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In a Desert, Any Oasis Will Do

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Rural “news deserts” are anything but arid. But the steady stream of information that flows into rural America isn’t the kind that waters the roots of democracy.

Back in the analog era, I had two newspaper boxes at the end of my driveway, a blue one for the Lexington paper, and a white one for the Louisville paper. Maybe that was showing off, but that was a time when I believed reading two sports sections made me smarter.

Then 15 years ago, the papers started shuttering their East Kentucky bureaus. Eleven years ago, the Louisville Courier-Journal quit delivering east of I-75. And in the last few years our local Lexington Herald-Leader distribution system came down to two big guys in a tiny gold Prius covering three east Kentucky counties, papers piled high enough in back to block the rear view. If the H-L wasn’t in the box by 10, you might catch the guys eating breakfast at the Dairy Queen and go pick up the paper yourself. But that was on the mornings they came to town. Some mornings what you got was two days’ papers snapped into the same rubber band. And occasionally it was three days in a row bundled together so you could read the Herald-Leader like Paradise-Lost; start in the middle, then go to the day before yesterday, and finish up vanquishing Satan with the day’s breaking news.

Where I live is now designated as a news desert. That makes it sound like the only news here is “man bites cactus.” But there’s nothing arid about our news. A lot of good journalists showed up and launched careers covering our corruption, perfidy and feel-good human interest. Former East Kentucky reporter for the Herald-Leader, Frank Langfitt, is now NPR’s London correspondent. Former East Kentucky reporter for the Courier-Journal, Gardiner Harris, covers international diplomacy for the New York Times. Even the Mountain Eagle, our weekly paper in Whitesburg, can point to its own legacy of covering local news and to reporters who went from covering these coalfields to grand destinies as authors, media executives, and, in Bill Bishop, to co-founding of the Daily Yonder.

The different definitions of “news desert” go from the simple, 1) places with no papers, to the gilded, 2) communities with limited access to credible and comprehensive news and information that feeds democracy at the grassroots. The news desert’s closest living linguistic relative is the “food desert,” meaning a place where you can’t purchase fresh fruit or vegetables. I don’t know who can’t buy a banana, but my heart goes out.

Why this news desertification happened hardly matters. Maybe it was because media conglomerates, like Gannett and McClatchy in my case, wanted to maximize profits and take away the information country people need to feed democracy. Maybe it was because digital technology created a more efficient paperboy. But what matters more is that this change in the news ecosystem has occurred all over rural America in the last twenty years, and as our news delivery changed, so did our politics.

The change helped get Donald Trump elected. It helped conservative evangelicals establish themselves as news providers across rural America. And it helps explain why rural people’s understanding of their own self-interest may seem out of sync with what people who get their news in metro media hubs think it should be.

Or maybe the news didn’t dry up as much as it got diverted. At the end of the Bill Clinton administration, there was a small fight in Congress and in the FCC about how to expand the public media spectrum on the FM dial. The fight was about whether to allow religious broadcasters in. Prior to 2000, the lower end of the FM dial had been reserved for secular education and public purpose broadcast. And that changed. In the gaps between NPR stations and nonprofit community broadcasters, new licenses opened the door for country churches and emerging evangelical networks to join forces. Incrementally the licenses begat stations and the stations begat weaponized news and cultural programming that found local audiences. By 2006 those small evangelical radio outlets had become the second-largest radio format in the nation. Only country music was bigger when you measured by station count and not by metro density or population served. Today there are a combined 3,000 commercial and noncommercial Christian radio stations compared with nearly 2,200 country stations and 2,000 talk stations.

I like local radio. My favorite program is on a station in Powell County, Kentucky – “Tradio on the Radio.” People call in to sell you a garage-kept like-new ’99 Mercury Marquis with 229,000 miles or 14 electric pole glass insulators, all for $3. Once I heard a woman say, “I still have that wiener dog that showed up, blind in one eye, and answers to the name of Willow.” (How many names would you have had to try before you came up with “Willow?”)

