3 Stories From The Heartland: 02/16/2017


Each day we highlight three local news stories from the heartland that deserve some national attention.

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1) Alabama House Approves 'Sanctuary Campus' Bill

Generally speaking, legislation designed to counter an idea being pushed by a Change.org petition is a bad idea. But the Alabama House has approved legislation that would allow the attorney general to pull state funds from colleges and universities not in compliance with immigration laws:

Williams said last week that a student movement at the University of Alabama Huntsville to declare it a sanctuary campus inspired the bill. A UAH official said last week that a someone circulated a change.org petition on that issue and that a rally in its support drew four students. Williams Tuesday spoke broadly of campuses on the Pacific coast during the two-hour debate.

Rep. John Knight, D-Montgomery, accused Republicans of pursuing a “political agenda” before addressing the state’s needs, such as funding for Medicaid, prisons and law enforcement.

“We ought to be getting on the budget,” he said. “I’m surprised this will be the first thing we bring up in this session when we have all these problems.”



2) Too Fat For Workers' Comp: Greg Staffa's Sad But All-Too-Common Story

Most people are familiar with the idea of workers compensation. While the programs vary a bit state-to-state, the general approach is that if you're hurt at work, your employer is responsible for your resulting medical bills and perhaps for some percentage of lost wages. But it turns out, qualifying for workers compensation can be difficult. You have to prove that your medical problems are the result of your job and your claim can be denied for a lot of reasons. Including just being too fat to determine whether your injuries are the result of a job or just a few too many orders of jalapeno poppers.

Northwest wasn’t sure. The company sent Staffa to Dr. Bradley Helms, a specialist in “physical medicine and rehabilitation.”

Helms later reported his charge was a “pleasant, well dressed and groomed gentleman.” And fat. “Moderately obese,” Helms documented in one passage — so much so that “his body habitus” made it “virtually impossible” to detect his muscular injuries.

Staffa calls Helms’ work-up “the fat report.” Northwest’s claims adjuster, Liberty Mutual, used the diagnosis to blame Staffa’s “underlying and personal condition” for any lingering issues. His workers’ comp claim was denied.

Staffa thought he’d be in line for a less strenuous job supervising and answering phones, a common occurrence under an “accommodations” program between his union and the airline. But Northwest laid him off.




3) Was Trump Really A Top Student At Wharton? His Classmates Say Not So Much

President Donald Trump has often discussed his time at the Wharton Business School and has stated in several interviews that he finished "first in his school." Two student reporters at The Daily Pennsylvanian looked into his claims and discovered that not only did he not finish first in his class. He didn't even make the Dean's List:

Given that there are 366 listed 1968 Wharton graduates on QuakerNet, Penn’s alumni database, the Dean’s List of 56 students represents approximately the top 15 percent of the class. The omission of Trump’s name suggests that his academic record at Penn was not as outstanding as he has claimed.

 

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Today On Conservative Talk Radio: 02/15/2017



Each day I listen to random conservative talk radio shows to get a sense of the mood of conservative voters. And to get a heads-up on what the "Fox & Friends" morning show will be discussing tomorrow.

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The Inner Angst Of Glenn Beck

I continue to find Beck's radio show maybe the most interesting topic mix on conservative talk radio, although I also find it difficult to listen to for an extended period. Part of is just clarity. Because he has several voices in the studio with him (and they all sound somewhat similar), discussions can start to resemble some strange inner dialogue between someone's various personalities.

But Beck also the most unpredictable mix of topics in the genre. Today, he opened one of his hours with Texas State Senator Konni Burton. She has introduced legislation in the Texas House that would halt civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize money and property without charging the person. Instead, she wants it changed to criminal asset forfeiture, which would delay any seizure of assets until the criminal has been charged with and convicted of a crime.

It's a reflection of Beck's libertarian leanings, but once again, I find myself bailing after about 30 minutes.






