Thursday, December 29, 2022

Long Island weekly revealed George Santos as a fake when he was a candidate, but no other news media took heed

Rep.-elect George Santos
(Photo via North Shore Leader)
Local journalism, which often struggles to prove its worth to an information-drenched public, may have hit the jackpot with an I-told-you-so tale from the story that is dominating national news right now.

"Months before the New York Times published a December article suggesting Rep.-elect George Santos (R-N.Y.) had fabricated much of his résumé and biography, a tiny publication on Long Island was ringing alarm bells about its local candidate," reports Sara Ellison of The Washington Post.

Maureen Daly, managing editor of the Republican-oriented paper North Shore Leaderreported in September: "Controversial U.S. congressional candidate George Santos has finally filed his Personal Financial Disclosure Report on Sept. 6, 20 months late, and he is claiming an inexplicable rise in his alleged net worth to $11 million. Two years ago, in 2020, Santos' personal financial disclosures claimed that he had no assets over $5,000: no bank accounts, no stock accounts, no real property. A net worth barely above zero. And his income was only just over $50,000 for the prior year, derived from a venture fund called Harbor Hill Capital, that was closed and seized in 2020 by U.S. federal prosecutors as a 'Ponzi scheme.' Santos was the New York director of that 'fund'."

Daly pointed out conflicts between the document and some Santos statements: “Interestingly, Santos shows no U.S. real property in his financial disclosure, although he has repeatedly claimed to own ‘a mansion in Oyster Bay Cove’ on Tiffany Road and ‘a mansion in the Hamptons’ on Dune Road. . . . The house is owned by someone else having nothing to do with Santos, and has a market value of less than $2 million. For a man of such alleged wealth, campaign records show that Santos and his husband live in a rented apartment, in an attached rowhouse in Queens.”

3rd District, with Leader office marked (Wikipedia map, adapted)
After more details, Daly noted, "It is a federal felony to make false filings in federal disclosures."

In October, the Leader said in an editorial, “This newspaper would like to endorse a Republican for U.S. Congress, but the GOP nominee, George Santos, is so bizarre, unprincipled and sketchy that we cannot. … He boasts like an insecure child — but he’s most likely just a fabulist — a fake.” The endorsment went to Democrat Robert Zimmerman, who promised a bipartisan approach like that of retiring Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi, who lost in this year's primary for governor.

The Post's Ellison writes, "It was the stuff national headlines are supposed to be built on: A hyperlocal outlet like the Leader does the leg work, regional papers verify and amplify the story, and before long an emerging political scandal is being broadcast coast-to-coast. But that system, which has atrophied for decades amid the destruction of news economies, appears to have failed completely this time. Despite a well-heeled and well-connected readership — the Leader’s publisher says it counts among its subscribers Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Jesse Watters and several senior people at Newsday, a once-mighty Long Island-based tabloid that has won 19 Pulitzers — no one followed its story before Election Day."

“We expected it to pop a lot more than it did,” owner Grant Lally (who had run for the seat in 1994, 1996 and 2014) told Ellison, adding that Zimmerman didn't make enough of the endorsement and failed to push the Leader's revelations into Newsday or the Times. Zimmerman told Ellison that there were “many red flags that were brought to the attention of many folks in the media” but that “frankly a lot of folks in the media are saying they didn’t have the personnel, time or money to delve further” into the story. “This experience has shown me just how important it is for everyone to support local media.”

The Leader bills itself as "The leading news source for Long Island's Gold Coast," but Ellison reports most of its staff "works part time and holds down other jobs to pay the bills." Lally told her, “Nobody can survive on local papers alone.”

Our year-end appeal: not just for us, but for all those news outlets that need more money to pay for journalism

Another version of our bumper strip adds: "to independent journalism"
It seems safe to presume that most readers of The Rural Blog, which is free, subscribe to more than one other publication that is not free. You know that it takes money to pay for journalism, and you probably  know that only a relatively small minority of Americans say they're willing to pay for it. So, it's up to those of us who value journalism to support it by subscribing and otherwise underwriting it with memberships, donations and other devices that news outlets increasingly use to replace the advertising revenue that has moved to social-media platforms.

The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Commuity Issues, which was founded 20 years ago to help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities through strong reporting and commentary, especially on issues that have local impact but few good local sources. In the last 10 years, we have increasingly worked to help rural news outlets survive and serve, and our new focus is on the sustainability of rural journalism, which is under threat. Newspaper closures, which have been almost entirely in suburban communities and rural towns that are not county seats, are spreading to county seats, and more than 200 counties in the U.S. have no local newspaper. Many other county-seat papers are struggling, and every month brings news of more closures or mergers.

One of the more encouraging developments in journalism recently has been the influx of philanthropic money to support local and statehouse reporting, but it remains to be seen if philanthropy can be effective in rural areas, where news outlets and their audiences are small. In such places, it is especially important for a news outlet to have the support of the community, and it must earn that support. We like to say that people aren't going to pay good money for bad journalism, so we also remain focused on helping rural news outlets do journalism that helps communities realize their value.

