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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.

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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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Commentary: Immunizing Against Our Culture of Contempt

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In his first inaugural address in March of 1861, Abraham Lincoln said, "We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies," and he invoked "the better angels of our nature." Photo: Wikipedia

Today’s public discourse is a petri dish for breeding disgust for people with whom we disagree. Debates about healthcare issues affecting rural America are no exception.

From the left’s “basket of deplorables” to the right’s “send her back,” our public and private spaces have become infected with a culture of contempt. On too many days, I feel I am in a country I barely recognize. I don’t know if conservatives and liberals equally engage in contempt of the other, only that I hear too much of it from both sides.

Tim Size

I take little comfort when individuals say it’s not so bad, that we were more divided during the Civil War. As savage as those days were, Abraham Lincoln knew we could and must do better.

“Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Even while coming of age in the riot-torn ’60s, my evangelically conservative family would encourage me “to hate the sin but love the sinner.” And not dissimilarly, at the same time, the left made an icon of a Vietnam War protestor placing a carnation into the barrel of a soldier’s rifle.

From Fox News to MSNBC, our airwaves are filled with voices competing to be the loudest and the most adept at ridiculing their opponents. The dominant narrative is not to address ideas but to reduce those with whom who we don’t agree to a position beneath contempt. Once we allow ourselves to hold someone in contempt, all that the best of our culture teaches us about how we are to relate and support each other goes out the window.

I have taken heart from individuals who have begun to name this problem and suggest solutions, such as Arthur Brooks, long-time president of a conservative think tank, as he wrote about “Our Culture of Contempt” in a recent issue of The New York Times: “What we need is not to disagree less, but to disagree better. And that starts when you turn away the rhetorical dope peddlers–the powerful people on your own side who are profiting from the culture of contempt. As satisfying as it can feel to hear that your foes are irredeemable, stupid and deviant, remember: When you find yourself hating something, someone is making money or winning elections or getting more famous and powerful.”

If we are to reverse our country’s slide into increasingly entrenched and divided camps, we need to relearn how to productively talk about our differences instead of attacking the character, motive and personal attributes of the “other side.”

Brooks goes on to say that “each of us can make a commitment never to treat others with contempt, even if we believe they deserve it. This might sound like a call for magnanimity, but it is just as much an appeal to self-interest. Contempt makes persuasion impossible – no one has ever been hated into agreement–so its expression is either petty self-indulgence or cheap virtue signaling, neither of which wins converts.”

For those of us working in health care, contempt is not theoretical. We seem increasingly less able to make progress on important issues as the rhetoric heats up and the attacks get more personal. Here are a few examples of current health care issues that seem too often to be dominated by attacks on those who hold an opposing opinion rather than the opinion itself.

  • Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Collaboration
  • Family Planning
  • Federal Dollars for Medicaid Expansion
  • Medicare for All
  • Race and Geography in Health Disparities
  • Vaccination and Anti-vaxxers

While I know that I have and still can readily discount those who disagree with me on each of these issues, I have renewed my commitment to keep my advocacy based on the facts and our organization’s aspirations, not on trying to tear down those who might disagree. Will you join me in this quest?

Tim Size is executive director of the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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How Organized Labor Can Reverse Decades of Decline

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A union miner at the rally for pension protection. Photo: Aaron Payne, Ohio Valley ReSource

Collective bargaining has long been one of organized labor’s most attractive selling points.

In its simplest form, collective bargaining involves an organized body of employees negotiating wages and other conditions of employment. In other words, unions are saying: Join us, and we’ll bargain with your boss for better pay.

Unfortunately, traditional collective bargaining is no longer an effective strategy for labor union growth. That’s because employers and many states have made it incredibly hard for workers to form a union, which is necessary for workers to bargain collectively.

My own research suggests unions should pursue alternative ways to organize, such as by focusing on more forceful worker advocacy and offering benefits like health care. Doing so would help unions swell in size, putting them in a stronger position to secure and defend the collective bargaining rights that helped build America’s middle class.

Why unions still matter

Unions reached their pinnacle in the mid-1950s when a third of American workers belonged to one. Today, that figure stands at just 10.5 percent.

A big part of the problem is that employers have used heavy-handed legal and managerial tactics to block organizing and the elections necessary to form a union. And more than half of U.S. states have passed so-called right to work laws, which allow workers at a unionized company to avoid paying dues.

The stakes of this challenge are high – not just for unions but for most workers in the U.S. That’s because weaker unions correlate with lower wages, reduced benefits and greater economic inequality.

Millions stand to gain from a strengthened labor movement, from Uber and Lyft drivers in the gig economy to low-wage employees in retail and hospitality. And surveys show nearly half of nonunion workers in the U.S. say they would join one if they could.

I believe there are three models traditional unions could pursue to add members without relying on workplace certification and collective bargaining.

Advocating for workers

One approach is to build on the success of worker advocacy groups like Fight for $15 and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Fight for $15, for example, played a leading role advocating increases in the minimum wage in several states, most recently Connecticut, while the National Domestic Workers Alliance helped secure the passage of the domestic workers bill of rights in New York.

What they all have in common is that they engage in protests and strikes to call public attention to the plight of exploited workers while advocating for economic and social justice. Unions, which used to engage in more of this kind of activism, need to recapture some of that militant spirit.

Establishing minimum standards

A second model involves pushing employers to agree to a minimum set of standards for benefits and pay to provide workers.

The Writers Guild of America, which represent screenwriters and others in television, theater and Hollywood, exemplify this model. For example, they establish minimum levels of compensation for specific jobs and duties and then require members – both employers and workers – to adhere to them. It’s a collective bargaining agreement with a potentially much wider reach.

That’s because these agreements are negotiated with employers but also cover independent contractors who sign on as well. Their strength comes from the aggressive organizing and advocacy plus the strategic importance of the workers they represent, which puts pressure on employers to take part and meet the minimum standards.

Other unions could expand this approach to encourage workers throughout industries that have little or no labor representation to join their ranks as affiliated members, which should pressure employers to follow suit.

Unions peaked in the 1950s. Photo: AP Photo/Sam Myers

Unions with benefits

Another approach involves focusing on offering special benefits to independent workers in exchange for fees.

Some labor groups already do this, but the workers would benefit from unions combining their collective power to offer more heavily discounted goods and services, such as health care, disability benefits and legal representation.

For example, although the 375,000-strong Freelancers Union can’t negotiate over pay, it offers independent contractors these sorts of discounted benefits. Instead of charging dues, it charges fees for its benefits, essentially operating as its own insurance company. It also advocates for public policy changes that safeguard freelancers from exploitation, such as New York’s Freelance Wage Protection Act of 2010.

This model is probably the approach most likely to succeed in attracting large numbers of new members. The growing gig economy and low-wage industries like fast food are two areas that could receive benefits from these types of collective entities.

The endgame

Ideally, unions would embrace all three of these models, offering discounted benefits to any worker interested in signing on, fighting for minimum standards across industries and putting worker advocacy front and center. By broadening the ways in which workers can join and what they offer, unions will become stronger and closer to the people and communities that they are meant to represent.

But by no means are these models meant to supplant organized labor’s traditional collective bargaining role. My point is that unions should break the straightjacket fixation on traditional bargaining and use alternative models as intermediate steps to the ultimate goal of unionizing more workplaces in order to negotiate collective bargaining agreements on behalf of workers.

To get there, though, unions must mobilize a critical mass of workers. Only then will they break the dynamic of labor’s decline.

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Marick Masters, Professor of Business and Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Wayne State University

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

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