But not that long ago I was driving through the same Powell County and I picked up another station with a preacher telling a story about a boy who had been helpful at the church. Preacher asked the boy could he come back on Saturday during the revival and help park cars. Boy told the preacher, sure he would. But then the day came, no boy. Preacher said, when he saw him out next time he asked why he didn’t come park cars as he’d promised. Boy told the preacher he was sorry, but it turned out that revival Saturday was his brother’s day to wear the shoes. “They only had the one pair,” the preacher explained, then said, “Well, we bought that boy another pair of shoes,” before going on to enumerate why your local contributions to the station were so important.

And many of those local Christian stations are important. They reach out to people down on their luck. And in a lot of small towns facing addiction, joblessness and dissolution of community, luck is in short supply. Part of the appeal is that these stations blend local ministries and community outreach with on-the-hour national news with a Biblical perspective. What’s under the radar is that the Christian news feed and other programs are nationalized and weaponized by conservative think tanks and by Evangelical church networks. Right now, that news product is some combination of political and cultural discourse meant to push emotional buttons. Today’s topics include: paying reparations for slavery, well-to-do socialists, a billion-dollar Medicare scam, an approaching immigrant caravan and a failed coup to remove the President of the United States. The news can change from hour to hour, but the emotional button-pushing remains constant.

Also under the radar is the accounting that shows these radio networks and affiliated institutions have gone glandular monetizing religious radio stations and media support services like news, sermons and church literature. In 2011 the revenue for Focus on the Family, a service ministry, was reported to be over $95 million. According to Ministry Watch, Education Media Foundation, the network for many of the nonprofit evangelical stations, has net assets of $552 million. The commercial Salem evangelical network lists assets of $559 million on over $250 million in annual revenue. By accepted accounting principles, there should be no shoe desert anywhere Christian radio is on the dial.

Still, it is not just Christian radio broadcast that has moved into the vacuum left in rural communities — after regional papers pulled back and local market TV channels refocused on their more well-heeled suburbs. And it is not just Fox News, Sinclair Broadcasting and syndicated AM talk radio either. They may preach to a sizeable choir, both confirming messages and synthesizing community, but they are not digital missionaries finding new converts.

Cutting edge communication technologies have brought with them the precision of seeking out the conservatively curious and the politically disinclined to push them toward common political purpose. Facebook, Google, YouTube, Twitter, and – most of where you go online to express yourself – have you targeted. You are the change they seek. They take what you like and what you hate and prank with you. (Sources say.)

A while back I stopped in Hazard to visit my sister. My brother-in-law had just built a zip line for my niece and nephew along the river bank. I’d never seen one. Very cool. After that visit, I went down the block and coaxed my brother to fix me a drink. In the chat about University of Kentucky sports and Hazard High sports and by the way how are the kids, the zip line came up. When I showed up at work the next morning, 30 miles away, I opened my computer, and immediately Google presented me with an ad for a zip line. The trick is not figuring out how they do it, but when they are doing it to you. Is that report of the FBI coup real or a feat of news desk prestidigitation? And when should I take the story seriously about that immigrant caravan hurtling toward town on a zip line?

Before the last election, many of us in my town reached out to a friend who was sure that Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine had abused his daughter. Something my friend learned from reliable sharers on Facebook, confirmed at church by others who’d seen the same report. With enough care, you can explain a story like that is several years old, cut and pasted from actor Alec Baldwin’s family crisis, and that no daughter had been harmed in either case. But you can never convince that friend who believed the story the first time that a Tim Kaine is OK to leave your kid or your country with. And when you see that the same abuse news story went systematically unchecked to a million voters, you can begin to appreciate the power of emerging news platforms programmed to hunt down gullibility and sidestep candor.

