Behind The Scenes
16Sep/140

Driving rude [an editorial]

[A sneak peek at an upcoming editorial for the Brattleboro Reformer.]

A new survey recently aimed to rank the country’s rudest drivers, and
shockingly Vermont ranked in the Top 10.

The “survey,” released on Monday by Insure.com (”The #1most cited
independent consumer insurance website”), ranked the states on
behavior it called “brusque, boorish or downright barbaric.” Topping
the list? Idaho.

Vermont tied for the sixth spot on the list, sharing the honor with
Delaware. Our neighbor to the south, Massachusetts, is just a little
more rude, ranking fifth on the list. (Those saints over in New
Hampshire were ranked 48!)

For point of reference, the top spots were rounded out thusly: Utah
(10); Nevada (9); New Jersey (8); Wyoming (4); New York (3);
Washington D.C. (2); and Idaho (1).

So, why has Vermont ranked so high? Well, Insure.com actually put a
little thought into its explanations: “The University of Michigan
Transportation Research Institute reported that according to
statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
Vermont was one of only two states (the other North Dakota, where the
population soared during the same period) to register an increase in
the number of traffic fatalities between 2005 and 2012. The same study
found Vermont ranked No. 1 in the greatest increase in fatalities per
distance driven of any state over the same period.”

It also points out that, in a 2010 study, DriverSide.com ranked
Vermont No. 3 in the nation for speeding tickets issued per capita. Of
course, what’s not clear is if those tickets are being issued to
out-of-state drivers …. Not from New Hampshire, of course (those
drivers are saints, didn’t you know?), but did you already forget
about those maniacs in Massachusetts? (Yes, the editorial board is
aware there’s more common and concise phraseology for Massachusetts
drivers, but this is a family news organization!)

Needless to say, news of the survey was not warmly received on the
Reformer’s Facebook page, Tuesday.

“Vermont? I don’t believe it, unless the rude drivers they are
referring to are the out of staters here to ski or leaf peep!” wrote
one reader.

“Visited Vermont in the spring and everyone seemed so laid back and
relaxed it’s hard to imagine it being in the top 10,” stated another.
And also: “Pretty positive that Vermont is one of the most courteous
states when it comes to driving. Never had I ever once had road rage
in Vermont but all the other surrounding states all more than once.”

So what, if anything, can we learn from this survey?

“Casting aspersions toward other drivers is a long-standing
tradition,” Amy Danise, editorial director for Insure.com, stated in a
release. “We wanted to know not only where the rude drivers come from,
but also who thinks they’re rude.”

Ah yes, we also failed to mention that this list not only ranked the
states on rudeness, but also the states that hate them the most. (In
Vermont’s case, California was the culprit. But really, can you blame
them? When you’re stuck in bumper-to-bumper gridlock for hours on end,
how can you not hold a grudge against our wide-open highways framed by
beautiful countryside?)

Perhaps more important, a breakdown of the various pet peeves drivers
hold against one another. The top five things that most infuriated
other drivers: driving too fast (26 percent); weaving in and out of
lanes (28 percent); not signaling turns (35 percent); tailgating (37
percent); and talking on a cell phone while driving (47 percent).
Well, that last one won’t be an issue much longer.

If our tongue-in-cheek response didn’t make it clear enough: Surely
Vermont’s ranking on this list is little to get all hot and bothered
about. This survey’s attempt was most likely to generate buzz more
than start a serious controversy. But it does offer a good opportunity
to step back, if just for a moment, and reflect on the way we handle
ourselves when out on the roadways. Those top five pet peeves are all
genuine safety concerns that can and do lead to serious accidents.
Re-evaluating how we choose to conduct ourselves when behind the wheel
of a vehicle is not only good common sense, it could save a life.

So display your Vermont plates proud … and if nothing else, be happy
you aren’t driving in Idaho! We hear those drivers are so rude ....

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15Sep/140

Support for mothers [an editorial]

[A sneak peek at an upcoming editorial for the Brattleboro Reformer.]

The Vermont Department of Health on Monday revealed that, for the second year in row, Vermont is one of only four states to exceed the Healthy People 2020 breastfeeding goals established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the 2014 Breastfeeding Report Card, which was published by the CDC in August, Vermont women breastfeed their babies at birth, three months and six months at a rate well above the national average. Vermont also exceeded the national goals in five categories including rates of exclusive breastfeeding at three and six months. Consider for a moment a 2010 report published in the the journal Pediatrics, which states that the lives of nearly 900 babies would be saved each year, along with billions of dollars, if 90 percent of U.S. women breastfed their babies for the first six months of life.

“The health care system has got to be aware that breast-feeding makes a profound difference,” Dr. Ruth Lawrence, who heads the American Academy of Pediatrics’ breast-feeding section, told the Associated Press following the release of the report.

