Half a loaf: the FCC's Weak Rule on Net Neutrality

Graphic from the Florida non-profit journalism site, Flaglerlive, on its September 12, 2010 post," Net Neutrality: The First Amenment Issue of Our Time."  The following is a draft my next piece commissioned by The Guardian.

Net neutrality is the First Amendment issue of our time. Today, a blog can load as fast as the Wall Street Journal — and, if the blog is good, it can get more traffic than any media conglomerate.

But if bigger companies can pay for faster, priority Internet access, that blogger no longer has a shot. And these big companies know that when they pay for access, they win. They want preferred treatment on the Internet like the preferred treatment they get in the rest of their lives. --Al Franken on August 19, 2010

I wasn't surprised  December 21 to learn the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had passed its rule governing net neutrality 3-2 along party lines.  The topic's been a source of partisan wrangling for years.  Advocates of net neutrality argue users should control content viewed and applications used--that a level playing field promotes democratic participation and free speech. Broadband providers and telephone companies want freedom to boost profits by deciding which content gets to whom first and fastest. Both sides argue theirs is the course encouraging economic innovation. 

My take: the new rule is another example of the Democrats' "half-a-loaf" thinking and falls short of pledges by President Obama and his administration to protect the Internet against phone and cable gatekeepers. The order's text wasn't available immediately, only FCC news releases and statements by its members--Chair Julius Genachowski, joined by Democrats Mignon Clyburn and Michael Copps, who voted to approve, and Republicans Meredith Attwell Baker and Robert McDowell, who voted nay.  Based on those, the rule

  • leaves wireless networks unregulated, anointing Verizon, AT&T, et. al. as gatekeepers to the rapidly expanding world of mobile Internet access;
  • fails to explicitly prohibit internet service providers from turning  the "information highway"  into a toll road favoring corporate partners, while  detouring the rest of us onto the cyber-equivalent of a pothole-ridden dirt road; and
  • continues to ground its rationale in legal arguments rejected by the DC Federal Court of Appeals April 6, by defining the Internet as an information service, rather than reclassifying broadband and wireless as a public utility under the Communications Act.  As an information service, the court allowed broadband provider Comcast to block or slow specific sites and charge video sites like YouTube to deliver their content faster to users.  The suit came after Comcast attracted attention in 2008 for secretly using a program called Sandvine to hamper peer-to-peer file sharing applications.
Republicans hate the measure. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) criticized the FCC for taking "what could be a first step in controlling how Americans use the Internet by establishing federal regulations on its use."  He promised to "push back against new rules and regulations” once Republicans take the majority in the House of Representatives in January.  Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX), the Commerce Committee's ranking member, called the vote an “unprecedented power grab by the [FCC's] unelected members” and promised a resolution condemning the rule. She had offered an amendment to block the agency from using any omnibus budget funds to implement net neutrality. Last September, Republicans already had beaten back House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-CA) net neutrality bill.

Public interest groups also are up in arms.  Free Press
calls it a squandered opportunity. Public Knowledge says it falls short.  Media Access project finds it  riddled with loopholes.  Center for Media Justice  criticizes its minimal protections.
I expected a weak rule after Genachowski held closed-door meetings with industry lobbyists opposing net neutrality and with the industry's Open Internet Coalition, but locked out public-interest and consumer groups.  And, as Greg Sargeant noted in the Washington Post:

The problem is...that Dems...don't think they're capable of winning a protracted political standoff, even on an issue where the public is on their side, once Republicans start going on the attack....As a result, they tend to telegraph weakness at the outset...that they'll essentially give Republicans what they want as long as they can figure out a way to call it a compromise.

According to Bloomberg, AT&T, in its attempts to influence policy, met more frequently with the Commission in recent days than any other provider.  Verizon, on the other hand, wanted  the FCC out of the picture. Industry sources told The Hill that given Congressional gridlock, Verizon's call for  legislation suggests the company might not want any resolution at all.  These approaches seemed borne out when AT&T praised the FCC for ending its "hamstrung [status preventing] needed action on...real problems " while Verizon, called for "statutory underpinnings."

Copps, a strong consumer advocate, issued a statement prior to voting, saying he’d battled  since his 2001 appointment "to make sure the Internet doesn't travel down the same road of special-interest consolidation and gatekeeper control that other media and telecommunications industries—radio, television, film and cable—have traveled."  While not the proposal he would have crafted, the rule “could represent an important milestone…[i]f vigilantly and vigorously implemented by the Commission—and if upheld by the courts.”

Those, Mr. Copps, are pretty big ifs.

Book Review: Mike Hudson: The Monster

Cover from MacMillan Publishers.  Just heard back from Nona Walker, book editor of the Roanoke Times, that this review, with minor changes, is slated to run January 2, 2011.  Since there is usually non permalink for reviews there, I'm posting a copy here with a few links, along with a bit of an introduction.  

November 8, I had the pleasure of listening to Mike Hudson speak at Washington and Lee about the connection between predatory lending, Wall Street and the past two year's economic meltdown.  That's the subject of his new book, THE MONSTER: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America—and Spawned a Global Crisis, which came out in October from Holt/Times Books.

Here's a 2008 interview by Randall Chittum published by Columbia Journalism Review in which Mike talks about the leadup to the mortgage crisis and how the dots were there in the form of individual stories--which never got connected:

Mike currently covers business and finance for the Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism non-profit. Before that, he worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and wrote for Forbes, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Mother Jones, among others.

I met Mike when he was working for the Roanoke Times covering the low-income beat and graciously sent me a note to say our all-volunteer 8-12 page alternative monthly, the New River Free Press, had scooped his daily on the criminalization of panhandling.

Mike started on the trail of predatory lending long before the current melt-down, after he received a 1992 Alicia Patterson fellowship to research businesses that target low-income Americans, He edited the award-winning book Merchants of Misery:  How Corporate America Profits from Poverty (Common Courage Press, 2002 and appeared in the documentary film Maxed Out:  Hard Times, Easy Credit and the Era of Predatory Lending (Trueworks, 2006).


THE MONSTER: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America--and Spawned a Global Crisis, October 2010, Times Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, New York, 365 pp.

 This fall's latest banking scandal revealed foreclosure lawyers backdating mortgage documents and faking affidavits to courts in order to evict families and resell their homes. After more than two years of stories on the sub-prime mortgage crisis, readers may have wearied . Was the resulting financial meltdown an unavoidable market accident--as former Federal Reserve Chairman Allen Greenspan called it, a “once-in-a-century credit tsunami?” If so, what's the purpose in studying it?