In June we held the second National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, which asked this question: "How do rural communities sustain journalism that supports local democracy?" We began to get answers, and will keep looking for them, with the help of our colleagues at the University of Kentucky. We hope you will help, too, by making a tax-deductible donation. You can do it here. Thanks, and happy new year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Appalachian greenhouse-farming firm re-engineers its finances but needs more cash flow, and maybe political help

UPDATE, Feb. 16: The company netted $37.1 million by selling 40 million shares at $1 per share, Rick Childress of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. It issued a prospectus saying, “We believe that net proceeds from this offering, together with our current cash and cash equivalents and other potential sources of financing, will be sufficient to enable us to fund our operating expenses and capital expenditure requirements through the end of calendar year 2023.”
The AppHarvest 15-acre farm just north of Berea, Ky., grows salad greens. (Photo from AppHarvest Facebook page)
AppHarvest, a publicly traded startup that is trying to bring commercial farming back to the Appalachian foothills on a huge scale, sold one of its hydroponic greenhouse farms this week and leased it back to its marketing and distribution partner, "freeing up more funds for the financially struggling fruit and vegetable grower," reports John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The company also announced the opening of its fourth farm, all in Kentucky, and said it is "focused on operations to ramp up production and revenue." That is an existential challenge, according to its earnings report for the third quarter of 2022, which said, “Absent additional sources of financing, we expect that our existing cash and cash equivalents will only allow us to continue our planned operations into the first quarter of 2023.”

The sale-and-leaseback deal of the 15-acre farm near Berea, the company's smallest, provides cash, but it has production problems. "AppHarvest’s chief financial officer, said that the low numbers were due to crop health issues," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. The company will change the tomatoes it raises to varieties that bring higher prices, a spokesman told Carey.

But James Branscome, a Yonder supporter who started as an Appalachian journalist and ended up evaluating companies for S&P Global, has issues with the firm's business model: “The best high tech in agriculture will not overcome a bad business model based on selling a commodity product – tomatoes – in a highly competitive market,” he told Carey. “AppHarvest does use the highest tech in greenhouse production from the Netherlands, and its commitment to Appalachian Kentucky has rightfully given it a very high profile. The strategy of moving beyond the tomato market to vegetables and berries is a good business strategy; however, the company is in a race against the oldest challenge in business: Can it execute that strategy when the business cash flow is so dismally poor?”

Branscome seems to think not: “At this point their future depends more on financial engineering than agricultural engineering,” he said. “There is value in what they have constructed, but the cash flow from operations is so small that there is no way sales can bail them out over the next few years.”

There could also be some political engineering. Company founder and CEO Jonathan Webb said at the groundbreaking for the firm's 30-acre berry farm in Somerset in July, "Where AppHarvest goes from here is going to be dependent largely on the communities around us." Gesturing to Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, he said, "Where we take it from here, I turn to our political leaders, I turn to our community leaders, I turn to our university leaders; we want to partner with you."

Arctic blast shows weak spots in electric, gas, water utilities

"The deep freeze that blanketed most of the U.S. in the past few days killed dozens and temporarily plunged millions into darkness. Yet the country narrowly escaped an even worse calamity as natural gas and power supplies buckled across several states, laying bare just how vulnerable the electric grid has become to a full-on catastrophe," reports Gerson Freitas Jr. of Bloomberg News.

"The storm evoked memories of deadly 2021 winter blast that caused widespread blackouts in Texas. But while that system hit a region unaccustomed to extreme cold, this one spread across the Midwest and Northeast — two areas that should be well-prepared. The fact that they weren’t highlights the flaws of a system that’s facing limited natural gas supplies and the unpredictability of solar and wind power."

Several utilities, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation's largest piublic utility, imposed rolling blackouts. Spire, a natural-gas firm in Alabama, Missouri and Mississippi, asked customers to lower their thermostats to between 65 and 68 degrees. Gas shortages also plagued parts of Texas and Wisconsin, and water systems reported problems with breaks and high usage.

Holiday roundup: Blizzard creates a temporary community of travelers; an enchanted garden also cultivates people

The Alabama Hotel in Basom, N.Y., hosted more than 100 people in the storm. (Photo by Joe Bradt)

When the big blizzard closed the New York State Thruway (I-90) west of Batavia, some travelers headed north on NY 77 and found refuge in the hamlet of Alabama, specifically the Alabama Hotel. "The restaurant was founded in 1840 as a hotel/bar, but it hadn't welcomed overnight visits for decades," Tracey Drury reports for Buffalo Business First. Owner Joe Bradt told CNN some thought from online searches that the inn had rooms to rent, but they had to stay in its 70-seat dining room. Bradt said the guests "came together; they were cooking, they were washing disches, they were busing tables; it was a sight like no other."

The youngest daughter of Donna Reed, who plays Jimmy Stewart's wife in "It's a Wonderful Life," has made it her mission to ensure that small-town theaters can show the classic 1946 film, which was more difficult this year, Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post reports.

The Post's Sydney Page has another nice holiday feature, about a 100-year-old woman in an assisted-living facility in Lexington, Va., who makes custom jackets by hand and gives them away!

Woodlake, California (Google map)
At the foot of the Sierra Nevada east of Visalia, Calif., "where square acre after square acre of industrial farmland is planted in precise rows, an unusual garden grows and climbs and spirals, writes Diana Marcum of the Los Angeles Times. "Papaya, bananas, jujube, three types of guava — fruits that speak of faraway homelands — flourish at the 13-acre Woodlake Botanical Garden . . . No chemicals are used here. Visitors are welcome to pick any fruit they see and to sit in spots so deeply shaded they stay cool in the summer heat and dry in the rains that don’t come often enough." And there's a flock of pelicans in Bravo Lake, in one of many nice photos by Tomas Ovalle. But Manuel and Olga Jimenez also cultivate people. Nice story.

Opinion: Rural America is listening for leadership to support its economic and social renewal, but hears mostly silence

America needs a coherent rural policy, writes Tony Pipa, a senior fellow at the Center for Sustainable Development at the Brookings Institution, leader of the Reimagining Rural Policy Initiative and host of its Reimagining Rural podcast.