The health benefits linked to breastfeeding have been well reported, over the years. Among the benefits: Breast milk contains antibodies that help babies fight infections; it also can affect insulin levels in the blood, which may make breastfed babies less likely to develop diabetes and obesity.

“Vermont hospitals and our breastfeeding support community have done a phenomenal job,” Breena Holmes, MD, director of maternal and child health for the Health Department, stated in a release. “Breastfeeding is the most protective and nutritious way to feed your baby. It contributes to brain development and acts as a protection against obesity and chronic disease later in life.”

Despite all of the efforts put forth to educate the public about the benefits of breastfeeding, it is still viewed by many in society to be a taboo topic, and many mothers are left to feel ostracized by the simple act of feeding their babies, as Reformer parenting columnist Michelle Stephens illustrated in a piece last year.

“I found that there are people who are very very against seeing mothers feeding their child. So against it that they will say rude comments to you, ask you to leave, or accuse you of terrible things,” Stephens wrote. “They will shame you into sitting in a filthy restroom, afraid to touch anything. I learned that I couldn’t leave the house without a fight.”

To make matters more challenging, high breastfeeding initiation rates, according to the Vermont Department of Health, take a dramatic decline as mothers return to work, and more than 70 percent of new mothers with young children return to the work force. “Despite federal legislation under the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to provide reasonable time and space for lactating employees, many employers have not yet provided the required support. Many women,” Dr. Holmes said, “feel powerless to approach their supervisors about their needs.”

We call on state and local officials to continue educating the public — mothers on the value of breastfeeding as well as the general public on why breastfeeding should never be something a woman is bullied into feeling ashamed to do. More effort must also be placed on reforms which will support mothers in the workplace.

It’s common sense and there’s more than enough tangible evidence to support that the health benefits far outweigh any societal taboo that makes people “feel uncomfortable” having to witness this most natural of interactions between a mother and child.

“There is still a long way to go before our current society accepts breastfeeding as normal,” Stephens wrote. “Together we will ensure that no new mom, trying to feed her baby gets called names or banished to a bathroom. Instead, she will get the love and support she deserves, regardless of how she chooses to feed her child.”

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12Sep/140

A dangerous blame game [an editorial]

[Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial for the Brattleboro Reformer.]

Two recent news items for your consideration: First, the recent “indefinite suspension” of NFL running back Ray Rice (who was ultimately cut from his team, the Baltimore Ravens), following a domestic violence incident earlier this year in which he punched his then-fiance (now wife) in an elevator. The incident — and the NFL’s subsequent investigation and handling of it — has been a hot topic for most of the summer, and only intensified after footage from inside the elevator (which showed Rice strike his wife in the face and render her unconscious) was leaked to the press last weekend.

Second, the hacking of several, high-profile celebrity cell phone accounts late last month, which ultimately resulted in many nude photographs, meant to remain private, being posted to various corners of the Internet. Slate staff writer Amanda Hess compared the invasion of (digital) privacy as “the digital equivalent of approaching a woman on the street, pulling down her shirt, snapping a photo, and passing it around.”

Unrelated incidents to be sure, but there’s one powerful thread of commonality to be found. In both cases, a woman or women were victimized through tragic circumstance and forced, due to their celebrity (or connection to celebrity), to not only re-live this violation in extremely public fashion, but also live through further victimization by those who chose to question their actions (“Why did she stay with him?” “Why did they take those types of photographs and assume they wouldn’t be stolen?”) as opposed to the people perpetrating the violence.

It says a lot about us as a society, doesn’t it?

Hannah Giorgis, in a thought-provoking opinion piece for UK news outlet The Guardian (“Don’t watch the Ray Rice video. Don’t ask why Janay Palmer married him. Ask why anyone would blame a victim,” Sept. 8) explores this ongoing, troubling cycle of re-victimization.

“That we feel entitled (and excited) to access gutwrenching images of a woman being abused,” Giorgis writes, “speaks volumes not only about the man who battered her, but also about we who gaze in parasitic rapture. We click and consume, comment and carry on. What are we saying about ourselves when we place ... pain under a microscope only to better consume the full kaleidoscope of their suffering?”

Giorgis continues: “This broadcasting of victims’ most vulnerable moments as sites for public commentary is not new. Indeed, victims of abuse have always been forced to recount their traumas to audiences more intent on policing their victimhood than finding justice.”

And really, whether it’s watching a grainy elevator video or clicking through to view personal, intimate photographs never intended to be shared with the world at large, the result is the same: Not only do some feel entitled to view these images, but they also justify their actions by calling into question the very person being violated.

“We think we can look at victims (or batterers) ... that if we look at them at arm’s length, we become spectators,” Shari (no last name given, as policy), a community outreach advocate for the Women’s Freedom Center in Brattleboro, told the Reformer. “There’s this sense that we would never make those decisions ... When really, we have no idea.”