 In The Monster, Mike Hudson paints the larger picture, connecting the dots all the way back to the 80s, exploring how the “plain vanilla business” of mortgages was corrupted and who is to blame. Rather than a tome on finance, The Monster reads like a true-crime story--perhaps because Hudson's first job out of college was covering the Roanoke Times & World News's police beat. The compelling story he unravels stems from interviews with hundreds of individuals and from thousands of pages of court transcripts. Hudson pieces together a Rube Goldberg world of falsified income, forged signatures, and pressure on families to sign sub-prime loans as quickly as possible.   He shows large investments from Wall Street firms sustained these practices, concentrating on Roland Arnall--who created Ameriquest, one of the first and biggest predatory lending firms--and on the Wall Street firm of Lehman Brothers.

For Hudson, Arnall represents the birth of the sub-prime mortgage industry. An immigrant who originally opened up a savings and loan to bankroll his real-estate projects, Arnall figured out how to make lots of money making high-priced home loans to borrowers in mostly minority neighborhoods. His workers felt his impatience to grow the business. Dennis Rivelli, a former manager, told Hudson, Arnall

never cared how you got the volume and where it came from and what you had to do to get it...He could care less. Just pump it out and move on.
After being pressed by S&L regulators in the early 1990s, Arnall morphed his savings and loan into a lightly-regulated independent mortgage lender, Ameriquest. His company might have been advertising as the ""proud sponsor of the American dream" of home ownership, but it wasn't even generating new mortgages. In 2004, one quarter of 1 percent of Ameriquest loans went for home purchases. 99.75% went for refinancing deals with onerous fees and loan rates which increased the odds of foreclosure.

Take, for instance, the case of Carolyn Pittman, who had borrowed $58,859 in 1993 with her husband to buy a one-story, concrete block house near Jacksonville, Florida. They paid $500 per month on a fixed-rate FHA loan which included home insurance and property taxes.

Even after Charlie died in 1998, Pittman kept up with her house payments. But things were tough for her.... Like many older black women who owned their homes but had modest incomes, Pittman was deluged almost every day, by mail and by phone, with sales pitches offering money to fix up her house or pay off her bills. A few months after her heart attack, a salesman ... caught her on the phone and assured her he could ease her worries. He said Ameriquest would help her out by lowering her interest rate and her monthly payments.

 By the time Pittman had been churned through the mill, her house payment came to $1,069 per month. And Arnall's reaction to such stories, "Stuff happens."

Meanwhile Arnall's minions profited:

For those who gave themselves over to the breakneck pace of life inside Ameriquest, the rewards were dazzling. Twenty-three year old salesmen made $100,000 per year. Twenty-six-year-old branch managers groused $200,000, $200,000, even half a million dollars a year, and boosted their takes higher as they climbed within the companies ranks. Many would become millionaires as they made Roland Arnall a billionaire.

 After one aide left the company his consulting contract from Arnall yielded $35 million dollars.

 Nothing could have happened on this scale, however, without the infusion of huge amounts of capital by Wall Street firms such as Lehman Brothers. Lawrence McDonald, a vice president at Lehman explained that

The executives who ran the company's sprawling mortgage business...had direct access to CEO Dick Fuld and his inner circle ..."Their words were not so much heard as acclaimed...Whatever they needed--extra budget, permission for more risk, permission to invest colossal hunks of the firm's capital in their market--they got."

 Hudson first wrote about predatory lending in “Stealing home” for The Washington Monthly (1992) and “Poverty, Incorporated” for Southern Exposure (1993). What’s remarkable to me is how Hudson has stuck with this story. While other reporters wrote an account here or there before dropping the subject, Hudson pressed on, often as a freelancer, completing “Banking on Misery” for Southern Exposure in 2003 and “Workers Say Lender Ran 'Boiler Rooms' (on Ameriquest with E. Scott Reckard) for the Los Angeles Times in 2005, before writing a series of stories for The Wall Street Journal in 2006-7.

 As the Columbia Journalism Review's Dean Starkman (website) notes in his analysis, "Power Problem",

 Only after the crackup had already begun... [was] Wall Street's role in the subprime again laid bare...It referred...to documents available for years. There is really no excuse...as federal regulation folded like a cheap suitcase, the business press...lost whatever taste it had for head-on investigations of core practices of powerful institutions...it relies on [Wall Street and corporate subculture]...for its stories. Burning a bridge is hard.

Hudson now writes about business and finance for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit journalism organization founded by Charles Lewis (bio) who explained his reason for founding the Center in 1989 (see IRE Journal, Spring 1990, "Mercenary, Not Public, Service."

 America's best and brightest reporters, working for the most respected national news organizations, too often do not investigate the country's most important stories.

Predatory lending's contribution to our current economic upheaval is one such story. Some might argue that the buyers should beware, that corporations and politicians will always be complicit. Such cynics probably see no place for investigative journalism. I'd disagree. Hudson digs deep and provides a compelling, convincing account for those who hope that an informed public can stimulate reform.


Uranium Mining in Virginia draws closer, despite opposition

Cartoon from the November 3, 2007 Roanoke Times by Chris OBrion (email, website, RT archive), used with permission from Mr. OBrion, who cartoons regularly for the paper, in addition to doing artwork for other clients from his home in Richmond, VA.


In November 2007, I wrote about Coles Hill in Chatham, Virginia in Pittsylvania County, which has been in Walter Coles's family since 1785. Cole's ancestral home sits on one of the largest uranium deposits in the United States. There is also uranium in Orange County, which raised questions  when a shale company prosed a quarry there.

Rising uranium prices and the resurgence of the nuclear power industry after federal underwriting in the 2005 energy bill,  led Cole , along with friends, family and Canadian investors in Virginia Uranium, Inc. to lobby the Virginia Assembly to study lifting the moratorium on uranium mining in Virginia.

If the politically connected Coles has his way, the uranium that lies there will be mined, to his great profit, despite earlier decisions to abandon such mining, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), due to serious questions raised in the 80s and never answered about
where the uranium would be processed, how the mine waste or “tailings” would be disposed of, what safeguards would be in place to protect the environment and public health, how would the facility be secured from earthquakes and floods.

The mining moved one step closer December 8, when the General Assembly's Virginia Coal and Energy Commission’s Uranium Mining Subcommittee met and  unanimously selected Chmura Economics &Analytics of Richmond from among five other consulting groups that made presentations to prepare a $200,000 socio-economic study commissioned by the state, as required by the Assemby. The company's past experience has been in the study of the economic impact of highway investments and airports.  Phillip Lovelace, a Pittsylvania County farmer opposing proposed uranium mining at Coles Hill, said  that he was disappointed that a public comment period wasn’t on the agenda for the meeting in Richmond on Wednesday.

In addition, the National Academy of Sciences committee will spend three days in Danville as part of its study to assess the potential statewide consequences of uranium mining in Virginia. The panel convenes today to hear from representatives from theSELC and the Dan River Basin Association. Monday night, residents will have their say at a session described as a town hall meeting.The study is "sponsored"  by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, but the funding comes from Virginia Uranium, Inc., the company which is "bringing the energy benefits of uranium to our nation and the economic benefits of uranium development to Southside Virginia."

