Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Texas weekly highlights helpers of the needy each Thanksgiving: 'The hands that give are never left empty'

The top of the first of four pages devoted to charities in this week's edition of The Canadian Record

For six years, The Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle has published a Thanksgiving feature that reminds readers that many of their neighbors have a lot less to be thankful for, and how to help them. Editor-Publisher Laurie Ezzell Brown told The Rural Blog, "The nonprofit organizations that we mention are always appreciative of the light it shines on them, and I am always hopeful that it helps them continue the good work they do." Here's what she wrote for this week's feature:

"The hands that give are never left empty. There is no better time to be reminded of that than now, when we are awash in consumer-oriented Christmas messages urging us to spend our money—even as many in this community struggle to feed and clothe their children, care for the elderly and infirm, and pay for life’s basic necessities.

"As we each prepare our Thanksgiving meals and celebrate this great bounty in the company of friends and family, please remember—in thought, word, and deed—those for whom this day offers fewer blessings and far greater uncertainty. Those who have lost jobs, whose businesses are struggling, whose health is in jeopardy, or who care for one who is ill. Those who are alone, who live in fear, who wrestle with addiction, who are without hope in a season whose persistent message is one of great hope. Those who labor and are weary. Those whose children are hungry or cold. Those who have no home, and no family to offer them shelter and kindness.

"We live in a time of great promise, in a country that enjoys enormous wealth; and yet, there are many who have neither. We live in a community that has always given generously to those in need, but we can never take the generosity of others for granted. It is for each of us to give according to our ability. With these things in mind, we asked representatives of local nonprofit charities to describe each organization’s mission and to tell us how we can contribute.

"In the following pages, you will read about the daycare center that nurtures our youngest children; the hospice program that gives comfort to the dying, and to their families and loved ones; the food bank that delivers groceries to those who have fallen on hard times; the ministerial alliance that aids families and individuals in crisis; and the group of mothers whose efforts are focused on ensuring that children receive needed dental and medical care—even if their parents are not able to afford it.

"Your gifts, however small or large, offer comfort and sustenance. They send a much-needed message to all who suffer, that they are neither forgotten nor lost, and that this is a community that cares, even for the least of these. And in giving, we are reminded of all we have—the blessings that are ours—for which we give thanks, today and every day."

Rural women face dwindling access to hospital childbirth services; Connecticut woman's ordeal is an example

A rural Connecticut woman's recent ordeal highlights a recent study noting that rural women, especially in communities of color, often have more difficulty accessing hospital childbirth services.

Shantell Jones lives in Windham, a town of 25,000, 41 percent Latino. She lives six blocks from a hospital, but when she went into early labor the ambulance had to drive to another one 30 minutes away because Windham Hospital shuttered its labor and delivery services last year, Jean Lee reports for NBC News. Ten minutes into the drive, Jones gave birth in the ambulance as it parked by the side of the highway, and though she and her son are healthy, others are not so lucky sometimes. 

Pregnant women without easy access to a hospital with obstetric services could be at an increased risk of giving birth prematurely, giving birth in an emergency room, or outside of a hospital entirely, public-health experts say. Thousands of other pregnant rural women are facing that risk as hospitals reduce or close obstetric services to cut costs. "Nationwide, 53 rural counties lost obstetrics care from 2014 through 2018, according to a 2020 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association." It also found that 1.045 of the out of 1,976 rural counties "never had hospitals with obstetrics services to begin with."

Communities of color and those with high poverty rates are especially at risk. Not only are they more likely to lose or never have local obstetric services, but they're more likely to have transportation issues or lack insurance that would cover a pricey ambulance ride to a hospital further away, Lee reports. Local ambulance services might not be able to respond as readily because they're stretched thin too.

Major retailers found liable for opioid epidemic in 2 Ohio counties; ruling bolsters public-nuisance legal strategy

Recent court rulings in Oklahoma and California rejected claims that drug companies were responsible for the opioid epidemic, but an Ohio court ruling this week was a positive signal for other lawsuits using the strategy of claiming a public nuisance. Those cases could bring billions of dollars in payouts to states and municipalities to mitigate the addiction crisis.