Dee Davis is publisher of the Daily Yonder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

Commentary

Commentary: As The Coal Industry Shrinks, Miners Deserve a Just Transition – Here’s What It Should Include

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Coal miners return on a buggy after working a shift underground at the Perkins Branch Coal Mine in Cumberland, Oct. 15, 2014. Photo: AP Photo/David Goldman

Murray Energy, one of the biggest private U.S. coal companies, has become the fifth coal company to file for bankruptcy in 2019. Union leaders and many elected officials worry that in addition to the 7,000 miners on Murray’s payroll, this step could threaten the solvency of the United Mine Workers of America pension fund, which supports over 100,000 retired miners and fully vested workers.

Whether people support or oppose the Trump administration’s efforts to prop up the coal industry, one point of agreement is that shifting from coal to cleaner fuels threatens struggling coal-dependent communities. Murray Energy’s bankruptcy is the latest reminder that it is past time to discuss a just transition for coal miners.

My legal scholarship examines environmental decision-making processes, with a focus on law and the urban-rural divide. In my recent research, I’ve dug into the origin and meaning of the idea of a just transition for workers.

My findings suggest that there is a strong ethical case for pursuing just transitions through policy. The challenge is to ensure that these policies nurture programs and institutions with lasting effects, rather than merely offering short-term band-aids.

More than half of the U.S. coal mines operating in 2008 have closed. EIA

What is a just transition?

There is no single definition of a just transition, but in the coal context, it generally means finding alternative ways to support struggling communities that are losing their traditional livelihoods.

The concept was popularized in the 1970s by progressive labor activist Tony Mazzocchi, who worked in the auto, steel and construction industries before becoming an organizer. He believed that workers who had contributed to the public welfare through hazardous work deserved help in transitioning away from their difficult jobs. He first called for “full income and benefits for life” for such workers, but eventually changed his demand to four years of income and education benefits. Even then, his efforts met substantial opposition.

Mazzochi had ties to labor and the environmental movements, and his activism blended these concerns. Today scholars are embracing the idea that government should consider the economic impacts of transitions such as the shift to low-carbon fuels, especially when workers are displaced by public initiatives.

In my view, it’s unfortunate that it has taken so long for mainstream attention to focus on the fate of coal workers. For communities dependent on fossil fuels, particularly in regions like Appalachia with few other major industries, today’s job losses are just the latest phase of a long decline.

No simple formula

There is no road map for transitioning communities away from coal, but there are lessons from history. For example, American workers faced losses from international competition when the U.S. joined liberalized trade agreements in the second half of the 20th century.

In response, Congress passed legislation in 1974 that established the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program, which still operates today. It provides aid primarily to factory workers who can show that they have lost jobs or wages because of increased international competition. Eligible workers petition the U.S. Department of Labor for benefits administered through state agencies, including cash payments, retraining and assistance with relocation and job searches.

However, research shows that even with this support, affected workers were substantially worse off than they had been before the shift in trade policy. Scholars have criticized trade adjustment programs as an ineffective band-aid. In 2008 one of the program’s directors called it “too little assistance too late to those in need.”

Funding for environmental cleanup and business development can help Appalachian communities diversify away from coal.

Another example, the Clinton administration’s 1994 Northwest Forest Plan, was developed in connection with the decision to provide federal protection for the Northern spotted owl. Officials recognized that restrictions on logging would hurt the Pacific Northwest timber industry, which was already declining.

The plan provided direct federal subsidies to traditional timber counties to offset logging reductions on public lands. However, these payments have been declining since 2006, contributing to a fiscal crunch in rural Oregon. Local opposition to tax increases, which could support local government services and community planning, hasn’t helped.

Another initiative, the Tobacco Transition Payment Program, achieved more mixed results. In 1998 the four largest U.S. tobacco companies executed a major legal settlement with states suing them to recover tobacco-related health costs. The agreement required tobacco companies to provide billions of dollars in economic assistance to farmers to ease their transition away from growing tobacco.

Each participating farmer received an average of US$17,000 through the program, which ran from 2005 to 2014. The top 10 percent of recipients received 75 percent of the payments. Some assessments concluded that these cash injections boosted struggling rural communities. But farmers arguably have more autonomy than many other kinds of workers, since they can opt to grow different crops, so this example may have limited relevance for coal miners.