[It's] affiliate company, Virginia Uranium Ltd., merged with Santoy Resources Ltd on July 21, 2009. The newly merged company, Virginia Energy Resources Inc., holds 22.2% indirect ownership interest in the Coles Hill project. Virginia Energy Resources is trading on the Toronto Venture Stock Exchange.

December 7, More than 30 people attended a meeting at the Henry County Administration Building that was advertised as “Community Meeting to Stop Cancer Causing Practice in Southside.” The event was co-hosted by the Virginia Sierra Club, Martinsville-Henry County Voters League and Virginia Interfaith Power & Light.

The mining issue is being raised in the special election to fill the Virginia 19th District Senate seat vacated by Robert Hurt's defeat of Tom Perriello to represent the area in the U.S. Congress.
I've had contact with Cale Jaffe, SELC's  the assigned attorney before--he's been involved in fighting coal plants in Virginia--he's based out of Charlottesville.  I'll see if he's available for an interview.


The foreclosure crisis won't go away easily

Photo of Mike Hudson, author of The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America – and Spawned a Global Crisis. This piece was commissioned the Guardian, which published it today as, "Let's not foreclose on financial reform:  The modest Dodd-Frank Act is under threat, yet the foreclosure crisis shows the dire risks of an unfettered mortgage industry."  I've only made minor changes and kept the British spelling.


This past week saw much coverage of the 1 December loan disclosures from the Federal Reserve, as required by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.  The act--so named because it was sponsored by Representative Barney Frank (Democrat, Massachusetts) and shepherded by Senator Chris Dodd (Democrat, Connecticut)--was signed into law on 21 July by President Obama, as a legislative response to the last two years' economic meltdown engendered by the sub-prime mortgage debacle.

Less reported was the 1 December hearing Dodd held on mortgage servicing – the latest place where fraud has surfaced. Servicers, now regulated under the Dodd-Frank Act, calculate principal and interest, collect payments from the mortgagor, act as an escrow agent and foreclose in the event of default.

This makes servicers pertinent, as the US finds itself in the middle of a  foreclosure crisis that isn't going away. According to an interview with law professor Kurt Eggert, who testified at the hearing, the problem is that:
No one agency has been given the job of regulating servicers, and so any oversight has been piecemeal and haphazard. And the regulators often have been worried more about the soundness of banks than the protection of borrowers.
This has resulted in folks losing their homes, because, consumer advocates say, it's more profitable to foreclose than to make the mortgage adjustments once promised by Obama.

Many initial loans, however, were fraudulent. For instance, just recently, on 3 December, SunTrust's Alexandro Aquinta pled guilty to:
transactions in which straw buyers and unqualified buyers obtained over $4m in … loan proceeds … [from] applications [which] contained materially false, fraudulent and misleading information … regarding applicants' employment, income and assets.
But worse, to my mind, are the falsified documents filed by attorneys in so-called "rocket-docket" courts. The resulting foreclosures severely stress families who lose their homes, as well as neighbours who see their property values decline.

To understand how we got to this state, I interviewed Mike Hudson, one of the first investigative journalists to link predatory lending to the economic meltdown and author of The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America – and Spawned a Global Crisis.

According to Hudson, fraud in the banking and mortgage industries dates back to the 1980s. The sub-prime crisis was long in the making and was facilitated by government through bad policy and lax enforcement. Its origins lay in
[A] philosophy of trusting financial players to police themselves. A lack of cops on the street, as it were, allowed fraud to flourish [with] faked paperwork and other ugly practices [in] the origination of loans – and, now, similarly dicey practices in the foreclosure process.
This lack of regulation was a bipartisan business:
The philosophy started getting traction in the Carter administration, gained even more steam in the Reagan years, continue apace under Clinton and saw its full flowering during the Bush Administration. One influential figure who was there through the Reagan-Bush I-Clinton-Bush II years was Alan Greenspan. Remember he was considered to be 'the maestro', a guy who could see around corners and could guide us to unprecedented prosperity.
The meltdown will continue as long as the bad policy and lax enforcement do. The growing foreclosure crisis is just the latest chapter:
The business model for loan servicers ensures that questionable foreclosures will continue to flood the system. With Republicans' Congressional victories, [Dodd-Frank's] financial reform is in danger. If you think the legislative battle was tough, wait until you see the bareknuckled lobbying and backroom armtwisting that are going to emerge as the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau gets under way.
As far as the Dodd-Frank Act goes, Hudson says that the best hope lies in Elizabeth Warren's push to simplify mortgage paperwork, as a measure that could command bipartisan support. But I have my doubts about whether Warren will succeed.  Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell's continued stated primary goal is to block all of Obama's initiatives to render him a one-term president. There's already efforts afoot to weaken the law. And the  financial industry and banking industries and their water-carriers in Congress opposed Warren's appointment to head Dodd-Frank's Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; Obama tapped her only as a special adviser to set up the Bureau. And there are other troubling developments including the Fed's recent move to strip a key protection for homeowners under the guise of reform.

The 1 December hearing was the last Dodd will chair for the Senate committee on banking, housing and urban affairs. He decided not to run for re-election after disclosures about his own sweetheart mortgage deal with the predatory Countrywide. In line for the chairmanship is Tim Johnson (Democrat, South Dakota), who has a record of supporting small predatory loan companies (pay-day lending) and fighting credit card reform. 

Some argue that the financial trauma brought on by sub-prime mortgages was an unavoidable market accident: Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan called it a "once-in-a-century credit tsunami". Some hold that borrowers were to blame – folks took out variable rate mortgages for homes they couldn't afford, betting already-inflated prices would continue to rise, so increasing their equity faster than their ballooning payments.

Others disparage government, either for its lack of regulation or for overselling the dream of home ownership. They argue that the buyers should beware, that corporations and politicians will always be complicit. 

I disagree.  I join Hudson in hoping that an informed public can stimulate reform:
The foreclosure crisis is a serious issue; it's more than a series of paperwork snafus. The powers that be in Washington failed to get the facts and act the first time around – when lenders were engaged in a feeding frenzy of predatory lending. The foreclosure scandal is a second chance for leaders and regulators to prove that they can dig out the truth and take action.


The Destruction of Blair Mountain and How to Oppose It

Kenny King took this  photo of a new metal gate on the dirt road running north from Route 17 at Blair Gap and says he encountered armed guards patrolling there.  The following piece was commissioned by The Guardian, where it was published as "Fighting the battle of Blair Mountain:  The struggle to conserve from stripmining the historic site of a labour struggle in West Virginia could not be more symbolic."  The only link I've changed is the one for "Battle of Blair Mountain."  The editor added one to wikipedia--I prefer one to Tim Thornton's series in the RT.  Another minor edit in that paragraph deleted my link to WSJ coverage of  the suits against Massey for poisoning water


Last week, with Massey Energy under siege from federal safety officials, yet still proposing to stripmine the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain, I recalled standing on battlefields at Gettysburg and Manassas, haunted as the landscape somehow revealed what had once happened there. I was listening to David Rovics sing:
The hills of West Virginia will long remember… the Battle of Blair Mountain.
A Massey subsidiary, the Aracoma Coal Company, is seeking a permit to obliterate a 554-acre site that includes parts of the battlefield in West Virginia. This land bears traces of the second largest insurrection after the Civil War – and the largest labour uprising – in US history. Here, in 1921, the miners of West Virginia, seeking the right to unionise (that is, organise, assemble and speak freely), took on the coal operators and their mercenaries.