Especially troubling, in this day and age with technology putting a world of information (literally) at our fingertips, victimization can be amplified and disseminated around the world.

“For victims now, in this media age, we are all potentially vulnerable to having incredibly private things become permanently public, and then perceived to be fair game,” Shari said, pointing out that in an age of the 24-hour news cycle, the conversation can only go on for so long before it circles back to judgment on the victim.

And, really, that’s the worst possible way for any of these conversations to be directed.

“It says a lot about the sense of entitlement,” Shari said, “to weigh in and judge that we know what people are going through. It’s like open season on analyzing and critiquing what a victim is going through, creating a cycle of blaming and shaming the victim. This fuels battering.”

More importantly, it takes the focus away from the behavior of the batterer — whether that’s someone striking a woman in an elevator or hacking digital file. The conversation is not about what a victim would or wouldn’t — should or shouldn’t — do.

So we know where the conversation shouldn’t go; Where should it go?

When these types of news stories come about, and spark national debate, the value comes from what we, as a culture, decide to do in terms of looking inward and changing the tone of the conversation.

“Domestic violence is a public media event,” Shari said. “We feel like that spotlight needs to stay on. We’re always examining victims’ mindsets and not our own.”

What we should really be asking ourselves is what is actually going to be an effective deterrent to this behavior?

Any time, in any of these issues, when the culture refocuses and looks at where the responsibility actually lies for these different kinds of crime, that is a step in the right direction. Those are the conversations we need to continue to have with each other.

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10Sep/140

Always remember [an editorial]

[Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial for the Reformer.]

Today marks 13 years since 19 men hijacked four airplanes and committed the largest act of terrorism against the United States. And now, 13 years later, there’s still a lot to pause and reflect upon.

Flags will be at half mast, and somber memorials will be held across the United States in remembrance of that horrible day, a day that many among us will always remember with incredible sadness, unrequited anger and soul-numbing helplessness.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the United States awoke to the real dangers of terrorism: Fantastical terrorists bent on destruction will strike anywhere, anytime and that they are willing to die to do it. In the years that have passed, America, and the world, has changed — and in some ways not for the better.

As this editorial board put it in a similar editorial last year, the feeling of insecurity and impermanence that permeates our society today could be the greatest legacy of Sept. 11, 2001.

Some have posited the disturbing notion that, in fact, the terrorists did win on Sept. 11, but not due to the attacks on the United States, but in our reactions to the attacks.

In the years that followed Sept. 11, 2001, the nation’s infrastructure has crumbled around us, all the while budgets for the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies tasked with protecting us from terrorism and malignant forces continue to skyrocket. While we throw our resources at combating external enemies, the things that have made our society strong and a beacon to people around the world — education, upward mobility, community services, social and economic justice — take a backseat.

Surely that’s a recipe for disaster. And those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.

But that’s also only one way to look at the previous 13 years.

The editorial board at the Contra Costa Times has a different take, however. “Despite taking any number of reactive actions that do not look so good in hindsight,” they write, “the people of the U.S. have rallied. They have, by and large, gone back to business as usual. Our politics are as fiesty as ever. Our people are in some ways defiant and the nation has resolved to remain unbowed by terrorism. The construction of the soaring Memorial Tower and Museum on the site of the World Trade Center Towers will stand as testament to that sentiment.”

Anyone old enough to remember that fateful day in 2001, when heavy smoke from two city skyscrapers scarred the picturesque blue sky, will always remember where they were when they first heard the chilling news. It is equally imperative that we not forget the nearly 3,000 innocent people who were killed that day.

The attacks that day were not specifically against those fallen people, it was an attack on all of us, on our way of life.

That attack continues to this day, and it is the job of each of us to protect it. Today, more than any other, is a time to reflect on who we (as a society) are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going.

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3Sep/140

Presumption of privacy [an editorial]

[Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial for the Reformer.]

In the past two decades since the rise of the Internet (and, in turn,
our new, online world), people have operated with a presumption of
privacy.

From e-mails to pictures to social media accounts, people have
written, photographed and opined on a myriad of subject matter and
later tucked it away with a presumption it was forever hidden from
prying eyes.

Well, as we’ve also learned over the past 20 years, in today’s digital
world nothing is ever as safe and secure as you’d led yourself to
believe. People can and do read your private e-mails. Your bank card
pin numbers can be compromised. Someone most likely is listening to
your cell phone conversation. Those nude pictures you tucked away “on
the cloud” for safe keeping, they aren’t so safe.

Plenty of Hollywood celebrities — mostly the young, female, beautiful,
popular ones — learned that last lesson in particularly hard fashion
this past weekend when a massive hack — which Apple deemed “a very
targeted attack on user names, passwords and security questions” —
lead to the online release of hundreds of intimate images. (The images
in question were obtained via Apple’s iCloud system(s).)