County economic status in Appalachia, fiscal year 2020. Appalachian Regional Commission, CC BY-ND

Recent transition aid for coal communities

The most defined federal effort so far to help coal communities economically is the POWER Plan, launched by the Obama administration. This program directs funds into Appalachian communities to assist displaced workers, build regional institutions’ capacity and fund economic development programs.

From 2015 through 2019 the Appalachian Regional Commission, an economic development agency supported by federal, state and local governments, has invested over $190 million in 239 projects across Appalachia. Although President Trump often calls himself a friend to coal miners, his first budget request proposed terminating the commission. Congressional supporters restored its funding.

It is popular for commentators to propose initiatives such as retraining coal workers for solar or natural gas jobs. In my view, this approach is simplistic: A just transition should focus on sustainably rebuilding regional economies, and should be informed by input from people who are affected.

Subsidies to local governments and benefits for individuals are a start but should be better funded and implemented than trade adjustment assistance. They should build local institutions, such as schools and planning agencies, that can contribute to sustainable economic diversification – something the Northwest Forest Plan failed to do. And they should distribute benefits more equitably than the compensation program for tobacco farmers.

Along with job retraining programs, POWER is funding infrastructure development, public services and new educational institutions. But a just transition will require substantial resources and effort. It remains to be seen whether federal efforts will rise to the challenge.

[ You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]

Ann Eisenberg, Assistant Professor of Law, University of South Carolina

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Climate Activism Could Be Swaying Public Opinion In The US

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The March for Science on April 22, 2017 combined calls for scientific integrity and climate action. Photo: Kevin Wolf/AP

Climate activists walked out of classrooms and workplaces in more than 150 countries on Friday, Sept. 20 to demand stronger action on climate change. Mass mobilizations like this have become increasingly common in recent years.

I’m a scholar of environmental communication who examines how people become engaged with solving dilemmas such as climate change, and how activism motivates others to take action. A new study I worked on suggests that large rallies, such as this youth-led Climate Strike, could be influencing public opinion.

Conflicting signs

For anyone in the U.S. who has been following climate change news for years, it could be easy to conclude that these protests don’t have an impact. After all, no major environmental legislation has been signed into law in this country in decades.

Further, in 2016 a near-majority of U.S. voters elected a president who rejects the scientific evidence on climate change.

On the other hand, concern about climate change is rising. So is media coverage about global warming, notably including CNN’s seven-hour town hall on the topic with 10 Democratic presidential candidates.

To see whether rallies, such as the Global Climate Strike are contributing to this change in public opinion in a measurable way, I partnered with Pennsylvania State University psychologist Janet K. Swim and Michael L. Lengieza, a graduate student. We collected public opinion data before and after major protests.

Seeing activists in a less negative light

We conducted surveys to assess public opinion before and after the March for Science – which had a wide-ranging agenda that included climate change – and the 2017 People’s Climate March, which took place on back-to-back Saturdays in April 2017. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in the main protests in Washington, as affiliated marches occurred in other cities in the U.S. and around the world.

Nearly 600 people around the country, including some who had heard very little or even nothing at all about the mobilizations, answered our series of detailed questions. We tried to gauge their perceptions of climate activists and faith in humanity’s ability to come together on issues like climate change.

Half of the survey-takers completed their survey right before the first protest and the other half did it after the second one. Both groups represented broad ranges in age, education level and political beliefs.

The responses suggested that many Americans may have changed their opinion about the climate change movement around that time – in the spring of 2017.

For instance, the percentage who viewed climate activists as “aggressive” fell by 10 percentage points, from 74 percent to 64 percent. Similarly, survey respondents viewed activists as less “arrogant” and “dictatorial” after the protests occurred.

We consider this finding important because other research has suggested that people who view climate activists in this negative manner are more motivated to speak out against policies aimed at slowing the pace of global warming, such as the two carbon tax initiatives that voters have rejected in Washington state despite its Democratic majority.