Rush And The Barack Obama Shadow Government

Rush Limbaugh has his own pet theory about Democrats and the Trump Administration. He continues to tell his listeners that the Democrats aren't a "functioning" political party. In fact, he says that the party only exists as a regional party that only thrives in five or so states. But Limbaugh says that the Democrat-friendly bureaucrats, journalists and judges are desperately trying to stop the Trump Administration. The struggling Democrats and their supporters are anti-Democratic and are much more dangerous to America than anything Michael Flynn may or may not have done.

And then it's back to the media. Rush simultaneously argues that the media is no longer powerful and is no longer trying to report facts and have thrown in the "Barack Obama Shadow Government."

This "Obama is secretly coordinating attacks against the Trump Administration" is an increasingly common theme on conservative radio. So is Limbaugh's other point. That the intelligence community is unelected and working against YOUR will. They are Obama's "embedded employees" and it's all driven by an inability of Democrats to accept the results of the 2016 presidential election. They will do anything "short of a military coup" to ruin Trump and reverse Trump's success.

It's the classic Limbaugh playbook. Start with a grain of truth (Democrats don't think Trump should be President) and use it as a starting point to construct this complex mix of paranoia, anger and condescending dismissal of critics. Limbaugh also uses the argument to triple down on his praise of Trump, claiming somewhat amazingly that the Donald is having amazing domestic policy success and every world leader that has met with him comes out of their meeting singing his praises. 




Dennis Prager Talks Men And Women

Even at his briskest clip, Dennis Prager approaches every topic in the same way a snail approaches an open flame - slowly and in ever-decreasing circles. So tuning into his show randomly almost guarantees you're in for a long, halting set-up. In this hour, the theme is apparently men and women. But despite the addition of some audio clips from movies and the voice of his producer, I'm 15 minutes into this hour's show and I still don't know what the point might be, 





If You Think Second Hand Smoke Is Bad

Dennis Prager doesn't believe in climate change. So much so that he has described it as "the biggest scientific hoax since the supposed dangers of second-hand smoke." Which should give you an idea of where he mind is at. I'm checking in on his show again and he's move on from the battle of the sexes to the evils of leftists. He's arguing today the difference between liberals and leftists is greater than the difference between liberals and conservatives. Which might seem like an odd claim to anyone who's ever listened to more than 20 minutes of his show.

He is just getting started, and although a Dennis Prager rant sounds more like a book on tape presentation than a passionate screed, he is very firm on his feelings about the Left. The Left injects itself into everything. It's the Left which is at the cause of Michael Flynn's resignation. The Left is willing to  destroy any American institution you can destroy in order to bring down Donald Trump. To them, complete societal collapse is worth it if it hurts Trump.

It's pretty out there if you approach things factually, But this is a variation of the same theme you hear a lot on conservative radio. That no matter what Flynn might have done, what matters is that the Left is out to get Donald Trump. It's impressive message discipline, although I wonder how long it can continue in the face of so many basic governing mistakes that have been committed by the Trump Administration.




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The MSM Vows To Cover Trump Supporters One Diner At A Time


Let's play a little game of "If I Were A News Editor."

Imagine a man unexpectedly wins the presidency. Nearly every example of political hackery from strategist to pundit had predicted it could never happen. Your regular sources - all stuffed with enough conventional wisdom to choke a lobbyist - all focused on the upcoming administration of the person who didn't win. Even worse, when the results come in, it's clear that there is a political rumbling that you missed. You didn't have enough reporters in place between the coasts and enough political expertise from the areas that made this unexpected victory possible.

Do you:

A) Hire reporters who live in these areas and expand your sources to include pundits, strategists and political experts familiar with this under-covered block of voters?

Or do you:

B) Send a couple of your reporters into the hinterlands to interview voters in diners and other places that will seem somewhat exotic to your regular base of readers?

If you chose b, the you too can be the managing editor of a big-time news organization. 