And what’s more sad than this obvious invasion of privacy is the fact
it was greeted with, for the most part, a collective shrug by the
public at large due to the fact that, in this day and age, many a
so-called celebrity has used the ruse of “leaked photos and/or sex
tapes” as a means to garner more attention to bolster their image,
build interest in an upcoming album/TV show/movie, or draw attention
to some other pet project. What that says about them and the society
that rewards such behavior is a topic for another editorial.

However, as the facts become clearer and more lawyers and FBI agents
become involved, it’s apparent this was not just some calculated
publicity stunt.

“There are a lot of theories about how this could have occurred,”
reports Business Insider, “but one of the most prominent suggests
multiple hackers spent months getting into the seemingly secure
accounts, either because they were hired to steal the photos or so
they could trade the images for other things online, like more nude
photos or bitcoin.”

In the Internet’s infancy, this presumption of online privacy surely
was questioned, but like any new, technological advancement, as the
public-at-large became more accustomed to and comfortable with their
digital lives, most grew complacent. Like a house fire; or an accident
while drinking and driving ... or texting while driving, for that
matter — when you haven’t had the first-hand experience the response
is almost always the same: “Oh, that couldn’t happen to me.”

“The Internet,” writes Alexandra Petri, for The Washington Post, “is
where we keep our stuff. Good, bad, and neutral — it’s all there
somewhere, either shared with friends or kept between ourselves and
our closest Facebook advertisers and dearest data harvesters. It’s
where we keep our lists of ideas, our pictures, our music libraries.
It’s a living room, a library, a complete rogues’ gallery of everyone
we’ve ever met that we can access from our pants-pockets, sometimes by
mistake.”

As Petri posits, when looking at this latest celebrity hacking
scandal, “This whole story ... is — yes, certainly a story about
privacy, celebrity, consent and the security of online accounts ...
but it is just as much about what it’s like to grow up on the
Internet. ... The complete list is telling, because with a few
exceptions, they are all female and young enough to have come of age
online.”

And having come of age online, perhaps some should have known there
was a chance, however slim, that this online security wasn’t quite so
secure. And that fact, in no way, demeans the nature of the “attack”
perpetrated on these individuals. As Slate staff writer Amanda Hess
puts it: “The act is the digital equivalent of approaching a woman on
the street, pulling down her shirt, snapping a photo, and passing it
around.”

And I think we all can agree that is wrong.

"We have this abstract belief that privacy is important, but the way
we behave online often runs counter to that," Nicholas Carr told the
Associated Press. Carr, who has written extensively about the Internet
(including the 2010 book, “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to
Our Brains”), says he would “hope people would understand that
anything you do online could be made public. ... Yet there’s this
illusion of security that tempers any nervousness ... It’s hard to
judge risks when presented with the opportunity to do something fun.”
While looking for a silver lining trivializes this latest invasion of
online privacy, it does accomplish two things. First and foremost,
it’s a reminder to everyone that when it comes to the Internet,
nothing is ever as truly secure as it seems.

But, more importantly, it’s the latest wake-up call for authorities to
better prosecute those who circumvent those security measures. As Hess
states: “Not all women have the clout to put tech companies and law
enforcement agencies on notice when they are victimized online, but
they should, and high-profile incidents like this one can help secure
legal recourse for lesser-known victims down the line.”

And there is hope.

In 2012, the man convicted of hacking into several accounts several
years ago and distributing nude photographs of Scarlett Johansson and
Mila Kunis was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Following that case,
as well as one in which TV personality Erin Andrews was photographed
through a peephole in her hotel room (those photographs later appeared
online), California last year became one of the first states to
explicitly criminalize revenge porn. (For those not in the know,
revenge porn is defined as sexual explicit media which is distributed
online, without the consent of the pictured individual, for the
purpose of humiliation). To date, 12 others have followed suit (though
unfortunately, none in New England).

We think this is a good opportunity to call on our state and regional
leaders to learn from these exploitations, and to craft similar legal
guidelines. This was the latest, but certainly not the last time, such
a data breach will occur. With stiffer penalties in place, perhaps it
will make others think twice before they try to crack through digital
safeguards in place to keep our personal information ... well,
personal.

Sure, that may not solve the problem, but at least we’ll have the
comfort in knowing there’s some form of justice in store for those who
choose to violate that privacy.

Filed under: editorials No Comments
11Aug/140

The future of (local) news [an editorial]

[Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial for the Brattleboro Reformer.]

In the summer of 2005, Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi, in a piece for American Journalism Review, wrote about the failing newspaper industry, and how, despite many challenges, there was a place for newspapers in our collective futures.

"The media have been covering the bad news about newspapers for years," Farhi wrote. "To see and read these accounts is to encounter an industry that seems on the verge of crisis, and possibly on the edge of the abyss."

