty to coal is holding rural America back, argues a new report by Clean Up the River Environment, We Own It, and the Center for Rural Affairs.

Most rural electric co-ops spent a lot of money in the 1970s to build coal-fired power plants, many taking on massive debt to do so. That made economic sense back then, but coal is increasingly expensive these days. "With this rise in the cost of coal and the simultaneous drop in the price of renewables, coal is an increasingly bad choice for utilities. Today, most coal plants are considered to be uneconomic (perhaps 'underperforming') assets by utilities, and many rural electric co-ops are identifying coal plants as stranded assets," Erik Hatlestad and Liz Veazey write for The Daily Yonder. Hatlestad is the director of CURE, an rural environmental nonprofit. Veazey is the network director of WOI, an organization that seeks to make changes in rural electric co-ops.

The co-ops could save millions over the next few decades by investing more in renewable energy and using their coal-fired plants less, the report argues. For example, a 2018 report from the Rocky Mountain Institute, an environmental nonprofit, found that the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, a partnership of 43 Western co-ops and public power districts, could save at least $600 million by 2030 in this way, Hatlestad and Veazey report.

Some major utilities already are investing heavily in renewable energy, but many co-ops nationwide can't increase their investment in renewable energy because they're locked into long-term contracts with their generation and transmission cooperatives that only allow a little, if any, renewable energy generation. Such contracts are usually driven by remaining debt for coal plants. Instead, rural co-ops are increasing their reliance on natural gas. "Since 2014, electric cooperatives have reduced their reliance on coal from 54 percent to 41 percent; however, they have also increased their natural gas generation portfolio from 18 percent to 26 percent. Overall, that’s a shift from 72 percent to 67 percent fossil fuel generation. Meanwhile, nationally, cooperatives have only increased their wind and solar generation from 4 percent to 8 percent," Hatlestad and Veazey report.

The co-ops could try to do away with their debt by converting it to securities, refinancing it through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service, or seeking debt absolution, but none of those options guarantee that co-ops will go on to invest in renewable energy instead of natural gas. "Unencumbered with the barrier of coal debt and stranded assets, cooperative leaders may fall victim to their own dogma about fossil fuel infrastructure rather than take the more affordable wind and solar route," Hatlestad and Veazey write. The report warns that investing more in natural gas will accelerate climate change, which will reduce agricultural productivity, degrade soil and water resources, increase health challenges to humans and livestock, and make rural communities more vulnerable, since they generally have a limited capacity to respond to climate change impacts.

"Rural electric co-ops are caught between the push for clean energy and their stranded assets, leading many co-ops to double down on their bad investments and push a pro-coal agenda that approaches a dogmatic rejection of the potential prosperity of clean energy for rural communities," Hatlestad and Veazey write. "As co-ops reject the new reality of more affordable electricity generation and a more distributed, safe, and modern utility system, rural America is being left behind by clean energy prosperity while also having more expensive electricity and an unstable utility structure."

Stephen Bell, director of media and public relations for the National Electric Cooperative Association, told The Rural Blog in response to the article, "Electric cooperatives respond to their local communities as they plan to meet future energy needs. The electric cooperative transformation to cleaner energy sources is already underway. Electric co-ops rely on a diverse fuel mix to best meet their consumer-members’ need for reliable and affordable electricity. Nearly 60 percent of that power comes from low or no-emissions sources."

Rural homelessness an increasing but often hidden problem

Charles "Country" Bowers
(OVR photo by Mary Meehan)
Though homelessness is usually considered an urban problem, it's a growing problem in rural areas. One in three rural Americans say homelessness is a problem in their community. Mary Meehan reports for Ohio Valley ReSource, a public-radio partnership. "As the Ohio Valley’s profound addiction epidemic stresses the social safety net, advocates say more rural people are at risk of becoming homeless. But the scattered and hidden nature of homelessness in rural places makes it an especially hard problem to measure and address."

Homeless rural people are more likely to be unsheltered, or sleeping outside or in tents, as opposed to sleeping on someone's couch or in a homeless shelter, Meehan reports. A 2018 Department of Housing and Urban Development report found that rural homeless are more likely to be unsheltered than urban homeless people.

The camps in which unsheltered people often live in can pose serious health threats, since residents rarely have access to clean water and often store and dispose of human waste in unsanitary ways. "Conditions like those contribute to disease, such as the Hepatitis A outbreak which has claimed 58 lives in Kentucky so far and sickened approximately 5,000 people, many of them homeless," Meehan reports. Unsheltered homeless people also risk dying of hypothermia in the winter.

Because rural homeless camps tend to be hidden, many rural officials aren't aware there are homeless people in their communities, Meehan writes. In rural communities that are aware of their homeless population, churches often provide support, but often don't have wherewithal to solve the problem.

