Dark Days for Democracy, Dangerous Days for Journalism

Asked to choose “whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government,” Thomas Jefferson stated, “I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Today, Jefferson wouldn’t have that choice; due to economics, electronic media and the internet, newspapers face extinction. In their stead, according to the Pew Research Center, about 45 percent of US adults get their “news” from Facebook, while Fox is the most viewed cable news network.

But both Facebook and Fox have stated that their business is entertainment, not news.

All contracts — including the social contract we call democracy — require “informed consent.” But millions of Americans are deeply un-informed: 34 percent of Americans reject evolution; 22 percent of millenials are unaware of the Holocaust!

There’s good reason why children, lunatics and those of “diminished capacity” — folks who can’t understand what they’re signing up for — are legally barred from signing contracts. There’s reason to worry that gobs of us now fall into that “diminished capacity” category — folks who vote without understanding what they’re signing up for.

Upon retiring after 40 years of newspapering in the Roaring Fork Valley, John Colson told The Sun that, “people need newspapers or some equivalent…to keep them informed about what’s going on around them, so people can make educated decisions about politics, about society. I believe an informed electorate is critical to the American Experiment at the very least, and maybe to the future of the world.”

Corey Hutchins, Columbia Journalism Review’s Rocky Mountain correspondent, says that Colorado provides a microcosm for journalism nationwide. Here, he writes, “We have elusive billionaire newspaper owners, secretive hedge-fund owners, reader-supported nonprofits and family owners.”

For years, the Pulitzer-prize-winning Denver Post was the only news organization that covered statewide politics and elected officials. But more than two-thirds of the Post’s newsroom has been axed in the past decade. Last April, when the paper’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, demanded deeper cuts despite profitability, staff rebelled, penning an editorial describing Alden managers as “vulture capitalists.”

In the last 10 years, the loss of half of Colorado’s press corps has predictably led to “a new generation of public officials…accustomed to fielding fewer tough questions, handling fewer open records requests, and having fewer cameras pointed at them than their predecessors.” That observation comes from Colorado Independent Editor Susan Greene.

Greene is alarmed. Not only was a reporter handcuffed for photographing Denver cops arresting a naked panhandler, but Colorado’s Supreme Court has also refused to open records about a prosecutor’s misconduct. The Court’s decision in the Mario Owens case, Greene writes, “has made Colorado the only state without a presumptive First Amendment right to review any court documents. No other court in the nation has gone so far.”

Since 1733, when New York Weekly Journal publisher John Peter Zenger was imprisoned for criticizing a corrupt royal governor, reporting has at times proved  hazardous: In 1984, neo-Nazis murdered Denver radio host Alan Berg. Reporter Chauncey Bailey was murdered in Oakland in 2007. But last April’s shooting of five staffers at the Annapolis Capital Gazette thrust us into foreign territory — the US now ranks among the top nations in journalists killed on the job!

Although Trump expressed sympathy for the Gazette, he nonetheless instigates. He calls the press “the enemy of the people” and rails against “fake news” while having told 4,229 documented lies since assuming the presidency. Supporters at his campaign rallies wore T-shirts that read: “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some Assembly Required.”

The Washington Post’s motto puts the danger succinctly: democracy dies in darkness.

Through the murk, I do see a couple of rays of sunshine: Sept. 10 marked the dawning of the Colorado Sun, a statewide, online news organization formed by 10 journalists who fled the Denver Post. Last week, The Sopris Sun published its 500th issue.

Although I count this valley fortunate in still having local newspapers, they’re all financially fragile. Greene explains that “a free press is a financially sustainable press that’s independent enough to keep asking hard questions of people in power, regardless of fallout from funding sources.” None of our local news outlets are robust enough to ask hard questions, let alone powerful enough to investigate local businesses that buy ads.

That’s why I’m taking Greene’s advice and paying for my news. In addition to subscribing to the New York Times and Washington Post, I donate annually to The Sopris Sun and KDNK radio. I also have added a Colorado Sun subscription.

If you value democracy, I urge you to do likewise. Also, plan to attend KDNK’s Your News, Your Community forum, at 4 p.m. Oct. 13, to hear from Western Slope newspapers in the Colorado Media Alliance about these topics.

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Originally published in the “Seeking Higher Ground” column in the Sopris Sun on September 20, 2018

Gimme Shelter from Fires, Drought, Floods and Hurricanes

Returning from a recent trip, my friend Jae, who watched the Lake Christine Fire from her deck, was dismayed to find our valley filled with smoke — again! It prompted her to ask friends where she could move to escape summer fires.