On Tuesday a court ruled that major retailers CVS, Walgreens and Walmart helped fuel the opioid epidemic in two Cleveland-area counties. Jurors in a federal court concluded that the pharmacy chains' actions in Lake and Trumbull counties "helped create a public nuisance that resulted in an oversupply of addictive pain pills and the diversion of those opioids to the black market, Nate Raymond reports for Reuters. The verdict is the first the companies have faced over the issue.

The prosecutor will seek more than $1 billion from the companies to help the two counties address the toll of addiction, but "Judge Dan Polster will decide how much the companies owe to abate the epidemic in the counties and is expected to hold a trial on that question in April or May," Reuters reports.

The companies say they plan to appeal the verdict, citing recent Oklahoma and California rulings as proof that the public-nuisance claim was inappropriately applied. "The pharmacy chains have blamed drugmakers for marketing the addictive medications, and doctors for overprescribing, arguing that others were significantly responsible for the flood of legal opioids that were diverted to illegal use," Meryl Kornfield and Lenny Bernstein report for The Washington Post. "But federal law puts a 'corresponding responsibility' on the pharmacist to determine that a prescription he or she fills is for a legitimate medical purpose." Other chains such as Rite Aid and Giant Eagle have previously settled with the counties for undisclosed sums in the matter.

It's unclear whether the public-nuisance strategy will ultimately prove effective. Similar claims are ongoing elsewhere, in state courts in New York and Washington, and a federal court in West Virginia, Kornfield and Bernstein report.

New rapid antibiotics test could bring more transparency to meat supply chain

Veteran cattle rancher Bill Niman has co-founded a company, FoodID, that can quickly test meat for the presence of antibiotics. He believes adopting the tech will force meat companies to be honest about whether they're using antibiotics on animals, Lisa Held reports for Civil Eats.

The question matters because, scientists say, "antibiotic resistance—the growing number of 'superbugs' that are resistant to treatment—is 'widely considered to be the next global pandemic,'" Held reports. "And while a number of countries have successfully reduced dependence on them, the U.S. is behind the curve. For example, the U.S. cattle industry uses medically important antibiotics four to six times more intensively than four of the top livestock-producing countries in Europe, according to analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council."

Major meat brands sell product lines labeled antibiotic-free, but it's difficult for consumers or consumer agencies to test those claims. "While tests for antibiotic residue in meat already exist, FoodID’s version uses flow-through technology, the same technology used in at-home pregnancy tests, to make the process faster, cheaper, and more sensitive than ever before," Held reports. "Using that tech, the company’s first application seeks to partner with companies to validate their 'no antibiotics' claims, since the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires testing just .0025 percent of animals each year. With chicken, FoodID’s team tests multiple birds pulled from each chicken house; with cattle and pigs, they test carcasses at the slaughter facilities."

Smaller producers may be more likely to adopt the tech, since it will bolster their claims of selling superior meat. Larger meat companies may be less inclined, but Niman hopes independent watchdog groups will test the meat, a la Consumer Reports, and publicly pressure the companies to change their practiciess, Held reports.

Thanksgiving roundup: Native Americans reflect on Indigenous People's Day and more

Just in time for Thanksgiving, here's a roundup of news concerning the nation's original inhabitants, whose communities and concerns today are often rural.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims. The Wampanoag Nation, whose ancestors were at that first Thanksgiving, say what actually happened in 1621 is much different from what most children are taught in grade school. Read more here.

More states are heeding tribal leaders and banning Native American sports mascots. Read more here.

For centuries, Native Americans lived and fished the area, often called the Everglades of the West. But now climate change is fueling a water-rights conflict in the Pacific Northwest's Klamath Basin. Read more here.

Tribal members across Oklahoma reflect on Indigenous Peoples' Day. Read more here.

A three-part podcast from Wyoming Public Media's "The Modern West" explores the U.S. government's historic failure to keep its promise to provide adequate medical treatment for Native Americans, and how that has made the coronavirus even more deadly among many tribes. Listen to the series here.

Last week the Senate confirmed Charles Sams III to lead the National Park Service. Sams, a member of the Cayuse and Walla Walla tribes, is the first Native American to lead the agency, and the first permanent head of the agency in years. Read more here.

Comedian Adrianne Chalepah keeps crowds laughing while highlighting Native American life and issues. Read more here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Lee Enterprises sale to Alden would create hedge fund-owned duopoly for U.S. dailies, include dozens of weeklies

Locations of Lee Enterprises' daily newspapers
"Lawmakers, local reporters and journalism advocates are sounding the alarm over a takeover attempt of local newspaper group Lee Enterprises by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund known for cutting journalists at local papers to maximize profits," Sara Fischer reports for Axios.