Consider this comment Farhi referenced, from Slate media critic Jack Shafer: "In many U.S. markets, the dominant paper is a fading enterprise. ... In the long run, no newspaper is safe from electronic technologies."

Or this one, from Barron's Online columnist Howard R. Gold: "A crisis of confidence has combined with a technological revolution and structural economic change to create what can only be described as a perfect storm ... [P]rint's business model is imploding as younger readers turn toward free tabloids and electronic media to get news."

To be sure, a lot has changed since the first U.S. newspaper was printed on Sept. 25, 1690. [That would be Publick Occurrences, Both Foreign and Domestick, for you history buffs out there.]

Credit those changes to advances in technology, changes in society and the way people want or expect their news, or development of new delivery methods. Still, one thing remains clear: People want the news. They want to know what's going on in their communities, in their state, around the country, around the world.

Consider the Reformer's past hundred years: Throughout the past 10 decades, each change has brought with it changes that could be viewed positive and negative. In the beginning there was expansion to allow room for growth -- more people, more news, more product. Over time, technology allowed newspapers to do more with less. These days, it's all about diversifying how we present our product. But one thing has never changed in that timeframe: At the end of the day, the newspaper, however you choose to view it, is a collection of the days' news written and presented by a trained staff of newspeople (reporters, editors, etc.).

Reporting this week for the New York Times on the recent spin-off of newspapers from larger media companies, David Carr highlights just how dire today's reality is for newspapers: "Newspapers will be working without a net as undiversified pure-play print companies. Most are being cut loose after all the low-hanging fruit, like valuable digital properties, have been plucked. Many newspapers have sold their real estate, where much of their remaining value was stored.

"More ominous, most of the print and magazine assets have already been cut to the bone in terms of staffing. Reducing costs has been the only reliable source of profits as overall revenue has declined. Not much is left to trim."

Let's return to Farhi's piece for a moment. In it, he juxtaposes the newspaper industry against other modern forms of information dissemination -- local and cable TV news, magazines and the Internet -- and makes a case (albeit a little dated at this point) for why newspapers, more than any other news outlet, are best positioned to weather this storm of new-age news consumption. While he breaks this down to several major points, let's consider just these three:

First, localism. "Readers will always want to know about the schools, government, businesses, taxes, entertainment and teams closest to home. No news organization is better equipped or staffed to supply this information than a newspaper."

Attention from readership. "Newspapers no longer play the central role in people's daily lives they once did, but they are far from irrelevant. Some 42 percent of adults surveyed by the Pew researchers in 2004 reported that they had read a newspaper 'yesterday' (a figure that rose slightly over 2002). With the exception of local TV news, no other news source reaches so many people on a given day."

And lastly, brand-name recognition. "Newspapers big and small have spent millions of dollars over the years reminding people what they do. This has created a vast but hard-to-measure reservoir of goodwill for newspapers...."

To be sure, the editorial board knows that local news -- big and small -- is why people continue to read this newspaper, both in print and online. But, in a changing media landscape, covering our local communities in a thorough and timely fashion -- especially in this age of instant gratification and immediacy -- continues to be a challenge.

"A free-market economy is moving to reallocate capital to its more productive uses, which happens all the time," Carr writes. "Ask Kodak. Or Blockbuster. Or the makers of personal computers. Just because the product being manufactured is news in print does not make it sacrosanct or immune to the natural order.

"It's a measure of the basic problem that many people haven't cared or noticed as their hometown newspapers have reduced staffing, days of circulation, delivery and coverage.

"Will they notice or care when those newspapers go away altogether?"

Well, we sure hope so!

To that end, Strolling of the Heifers is hosting a panel discussion, this Thursday, on the future of local journalism. The session, at the Robert H. Gibson River Garden, includes: Ed Woods, publisher of the Brattleboro Reformer and its regional sister publications; Jeff Potter, interim editorial and operations director of The Commons; Tom D'Errico, editor of the Reformer; and Martin Langeveld, a media observer and former newspaper executive. Questions and comments from the audience will be welcomed.

The group will tackle two key questions: As print media decline in popularity and digital access to news continues to increase, how is the nature of local journalism changing? And, given the trends toward digital delivery and consumption of local news, what business models can sustain journalism going forward?

Local journalism continues to be a valuable watchdog for the public good. Growing pains may hurt, but ultimately change can be good. One thing that will never change, however, is the value of local news.

5Jun/140

Destroying the spirit of the Internet [an editorial]

[Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial for the Reformer.]

“The Internet, in its current form, is not broken. And the FCC is currently taking steps to fix it.”

That’s how John Oliver, host of HBO’s spoof news program “Last Week Tonight,” sums up the recent furor surrounding Net Neutrality.