According to historic preservationist Barbara Rasmussen, the origins of the battle of Blair Mountain lay in anger over conditions in the southern coalfields, where the "company store" system ruled and unions had been denied the right to organise. The 2 August 1921 shooting in cold blood of Matewan police chief Sid Hatfield by mine operators' agents provided the spark. A year earlier, Hatfield had defended the miners when the Stone Mountain Coal Co tried to evict striking workers from their homes. After several weeks of protest and unrest, battle lines were drawn on 26 August 1921; ten days later, the rebellion was over. Michael Meador describes the melee:
As many as 15,000 men were involved, an unknown number were killed or wounded, bombs were dropped, trains were stolen, stores were plundered, a county was invaded and another was under siege. The president had to send in federal troops...
The miners' rising was suppressed, after an estimated million rounds were fired. The defeat was a setback for the unionisation campaign in the short term, but raised public awareness of the appalling conditions borne by miners and paved the way for the political victory of full recognition of union rights under the New Deal in 1933.

You'd think the crests, the narrow valleys below, would be a historic shrine – like other national battlefields preserved by the Park Service. In an article for the magazine Preservation, the DC-based journalist Christopher Swope has described, "a land of rippling ridges and deep, shady hollows. Coated in oaks and black locusts, Blair Mountain rises just a bit higher than what surrounds it."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the battlefield as endangered in 2006. For years, miners' descendants have confronted a new generation of coal operators, and now, as of this November, a new private army has appeared in place. Kenny King – whose grandfather fought with the United Mine Workers – reports, "armed guards… patrolling the dirt road running north from Route 17 at Blair Gap… a [new] metal gate… on the same road, with a sign that warns the area is under video surveillance."

King has been tireless for decades in seeking artifacts to document the history of the battlefield. Since 2006, he has been joined by scholars such as archeologist Harvard Ayers, Barbara Rasmussen and West Virginia native Brandon Nida. The battlefield gained its listing in 2009 by the National Park Service on its National Register of Historic Places.

That accomplishment, however, was soon undone – when lawyers for the coal industry convinced West Virginia state officials to ask the Park Service to delist the site, claiming, after the deadline, to have found additional opponents to the listing.

In July this year, Friends of Blair Mountain – a grassroots group of scholars and activists – reported bulldozers had started to destroy the archeological sites described in the application for listing. The National Trust, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Sierra Club filed a petition with the National Park Service to re-list Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places. In late July, the petition was denied. On 9 September, the Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Friends of Blair Mountain and the West Virginia Labor History Association filed a legal challenge to contest the site's removal from the National Register. The call on the National Park Service to re-list Blair Mountain has been echoed by a coalition of musicians (David Rovics and Hazel Dickens), filmmakers (John Sayles, director of Matewan, and Barbara Kopple), authors (Denise Giardina) and scholars.

As Brandon Nida wrote me:
The miners were rebelling over brutal living and working conditions after a generation of oppression and severe exploitation. Today, putting armed guards hired by the coal companies at Blair Mountain is like rubbing salt in an old wound. The history is still in our consciousness, and on top of all the destruction going on in Appalachia, this has really upset community members in the area.
• If you wish to register your objection to the destruction of the Blair Mountain battlefield site, there is an online petition to the National Park Service. More urgently, though, the Friends of Blair Mountain asks for people to write to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, requesting that it deny Massey's mountaintop removal permit. Letters must arrive no later than 26 November 2010, and should include the applicant's name (Aracoma Coal Company, Inc) and the application number (S-5035-08); if you write, please describe your perspective and why you disagree with a permit being issued, and mail to:
The Permit Supervisor
WV DEP Division of Mining and Reclamation
1101 George Kostas Drive
Logan, WV 25601


Thugs Redux at Blair Mountain

Folks may remember the Battle of Blair Mountain from  the 1987 John Sayles film, Matewan, or the 1987 Denise Giardina novel Storming Heaven, or the 2004 Diane Gilliam Fisher poetry collection Kettle Bottom. I hadn't realized that the number of UMWA workers shrunk from 50,000 to 600 after the battle, or that the army had enthusiastically sent 17 planes to strafe American citizens until I read a 2006 Roanoke Times article, "Roanoke proudly plays a bit role in the battle," in a series by Tim Thorton commemorating the 85th anniversary of the battle.

As Sue Sturgis of Southern Exposure describes it:
Back in 1921, more than 7,000 miners outraged over working conditions in southern West Virginia's coalfields faced off against an army of some 3,000 police backed by the coal companies in an effort to bring in the union.

When the fight that came to be known as the Battle of Blair Mountain ended five days later after President Harding called in the U.S. Army, anywhere from a dozen to a hundred miners lay dead, along with as many as 30 people from the other side. It was the largest open class war in U.S. history, and the country's largest armed insurrection aside from the Civil War.
Now  there's the spooky echo of company thugs attacking local families, as the mining company has hired security guards in preparation for mtr mining on the historic site of the battle, where mining is being contested because of its possible status as a historic landmark.

CEO  Don Blankenship  got the 2009 historic designation reversed on a technicality  that more landowners opposed the designation.  Some say that his count was hinky and the matter is back in the Courts.

Blankenship, of course, is infamous for running the first mine EVER  shut down by the Labor Department for safety violations and the mine disaster this past April, which has rumors flying of Massey's possible sale.

There's all this fervor by historians to protect civil war sites from Wal-mart or Disney.  How about they come to the aid of  Friends of Blair Mountain and prevent our history from being blown to smithereens as a mountaintop removal site.


Feingold in Oz: How Citizen's United Contributed to his Defeat

Graphic by CTRAFFIK (bio, email), a Miami hip hop artist. from his June 2007 post  in response to the Military Commissions Act. (Term for R's expurgated by moi to avoid the kiddy curse-filter at public libraries.)

The following essay, commissioned by The Guardian, has been updated to include the edits to match  the version  published  there on 11/10 as  "The Murky Business of Electioneering." You can  review it at NewsTrust.


The Wizard of Oz enjoined us in the 1939 classic, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." I thought of the wizard on election day, as I read David Brooks's piece "Don't Follow the Money", while watching Wisconsin's Democratic Senator Russ Feingold go down to defeat.