If Alden bought out Lee, a "clear majority" of U.S. dailies would be owned by hedge funds. Moreover, it would "essentially create a local news duopoly between Alden and Gannett/Gatehouse, which merged in 2019," Fischer reports.

"It was pretty clear this day would come," Joshua Benton writes for Nieman Lab. "Lee is the biggest acquisition target left out there, with papers in 77 markets across 26 states — not to mention nearly 350 weekly and specialty publications." Benton adds, "At some previous companies that Alden has tried to acquire, there’s been resistance — from management, employees, civic leaders, or all of the above. . . . But frankly, I’d be surprised if Lee put up much of a fight this time," since it's offering cash and a 30 percent more than the price of Lee stock last week.

As Lee's stock spiked 26 percent on Monday after Alden announced its offer, policymakers and reporters expressed concern. Sara Gentzler, a state-government reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, tweeted that it was a "gut-wrenching scenario for Nebraska newspapers and anyone who cares about preserving robust local news."

Scores of Lee's papers were once owned by Warren Buffett, "who soured on the business in recent years and said most newspapers were 'toast'," Katie Robertson of The New York Times reports. Lee "managed the 31 daily newspapers and dozens of weeklies owned by Mr. Buffett for a time before he sold them to that company in 2020."

Lee was recently in the news after reports that Iranian hackers broke into the company's computer systems the day after the 2020 election and tested how to create fake news.

UPDATE: Editor & Publisher hosts a discussion among Gordon Borrell, founder and principal of Borrell Associates; Rick Edmonds, media-business analyst for The Poynter Institute; Steven Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America; and Gretchen A. Peck, contributing editor at E&P.

Farmers get 14 cents of dollar spent on Thanksgiving meal

National Farmers Union graphic; click on it to enlarge
"For every dollar Americans spend on Thanksgiving meals this year, farmers and ranchers will earn approximately 14.3 cents," says the National Farmers Union.

“Ordinarily, Thanksgiving is a time to gather with our loved ones and enjoy a big meal,” said NFU President Rob Larew. “But for many Americans, the cost of traditional holiday foods may simply be out of reach for some families.”

NFU says that while consumers are paying more for food, "almost none of that is being passed on to America’s family farmers and ranchers. Multiple waves of mergers and acquisitions during the last several decades have resulted in agriculture and food supply chains that are uncompetitive, fragile, and underpay farmers. The farmer’s share of every dollar consumers spend on food has fallen from 50 percent in 1952 to less than 15 percent today."

Supreme Court decision on groundwater rights could have implications for interstate water wars in era of more droughts

Aquifer being tapped by Memphis and Mississippi
(Wall Street Journal map, adapted by The Rural Blog)
On Monday the Supreme Court unanimously found that Tennessee was not stealing Mississippi's groundwater; the ruling has broad implications for how states manage natural resources, especially as climate change continues to drive droughts, Bobby Magill reports for Bloomberg.

Over a century ago, the Supreme Court established the equitable apportionment doctrine as a rubric for deciding interstate conflicts over common bodies of water. This case is the first to extend that doctrine to groundwater, Jess Bravin reports for The Wall Street Journal.

"Mississippi accused a Memphis utility of improperly pumping water out of an interstate aquifer spanning the region, claiming it wasn’t a 'shared resource.' The dispute centered on whether the utility interfered with Mississippi’s authority over its land and waters," Magill reports.

Mississippi sought at least $615 million in damages, claiming it was more difficult and expensive to access water because the Memphis utility was drawing so much out of the Middle Claiborne Aquifer—some 120 million gallons per day, Bravin reports. The aquifer lies under eight states in the Mississippi River Basin.

Free webinar TODAY at 2 p.m. ET to celebrate Native journalism and Freedom Forum Institute's 30th anniversary

The Freedom Forum Institute, a nonprofit that raises awareness about First Amendment rights, will celebrate its 30th anniversary with the latest in a series of free webinars at 2 p.m. ET today, "Celebrating Native American journalism and 30 Years of the Freedom Forum." Click here for details or to register.