"Despite widespread acknowledgment since 2008 that rural places have generally been left behind, our nation still lacks a coherent federal rural policy," Pipa writes for The New York Times. "The Rural Electrification Act, Title V of the Housing Act and other national-scale development programs helped bring rural America into the modern era, and its contributions helped make the American economy the envy of the world. But today’s federal programs were built for a different era. We need a renaissance of rural policy to enable a renaissance of rural America.

"What we have are lots of programs — over 400 available for community and economic development spread across every nook and cranny of the federal government. But navigating that maze and the peculiarities of their applications, reporting and matching requirements is a high bar for anybody, let alone the part-time volunteer elected officials and the bare-bones staffs that make up many local rural governments. That leaves most rural communities starved for investment. Very few can get the type and level of resources necessary to reinvent their economy or unleash the full potential of their human, intellectual and natural capital as they face rapid change."

Agricultural policy is often mistaken for rural policy, Pipa writes: "Farming now accounts for just 7 percent of rural employment. Service jobs, retailing, manufacturing and government employment all outweigh agriculture." And contrary to prevailing belief, rural America is ethnically and racially diverse: "People of color make up 24 percent of the rural population. Close to half of rural Native Americans and more than half of rural Black Americans live in a distressed county. That’s compared with 18 percent of rural white residents." The image of rural America as an overwhelmingly white place may have cooled some Democrats' interest in it, but elements of the Biden administration remain interested.

"While the Biden administration has started the Rural Partners Network to embed federal staff members in rural communities to help them identify and secure federal resources, the program is limited to select communities in just 10 states and Puerto Rico," Pipa notes. "The country needs a national rural prosperity strategy that offers a coherent vision for rural America in the 21st century. Someone at the highest levels of the White House should be responsible for its execution and cutting through the bureaucratic entanglements. Canada and Ireland, among other countries, have completed such policies and created cabinet-level positions to carry them out. Governors in Wisconsin and Michigan have created rural prosperity offices."

What about Congress? "Rural policy is one issue where Republicans and Democrats should be able to find common ground to work together," on such things as the new Farm Bill, Pipa writes. "Yet early indications signal high-profile fights over food stamps, agricultural subsidies and conservation investments — and limited attention to rural development. . . . Rural America is listening for how public leadership and resources can better support the economic and social renewal of rural communities, but it hears mostly silence."

Michigan study that gave families tools to discuss firearm safety finds most did, and 40% changed their gun storage

Photo by Amr Taha, Unsplash
Rural America has the highest per-capita death toll from firearms, mainly due to suicides, and as the new year launches, it's a fitting time to discuss how to decrease the number of firearm accidents and suicides in 2023. A recently published study "shows early promise for an approach that seeks to reduce the risk of firearm injury and death in rural areas, while respecting rural culture and firearm ownership," reports the University of Michigan, citing a multi-discipline pilot study called the "Store Safely" project. "Rural America has the highest per capita death toll from firearms, higher than suburban and urban areas, and the main reason for this difference is firearm suicides."

In what researchers call an intervention, the project gave 45 families in Marquette County with "messages about safe firearm storage and teen firearm suicide," tailored to the rural audience, and "specific tips for improving safety," to implement in conjunction with its website, the university said in a press release.

Three weeks after the intervention, 86% of the parents said they had completed a firearm home-safety checklist suggested by the program, and 88% said they talked about firearm safety with another adult in the household. Nearly two-thirds discussed firearm safety with children in their home, and 40% reported that changed how they store firearms in the home.

Marquette County (Wikipedia)
Ewell Foster, a clinical psychologist in the UM Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention, said “We are excited by these findings, and by the variety of actions that these families took, including changing to unloaded and locked storage, and moving hunting rifles to another location less accessible to children . . . . Putting time and distance between individuals who are at risk for suicide and highly lethal means like firearms is a critical part of a comprehensive suicide-prevention strategy."

The press release said, "The program’s materials emphasize the range of options that rural families have for reducing risk within the context of their lifestyle, which includes firearm ownership for both hunting and protection." The researchers "plan to increase the availability of the Store Safely intervention while continuing to evaluate its impact in other rural communities both within and beyond Michigan’s Upper Peninsula." For a related story and video, click here.

Friday, December 23, 2022

Quick hits: Chestnuts, horses, igloos, poinsettias, karaoke, cancer vaccines, vertical farms, fantastic beasts, kids' books

How to build an igloo in 10 steps.
(Art by Gil Martinez, New England Today)
This is our last Rural Blog quick hits of the year: from cheer to overcome the holiday slog to discussions by karaoke enthusiasts. Here's to remembering the good and heading into 2023 with hopeful hearts.

When it snows, build an igloo. Rural New Englanders know how.

The American chestnut tree is not quite extinct, and the struggle to bring it back to its former glory is ongoing. To celebrate the chestnuts part in rural history, roast some that Nat King Cole or Mel Torme would be proud of. This Masterclass can help.

Everybody's favorite animal ought to be a horse! Here's how to convert the world.

A cure to cancer? How about a vaccine to prevent cancer? For some cancers, yes. Here's how they work.

In many produce sections, there's often not much to pick from. One company aims to remedy that by building indoor vertical farms, each capable of producing seven tons of greens daily. 

J.K. Rowling isn't the only one with "fantastic beasts." The New Yorker has some lovable, imperiled fantastical beasts drawn by a great illustrator. 