Brooks said we should pay no attention: corporations can't buy elections, despite the supreme court's Citizens United decision, which gave them the same constitutional rights to free speech as individual citizens – striking down a provision of the McCain-Feingold Act on campaign finance reform that barred businesses from funding electioneering advertising. He'd have us believe:
[D]onors give money because it makes them feel as if they are doing good and because they get to hang out at exclusive parties.
Yet, according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation, 40% of the money in the 2010 could be tied to Citizens United. And while the court ruled eight to one that disclosure could be required (Justice Clarence Thomas being the only outlier), groups organised primarily for "social welfare" under Section 501c(4) of the tax code currently can promise anonymity to their funders.

Again, according to Sunlight:
$126m in undisclosed money represents more than a quarter of the total $450m spent by outside groups… By a nearly six to one margin Republicans outspent the Democrats among groups that failed to disclose the source of their money.
Are such c(4)s really social welfare groups or are they primarily political groups, which would trigger disclosure?

Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies – formed in July 2010 with help from GOP guru Karl Rove – reportedly forecasted spending $65m, much of it in an effort to defeat [Senate majority leader] Harry Reid. Also questionable: American Future Fund. A 20 October complaint charges that it has
devoted more than half its advertising spending this year – approximately $3m as of a few days ago – on television ads that expressly call on voters to vote for or against particular candidates.
Other dubious groups include the American Action Network (with which Crossroads GPS shares an office), Americans for Prosperity, Americans for Job Security, the Chamber of Commerce, and Justice Thomas's wife Ginni's new group, Liberty Central.

So, why don't the (c)4s have to report donors?
The IRS relies on precedent set under the 1958 supreme court decision NAACP v AlabamaCampaign Legal Centre's Trevor Potter wrote me that this case should only be germane,
IF the groups can make the arguments made by the NAACP – that their donors would be killed or beaten or their houses burned down if their identities were known.
In the case of Russ Feingold, $192,120 came in from committees to support his election and $33,232 to oppose the eventual winner, Republican Ron Johnson. Contrast this with $935,844 to support Johnson and a whopping $1,319,737 to oppose Feingold – of which $910,000 came from American Action Network, whose donors are undisclosed. Ruth Conniff, political editor for the Progressive, wrote me:
In Wisconsin we were the recipients of an overwhelming barrage of advertising – much of it from groups outside our state who tarred Russ Feingold with the same brush they used against every other Democrat – never mind that he opposed bank bailouts, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and government overreaching, especially in the Patriot Act.

You couldn't  turn on the television or radio, go to the mailbox, answer the phone, or even watch old Sesame Street episodes on YouTube without being bombarded by political attack ads.

The repetition of catchphrases concocted in Washington thinktanks drowned out thought and discussion of real issues, and ultimately sent an inexperienced rich guy with no specific plan to Washington to replace a senior senator who was one of the lone independent voices in the US Senate.
Given the Citizens United decision, supreme court reporter Lyle Denniston suggested we could increase transparency
by more rigorous disclosure legislation, in hopes of exposing more vividly who is in fact benefiting and, perhaps, by embarrassing the beneficiaries.

In Congress, the House passed the DISCLOSE Act, (HR 5175). Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell has favoured disclosure for 20 years, but led efforts to block a vote, most recently on 24 September.

Is this how we want to run our elections? Congress should let us pay attention to who's behind the curtain. If corporations are to have free speech, let's at least know whose money is talking.


Follow the Money

AP photograph  (no photographer listed) accompanied Politico's October 19 story, "Ginni Thomas seeks Anita Hill apology."

Ginni Thomas crossed our collective radar screen this week, when Charlie Savage reported she viewed herself as holding out an "olive branch" on October 9 when she left a voice mail for Anita Hill demanding an apology, an explanation and perhaps prayer. On the very morning she had called Hill, the New York Times page A1 featured Jackie Calmes reporting "Activism of Thomas’s Wife Could Raise Judicial Issues."

Ginni Thomas married to Justice Clarence Thomas 23 years ago. According to a February 18 interview with Hot Air's Ed Morrissey, Ms. Thomas--a long-time conservative advocate associated with the Chamber of Commerce and the Heritage Foundation--founded Liberty Central in November 2009 to roll back Obama’s left-leaning ways.

We cannot see into the mind of Ginni Thomas as she called Hill, but I found myself asking if Ms. Thomas were motivated by more than a desire to stand by her man?  

It's hard to follow Deep Throat advice to Woodward and Bernstein to "follow the money."

Poring over LC’s sole form 990 filed for FY2009, I wondered who would give $500,000 and $50,000 since Liberty Central is organized as  a non-profit under IRS Code Section 501(c)4 and can't offer donors tax deductions. I also wondered how much Ms. Thomas will receive as CEO, since she (conveniently?) collected no salary during the period covered by the tax form.

Next I looked at Liberty Central's website and noticed that the organization claims to be "non-partisan," its scorecard for my state graded all the Democrats "F" except one "D" and all Republicans "A."

The IRS shields (c)4 donors from scrutiny

 Any (c) 4 group gets the protection for its donors established under NAACP v. Alabama. And, under current law, (c)4’s do not have to report electioneering-types of advertising more than 60 days before a general election or 30 days before a primary. They do not have to report non-broadcast communication--mail, Internet, telephone---nor candidate-specific issue ads that fall outside the legal definition of political speech.

We do know Justice Thomas "sole outlier" on disclosure in Citizens United

In January 2010, Justice Thomas, voted in a 5-4 majority in the landmark Citizen's United decision , to equate corporate and union donations with free speech, thus allowing unlimited campaign donations. Justice Thomas went further.

NYU Law School’s Adam Scaggs wrote me in an email interview,
All eight of Justice Thomas's colleagues upheld the disclosure rules, on the grounds that the public has a real interest in knowing who spends in political races. Thomas was the sole outlier in voting against disclosure.
Scaggs emphasized,
it's important that Ms. Thomas doesn't lose any of her First Amendment rights just because her husband is a judge…The concern is that Justice Thomas would face a conflict of interest if...ever asked to hear a case involving the groups that have given major contributions to his wife's group. Judges — including Supreme Court justices — are ethically obligated to step aside from any cases in which they have a financial stake, and they must also step aside when their impartiality might reasonably be questioned……The public would not know that there is a conflict if the identity of the donors has not been disclosed.
We do know that Koch Industries rallies the right twice a year to plan on how to sway public policy and that former guests include Justice Clarence Thomas. 

Non-disclosure should not be germane to all (c)4's

The non-disclosure precedent of NAACP v. Alabama is only germane to (c)4’s, Campaign Legal Center's Trevor Potter wrote me,

IF the groups can make the arguments made by the NAACP--that their donors would be killed or beaten or their houses burned down if their identities were known.

We do know that during this election cycle, record donations are flowing into the (c)4’s.