Here's some more info from the website: "As we celebrate Native American Heritage Month, join us to look back at the Freedom Forum’s longtime commitment to Native American journalism, talk about representation of Native journalists today and discuss the issues that are being covered in the community. Three journalists who have participated in Freedom Forum programs will share how the initiatives impacted them and talk about their work today:
  • Katie Oyan, West Desk editor, The Associated Press
  • Shondiin Silversmith, indigenous affairs reporter, The Arizona Mirror
  • Mark Trahant, editor, Indian Country Today

EPA finds glyphosate, atrazine and simazine can hurt endangered species or habitats; new rules could be coming

"The Environmental Protection Agency has finalized biological evaluations concluding that three common herbicides can adversely affect endangered species or their habitats," Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse. "The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service will use the EPA's findings on glyphosate, atrazine and simazine to determine whether the weed-killers actually jeopardize the existence of any endangered species. The biological opinions that those agencies issue could result in additional restrictions being placed on the herbicides."

The report suggests new measures to mitigate the herbicides' impact, "including buffers to sensitive habitats, use deletions, and restrictions regarding where applications can occur," Brasher reports.

EPA reauthorized atrazine and simazine (part of a class called triazines) in September 2020, but put new restrictions on their use designed to limit potential harm to human health and the environment. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Roundup. Manufacturer Bayer AG announced this summer that it will remove the weedkiller from the lawn and garden market in 2023, but it will remain available for farmers.

Monday, November 22, 2021

Rural journalist, dying of cancer, reflects in weekly columns

Dave Taylor
This spring, Dave Taylor found out he had Stage 4 esophageal cancer. The veteran journalist, editor of the weekly Hancock Clarion in Hawesville, Kentucky, began writing about the experience the week afterward in a column series called "What I Learned From Dying."

"If things go well this will be a long-term column that could serve as catharsis for me or a peek behind the gown for those who are curious," Taylor wrote in the first column. "If things don’t go as well, then maybe it’s just a long, rambling goodbye."

Since that first column in May, Taylor has reflected not just on his life, but on journalism and the value of local reporting. "While the stories I’ve covered haven’t always been earth shattering, they’ve been important to the people in those stories and maybe important to those who read them," he writes.

The Clarion—and other rural newspapers—play a vital role in their communities. "Nowhere else are you going to find pictures of your kids at the fair or an action shot of the homerun your grandson hit in the big game last week," Taylor writes. "But we also play the role of local historians. We mark history with every story we write and photo we print. When someone wants information about anything in the past they turn to the newspaper."

Staffers at the paper, owned by longtime Publisher Donn Wimmer, do their best to cover local happenings "because generally speaking, we’re the only ones covering Hancock County at all," he writes. "Please continue to read and support the Clarion. It’s the only paper we’ve got."

Iranian hackers got into Lee Enterprises systems the day after the 2020 election, and tested how to create fake news

Lee Enterprises newspaper locations; click the image to enlarge, or click here for the interactive version and a list.

"Iranian hackers last year infiltrated the computer systems of Lee Enterprises Inc., a major American media company that publishes dozens of daily [and weekly] newspapers across the U.S., as part of a broader effort to spread disinformation about the 2020 presidential election," Dustin Volz reports for The Wall Street Journal. "On Thursday, the Justice Department said the alleged hackers broke in to the digital systems of an unnamed media company in fall 2020 and tested how to create false news content. People familiar with the matter on Friday identified the company as Lee."

Lee, based in Davenport, Iowa, is one of the nation's larger newspaper chains, especially since acquiring BH Media Group's 31 papers in early 2020. It has more than 350 non-daily papers.

"The Federal Bureau of Investigation warned the unnamed company about the intrusion, prosecutors said. The day after the November presidential election, the hackers tried to get back into the media company’s system but failed, prosecutors said. The federal charging document in the case doesn’t indicate the hackers successfully published fake information under the unnamed media company’s news brands," Volz reports. Last year, U.S. intelligence found "that the leaders of Russia and Iran ordered their governments to attempt to influence U.S. voters’ choices in the 2020 presidential election and undermine the public’s faith in American democracy."

News media can used to spread disinformation without hacking. That happened last November while votes were still being counted: "A coordinated network of Twitter accounts posed as the Associated Press and CNN to prematurely declare election victories for Democrat Joe Biden," Volz reports. "Those tweets, which Twitter removed quickly, were nonetheless retweeted dozens of times and amplified by at least a handful of journalists and other verified Twitter users." 