Indigenous to Mexico and Central America, poinsettias herald the festive spirit of Christmas. Read the history of how this shaggy-leaved plant became cherished holiday decor.

Glenn Highway tree (Photo by Bill Roth, Anchorage Daily News, via Washington Post)
In south-central Alaska, which has about five and a half hours of daylight right now, commuters to and from Anchorage may never see daylight -- but they see the Glenn Highway Christmas tree.

The holidays can be lonely, cold or filled with family that stress you out. Holiday movies and songs can help, or at least distract, The Daily Yonder has it covered.

Planning a karaoke night? Here's the ultimate guide to finding your go-to karaoke songs with the help of reader suggestions, a panel of karaoke enthusiasts and Pandora music analysts.

The Three Billy Goats Gruff are back!  For gift ideas or delightful 2023 reading, The New York Times Best Children's Books of 2022 is here.

In rural Ga., a seemingly unlikely rebel against Trump is part of 'a precariously narrow but consequential' slice of voters

Cody Johnson leaves Beulahland Baptist Church in Beulah, Ga.,
where he voted in the state’s runoff election for U.S. Senate.
(Photo by Michael S. Williamson, The Washington Post)
Republicans’ midterm shortfall left many political observers asking, "How did that happen?" As the dust settled, the answers included this: an undercurrent of American resistance was making its way through the country. It may have been exemplified by a man named Cody Johnson in northwest Georgia, writes Stephanie McCrummen of The Washington Post.

On Election Day, "Nearly everything about Cody Johnson suggested he would vote a certain way," McCrummen writes. "He was white. He was 33. He was an electrician with no college degree. He had a beard and a used pickup with 151,000 miles, and he was angry at what the country was becoming. Most of all, he was from northwest Georgia, a swath of rural America where people who looked like him had voted in large majorities to send Donald Trump to the White House."

But Johnson voted against U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whom he called ”an embarrassment,” and against Trump-backed Senate candidate Herschel Walker because he didn’t want “some stupid s--- to happen,” he told McCrummen, who sums up, “He voted against every single Republican on the ballot for the same reason he supported Joe Biden in 2020, which had been the first time he voted in his life."

“I don’t want extremists in office,” he said. “And I have some small glimmer of hope that maybe things aren’t as screwed up as I think they are.”

Johnson's resistance was not singular. McCrummen writes: "All across the country, a similar uprising was underway as an unexpected tide of people showed up for midterm elections, turning what was supposed to be a rout for the Republican Party into a repudiation of Trumpism. In Arizona, voters rejected candidates who embraced white nationalist ideas and conspiracy theories about election fraud. In Pennsylvania, they rejected a candidate who said America is a Christian nation. Similar results had rolled in from New Mexico, Nevada, Virginia and other states including Georgia, where Walker would lose in a runoff earlier this month. Even in the deep-red 14th Congressional District, Greene saw her winning margin from 2020 slip by 10 percentage points."

Neither pollsters nor politicians can see the stories that make up a life. In the case of Johnson, McCrummen writes, "it is the story of a thousand life experiences that add up to a certain kind of American character, one that can arise from the very landscape where the Trump movement took root." To explain how he got where he is politically, he and McCrummen took a trip “across the 14th District, an area that stretches from the Appalachian foothills to the outermost edges of Atlanta’s sprawl.” It’s an engrossing read.

UPDATE, Dec. 24: McCrummen's thesis is supported in a story by The New York Times, which reports, "A precariously narrow but consequential slice of the electorate broke with its own voting history to reject openly extremist Republican candidates — at least partly out of concern for the health of the political system," write Charles Homans, Jazmine Ulloa and Blake Hounshell. Their examples include a young Republican committee member in Lancaster Township, Pa., who was ousted as committee chair when he criticized the local party's alignment with a group that had spread misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines; and a former federal worker in Kingston, Nev., pop. 194,who said she believed the 2020 election was marred by fraud, but voted Democratic because of the Supreme Court's overturning of federal abortion rights.

UPDATE, Dec. 27: "Republicans faced similar unexpected setbacks with the small but crucial slice of voters who don’t identify with either major party, according to AP VoteCast, a sweeping national survey of the electorate," The Associated Press reports, with and graph (below) and examples. "Some Republican strategists say the finding is a sign that messages that resonate during party primaries, including searing critiques of Biden, were less effective in the general election campaign because independent voters were searching for more than just the opposition."

Opinion: Industrial policy goes rural as policies of Congress and administration look to help 'left-behind places'

U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. (Photo from Ro for Congress)
Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley, has taken an active interest in rural areas. Khanna's rural focus has grown substantial muscle with the passage of four large spending bills, the American Rescue Plan, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Chips and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, columnist Paul Waldman of The Washington Post writes

"Khanna has been touring the country to promote economic development in distressed areas, especially places Democrats don’t usually go. He noted that more and more members of his party now recognize that the decline in manufacturing was not only an economic problem but also 'it had a deep social cost, hurting the social cohesion of this nation."

Yes, Democrats will gain some political swagger if their projects are seen by voters, but Waldman writes, "When I asked [Khanna] whether Democratic losses in small towns and rural areas played a part in the design of these bills, in that they direct money to such left-behind places, Khanna brought up the White House chief of staff and two members of the Council of Economic Advisers." Khanna told Waldman “I know for a fact it was on the top of the minds of people like Ron Klain, people like Heather Boushey, people like Jared Bernstein — I personally have had that conversation with all three of them. And I’ve discussed it with the president himself.”

