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Defining a Journalist

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY—According to Reporters Without Boarders, there have been 59 Journalists killed, 12 media assistants killed, 21 “Netizens” and citizen journalists killed and 176 journalists imprisoned so far this year. Reporters Without Boarders notes that, “Journalists killed” includes only cases in which the organizations clearly established that “the victim was killed because of his/her activities as a journalist. It does not include cases in which the motives were not related to the victim’s work or in which a link has not yet been confirmed.”

Here in Alabama, we have had no journalists killed, though we have had one blogger imprisoned and this publication threatened.

Journalism is one job of the very few jobs where a person can lose their life for just stating facts. Here in Alabama, journalists lives are not threatened only their livelihood.

Presumptive, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh has said that he wants his staff to define who is a journalist. In a report by Tim Lockette for the Anniston Star, Marsh is quoted as saying, “All I’ve asked for is some sort of criteria, so that if someone is not a journalist, they won’t be in the press room.”

In the same article he told the Star that, “He never considered the Britts to be real journalists.”

(See article here.)

So, by this logic, Marsh has predetermined that the Britts should not be in the press room.

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However, speaking with Mary Sells of the Decatur Daily, Marsh said, “I think Bill Britt is taking it personally, like it’s against him, it’s not.”

(See article here.)

Marsh’s statements would seem to contradict each other. He says he wants a criteria “that if someone is not a journalist, they won’t be in the press room.” Then he states that he has “never considered the Britts to be real journalists.” Then he tells Mary Sells, it is not about “Bill Britt.”

Marsh appears to use pretzel-logic; bending the facts so as not to be seen targeting a particular group of journalists. Or perhaps, Marsh reveres the truth to such great magnitude that he uses it with the utmost economy.

Wex Legal Dictionary / Encyclopedia by the Legal Information Institute of the Cornell University, says, the Free Press Clause in the First Amendment “protects the right of individuals to express themselves through publication and dissemination of information, ideas and opinions without interference, constraint or prosecution by the government.”

By this definition, it is not the media conglomerate or those who own a printing press, or any media outlet, but the “individual,” who is protected under the Free Press Clause.

Like Freedom of Speech, the Founding Fathers were thinking about the rights of citizens, not corporations.

In 1972, the Supreme Court reaffirmed this notion in, Branzburg v. Hayes, stating that Freedom of the Press was “a fundamental personal right” that is not confined to newspapers and periodicals.

The Supreme Court has held that the “lone pamphleteer,” is at the very heart of the Free Press Clause.

According to the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, the United States is ranked 46, behind such countries as the Czech Republic, Namibia, Ghana, El Salvador and other places not often seen as bastions of freedom. In fact, the US is just above Haiti on the Freedom Index.

And Alabama is far down the list of states that allow easy access to public records.

Censorship America offers a historical prospective on freedom to the press. “A celebrated legal case in 1734-1735 involved John Peter Zenger, a New York newspaper printer. He printed a newspaper that publicly bashed the ruler at this time, and he was taken to jail. He was taken to court and charged with seditious libel for assailing the corrupt royal governor of New York. His lawyer Andrew Hamilton defended him well, and was made famous for his speech “truth cannot be libel.” This court case paved the way for Freedom of the Press in the United States to be adopted in the Constitution.”

(See “History of Censorship” here.)

According to the Library of Congress, the Alien and Sedition Act was “Signed into law by President John Adams in 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts consisted of four laws passed by the Federalist-controlled Congress as America prepared for war with France. These acts increased the residency requirement for American citizenship from five to fourteen years, authorized the president to imprison or deport aliens considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” and restricted speech critical of the government. These laws were designed to silence and weaken the Democratic-Republican Party. Negative reaction to the Alien and Sedition Acts helped contribute to the Democratic-Republican victory in the 1800 elections. Congress repealed the Naturalization Act in 1802, while the other acts were allowed to expire.”

As Censor America points out a major aspect of the law was to set out the punishments of imprisonment for writing or publishing “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” about the President or Congress.

It would appear that Marsh who has sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, doesn’t agree with the Framers of the Constitution, and much prefers the egregious Alien and Sedition Acts.

The Anniston Star and the Montgomery Advertiser have taken exception to Marsh’s desire to limit press access to the Senate.

The Star published an editorial titled “You might be a journalist”…

(See article here.)