The incident is a good reminder to be vigilant and cross-check even tweets that seem legitimate. State election officials, increasingly concerned about disinformation campaigns, have called on the public to only trust official vote tabulations instead of news media reports or projections, Volz reports.

UPDATE, Nov. 23: Lee is a takeover target of Alden Global Capital, The New York Times reports.

Ken Burns: The one national historic site with 'massacre' in its name shows we should teach history, not mythology

The Sand Creek Massacre, from History of Colorado; the national historic site was dedicated in 2007.
By Ken Burns
I’ve been making films about American history for more than 40 years. In all of those years, there’s something central that I’ve learned about being an American: Veneration and shame often go hand in hand.

Today, however, I fear patriotism is presented as a false choice. It seems that for many, to be patriotic is to remember and celebrate only our nation’s triumphs. To choose otherwise, to choose to remember our failings, is thus somehow anti-American.

But it is not so simple.

When the National Park Service opened its 391st unit — the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site — the site became the first and only to include the word “massacre” in the title, a reminder of the Nov. 29, 1864, attack on Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho people that was misrepresented as a “battle” for nearly a century. In a video, I reflect on the legacy and contemporary resonance of this massacre.

Being an American means reckoning with a history fraught with violence and injustice. Ignoring that reality in favor of mythology is not only wrong but also dangerous. The dark chapters of American history have just as much to teach us, if not more, than the glorious ones, and often the two are intertwined.

As some question how to teach American history to our children — and even question the history itself — I urge us to confront the hard truth, and to trust our children with it. Because a truly great nation is one that can acknowledge its failures.

Ken Burns is a filmmaker whose digital history project UNUM connects scenes from his documentaries to current events.

Rural communities may miss out on infrastructure funds; experts recommend states stage outreach programs to help

Though the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package has plenty of money specifically earmarked for rural America, rural communities are concerned they'll miss out on much of it.

Most of the funds "will flow to state governments, with the most populous states getting the largest amounts. Then cities, towns and counties will compete for grants and loans, with state officials deciding who gets what. Federal officials will maintain control of about $120 billion, part of which will be doled out through competitive grants," Aallyah Wright reports for Stateline. "Rural leaders worry that they lack the staff and matching dollars to compete with bigger cities for their fair share of the bounty."

Some smaller, more conservative states have had difficulty with federal stimulus money because they don't have processes in place to decide how it should be spent, develop regulations to govern distribution, and then actually distribute it, Johnathan Hladik, policy director for the Center for Rural Affairs, told Wright.

Even when states clear those hurdles, rural municipalities often have trouble accepting and spending grants for similar reasons: lack of personnel, decision-making processes and know-how. Communities also worry they can't accept money that requires cost-sharing or matching funds, Wright reports. Hladick recommended that state agencies market their stimulus fund plans to localities to maximize the money's potential.

Kansas state officials hid public information at private firm's request; it's part of a national trend against transparency

The Kansas state government hid large parts of an audit to please a private company. The audit, which cost taxpayers $100,000, "was meant to watchdog about $160 million in prescription drug spending on state employees, though experts say it came nowhere near achieving that, despite its hefty price tag," Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports for KCUR in Kansas City. "Kansas bowed to the auditor’s wishes for secrecy, even though an attorney for the state couldn’t find anything in the report that qualified for protection from public view."

The incident is part of a larger trend: "In Oregon, a city is hiding from a newspaper how much of the region’s precious water Google uses to cool its servers — claiming it’s a Google trade secret. A Utah county refused to show a disability rights center its jail manuals for things such as hygiene and medical care — because the author had copyrighted them," Llopis-Jepsen reports for the NPR affiliate. "Virginia pre-emptively promised Amazon it would redact as much as it could get away with if any citizens asked for public records involving the company — to please the retail behemoth."

State and local governments regularly duck transparency laws by citing private companies' intellectual property rights. "And in the case of Kansas, it effectively outsources the redaction process to private companies that don’t work for the public, that don’t have any legal obligation to follow open records law and that can’t be hauled before a judge for breaking it," Llopis-Jepsen reports.

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, told Llopis-Jepsen he worries that governments are increasingly allowing businesses control what the public can see: "This is not a Kansas problem. It’s not an Oregon problem . . . It’s an everywhere problem."