The Chips Act is now considered the highest-profile industrial project, "Though that law was signed only four months ago, the Semiconductor Industry Association claims it has already spurred $200 billion in private investment in 16 states," Waldman reports. "Some of those projects are happening in places where manufacturing has declined, such as a new Micron Technologies plant outside Syracuse, N.Y., and an Intel factory near Columbus, Ohio. But the bills also have specific place-based strategies meant to lift up entire areas that have fallen behind."

Waldman adds, "The rationale is that we suffer from inequality not only among individuals but also on the level of entire regions." Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution told Waldman the new industrial policies create “a geographical intervention: there’s a reason we’re seeing growing distrust of technology companies and economic elites. That economy seems to be taking place far from where people are. I don’t think you can run a successful economy where 10 metros on the coast dominate."

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Omnibus passes with earmarks and pandemic relief for infrastructure, and making spending website permanent

The $1.7 trillion omnibus budget-and-policy bill passed the Senate Thursday, with 18 of the 50 Republicans supporting it. The House is expected to pass it Friday to keep the government open.

Leahy and Shelby (Photo by Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call)
The bill's prime architects were Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, chair and ranking member, respectively, on the Senate Appropriations Committee, who are retiring after nearly 100 years of combined service in the Senate. Shelby, who became a Republican in 1994, said of the bill: “We know it’s not perfect, but it’s got a lot of good stuff in it.” The Senate rejected an attempt by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, to remove specific projects, or earmarks, from the bill, but it approved one allowing pandemic relief funds to be used for infrastructure projects.

Leahy and Shelby "steered millions of dollars to their home states through earmarks, now known as community project funding," Emily Cochrane of The New York Times  reports. "Mr. Shelby secured more than $762 million for Alabama, while Mr. Leahy sent home over $212 million."

"The spending package drew objections from some Republicans in the Senate and House who said it was bloated and full of unnecessary spending. Critics said that leadership should have released the bill sooner rather than forcing lawmakers to vote after just days to review it," The Wall Street Journal reports. "House GOP leaders had also argued that Republicans should refuse to begin talks on the bill until the next Congress, when the GOP will control the House. But those calls were ignored by Senate negotiators in both parties, in part because they worried that a GOP-led House wouldn’t be able to pass spending bills next year."

The 18 Republicans who voted yes on the 68-29 roll call were Roy Blunt, Missouri; John Boozman, Arkansas; Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia; Susan Collins, Maine; John Cornyn, Texas; Tom Cotton, Arkansas; Lindsey Graham, South Carolina; Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma; Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky; Jerry Moran, Kansas; Lisa Murkowski, Alaska; Rob Portman, Ohio; Mitt Romney, Utah; Mike Rounds, South Dakota; Richard Shelby, Alabama; John Thune, South Dakota; Roger Wicker, Mississippi; and Todd Young, Indiana.

Three Republicans did not vote: John Barrasso, Wyoming; Richard Burr, North Carolina; and Kevin Cramer, North Dakota. Four Republicans who had previously voted to advance the bill switched their votes to oppose it: Chuck Grassley, Iowa; Cindy Hyde-Smith, Mississippi; Marco Rubio, Florida; and Tommy Tuberville, Alabama.

UPDATE, Dec. 23: The House passed the bill 225-201. Retiring Budget Committee Chair John Yarmuth, D-Ky., noted that the bill makes permanent "a requirement that the Office of Management and Budget maintain a public apportionment website." Last year's omnibus required the apportionment website to be operational for the last fiscal year, but this one makes it permanent. Yarmuth said that would improve " congressional and public oversight of executive spending."

Six placed on TVA board, which was almost short of quorum

Sen. Mitch McConnell and new TVA Director Wade White
The presidentially appointed board of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the nation's largest public utility, has been without a quorum of permanent members since May because of a political standoff between the White House and Republicans in the Senate. Since then, President Biden nominated two more directors, including a Kentuckian who pleased Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and the Senate confirmed six directors Wednesday.

The confirmation was by unanimous consent, which requires every senator to go along. Otherwise, the nominations were subject to a filibuster that requires 60 votes, and thus some Republicans, to block. The "nine-member board had been whittled down to five people, each appointed by former President Donald Trump, with two members who had been serving after their terms expired in May," reports Jonathan Mattise of The Associated Press. "The seats come with five-year terms. But when a board member’s term expires, that person can keep serving until end of the current congressional session, typically in December, or until their successors take office, whatever comes first."

Beth Prichard Geer
The new board members are Wade White, judge-executive of Lyon County, Kentucky; Al Gore Chief of Staff Beth Geer of suburban Nashville, who had offended Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst with a tweet in 2015; Huntsville, Ala., attorney Joe Ritch, who was board chair in the Obama administration; Bill Renick, former mayor and state legislator from Ashland, Miss.; Robert Klein, "a retired line foreman for the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga who also filled roles with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers;" and Michelle Moore, "who grew up in LaGrange, Georgia, and lives in Richmond, Virginia, and heads a clean-energy nonprofit after leading Obama’s sustainability team," Mattise reports. "Three of the new board members' nominations date back to April 2021. Two [including White] were nominated in June, and one was nominated in July."

The board now has a member from each of the right major states served by TVA, another Senate desire. McConnell lauded the Senate for "finally adding a Kentuckian" to the board of directors. Early in the administration, the board was chaired by George W. Bush appointee and former national Republican chairman Mike Duncan of Kentucky, who left the board in 2011.