Feeling less pessimistic about the future

Although most survey-takers said they had heard about the protests, few actually knew someone who had participated in one. Wondering whether the way that media covered these events might influence how people reacted, we looked into whether Americans who prefer liberal-leaning media outlets, such as MSNBC, reacted differently than those who rely on conservative-leaning media, such as Fox News.

We detected some interesting and unexpected patterns.

Before we looked at the data, we thought that differences in the media coverage might further the political polarization of climate change. We were surprised when we saw that the marches appeared to have the opposite effect.

In particular, the protests may have made consumers of conservative-leaning news more hopeful. Before them, consumers of conservative-leaning news were more likely to say they doubted the ability of humanity to work together on big problems like climate change.

After the marches, fewer people of all kinds expressed pessimism. In particular, consumers of conservative media became less likely to agree to statements like this one: “People are too selfish to cooperate and to fix big problems.” Before the protests, 60 percent of them agreed with that statement. Afterward, only 45 percent did.

The limits to this influence

Even so, the mobilizations did not seem to sway public opinion in every way that the organizers might have hoped. In particular, despite the large numbers participating, the two waves of protests did not appear to have any measurable impact on convincing Americans that taking community action on climate change was a normal or common thing for people to do.

Specifically, there was no change in the perceived number of people in their community or in the entire country that survey-takers believed engaged in collective action, such as environmental activism or voting for politicians that support environmental issues.

We suspect the people we surveyed did not consider the marchers to be similar to average people – like themselves.

Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see whether these shifts in public perceptions translate into shifts in consumer purchasing habits and public policy.

[ You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]

Nathaniel Geiger, Assistant Professor of Communication Science, Indiana University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Is Rural America Having a Moment in Democratic Policy Proposals?

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At the Iowa State Fair, candidates were everywhere. Photo: Phil Roeder/Flickr, Creative Commons

The 2020 Presidential election is not likely to hinge on nuanced rural policy positions and party platforms. That doesn’t seem to matter to the women and men running for the Democratic nomination, many of whom are campaigning hard for big investments and jobs in rural infrastructure, agriculture, clean energy and health care.

When it comes to presidential elections, many people feel that rural issues get ignored . Mainstream media coverage of campaigns and voter opinion tends to focus on the horserace between political parties, geographic divisions and the moving weathervane of “electability.” Rural topics, with the exception of commercial and corporate agriculture, traditionally don’t get much mention.

Things seems different this year. Last week I spent a lot of time reading and comparing statements and policy positions among the diverse field of Democratic candidates. Unlike any time I’ve seen in 20 years of rural advocacy and economic development work, many of the candidates are developing serious and innovative rural policy ideas that deserve more attention.

A large number of campaigns are embracing infrastructure and telecommunications improvements in rural communities, for instance, and are trying to differentiate themselves through specific budget and policy goals. Numerous candidates are calling for aggressive changes in the health-care sector to address a crisis in rural health care facilities and availability. Most of them support agricultural reforms and conservation programs that would decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

As we were compiling our initial set of candidate position reporting at the Daily Yonder, there was a flurry of activity on rural issues just last Wednesday and Thursday. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) all released comprehensive, detailed rural economic development platforms while campaigning in rural Iowa. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced a bill designed to address climate change through conservation-based farming practices, renewing the Civilian Conservation Corps and scaling up clean energy systems in rural communities. Mayor Pete Buttigieg (South Bend, IN) unveiled his plan for improving rural healthcare and later released a comprehensive rural-policy plan.

A few of the innovative proposals that stick out for innovation and scope include the following:

  • ARPA-Ag, a science and innovation platform to decrease greenhouse gas emission from agriculture, Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

Modeled after the U. S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the public-sector research and development initiative that helped create the internet and supercomputers, and the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E that led to clean energy innovations during the Obama Administration, Inslee’s ARPA-Ag would attempt to decarbonize agriculture.  ARPA-Ag would expandd federal investment in “research, development, demonstration and deployment” of climate-friendly farming practices, while also reducing climate emission from the agricultural input sector. Inslee would also create a Next-Generation Clean Energy Extension Service to share the results, knowledge and resources for participating in ARPA-Ag and related efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change.