The past week or so has brought a string of pieces written by reporters who have traveled into the hinterlands to talk to supporters of Donald Trump. And they have found - SURPRISE! - most of the people who voted for him less than three months ago still support him.

Aside from the clueless and arrogant premise of the pieces, the results are to be expected by anyone who has ever had the slightest experience with human nature. A reporter working for a major news organization shows up in small-town America and starts asking voters if they're happy with their choice for President. What do you think they'll say? "Oh, now that I think about, I suppose I really was wrong, wasn't I?" It's like commissioning a piece about marriage and building it around interviews that ask people if they are sorry they decided to tie the knot.

To get a honest reaction, you need reporters who are embedded in that area. Reporters who seem more like the voters they're writing about. Rather than real-life examples of that vaguely elitist smugness that rural America despises. You need reporters who can write about Trump voters in a nuanced way. Ones who understand that pieces with the underlying premise of "Stupid Trump voters still stupid" might make the political establishment feel better. But they aren't very accurate or informative.

I usually spend a couple of mornings a week working from the lobby of my local McDonald's and I see the same group of old guys meeting to have coffee. They are primarily Trump voters and some are still rabid supporters. But it's interesting to hear the wide range of reactions to his presidency to far. Some have a fair amount of buyer's remorse. But there's also the outlier who recently argued to me that Trump has "done more already than that Ni&@@r did in eight years." Trump supporters ran the gamet from racist to disaffected voters who feel that Washington works for everyone else but them. 

That's a portrait of Trump voters you don't read in the major news outlets. It's nuanced reporting that doesn't come from a day or two or spending time in a small town. It would be ludicrous to have an old white guy write about what it's like to live with racism just by having him talk to a few African-Americans. But for budgetary and cultural reasons, news organizations feel comfortable telling the story of Middle America through the lens of people who don't understand the culture.

I've been a journalist for more than a couple of decades. I've worked at outlets from San Francisco to Birmingham. I believe in journalism and the impact of good reporting. But too often, when I read these ludicrous diner pieces, I feel like a fan of basketball who is forced to watch highlight reels of old Washington Generals games. It's infuriating and a bit embarrassing.

We are so much better than this,

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3 Stories From The Heartland: 02/13/2017


Each day we highlight three local news stories from the heartland that deserve some national attention.

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1) Police Officers: 'We Didn’t Vote Republican To Get Stabbed In The Back'

A number of Republican-dominated states have attempted to break the public workers unions by attempting to split state and local employees into two categories: law enforcement & other first responders and everyone else. The theory is that while few voters want to mess with the happiness of their local police officers, they won't be that ticked off if the snow plow driver isn't happy with changes to his status.

The Iowa legislature is considering a bill which would strip collective bargaining powers from the majority of public workers, by splitting them into two groups:  one that’s "public safety workers," and one that isn’t. But that plan is facing significant pushback from police and fire department employees, who fear this is just the first step towards a complete revocation of their collective bargaining rights:

Hundreds of helmeted firefighters have flooded the Statehouse in the last week and police officers and sheriffs have lined up at committee hearings to speak against it. They don’t trust that this carve-out for their jobs will last long, nor do many of them feel it’s appropriate to deny the bargaining rights they have to fellow workers who have also had them for over 40 years.

And several police officers and firefighters warned that Republicans’ plan to create a special “public safety” class for negotiations wouldn’t work in many cases. John Thomas, a police officer from Mitchellville, explained last week that some sheriff’s deputies wouldn’t get classified as “public safety” workers because there’s more jailers and clerks in the bargaining unit. The Republican bill only classifies workers as “public safety” employees if a majority of workers in a bargaining unit is made up of police or firefighters.

That has many police officer, who voted for Republicans in large numbers this year, particularly upset.