"Three Trump-appointed board members will remain in the new year: Chairman William Kilbride, whose term expires in May 2023, and Beth Harwell and Brian Noland, whose terms expire in May 2024," Mattise reports. "Environmental advocates have urged the new Democrat-appointed board members, once installed, to move more quickly in transitioning to 100% carbon-free electricity, citing the Biden administration’s goal of a carbon-pollution-free energy sector by 2035."

Christmas on Sunday is a challenge for many Protestants; some churches cancel, change or cut back activities

Most Protestant churches will meet in some fashion on Christmas, but an increasing
number appear to be opting out. (Photo by Joanna Kulesza, The New York Times)
Part of the joy of Christmas Day is getting up, celebrating and hanging out in pajamas. It's time to relax, unless Christmas falls on a Sunday; then there's a dilemma: "Christmas is considered by most Christians to be the second-most significant religious holiday of the year, behind Easter. But most Protestants do not attend church services on Christmas Day when it falls on a weekday," notes Ruth Graham of The New York Times. "If everyone from the pews to the pulpit would rather stay home, what is a practical house of worship to do? This year, some Protestant churches are deciding to skip Sunday services completely."

Timothy Beal, a professor of religious studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, told Graham, "Christmas morning and Sunday morning are sort of in tension with each other. Most people who are churchgoers think of Christmas morning not as a religious time but as a family time: stockings and brunches and staying in your pajamas until midday or later." Beal's wife, a Presbyterian pastor, plans a "more relaxed" Sunday service in a smaller sanctuary, perhaps because she expects fewer congregants to attend, and that seems to be the approach of many Protestant congregations; others are dropping Sunday school and other activities.

"The Catholic Church considers attendance at Sunday Mass nonnegotiable, and the same goes for Christmas Day, no matter the inconvenience of the calendar," Graham notes. "Among nondenominational evangelical pastors, who tend to be informal and pragmatic in their approach to church matters, the numbers hosting Christmas Day services are significantly lower: Only 61 percent say they will do so, according to Lifeway research survey."

Some pastors disagree with canceling Christmas Day services. Kevin DeYoung, the pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, N.C., told Graham, "If anything, with an extra-special day we ought to be more eager to worship, not less eager. It’s one more time to sing those Christmas songs before they go away for a while.”

Couple fights for nature-friendly lawn and wins, prompting first such state law to rein in homeowners' associations

The yard (Photo by Jason Andrew, The New York Times)
A wise man once said, "The only thing more challenging than your lawn is your neighbor's lawn." Disputes over property maintenance are one reason some people prefer to live in rural areas; the disputes can range from quibbles to outright battle zones, but it's a rare lawn dispute that leads to a groundbreaking state law.

Janet and Jeff Crouch of Columbia, Md., had "lived on their quiet cul-de-sac harmoniously with their neighbors for years, and chose native plants to help insects, birds and wildlife thrive," reports Cara Buckley of The New York Times. Then they got a letter from their homeowners' association saying, "Your yard is not the place for such a habitat." The letter gave the Crouches "10 days to convert their front yard into a lawn that looked like everyone else’s."

The Crouches were not willing to tear up their nature haven without a fight that cost them $60,000. "They hired a lawyer and contacted every wildlife and environmental group they could think of, along with local legislators," Buckley reports. They filed a lawsuit, and two months later, "a Maryland state representative asked if they would allow their case to form the basis of a new environmental law. . . . A bill was drafted that forbade homeowner associations from banning pollinator plants or rain gardens, or from requiring property owners to plant turf grass. The measure gained bipartisan support, passed with near unanimity, and became law in October 2021."

Mary Catherine Cochran, former legislative director for Delegate Terri L. Hill, told Buckley that "Maryland law was the first in the country to limit homeowner-association control over eco-friendly yards."

"Lawns make up one-third of the country’s 135 million acres of residential landscaping," ecologist Douglas W. Tallamy told Buckley. Tallamy, whose book, Nature’s Best Hope, urges homeowners to change their yards into conservation corridors told Buckley, “This idea that humans and nature cannot coexist is destroying the entire planet, which in turn is destroying humans. The only way forward is to coexist. . . . Now people know if they fight back, they can win.”

News-media roundup: 2022 opinion and research gems, predictions and advice for journalism; Alaska weeklies die

Nieman Reports has picked its five best opinion pieces of 2022: Gilbert Gaul on the need to cover land-use decisions that worsen disasters, and how arduous rebuilding after a disaster really is; Isaac Bailey's argument that objectivity is less important than transparency, accuracy and fairness; Gary Langer on the need for better vetting of poll data; Anne Garrels on the courage of Ukrainian journalists; and the argument by Mardi Link of the Traverse City Record-Eagle that media coverage of adoption (especially in the context of abortion) lacks voices of adoptees: “Adoption is a parenting decision and abortion is a reproductive decision,” wrote Link, an adoptee herself. “For reporters to equate one as a solution for the other provides nothing of value to readers and perpetuates a false equivalency.” NR also gives its 10 most-read stories of 2022.

NiemanLab collected several predictions and advice for journalism in 2023, including: Sarabeth Berman of the American Journalism Project says nonprofit news can work in smaller markets with a network model; Sue Cross of the Institute for Nonprofit News predicts more collective action among varied interests to "save the news;" Lisa Heyamoto of LION Publishers says the "independent news industry" has a roadmap to sustainability; Pia Frey and Torsten Schlegel of Opinionary say publishers should ask more questions of users as cookies die out; Kerri Hoffman of PRX says podcasting is going local; Ayala Panievsky of the University of Cambridge says "It's time for PR for journalism;" and Julia Beizer of Bloomberg says news and subscription fatigue should make publishers "focus on the value we provide our users. We must learn everything we can about who they are and what they need. And then we provide it through journalism that helps them navigate their world."