“Net Neutrality is actually hugely important,” Oliver said during last Sunday’s episode. “Essentially it means that all data has to be treated equally, no matter who creates it. It’s why the Internet is a weirdly level playing field, and start-ups can supplant established brands.”

The Federal Communications Commission has a proven track record of failure when it comes to protecting the pub­lic’s interests and strengthening our country’s broadband infrastruc­ture.

Recent efforts from Internet providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, are asking the FCC to end the current version of Net Neutral­ity. As a recent CBS This Morning report points out, these new rules “would open the door, for the first time, for Internet providers like Comcast and Verizon to charge tech companies to send content to consumers more quickly. (Streaming movie provider) Netflix, for example, might pay a premium to ensure that its customers can stream movies more reliably, at a cost a start-up competitor might not be able to afford.”

Or, as Oliver succinctly puts it: “Ending net neutrality would allow big companies to buy their way into the fast-lane leaving everyone else in the slow lane.”

Well, we all know how that would turn out.

These new Net Neutrality rules, combined with recent proposed megadeal mergers (AT&T’s proposal to take over DirecTV; along with Comcast’s $45 billion bid to merge with Time Warner Cable) will take away American’s freedom of choice when it comes to choosing an Internet provider.

We echo the sentiment of a recent Contra Costa Times editorial: “Eliminating net neutrality or allowing further consolidation of the communications industry are not in consumers’ interests. Consumer dissatisfaction even now is rampant.”

What’s more troubling, is that the FCC is closer than ever to allow­ing this monopoly on Internet service to pass. Some sobering facts to consider: -- A recent federal study published by Broadband.gov found that 96 percent had access to two or fewer cable broadband providers.

-- Consumers’ average bills for pay TV had outpaced the 1.6 percent rise of inflation in 2012, according to a recent FCC report. The jump in basic cable was 6.5 percent to $22.63 a month; the increase in expanded basic was 5.1 percent to $64.41.

“We pay more for our Internet service than almost anybody else on Earth,” Oliver said, highlighting the United States’ 31st place rank­ing (out of 192) from a May 2014 Ookla Speedtest, lagging behind countries like the Czech Republic, Israel and Estonia. (For what it’s worth, Hong Kong was ranked at the top of the list, followed by Singpore, Romania, South Korea and Switzerland.) -- According to a recent report from Bloomberg, Comcast spent $18.8M in lobbying last year, more than any other company except for defense contractor Northrop Grumman.

-- And perhaps most troubling, President Barack Obama recently picked Tom Wheeler, a former top lobbyist for cable and wireless companies, to be the next chair of the Federal Communications Com­mission.

So, why should you care?

Look no further than A Guide to the Open Internet (found online at http://www.theopeninter.net/). Among the many accolades of a free and open Internet: preventing unfair pricing practices; promoting innovation; driving entrepreneurship; stimulating competition; and (most importantly, we believe) protecting freedom of speech.

And while these megacompanies may preach fairness in the mar­ketplace, one need look no further than Comcast’s recent negotia­tions with Netflix. As the talks continued last fall, download speeds provided by Comcast to Netflix customers mysteriously decreased at a drastic rate until a compromise was reached this past February.

The spirit of the Internet only exists if all content is provided to users equally, and those users have the ability to pick and choose a carrier that best suits their needs.

These proposed mergers do little to foster that spirit; the FCC’s new ideas on Net Neutrality all but kill it.

The Reformer editorial board is scared of these changes, and you should be too.

[ The FCC is currently taking public comments on Net Neutrality. Visit FCC.gov/comments (where more than 45,000 comments have already been logged on this issue in the past 30 days).]

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27May/140

There’s a pill for that [an editorial]

[Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial for the Reformer.]

While the news may not be too terribly surprising to anyone bom­barded by pharmaceutical commercials while watching evening tele­vision, a new report shows that nearly half of all Americans take one or more medications.

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report — titled “Health, United States, 2013” — issued earlier this month, included a special section on Americans’ ever-growing use of prescription drugs. The most common prescription drugs? Well, among adults, that would be for cardiovascular dis­ease and high cholesterol.

However, as a report from medical news outlet HealthDay points out, “The relationship between Americans and their prescriptions is complex, according to the report produced by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

While “more people than ever are receiving effective treatment for chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cho­lesterol levels and depression ... doctors and pharmacists also find themselves struggling with unintended consequences of drug use, such as prescription narcotics abuse and the advent of antibiotic­resistant germs.”

A double-edged sword, to be sure.

“Isn’t that the case with all forms of medical technology?” Julia Holmes, chief of the analytic studies branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, told HealthDay. “It results in great ben­efit to people who are ill and disabled, but there’s always the poten­tial for inappropriate use.”

A Time Magazine report on the CDC’s findings highlights some interesting numbers to consider: — As we already mentioned, heart medications and cholesterol-low­ering drugs are the most prescribed (at 17.7 and 10.7 percent of Americans, respectively, taking them.