For instance, Doyle McManus reports that one new such group, CrossroadsGPS, advised by Karl Rove,
 says it's going to spend $65 million this year — much of it to try to defeat [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
If corporations have free speech, let's at least know who’s talking

Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston has suggested we could increase transparency
by more rigorous disclosure legislation, in hopes of exposing more vividly who is in fact benefiting and, perhaps, by embarrassing the beneficiaries.
In Congress, the House passed the DISCLOSE Act, (H.R. 5175). Republicans in the Senate blocked a vote, most recently on September 24.

 It's time for Congress to let us "follow the money."


No more moratorium on offshore drilling?

Photo by J. Henry Fair accompanied his blog post on the BP disaster, "A World Gone Crazy." His website, Industrial Scars features photographs from his book, The Day After Tomorrow, Images of Our Earth in Crisis, to be be released on January 4, 2011 and available at this link for pre-order via Amazon.

I wrote this piece on an assignment from Matt Seaton, web editor for the Guardian where it appears as "Deepwater drilling: risks and consequences".

It's up for review at Newstrust, thanks to Barry Grossheim.


On 11 October, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Hungarian police had arrested an executive connected to red sludge spill, which had killed eight people.

For months, we've heard of Deepwater Horizon's 20 April explosion, killing 11 platform workers, injuring 17 others. We've mourned the deaths, the idled fishermen and oil rig roughnecks, the marshlands and wildlife coated in crude oil, the estimated 185m gallons of oil dumped, according to independent study. We've rued lost livelihoods, as images of tar-coated beaches shrank tourism. We've railed as Mac McClelland documented BP's restriction of press access. And on 13 October, Obama's own commission meets to discuss its preliminary reports critical of the White House's handling of the spill.

So, I was disappointed when interior secretary Ken Salazar announced an early end to the offshore drilling moratorium imposed 28 May. He told reporters about "significant progress in reducing the risks associated with deepwater drilling", concluding, "it is now appropriate to lift the suspension", based on Michael Bromwich's report as director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM). Salazar thus seemingly contradicts his 30 September promise to require proof that industry has reduced risk of another spill and to issue rules beyond those drafted covering standards for well equipment (pdf) and worker training (pdf). The ban, enjoined by the courts, only to be reissued, was to have lasted six months.

Obama has faced pressure as the oil industry called for the moratorium's end, through its Institute for Energy Research which had always emphasised the safety of drilling prior to the spill. Regional officials and businesses complained about economic impacts, including Senator Mary Landrieu (Democrat, Louisiana), who blocked confirmation (pdf) of the nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget. An environmental coalition – including the Centre for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Florida Wildlife Federation, Defenders of Wildlife, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice and Southern Environmental Law Centre – urged that the freeze continue and extend to shallow-water drilling.

Salazar's announcement seems to favour the oil industry and its supporters; it doesn't satisfy Landrieu, however. She issued a statement refusing to release her hold, saying she would look "closely at how BOEM is handling the issuing of permits and whether or not drilling activity in both shallow and deep water is resuming… [to] evaluate if today's lifting of the moratorium is actually putting people back to work."
Meanwhile, those who see themselves as protecting public health and the environment criticise the ban's end. Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Centre for Biological Diversity, responded to my query, sending this press release, and writing:
Salazar's decision to lift the moratorium is yet another mistake…the real crux is that the agency that is supposed to be overseeing oil drilling has completely failed to evaluate the environmental impacts before allowing it to go forward.  Nothing has been done yet to solve the problem of impacts of oil drilling on the Gulf's ecosystem and wildlife.
Ervin Gonzalez, an attorney with spill victims' steering committee, appointed by the US district court, wrote to me that:
The creation of rules does nothing to protect the public and the environment if those responsible fail to follow the safety rules and ignore common sense measures that prevent tragedies like… [this] disaster. BP, Transocean and Halliburton violated numerous rules, regulations and safety measures that resulted in tremendous damage and devastation… We cannot and must not trust the oil companies to supervise themselves and take their word that they will follow the rules and regulations.
So, as John Lennon says, Imagine...What if officers of corporations in the oil, coal or auto industry were to face arrest and possible prosecution, when their actions in the US – as in Hungary – result in deaths? Might that change the calculation of acceptable risk?


Appalachia Should Abide

Painterly photo by my friend Wendy Johnston of Athens, WV,  shows Larry Gibson of Kayford, WV (the only time I have seen him without his cap, other than in this photo by Antrim Caskey) as he gazes out the window of the Metro bus police used to transport arrestees to  Anacostia for booking.  To the immediate left, ahead of the window frame,  is Dustin White,  of Charleston, WV, who grew up in the  endangered community of James Creek on Cook Mountain.


I've always loved the song Peter and Gordon recorded in the 60s, "Land of Oden", about a mountain 10,000 miles high and square:
Once every million years
A little bird comes winging,
Sharpens his beak
And quickly disappears.

And when that mountain,
it wears away
Then, to eternity
will be one single day.
On  September 25  in Washington, DC, I read to folks preparing to rally, march and sit in during the Appalachia Rising protest the following Monday. My poem "Looking Out Over An Abyss in Boone County" includes the line "mountains should abide."

Big Coal has decided against almost-eternity for Central Appalachia. Ours is a war zone. To get at thin seams of coal, Massey and others detonate fertilizer and diesel fuel – the same materials used to build truck bombs. They destroy up to 1,000 vertical feet, dump the resulting rubble into valleys: hauling it away would cut into profits. And while solid mountains are practically inert, pulverised, their rock poisons air; poisons headwater streams flowing through valleys, down to the Mississippi, into the Gulf of Mexico.Top soil and hardwoods? Companies often shun these gifts from nature, bury them as "overburden", standing in the way of getting at coal.

Companies that destroy the world for privatized profits and socialized harm are amoral or immoral. A government that won't protect us from such rogues is complicit. How are we supposed to live without air, without water?

After years, I'm still surprised by the lies. Take Massey spokesman Jeff Gllenwater, who told Peter Slavin, "There's no credible evidence of coal causing cancer." That depends on whom you find credible. I asked Michael Hendryx, at West Virginia University, about Gillenwater's claim. He wrote back:

No credible evidence of coal causing cancer"?  Nonsense.  There is abundant evidence.
Coal contains trace elements of a number of known carcinogens including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, nickel, beryllium, and others.  When coal is processed at local facilities after extraction, these elements enter the local environments in the air and in the water.  Furthermore, particulate matter from air pollution such as that caused by coal mining and processing is a well known cancer risk.  Water and air pollution from coal mining and processing are well established. This is to say nothing of coal combustion, which kills over 20,000 Americans every year from a variety of causes including cancer.

There is also solid epidemiological evidence that cancer death rates are higher in Appalachian mining environments compared to non-mining environments in ways that are NOT explained by smoking, diet, age, or other factors.

In short, there is credible evidence.