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, which does research in the U.K, the U.S. and other countries, says 22 of the findings from its research in 2022 are still relevant for 2023. They include: Many people see misinformation and harassment as big problems for digital platforms; they make snap judgments about trustworthiness of sources; people who know more about the news media use social media differently; young people increasingly use TikTok for news; and newsroom leaders are still betting on more revenue from readers.

Citing losses, Wick Communications has stopped printing the Anchorage Press and two other area weeklies, The Arctic Warrior and the Chugach Times. The website will continue, as will the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, a big weekly in an area north of Anchorage.

On-farm slaughter growing in rural Vermont, but depends on services of itinerants; USDA rejects requests to relax rules

Itinerant slaughterers load a quartered beef carcass after an on-farm slaughter.
The meat will be taken to a slaughterhouse to be processed and packaged.
(Photo by Alex Driehaus, Report for America/Valley News)

Since the intense meat shortages and processing-plant closings of the early pandemic, itinerant slaughterers in rural Vermont have become an increasingly popular way for farmers to kill animals for personal consumption, reports Frances Mize of the Valley News of West Lebanon, N.H., and White River Junction, Vt. Now, as a means to ease backlogs in those abattoirs, Vermont livestock producers are looking for ways on-farm slaughter meat could be sold more broadly.

Last year, Vermont's farm and ranch community asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture "to allow meat from on-farm slaughters to be sold in small 'animal shares,' which would operate like community-supported agriculture," which lives on annual subscriptions from consumers. USDA declined, "but before the refusal, and with renewed force since, Rural Vermont, a Montpelier-based nonprofit focused on bolstering community-scale agriculture, has continued advocating that the rules be relaxed so consumers and farmers alike have more choices," Mize reports.

Mize gives readers an up-close description of on-farm slaughter. She attended a kill at the home of farmer who had hired an itinerant slaughterer, and wrote: "Tom Havill’s herd of cattle watched from a hillside as one of their own — secured in a holding pen — lost its life to a single shot fired by Chet Miller," Mize reports. Havill told Mize that he still can’t watch his animals being killed.

Miller told Mize he also has mixed feelings about his work: "It’s not a glorious occupation. I have a lot of people who appreciate me, and my calendar is full of people that need my help. But sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and what I’m doing lays heavy on me.” Mize writes, "Some are advocating that the service Miller offers farmers through his work — doing the difficult job, which many of his customers couldn’t do themselves, of killing the animal that they’ve raised — should be reconsidered as a tool toward a more versatile, modernized food economy."

Caroline Gordon, Rural Vermont’s legislative director, told Maze, “People are feeling that the need for more resilient food systems has become apparent. The trust and transparency of our current economic system was called into question during the pandemic. . . .On-farm slaughtered meat allowed to be sold as a product, even within a small market, could alleviate some of the stresses on the slaughterhouses, some of which are booked up for many months."

Entries sought for Hillman Prizes for 'investigative journalism and commentary in service of the common good'

The Sidney Hillman Foundation is accepting entries until Jan. 30 for the 2023 Hillman Prizes honoring excellence in investigative journalism and commentary in service of the common good.

The prizes celebrate investigative reporting and deep storytelling that exposes social and economic injustice and leads to meaningful public policy change. They are awarded in these categories:
Book (nonfiction)
Newspaper Reporting (print/online)
Magazine Reporting (print/online)
Broadcast Journalism (story/series/documentary, with at least 20 minutes in total package length)
Web Journalism (story, series or multimedia project, which appeared online and may include text, photo, video, graphics); and
Opinion and Analysis Journalism (commentary and analysis in any medium)

Entries must have been published or broadcast in 2022 and have been made widely available to a U.S audience. Your material and a cover letter explaining how the entry meets the requirements can be submitted here. There is no fee to enter.

Winners will receive a $5,000 honorarium and a certificate at an event to be held in New York City, on May 9. The judges are Jamelle Bouie, columnist, The New York Times; Maria Carrillo, former enterprise editor, Tampa Bay Times and Houston Chronicle; Ta-Nehisi Coates, bestselling author and former national correspondent, The Atlantic; Alix Freedman, global editor for ethics and standards, Reuters; Harold Meyerson, editor at large, The American Prospect; and Katrina vanden Heuvel, editorial director and publisher, The Nation.

“The Hillman Prizes go to watchdog journalists who bring us the stories of the marginalized and voiceless and hold power to account,” said Alexandra Lescaze, executive director of the Sidney Hillman Foundation. “Investigative journalism is a cornerstone of a well-functioning democracy and has the potential to initiate the public policy changes that move societies forward. The Hillman Prize is an acknowledgment and a token of gratitude for their essential work.”

Since 1950, the Sidney Hillman Foundation has honored journalists, writers and public figures who pursue investigative journalism and public policy for the common good. Sidney Hillman was the founding president of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union, a predecessor of the Service Employees International Union. An architect of the New Deal, Hillman fought to build a vibrant union movement extending beyond the shop floor to all aspects of working people’s lives.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

K.C. Star investigation lays out the dangers of railroads and their unwillingness to fix things without taxpayer money

Wreckage of Billy Barton's dump truck (Kansas City Star photo)
On June 27, 2022, an Amtrak train approached a crossing near Mendon, Missouri, pop. 271. The crossing was "like other crossings across the country; it had no gates or lights; brush along the tracks reduced visibility; and a steep approach could bottom-out a truck or trailer," reports The Kansas City Star. "On the tracks that day was a 2007 Kenworth dump truck driven by 54-year-old Billy Barton II of Brookfield, Missouri. . . . The high-speed collision killed Barton and three passengers on board the Amtrak and about 150 people were injured."