Ohio Valley ReSource map by Alexandra Kanik
Many rural residents of the Ohio Valley states are at risk of becoming homeless; more than half of the renting population is rent-burdened, which means they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. That leaves them with limited means to deal with unexpected financial problems like a broken-down car or a job loss. "A lot of people in the world don’t realize it, but they are one paycheck away from being out here with us," Charles "Country" Bowers told Meehan. Bowers lived in a homeless camp in the rural area of Lexington-Fayette County, Kentucky, for a long time and said he has long struggled with alcoholism.

Ginny Ramsey, who runs a shelter called the Catholic Action Center in Lexington, told Meehan that many of the chronically unsheltered homeless are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, mental illness, and/or addiction that make them reluctant to be around others. The opioid epidemic is making the problem worse, she said: "The safety nets that have been in place, they are leaking, they have always been leaking. Now, they are getting shredded."

Homeless people may have a hard time getting back into housing due to criminal records, and much of the cheapest housing is in unsafe neighborhoods where drug and alcohol use are prevalent, Meehan reports. And rural areas may not have easy access to addiction treatment.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Stout advocate for freedom of information wins top award from International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors

Brian Hunhoff
Brian Hunhoff, this year's winner of the top award from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, is only a part-time editor, "but produces full-time results," as his wife Roxann said in nominating him for the Eugene Cervi Award, given to an editor who consistently acts in the conviction that good journalism begets good government.

Hunhoff sold the Yankton County Observer in South Dakota 18 years ago but continues to write editorials and columns for the weekly, and has become a leading advocate among community journalists for freedom of information. That's all the more remarkable because he is also the county's elected register of deeds, and a former part-time county commissioner.

In his nomination, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor Dave Mitchell of Point Reyes, Calif., called Hunhoff "a first-rate journalist" and "an eloquent defender of open government."

Hunhoff's work has gotten greater circulation in recent years. In 2016, he wrote "Ten Commandments for Open Meetings," a Sunshine Week editorial that has been republished in every state. In 2015, he won the Freedom of Information Award from the National Newspaper Association. He doesn't hesitate to go after others in power; in 2017, he criticized the South Dakota Legislature for its lack of transparency: "Shouldn't people buying the sausage get to see it made?" The same year, he published a 19-part series about the value of governments' public-notice advertising. In 2014, he won ISWNE's Golden Quill Award for editorial writing with an editorial that criticized local governments in South Dakota for abusing exceptions to the state open-meetings law. In 2018, at 58, he became the youngest person ever admitted to the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame, and this year, he joined the National Open Government Hall of Fame of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Hunhoff's interest go beyond open government. Recently The Rural Blog excerpted a column sparked by his speech at a naturalization ceremony is Sioux Falls, welcoming new Americans from 40 nations. He said that if more Americans could see such ceremonies, there might be less fighting about immigration to the U.S.

In his typically self-effacing way, Hunhoff said little about his work in his acceptance speech at ISWNE's annual conference in Atlanta Saturday night, but talked about some of the previous winners of the award, named for the crusading editor of the old Rocky Mountain Journal. Hunhoff never met Eugen Cervi, but he has met 16 of the 49 award winners, and he said of them, "They were small-town, but definitely not small-time. They were giants of our profession."

Ag economists say moving USDA research agencies to Kansas City would cost, not save, millions of dollars

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced plans to relocate the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City this fall, on the grounds that it would move the agencies closer to stakeholders and save taxpayers $300 million over the next 15 years. But an analysis by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association found that the move will actually cost taxpayers between $37 million and $128 million, Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder.

"The AAEA economists, including two former ERS administrators, criticized USDA for overstating the costs of keeping ERS and NIFA in the capital region while failing to account for lost value of employees who choose to retire or resign rather than move. Analysts also criticized USDA for not making the full cost-benefit-analysis available to the public," Oates reports.

The economists also criticized the USDA for ignoring cost-saving measures that would have allowed the agencies to stay in the D.C. area, such as moving to cheaper real estate nearby. "USDA owns three buildings in the capital region already, AAEA said in the analysis, and the agency neglected to evaluate the option of eliminating rental payments altogether by moving employees into existing available space," Oates reports. 

"AAEA criticism of USDA’s projections also included lost value of research by employees. AAEA estimates that between 50 to 70 percent of ERS and NIFA employees would choose to retire or quit rather than move," Oates reports. The report estimates that between 250 and 400 employees will quit, and most of them are highly skilled workers with a Ph.D. The USDA will only be able to rehire about a quarter of them per year, the report projects, and even after the new workers are hired, it will take them about four years to match the expertise and productivity level of their predecessors. And employees who stay with the agencies and move from Washington D.C. will likely suffer a 25% reduction in productivity in the first year because some of their time will be occupied by moving, selling and buying homes, finding new schools and places of worship, and more, the report predicts.