Warren’s $85 billion rural broadband proposal states that, “One of the best tools for unlocking economic opportunity and advances in health care, like telemedicine, is access to reliable, high-speed Internet.” The package includes funding, incentives and regulatory changes that will allow public sector internet providers to compete head-to-head with private services. In addition, funding will be available to expand service to rural communities currently being ignored by the private sector. Eligible entities will be local governments, Native American tribes, rural electric cooperatives and rural telephone cooperatives among others.  Warren’s plan is to set-aside at least $5 billion funding for Native American tribal governments.  The $85 billion broadband plan seeks to address the rural internet access gap. “According to the FCC, in 2017, 26.4% of people living in rural areas and 32.1% of people living on tribal lands did not have access to minimum speed broadband (25 Mbps/ 3 Mbps), compared to 1.7% in urban areas,” Warren’s plan states.

  • Rural Future Partnership Fund,” New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Gillibrand is proposing $50 billion in public financing to fund multi-year, flexible, block grants to local communities with comprehensive rural revitalization strategies. Funds would be available for rural water systems, affordable housing, local food efforts, rural entrepreneurship and other rural economic development needs. The funding will target projects in rural communities with a history of persistent poverty, along with prioritizing cooperatively-owned enterprises. Gillibrand’s rural economic development plans also include the creation of a “Rural Future Corps” that identifies and trains rural young people and public servants, as well as supporting arts and cultural heritage-based efforts at job creation and local economic development.

REAP, the Renewable Energy for America Program, is a popular grant and loan program that supports installation and operation of renewable energy systems serving farmers and rural small business owners. Senator Booker recently proposed a $1 billion expansion of REAP as part of his Climate Stewardship Act. The program, in operation since 2009 with limited budgets averaging from $10-$50 million per year, has already been responsible for more than 10 billion kilowatt hours of renewable electricity production by participants, according to USDA. The Booker REAP expansion would provide a short-term boost to the already growing rural deployment of solar, wind and geothermal energy production. REAP expansion would likely result in huge increases in rural solar installations and energy efficiency improvements for farmers and rural small businesses throughout the nation.

I don’t want to pretend that a rural policy position paper is going to lead to the presidency, let alone get passed and implemented. Bold, aggressive policy proposals to expand rural economic development like these face a long and politically driven set of challenges.

The coalition of limited government activists, tax-cut proponents and white Christian conservatives that make up the bulk of the Republican Party are not likely to jump for joy. Within the Democratic Party, there is a large contingent of voices that repeatedly call for caution, moderation and fiscal conservatism. “How are we going to pay for it?” is often the mantra of the pundit and lobbyist class.

Still, while partisan and electoral politics are an ever-present barrier, rural people and organizations should take note that their consistent calls for more funding, resources and attention are working. Huge investments in rural broadband have been embraced by all of the Democrats in the race. (Broadband is one of the few rural development areas that the Trump administration has also supported.) Nearly all the candidates have called for aggressive antitrust action to curtail the market power of corporate agribusiness, a clear rejection of the hands-off approach during the Obama administration. The rural hospital closure crisis is being mentioned on the nationally televised debate stage. The climate crisis is being treated as a serious issue, with a “just transition” to cleaner agriculture, forestry and mining practices in the spotlight.

I’m not sure how to take these developments other than to report them as words on the page. Electoral politics, in my opinion, is all-too-often an incredibly important but ultimately frustrating popularity contest void of actual substance. Perhaps 2020 is going to be different, even if the innovative ideas for improving economies and quality-of-life in rural America is coming from the party that most mainstream political pundits describe as “urban.” Stay tuned.

Bryce Oates covers federal rural policy for the Daily Yonder.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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