Smoke from this summer’s Lake Christine fire, about 12 miles from where I live.

That’s a huge question, one connected to lack of snow, resulting drought, more than 100 wildfires in 18 western states, and ultimately, to climate change. What Jae is really wondering is where to go to at least mitigate the effects of global warming.

Last year, between wildfires, six Atlantic hurricanes, epic floods and mudslides, our countrymen suffered $306 billion in property damage. In 2017, climate and weather-related events caused the deaths of more than 300 Americans and forced more than 1 million of us from our homes.

Yeah, Mick Jagger had it right: “Oh, a storm is threat’ning my very life today. If I don’t get some shelter, oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away.”

The Lake Christine fire seen from my friend Jae’s balcony.

Finding safe shelter is complicated because the effects of warming — the storms, the fires, the floods that Jagger sang about — are indeed global. As are droughts, water shortages and changes in food-growing patterns.

A few years ago, I worked for an Aspen/Snowmass firm that advertised the motto, “Real estate on higher ground.” As best I could discern, the motto referenced both altitude and attitude. The firm is dedicated to meeting the expectations of buyers of Aspen surreal estate, boundaries be damned!

In a place where a home goes for over $7 million (Aspen’s average single-home price is now $7.34 million), buyers do have the right to expect that their brokers eat, sleep and dream real estate, I suppose. Employees shouldn’t feel offended when a phone call interrupts their dental surgery (though I was, and that’s probably why I’m not doing that work now).

Lately, I’ve been wondering whether any real estate agents have begun to offer their services in helping to answer Jae’s gimme-shelter-from-climate-change question. There is an “eco-broker” certification. It references advanced green-building knowledge, ensuring that a broker understands a homebuyer’s desire for “efficiency and sustainability.”

Sustainability? Ruh roh! That would rule out frequently fleeing fires, ocean rise or hurricanes.

While my internet search didn’t turn up any seacoast firms offering to locate real estate on “higher ground” per se, realtors in places like Florida are already seeing around a six percent discount on exposed homes, and they’re offering under-the-table counsel, saying, “No, that place is rather prone to flooding.” Rather than, “In a few years, flood insurance will cost more than your mortgage and saltwater will short out the local power plant.”

By combining data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Zillow, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has projected that 311,000 homes along the U.S. coastline will face flooding on average 26 times a year within the next 30 years. That’s the typical lifespan of a new mortgage, and flooding that frequent could lead communities to an un-sustainable tipping point. As UCS Senior Scientist Kristina Dahl envisions, “When people have to drive through salt water to get to work or face their kids’ school being cut off … you can imagine people walking away from mortgages, away from their homes.”

A similar tipping point has been reached in the U.S. before, not due to flooding, but to drought. Between 1930 and 1940, approximately 2.5 million people left their homes and fled the plains states during the Dust Bowl.

Jesse M. Keenan, a faculty member of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, was interviewed in a recent Medium article. Keenan, who studies the impact of climate change on cities, has coined the term “climate gentrification” to describe resettlement patterns that have occurred in multiple places worldwide. In the U.S., it occurred in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and it’s happening now in California’s Sonoma County following the Santa Rosa fire.

In places that have suffered fires, floods and hurricanes, climate gentrification occurs as those who can afford to rebuild reinforce their homes or move to safer locations. That pushes up costs and subtracts housing stock. Poorer residents and retirees on fixed incomes are forced to sell or move due to repair costs, insurance hikes and resulting higher rents. A millionaire doesn’t fret over $50 a month more, but if you’re a recent grad struggling with $200,000 of college debt, it can push you underwater.

“This is not about whether you believe in climate change or not,” Keenan said, “It’s about the impact climate change will have on your livelihood and your pocketbook.”

Some cynical part of me says that a massive, coming (but-still-subrosa) alteration of American living patterns constitutes an opportunity for real estate agents, those who can figure out where higher ground might be. Coming soon — the Gimme Shelter real estate certification?

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Originally published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, August 23, 2018

Plein Aire Painting

In August of 2018, at the invitation of the Wilderness Workshop, I taught a plein aire (outdoor painting) class at Janeway, a spot near Redstone.

I had a blast.

The hike was led by Wilderness Workshop’s Brandon Jones, who picked a perfect spot — one that Wilderness Workshop wants to protect from too much traffic, traffic that could come in the form a trail being built in the area.

Six students came on the hike, and rather than have them all paint the same thing, I invited each new painter to choose his or her own subject. (My theory being that every artist has to discover what awakens the artistic muse.) No two students chose the same thing.