“It’s collective begging, that’s what it is,” Thomas labeled the bill at a subcommittee hearing. “Half of law enforcement folks I work with are Republicans. And we voted for Republicans because of conservative values. But we didn’t vote for Republicans to get stabbed in the back while we’re trying to dodge cars and bullets.” 



2) ND Lawmakers Say Blue Laws Should Remain So Wives Can Make Breakfast In Bed


Some local news stories are so odd they don't require much explanation. Lawmakers in North Dakota have been arguing over whether or not to repeal the state's "Blue Law," which keeps many businesses closed in Sunday's. It's an issue that many state legislatures have tackled, but I think it's fair to say that North Dakota's supporters of the law have put forth some novel arguments for why people should stay home on Sundays:

One lawmaker in favor of keeping the law in place feels Sunday mornings should be used for your wife to make you breakfast in bed.

"Spending time with your wife, your husband. Making him breakfast, bringing it to him in bed and then after that go take your kids for a walk,” says Representative Bernie Satrom.

Another feels his wife spends all his hard earned money the rest of the week and his wallet needs a day off. "I don't know about you but my wife has no problem spending everything I earn in 6 and a half days. And I don't think it hurts at all to have a half day off," says Representative Vernon Laning




3) Severely Disabled Kids Called At Risk As Texas Enacts Medicaid Cost-Savings Plan


The Texas Legislature has come under fire in recent years for making a series of "cost-cutting" decisions to the state's Medicare program which has substantially cut the number of special needs children that are eligible for programs that are designed to help them with their educational and medical needs.

The Dallas News reports that a November change to the state's Medically Dependent Children Program - which provides care for severely disabled children who require around-the-clock nursing care - was passed off to private companies and hospitals in November. The result has been denied services, delayed care and endless red tape:

Amy Pratt drove her severely disabled son, Quinten, four-plus hours to Children’s Medical Center Dallas only to learn the insurance company that Texas hired to care for him had suddenly denied payment for an important procedure, one that could potentially save the 9-year-old's life. 

 

In El Paso, 11-year-old Rudy Smith lost most of the therapy services that helped him cope with cerebral palsy and a severe form of epilepsy, which plagues him with 50 to 100 seizures a day. His mother says she’s having trouble getting prescriptions filled, and the insurance company keeps sending her incorrect or faulty medical supplies.

Arlington resident Blakley Hernandez is considering moving to another state because her son, Reid, a 3-year-old with a form of dwarfism, can no longer see specialists who were planning surgeries to fix his legs, which are bowing outward.

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It's Still Jobs, Stupid


Having a good paying job can cure a lot of problems.

Whether you're a former coal miner in West Virginia or a 20-something Iraqi boy who can't support his family, finding a job that not only pays the bills but is a career can be the difference between surviving and having a life. A lot of factors were behind the election of Donald Trump, but a primary cause was the desire of many rural Americans to go back to a time when their community was thriving. Back to a time when good jobs were easy to find locally and they paid well enough to keep the family in a middle class lifestyle.

Despite the rhetoric, a lot of those lost manufacturing jobs aren't coming back. But that doesn't mean that all is lost for those rural Americans. As this Wired piece points out, there are jobs available that could easily be filled by these struggling Red State voters and it really just takes a bit of training and some initiative:

These sorts of coders won’t have the deep knowledge to craft wild new algorithms for flash trading or neural networks. Why would they need to? That level of expertise is rarely necessary at a job. But any blue-collar coder will be plenty qualified to sling Java­Script for their local bank. That’s a solidly middle-class job, and middle-class jobs are growing: The national average salary for IT jobs is about $81,000 (more than double the national average for all jobs), and the field is set to expand by 12 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than most other occupations.

Rebooting the economy of rural America isn't an impossible task. But it will take moving beyond the cheap political talking points and the nostalgia for jobs that are no longer there. It requires deciding that community colleges and vocational training can be the gateway to good paying jobs, if there are pathways available for both students and mature workers looking for a new field of employment.