Big Coal, though, has money to spread lies, influence policy. Citizens sued to protect our mountains and won under the Clean Water Act, only to have the Bush EPA and Army Corps of Engineers reclassify mining waste as "fill", in 2002 – as if rubble were gravel being used to build bridges across streams.

Since then, we have sued some more, signed petitions, made phone calls, testified at hearings, written letters, travelled hours to meet with officials, appointed and elected – all to stop this stripmining on steroids. Still, the coal industry goes virtually unchecked.

So, yes, thousands went to Washington and marched on 27 September to tell the EPA to do its job. Yes, we continued on to PNC Bank to say stop funding this obliteration. Then, 115 folks sat down in front of the White House, in an act of civil disobedience, accepting arrest, to tell President Obama that, yes, he can do something, if he only will.

Appalachia and its people predate Big Coal. There's still a remnant of "almost heaven" and we're willing to share it. Come visit, educate yourself, join your voice with ours. Otherwise, these mountains will be squandered – not at the end of time, but in less than 20 years.

Note:  thanks to Bo Webb, who encouraged Matt Seaton of the Guardian to solicit a piece from me.  This originally appeared (with British spellings and dating conventions) on October 7 as "Appalachia rises as mining razes mountains."  I've restored Michael Hendrxy's quote in full, as I have no word limit here and I find the ellipses distracting.


Green Beans

Photo from Flickr--no photographer identified--used by a cooking blog.

The original story in the Roanoke Times included a picture of white-haired Elizabeth holding a can of beans with a title something like, "Women Hasn't Opened Can of Beans for 57 years."  I wrote this to imagine why....



"And as the years passed
the beans became a reminder
of her long-departed youth."

--Roanoke Times and World News, 10/26/78


Last week Elizabeth turned eighty.
She touches her hand to jar
blue against the velvet green of her beans
canned 1921, last year they had the farm.
The beans curve, green fingers
tip to tip
long, slender
as hers were that July
everyone said she'd the prettiest hands.

She feels cool weight of quart
thinks of pots steaming
so hot that July
Jonathan drug the woodstove out in the yard.
She is telling her daughter
a teaspoon of sugar
a teaspoon of salt
now wipe that rim.

Beans were scarce that year.
She paid her little ones
to pick beetles off
not before the vines all wilted.
Only one row in the new ground thrived
an odd row planted when she ran out of corn.
She sowed and picked beans by the moon
not enough to can
she canned them anyway
stacking beans upright
in concentric circles.

Nights she lay at Jonathan's side
stared at beans in the moon patterned ceiling.
At midnight
she finally slipped from the bed
counted stripe on stripe
tomatoes, peaches, corn
a hundred quarts

and that can of beans

cool fingers
soothing her to sleep.


Wish I  had a copy of the article in the Roanoke Times with me, so I could scan the picture of  Elizabeth.

This poem was originally published by Artemis, as I recall.  Although I started it in 1978, when I first joined a writers' workshop, I didn't finish it until several years later at the Hindman Settlement School's Writers' Workshop.  It turned out to be the first of a series about Elizabeth, called Weatherings, which take place over the course of a year in which the weather evokes earlier memories.  Fred Chappell used to sign notes to me Old Fred and tease me that I was writing about myself.  (He didn't know that my birth name is Beth, not Elizabeth, but maybe he was on to something.)

I read it for an audience most recently on September 25 at Voices from the Mountains (the lead-up to the march and sit-in on September 27) and got compliments from our emcee Reverend Billy, novelist Silas House, poet Bob Henry Baber, activists Roland Micklem and Sue Rosenberg and musician Carry Kline, among others, which was heartening.

 To tell the truth, following barn burners like Larry Gibson and Micky McCoy, I was glad that there was a musical interlude before I read  : ).  After this I finished out with Looking Out Over An Abyss in Boone County, one of my own barn burners.  The latter is about Larry Gibson's 50 acres at the edge of an mtr site and I don't think I had ever read to an audience when he was present.

UPDATE:  I also read the poem on the Floyd Radio Show January 7, 2012, where it was recorded and you can now listen on an archived podcast, which I've included at the link.


Appalachia Rising Perfornances in DC this weekend--Me & Silas House, plus Crystal Good, Mickey McCoy, Jim Webb and Bob Henry Baber

Photo Berea students in 2007 at Appalachian Coal Field Delegation to the United Nations from the newsletter.  Silas has been named Berea's National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in Appalachian Studies.

Appalachia Rising will bring people from all over America together in Washington, D.C., September 25-27, 2010, to demand the abolition of mountaintop-removal (MTR) coal extraction in Appalachia.   As Maria Gunnoe wrote in Grist on September 22:

These mountains are the lifeblood of our existence. Where majestic, breathtaking views used to overlook the nearby valley towns, there is now devastation as far as the eye can see. Our soldiers' resting places are often at the peaks of these mountains; their cemeteries are now surrounded by miles of nothing but rubble and are left inaccessible to families. Our homes and schools and towns are threatened by flooding and debris and other problems caused by irresponsible mining.

Mountaintop-removal mining does not benefit nearby communities. It destroys nearby communities. The areas hit by Katrina are being rebuilt, but there's no rebuilding after MTR. Our towns are simply erased.

Here's the line-up of performances.  There will also be workshops and a big rally on September 27.

Saturday night - Georgetown University Conference Center

7:30 - Reverend Billy: sermon & emcee
7:45 - Michael & Carrie Kline
8:05 - Larry Gibson
8:15 - Crystal Good - reading
8:25 - Boo & Elena of Demolition String Band
8:45 - Mickey McCoy/Beth Wellington - reading
8:55 - Bryan Cahall
9:15 - Maria Gunnoe
9::25 - Silas House
9:40 - Christen Lien
10:00 - END NIGHT

After the reading come to741 Morton Street NW, Washington, DC.  RReNEW Collective (working against MTR in Wise County, Virginia) is hosting a benefit kegger with the local Dream City Collective (a future worker-run clothing and book shop which recently sponsored an event with Tricia Shapiro, author of the new book Mountain Justice; Homegrown Resistance to Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining, for the Future of Us All.

Sunday Morning - Georgetown University Conference Center

8:00-8:30 am - Breakfast with Ben - special morning performance with Ben Sollee

Speaker: Teri Blanton
Morning Music: Joe Overton

Sunday Night - Georgetown University Conference Center

with special emcee Carl Shoupe
8:00 - Reading by Jim Webb
8:25 - Reverend Billy & the Church of Life After Shopping
9:05 - Reading by Bob Henry Barber
9:15 - Brett Ratliff
9:25 - Bo Webb, Beverly May, &; Brett Ratliff - Speech & Song: "Sow It on the Mountain/Reap it in the Valley"
9:35 - Andrew McKnight & Beyond Borders
10:05 - End Night


Why I decided to try and fund this blog....