— The top five are rounded out by antidepressants (10.6 percent), painkillers (10.5 percent) and acid-reflux medications (9 percent).

There are, however, two extremely troubling revelations. First, 5 percent of insured Americans — and 22 percent of the uninsured — went without a prescribed medication because they were unable to afford it.

And worse: There has been a 300 percent increase in the use of pre­scription painkillers over the past decade “Too many American are getting hooked on these drugs when they are legitimately prescribed, and too many are turning to heroin as a cheaper substitute for prescribed painkillers when they can no longer access or afford them,” the Sentinel and Enterprise wrote in a recent editorial.

“Is the medical community doing enough to make sure that these drugs are being prescribed responsibly? Should people who might be vulnerable to opioid addiction — young people, recovering alcoholics and drug abusers — be prescribed these drugs at all? Are doctors armed with enough information about the patient every time they write a script for an opioid painkiller?”

Consider ProPublica’s recent report — “Dollars for Doctors: How Industry Money Reaches Physicians” — which found 15 pharmaceu­tical companies disclosed making $2.5 billion in payments to doctors, other medical providers and health-care institutions since 2009 for promotional talks, consulting and research. Keep in mind, those are just the companies that disclose their payments.

But, as the Sentinel and Enterprise points out, this dark cloud does have a silver lining. Many prescribed drugs are helping to battle chronic diseases, extending peoples’ lives. And life expectancy is on the rise for both men (76.2 years) and women (81 years).

Still, as Uncle Ben once astutely pointed out to a young Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Sure, there may be a pill, these days, for whatever ails you. But we expect doctors, pharmaceutical companies and other within the med­ical care industry to better monitor and regulate who gets these pills, how they are provided, and the continuing care needed for anyone with a medical condition. Many of these pills can and do help many people. But they can also ruin lives, a fact we are reminded of all too often.

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22May/140

Protecting your right to know [an editorial]

[Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial for the Brattleboro Reformer.]

“For decades, Vermont has been at the bottom of the list of states for the public’s right to know the truth about government operations, records and meetings.”

So begins a recent opinion piece by Joe Choquette, sent by the Vermont Press Association to various media outlets around the state.

(As a point of full disclosure, Choquette is a longtime lobbyist with Downs Rachlin Martin PLLC, whose clients include the Vermont Press Association, which represents the interests of the 11 daily and more than four dozen non-daily newspapers in Vermont.)

However, for the past few years, Vermont has seemed to make great efforts to improve that ranking. For instance, the Green Mountain State earned a D+ letter grade in a 2012 State Integrity Investigation by The Center for Public Integrity. One year later, however, Sunlight Foundation Transparency Report Card gave Vermont a B for its efforts.
This is in large part due to a new public records law, passed by the Legislature two years ago, which (at the time) had “strong support” from Gov. Peter Shumlin and Secretary of State Jim Condos.

During this past session, new legislation worked its way through the statehouse (passed by the House on Feb. 28 and the Senate on May 7) and now sits on the governor’s desk, awaiting (presumably) his signature.

However, unlike recent efforts to improve government transparency, as it were, this new law — H.497 — contains several areas of concern.

The penalty for violating the open records law — $500 — has stood strong since the 1970s. It’s a simple matter of cause and effect: Surely a more substantial penalty will lead to more boards taking the
rules more seriously.

Often — sometimes a little too often — our local school and selectboards hold portions of their meetings in executive session. Typically, this happens when boards need to hold “sensitive” discussions (for example: legal or fiscal negotiations; real estates transactions; employee or personnel matters; student or employee disciplinary records; or, as the National Freedom of Information Coalition puts it, discussions that would “result in a clear and imminent peril to public safety”).

H.497 does not address whether minutes need to be kept during these executive sessions. While on the surface this may seem incidental, if the executive session is later challenged, and the board is found to have been behind closed doors illegally, there’s no record of any discussions that took place.

The new bill, as pointed out recently by our colleagues at the Bennington Banner, also “gives boards a ‘get out of jail free’ card for a first infraction. So even if a board was violating the open records law for several months prior to getting ‘caught,’ it could get no penalty at all for that first transgression, no matter how egregious it is.”

So today we’d like to echo the Banner’s editorial board: The role of open government and freedom of information is crucial in a democracy.

This freedom is worth defending.

We join other media outlets around the state in urging Gov. Shumlin not to sign this bill, which will do little to improve on the steps taken to make Vermont’s governing bodies more transparent.

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7May/140

Education at all levels [an editorial]

[ Here's a sneak peek at an upcoming editorial.]

A trio of reports concerning all levels of education recently grabbed our attention ....