In addition, I provided some instruction in composition, dynamic range and color theory, specifically how to avoid mixing “palette mud” — that ugly brownish grey that appears when people don’t understand how to mix colors.

I believe that the six participants, many first-time painters, were all pretty pleased with their paintings. At the end of the class, they surprised me with a newly painted and signed thank you note.

Happy results!
The autographed thank-you note.

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A Secondhand Rose in a Great, Green Town

When Barbra Streisand sang about being a secondhand rose in Funny Girl, she sounded a little blue.

But I think it’s something to celebrate, and Carbondale’s clutch of secondhand stores make it easy to do.

My affection for recycled goods predates my life in Carbondale. When I lived in San Francisco, fab recycled finds regularly rolled down the hill from upscale Ashbury Heights to Haight Street. The same gravitational principle applies here, downvalley from Aspen.

Not long ago, Sopris Sun staffers Will Grandbois and Megan Tackett debated buying locally versus shopping on the internet. I’m with Will. I’m a locavore, and if I can mitigate a product’s carbon footprint by buying it here, rather than having it shipped from Chicago or China, I will.

That said, thrift store shopping requires some open-mindedness.

In early summer, I tossed a pair of dog-eared sandals. The replacements had to be red and conform to certain foibles: Flip-flops are beneath my dignity. I get altitude sickness from heels over two inches high. And I have a princess-and-the-pea syndrome about anything passing between my toes. Beyond that, I was open to serendipity.

When I walked into Back Door Consignment, I found that the place had been oh-so-artfully redesigned. The shoes, grouped by color, were precariously perched atop chairs hung on the wall. Yep, red shoes were easy to find. However, you could scuff a lot of shoe leather looking for a specific size.

During the 15 to 20 minutes I spent searching, I was transported back to Moscow, circa 1975. There, in front of a huge, communist-era department store, I saw dozens of gesticulating people crowding around a heap of footwear. An Intourist guide explained that when footwear became available – a rare event – Muscovites rushed in to buy any shoes they could lay their hands on. While the comrades didn’t fuss about style (there was only one!) their sidewalk swap did relieve the lingering capitalist tendency to prefer some specific size.

I don’t think that would fly in Carbondale. Maybe Back Door reached the same conclusion. Last time I visited, the shoe displays had given way to a bit more practicality.

Back Door has, IMHO, the best selection of recycled furniture in town, along with a good selection of dishes and clothing. But my fave rave these days is the Near New on Main. (A shout-out here to fellow Sopris Sun board member Olivia Pevec, a new volunteer who been a force behind the store’s renaissance.) If you need a pillowcase, a pot lid, a pan for your camp stove or a picture frame – something now missing from Miser’s – Near New is now the place to find it.

I have bought shoes and clothing at Lulu’s, and I favor buying artsy and recycled clothes at Mountain Fair. The Buy Nothing Roaring Fork group on Facebook has helped me recycle furniture while providing a painting easel and a metal headboard that makes a great bean trellis.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also put in a plug for Ragged Mountain Sports. That’s where I found my cross-country skis and the shockingly-pink bike I peddled in June’s Full Moon Bike Ride.

That’s me, cross-country skiing with my friend Kim. My second-hand skiis, boots and poles came from Ragged Mountain Sports. The sweater came from Miser’s Mercantile. The Roaring Fork Valley is just stuffed with recyclable sporting gear.

Now pink is not my color. It’s too girly; too Hello Kitty. I’m short, and to get things to fit, I sometimes buy children’s clothing. In a long-ago team-building meeting, a coworker who was asked to characterize me as an animal likened me to a chipmunk! In my quest to be taken seriously, as a manager and an adult, I wore a lot of black. Pink was poison.

But as I said, thrift shoppers need to be open to surprise. And at my age, I’m no longer cute enough to be chucked under the chin. Even if I do ride a pink bike.

I did find red sandals at Miser’s Mercantile. (Their shoes, like their clothes, are grouped by color, but you don’t have to trot all over to find your size.) I also bought a great second-hand watch at Miser’s. They nicely offered to refund my money if the Fossil turned out to be one, but Miser’s 24-hour time limit expired long before I could find a battery. Turns out that it’s next to impossible to have a watch battery replaced in Carbondale. By the time I located a jeweler (in Glenwood), got an appointment and found time for the 40-minute round trip drive, a week had elapsed!

Still, anytime is the right time for recycling in our green-leaning town. When you’re a secondhand rose wearing secondhand clothes, you’re reducing greenhouse gasses, keeping junk out of landfills, conserving energy and building our local economy. And that looks just great on you.

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Originally published in the “Seeking Higher Ground” column in the Sopris Sun on August 15, 2018