The report adds another wrinkle to the already controversial issue. Since the USDA announced preliminary plans last August to move the agencies, many have protested that the move was an attempt to force out agency employees whose research has often proven unhelpful to President Trump's policies. Both agencies' employees recently voted to unionize and have joined the American Federation of Government Employees, Oates reports.

Longtime news anchor at Sinclair-owned station quits, saying he doesn't 'fit well with the Sinclair news model'

Rob Braun
A longtime news anchor at WKRC-TV in Cincinnati quit his job because he dislikes working for Sinclair Broadcast Group. Sinclair bought the station in 2012.

Rob Braun began working at WKRC in 1984, quickly rising to evening anchor. "Last year, Braun and his co-anchor, Cammy Dierking, were subjects of a viral video showing TV anchors across the country reading identical scripts about 'fake news' and bias in the media," Rachel Berry reports for the Cincinnati Enquirer. Sinclair forced the anchors to read the script, and regularly mandates other conservative and pro-Trump content.

In a Facebook post after his announcement, Braun stressed that he is not retiring, nor is WKRC forcing him out. He said he's "choosing to leave" because he doesn't "fit well with the Sinclair news model." He promised he would say more on the subject on-air during his last broadcast at 6 p.m. on Friday, June 28.

Braun's announcement was met with an outpouring of support from area viewers, many of whom vowed to stop watching WKRC after Braun leaves. Other posts criticized Sinclair, Berry reports. "No legitimate journalist or newsman fits well with the Sinclair news model," West Chester resident Michael D'Agostino wrote on Twitter. "Glad Rob had the guts to call it out and take a stand."

The anchor is the son of Bob Braun, a regionally prominent TV personality who was based in Cincinnati and died in 2001.

Many Alabama sheriffs undermine their successors after losing re-election bids; little oversight constrains them

Steve Guthrie, assistant chief deputy sheriff of Marshall County, Alabama, stands next to barrels of dish soap and boxes of toilet paper in storage behind the county jail, bought by the previous sheriff. (Photo by Bob Miller, special to ProPublica)
In actions ranging from petty to possibly criminal, many Alabama sheriffs who were defeated at the polls have carried on a tradition of last-minute actions meant to undermine their successors. Nine of the 10 new sheriffs in Alabama who defeated incumbents in 2018 said that "last-minute actions by their predecessors had negative impacts on their offices and, by extension, the public," Connor Sheets reports for, in partnership with ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. "Though other public officials in Alabama often face growing pains and hostile staffs after displacing incumbents, sheriffs are especially vulnerable to the whims of their predecessors. Sheriffs wield far greater power than most other elected officials to spend public funds as they see fit, and they are subject to far less oversight," especially in rural areas.

Two of the nine sheriffs who had reported trouble said their predecessors had done annoying but relatively benign things like failing to have a badge made for the new sheriff, or throwing all the unmarked keys in a pile so the new sheriff would have to try all of them to figure out which went where. Some described more harmful but technically legal actions: One sheriff said his predecessor stopped selling pistol permits and stopped the jail’s work-release program after his defeat; both programs together brought in more than $5,500 per month on average, which meant the new sheriff couldn’t buy sorely needed new equipment for his deputies, Sheets reports.

"But seven of the sheriffs made more serious accusations against their predecessors, many of which were corroborated by internal office records. Among their claims: Outgoing sheriffs pocketed public money, fudged financial reports, wasted sheriff’s office funds and destroyed or stole public property," Sheets reports. "All the former sheriffs who responded to a reporter’s inquiries denied wrongdoing, often insulting their successor or providing a counternarrative aimed at disproving the claims."

One sheriff accused of wrongdoing was former Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin; Sheets gained nationwide attention last year and several journalism awards after he discovered that Entrekin had taken home more than $750,000 in funds meant to buy food for jail inmates. While researching this story, Sheets and ProPublica obtained financial records showing that Entrekin pocketed another $269,184 meant to feed jail inmates and federal immigration detainees.

Six of the new sheriffs have requested state audits of their offices and told Sheets they’ll decide how to proceed once they have the results; the other three who reported problems with their predecessors said they’re handling the problems themselves to avoid making waves.

The pattern of outgoing sheriffs sabotaging or hampering their successors goes back decades, according to Bobby Timmons, who has been the executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs Association since 1975. "Timmons said outgoing sheriffs with grudges have long blown through funds, refused to communicate with incoming sheriffs and have even been known to pull trucks up to the backs of their county jails and fill them with any remaining food, leaving their replacements scrambling to feed inmates," Sheets reports.

Timmons said this sort of thing is common among sheriffs who have lost an election. “The one that gets defeated, he doesn’t want to be defeated, he doesn’t want to lose,” he told Sheets. “And it may have been a dirty campaign, so you’ve got a hate pattern then.”