Dateline Montpelier:

The Vermont Senate on Monday passed H.270, the universal prekindergarten bill, which will reinforce the state’s pre-school edu­cation efforts and better prepare children to enter school. According to a recent study from the Agency of Education, more than half of Vermont children are not ready for school when they enter kindergarten. And, as a recent report from VTDigger points out, educators, business and children’s advocacy groups for years have pressed the Legislature to enhance support for preschool programs.

“While most of the state’s 270-plus districts already have programs for pre-K students,” VTDigger reports, “37 do not. The universal pre­K bill will bring about 1,800 additional 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds into pre­school programs. The total number of children who would take advantage of the program is expected to be about 6,000, or 60 percent of the state’s 11,284 preschool-aged children.”

Specifically, the new law will require school districts to offer at least 10 hours of instruction for 35 weeks to any preschool-aged child. The state will reimburse districts of qualified pre-kinder­garten programs offered by private or public providers.

Last week, Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, said that Vermont stu­dents entering school were not ready to learn, and extra time was being spent bringing them up to speed. Reaching children early, he said, could possibly reduce special education costs and, looking fur­ther ahead, reduce incarceration rates among teenagers.

“Investing in our youngest Vermonters is both the right thing to do and the smart thing to do,” Gov. Peter Shumlin said, following Mon­day’s vote. “When children and families thrive, Vermont thrives. ... Now access to strong programs for young children will no longer depend on where you live. I am proud to live in a state that will provide every child an opportunity to arrive at kindergarten ready to learn.”

We concur with the governor. A good education starts with a good foundation. A more robust and available preschool system, combined with renewed efforts from parents and guardians, will help Vermont’s young boys and girls start their schooling on the right foot. Thirteen years is a long time (to be in school); If it’s a struggle from the first day, no wonder many children give up before completing 12th grade.

Dateline Washington:

In a major national assessment known as the nation’s report card, only about one-quarter of U.S. high school seniors performed solidly in math. In reading, almost 4 in 10 students reached the “proficient” level or higher.

These findings, as pointed out by a report from the Associated Press, reinforce concerns that large numbers of students are unpre­pared for either college or the workplace.

“In both subjects on the 2013 exam there was little change from 2009, when the National Assessment of Educational Progress was last given to 12th-graders,” according to the AP report. The results, which were released Wednesday, come from a representative sample of 92,000 public and private school students.

“Achievement at this very critical point in a student’s life must be improved to ensure success after high school,” said David Driscoll, chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the exam.

In a statement, Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed out that even though there has been some good news related to graduation rates and scores in younger grades, high school achievement has been flat in recent years.

The “report card” shows racial disparities and offers some context for fluctuations in the results (discussions on readings made reading more enjoyable for some; the higher the level of math being tested, the better the results). However, the bigger takeaway, in our opinion, is that teachers and teaching institutions need to do a better job of engaging students and tailoring their education around their abilities (within reason). We hear time and again that undue focus on test scores and results, in lieu of actual, interactive education leads to poor results in the classroom.

Dateline Vermont:

According to the results of a 2012 survey of Vermont high school seniors by the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, females in the state are much more likely to plan to enroll in postsecondary edu­cation than males.

The study, taken by eight out of 10 seniors in Vermont, found that while 74.8 percent of all seniors planned to enroll in either postsec­ondary education or a training program, a strong gap existed between males and females -- 82 percent of females aspiring to receive education after high school, compared to only 67 percent of males. Furthermore, Among first-generation students (defined by the study as students whose parents do not have a four-year degree), 76 percent of females plan to continue their education, compared to only 55 percent of males.

“Today’s economy demands a skilled workforce,” Scott Giles, VSAC’s president and CEO, told the Bennington Banner. “Education and training after high school is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. The pur­pose of this study is to draw attention to one of the most important social justice and economic inequality issues facing our state. Only by acknowledging these issues will we come together to solve them.”

According to the report, parents’ recommendations to students played a large role in their decision whether to seek education after high school. The report also provided recommendations aimed at improving postsecondary opportunities for Vermont students, including to “develop strategies to encourage parents to begin con­versations about education and training after high school as early as possible,” to “explore alternatives for how, who, and when to provide career and postsecondary education information and adapt the deliv­ery of this ‘aspiration curriculum’ to meet the individual needs of the school and its students,” to “target students with the specific supple­mental services needed to complete a rigorous high school curricu­lum,” to “expand the availability and use of Introduction to College Studies, dual-enrollment, and early college programs by first gener­ation and low income students,” and to “ensure that every high school senior has the means to develop and begin executing a career, education, and training plan prior to graduation.”

There’s a running theme in these three news items: From a very early age, children need family members and/or guardians to encourage and foster the importance of a solid education. This sup­port starts at a very young age, continues into preschool and throughout a 13-year school career. It starts with parents, continues with educators, and is supported at the state and national level.

Today’s support will pay off exponentially with strong-minded, intelligent men and women who will one day lead our communities. Don’t they deserve our help and support?

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