After the collision, the Star began investigating railroad safety, a major concern in rural areas. It found that many people had told railroad companies about dangers, and that the rail lines had refused to act unless improvements were funded by taxpayers. It also revealed:

Dangerous crossings: What happened near Mendon is not unique. Hundreds of unprotected crossings across the country have raised the fears of residents and been put on lists for safety improvements that, tragically, sometimes come too late. The Star spoke with families of victims. 

Blocked crossings cost lives: Trains don’t have to be in motion to cause deaths. States can’t limit how long a train can block motor vehicle and pedestrian traffic at public crossings, the courts have said. The results have been deadly for people like Gene Byrd, who died after a train blocked EMTs’ access to his Oklahoma house. The problem is only getting worse.

Workers endangered on the job: Railroad workers, in the news lately because of a possible strike, worry that changes in the industry are making their jobs even more dangerous. Companies have slashed their workforces and in their pursuit of profits have cut back on safety training and, employees say, equipment maintenance. Trains have gotten longer and crews smaller. Employees share their stories.

Worry about rail companies' merger: In towns up and down rail lines where a merged Kansas City Southern-Canadian Pacific Railroad would operate, residents fear the increased traffic and longer trains the deal would bring. The merger, which could come early next year, forever change the way of life in small towns like Camanche, Iowa, along the Mississippi River, the Star reports.

Who probes suspicious deaths? It may not be who you think

(Photo by Mathew Schwartz, Unsplash)

A chronically underfunded system riddled with egregious conflicts of interest. That's one way to describe the state-by-state system that governs U.S. coroners, reports Samantha Young of Kaiser Health News. The meshwork is so sticky, one physician shared this observation with Young: "If you ever want to know when, how — and where — to kill someone, I can tell you, and you’ll get away with it. No problem."

Nancy Belcher, chief executive officer of the King County Medical Society in Seattle, told Young that in Washington, "A coroner doesn’t have to ever have taken a science class in their life. These are the people that go in, look at a homicide scene or death, and say whether there needs to be an autopsy. They’re the ultimate decision-maker."

How suspicious death is investigated varies from state to state, and even within states. "The job can be held by an elected coroner as young as 18 or a highly trained physician appointed as medical examiner," Young reports. "Some death investigators work for elected sheriffs who try to avoid controversy or owe political favors. Others own funeral homes and direct bodies to their private businesses. . . . It’s a disjointed and chronically underfunded system — with more than 2,000 offices across the country that determine the cause of death in about 600,000 cases a year."

The cost to hire medical examiners or properly train coroners is disproportionately difficult for rural areas, Young reports: "Many Illinois counties also said they would shoulder a financial burden under legislation introduced last year by state Rep. Maurice West, a Democrat. His more sweeping bill would have replaced coroners with medical examiners. Rural counties, in particular, complained about their tight budgets and killed his bill before it got a committee hearing. West told Young, “When something like this affects rural areas, if they push back a little bit, we just stop."

Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, a former medical examiner for Milwaukee, told Young, “When you try to remove them, you run into a political wall. You can't kill them, so you have to help train them." Young notes that a 2011 study by the National Association for Medical Examiners "found that 82% of the forensic pathologists who responded had faced pressure from politicians or the deceased person’s relatives to change the reported cause or manner of death in a case."

Lawmakers have made some progress by allowing counties to "pool their resources and hire shared contract coroners in exchange for ending the dual role for prosecutors by 2025," Young writes. Belcher told Young, “We were just trying to figure out a system that I think anybody would agree needed to be overhauled."

Minnesota town of 1,500 passes sales tax to fund childcare

Lindsey Buegler at the Little Sprouts child-care center
in Warren, Minn. (Photo by Dan Gunderson, MPR)

What was once a childcare challenge is now a crisis, with rural families feeling more of the pinch to secure affordable, healthy childcare. 

Warren, Minnesota, pop. 1,500, was one city that decided to address its shortage of childcare with innovation. In November, Warren voters became the first to approve a local sales tax dedicated to supporting a childcare center. The approval was unexpected since the tax is for a service many Warren citizens won't use, reports Dan Gunderson of Minnesota Public Radio.

Lindsey Buegler was a Warren parent who needed childcare. She told Gunderson: "It was either get involved and beg and plead with people to somehow keep the daycare open or we would have had to move. There were seven of us directly involved with the center that would have had to move. . . . I would say that's huge for this small city of Warren to lose seven families."

City officials "partnered with the First Children’s Finance Rural Child Care Innovation Program" and found "a shortage of 187 childcare slots within a 20-mile radius of Warren," Gunderson reports. "The research also found more than 30 percent of survey respondents had turned down a job, or withdrawn from the workforce because of childcare issues."

Map from
Using those facts, the city proposed a half-cent sales tax, and to the surprise of many, voters approved it, making Warren the only city in Minnesota with a tax for that purpose. "Business leaders pushed hard for the tax. They understood how a shortage of childcare was limiting economic growth," Gunderson reports.

Construction for a new childcare center will begin in the spring 2023 with funding coming from the new sales tax proceeds, community fundraising efforts and a low-interest loan from the Department of Agriculture, Gunderson adds. "The childcare building will be owned by the city and operated by the Little Sprouts nonprofit. City leaders expect that arrangement will help make childcare more affordable."