Portrait of Judy Bonds by Robert Shetterly for his project, Americans Who Tell the Truth, used by permission of the artist. (0rdering info). To read my July 23 blog post on Judy's having to take a medical leave of absence, see: "Judy Bonds: "Fight harder and finish them off."

Want to know more?

Shoot me an email at communitypoweredreporting@gmail.com Or you can ask to join the group community-powered-reporting@googlegroups.com.


An experiment in "community powered reporting"

I'm experimenting with what my friend David Cohn, who started Spot.us, calls "community powered reporting."

Writing about politics and culture, I'm often linking to books and films. When Newstrust readers rate one of my posts high on the list I get a lot of hits. For instance, my post of 7/16, "PBS: Can you say, unlevel playing field?" (reviews here).

Here are some others that were reviewed:
But traffic doesn't translate to money. So here's the experiment--my readers can help fund this blog if they used my referral code to open up the webpage for Amazon when they want to shop there. I'll also be adding links to Powell's Books and perhaps E-Bay--if you have any other suggestions for places you shop online which have affiliate programs, let me know. (I've added a handy widget to go there on the right side of the blog.)

I would have loved to have already found someone to fund my writing

Say, if Spot.us had brought crowd-funded journalism to Appalachia. (And it may happen yet. Until then, you can still help me and David, if you want to be a sponsor of his community centered advertising on mtr or other topics you care about...but that's a topic for another post.)

Or if I had a day job in new media. I had more time to write when Newstrust.net to had enough money to budget my salary as community developer. Even a few stints as paid editor, a position I held for three news hunts this year, helped. (The last funded by a donation from a friend who wanted to support my coverage of energy issues)

So, while I wait, this is one small step

After all, Jonathan Greene of Gnomon Press explained to Meredith Sue Wilson for her September 10, 2007 Books for Readers Newsletter,

Small Press Distribution and Consortium that distribute books for many small presses return even less to small presses that Amazon: they normally sell books to stores or chains at 40% - 55% then take half of the gross receipts of any payment and put the amount due the publisher in escrow for three months. And Consortium charges the publisher a re-stocking fee for any books stores or distributors return [sometimes in unsellable condition.

Why Amazon?

After a brief trial, I refused to use Google Adsense (with its odd matches from folks like Friends of Coal or ambulance chasers following disasters). Not to mention its odd notion that folks need to click through, rather than read a display ad.

And I loathe camouflaged paid-product endorsements masquerading as independent assessments.

So here's the disclosure

Amazon pays a cut, if folks buy from its site, after clicking on my link. I get to pick what I'm endorsing, and it's based on my opinion, not revenue from the producer to flack a product. So, it's kind of like a merchant selecting an item for a store, although, nowhere near the profit.

If you buy the soft cover version of Bob's book for $7.99 (Puffin, 2008, 48 pages) using this link, 4% will go to support my writing on mtr, renewable energy and energy efficiency. I'm not sure what Amazon is paying authors and publishers, but once I find out, I'll share it here.

So, spread the word on Bob's book? http://amzn.to/coa6km.

That's a buck for each $25.01 order

I'm using that amount because, with it, you get free shipping. You can even order together with friends, as long as it goes to one snail mail address. That's a great deal or I wouldn't suggest it.

I checked. You can order it few places for 27 cents less, but Amazon has a 4-for-3 sale going on. When you order any four eligible books under $10, you get the lowest-price book free. (http://amzn.to/bBbUAM).

BTW, Dutton's 2005 hardcover edition of Bob's book is available for $14.81--part of the $25.01 free shipping deal but not the 4-for-3 special. This is marketed as a juvenile book because of the reading level, but I promise you, it's inspiring to adults.

You can also get the companion volume to the movie Coal Country... Rising Up Against Mountaintop Removal Mining was edited by Shirley Stewart Burns (http://amzn.to/cZL1YT Mari-Lynn Evans (http://amzn.to/ad27Vx) and Silas House (http://amzn.to/dkPVwv). In paper (http://amzn.to/aROM0X), it's $17.10. In hardback, $30. (http://amzn.to/cd6GBb.) And there's the dvd of the film and the cd of the score.

For any month where I earn more than $1000, I'll share with activists

I need to pay part of my rent and utilities, my health insurance, groceries and car expenses, since the research, linking and writing takes time.

But I'd rather write on things I view of import than hawk "to-do" articles to airline magazines.

Since I'm not clear on what "units" means , let's assume the worst--that "unit" means an order. (I'll update this post when I do find out the answer.) So, if 616 folks order $25.01 during the month, after that, I'll start sending checks to the activists associated with the post--Coal River Mountain Watch, Robert Shetterly and the filmmakers behind Coal Country in the case of this post.

So which other books are eligible for the 4-for-3 deal?

I was happy to see Storming Heaven by Denise Giardina (http://amzn.to/c1rR9Y), also $7.99 (http://amzn.to/d38ycu) Or her sequel Unquiet Earth for $6.99 (http://amzn.to/ct0VbU . Also Borrowed Children by George Ella Lyon (http://amzn.to/cmyBiz) for $9.95 (http://amzn.to/bqxC5C). Couldn't find any other Appalachian books, right off hand, but The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (http://amzn.to/baRFCq), who lives in SW Virginia, features a KY native as the protagonist who travels elsewhere. It's $7.99 (http://amzn.to/9ed7nU). No books by Pearl Buck (http://amzn.to/dgzOVz). Sigh.

Of course, if you pick two for $7.99 @, one of the books has to cost at least $9.03 to get to discount to work. So if you don't order George Ella's book, there's The Epic of Gilgamesh for $9.95 (http://amzn.to/bhBlrw) or Travels in Alaska by John Muir for $9.75 http://amzn.to/bxdV08 or Swann's Way ( the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past) by Marcel Proust for $9.95 (http://amzn.to/9XjBwB).

Or check out the choices for yourself

For instance:
Or pick out your favorite category here. (http://amzn.to/a1CxgO)

You can also help by ordering Kindle downloads

The affiliate share is 10%. David Rothman and I have this on-going debate. Hey I love beautiful paper books, but some prefer e-books. He started Teleread (and has sold it to someone who has a business model to pay its writers.)

Kindle seems to be helping authors (to its own business model), offering 70% in royalties after delivery costs (about 6 cents) compared to publishers who offer 15% for hardcovers, 7.5% for trade paperbacks, and 25% for e-books. (And I suspect that this is after expenses, which will be higher than 6 cents.

So, if I run across a kindle version of a book I recommend, I'll include it, despite my preferences.

You get the idea. Can you help?

As folks know, I always advocate for ordering from the author, small press, or locally-owned bookstore to keep these folks in business. But, as Jonathan tells it, Amazon is pretty good for small publishers. So if you're ordering from Amazon, ...why not support coverage of the fight against mtr? And if you'd rather not order from Amazon, it's still a great site to research the book...before you head out to the brick-and-mortar store, if you're still lucky enough to have one near you.