…while the Advertiser said, “Don’t limit definition of journalists.”

(See article here.)

Both editorials are welcome and show the kind of intellectual honesty that challenges the “Marsh Doctrine.”

The editorial board of al.com and others are yet to weigh-in on the subject, challenging the notion that they are the big dogs of journalism. But, there is still time for them to assert their considerable editorial power.

As of yet, no one has been greatly harmed and no one is likely to be killed by Marsh’s actions, but, his is the path of every would-be tyrant. It is utterly amazing to think that he will lead the Senate of Alabama for the next four years, when there are actually freedom-loving leaders who are much more suited for the job.

But, just so no one, not even a State Senator can miss the point that a journalist, according to the strict interpretation of the constitution, is an individual who expresses himself through publication and dissemination of information, ideas and opinions.

Of course, there is that pesky part about interference, constraint or prosecution from the government, which Marsh seems ready to supply.

Still, every year, journalists put their lives in mortal danger to tell the truth about corruption. Not for money or glory, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Wish the same could be said of the man who would lead our State’s Senate.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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National

Governor Ivey launches new COVID-19 search engine tool

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Governor Kay Ivey on Thursday announced the launch of a COVID-19 search engine tool that enhances the state’s official resource site, altogetheralabama.org.

Through a public-private partnership between Yext and the state of Alabama, this innovative platform will provide real-time answers to questions about everything from the virus itself, through a symptom checker that was developed at UAB, to upcoming COVID-19 testing site locations. 

This service is free of charge and can be accessed either through altogetheralabama.org or directly at covid19.alabama.gov.

“My priority as governor is making sure every Alabamian has the most accurate, up-to-date information about COVID-19, so we can keep our families safe,” Governor Ivey said. “To help with this, we’ve partnered with our friends in the private sector, Yext, to build this search engine tool that works in conjunction with our official resource site Altogether Alabama.”

“We are indebted to Yext for generously offering its resources and innovative technology to support the crucial job of keeping our state informed during this pandemic. Simply put, current information can be lifesaving and this resource will prove invaluable to all who use it,” Ivey said.

Using this search engine, someone can type a question about COVID-19 and get instant results directing them to answers from our local, state and federal partners.

“During a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, accurate answers can be a matter of life and death,” said Howard Lerman, Founder and CEO of Yext. “With Yext Answers, we can help every government organization deliver that critical information and save as many lives as possible.”

The search engine provides factual information regarding this new virus and will provide additional information that complements the work of the Alabama Department of Health.

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State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said, “I want to express my gratitude to Yext for donating services and support for the covid19.alabama.gov information hub. This further enables the Alabama Department of Public Health and the state of Alabama to provide our residents with vital resources to health information during this COVID-19 pandemic.”

Dr. Regina Benjamin, former U.S. Surgeon General of Bayou La Batre, served as an expert health care consultant in the site development and provided valuable insight of information most needed by the public.

“The information hub covid19.alabama.gov puts real-time, up to date information at the general public’s fingertips, including the latest health stats, a UAB-symptom checker, and test site locations,” says Dr. Benjamin. “You can ask ‘Natural Language’ questions and be directed to answers from trusted sources such as the ADPH, CDC, and the Federation of American Scientists.”

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Crime

Pardons and Paroles: Restarting parole hearings “under review” amid COVID-19 crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles is reviewing the possibility of restarting parole hearings through virtual means during the COVID-19 crisis, a bureau spokesman said Thursday. 

Terry Abbott, spokesman for the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, in a message to APR said that both a Wednesday report by the ACLU of Alabama on a decline in parole hearings and the possibility of resuming hearings via teleconferencing are under review. 

“We are in continuing discussions with the Governor’s Office in an effort to restart pardon and parole hearings as safely and efficiently as possible during this very difficult time for the people of Alabama,” said ABPP director Charlie Graddick in a statement Thursday. “The Bureau hopes to announce a plan and timetable soon.”

Graddick said that the resumption of hearings “is a complex issue given the national health emergency, stringent laws governing the Board’s hearing process, including a thirty-day notice requirement to crime victims and officials, and the legal requirements providing crime victims and other stakeholders the opportunity for meaningful in person participation.”

The ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice’s report shows that almost 4,000 people were eligible for parole hearings before April 1, 2020, but since November, the bureau has scheduled an average of 173 parole hearings per month, which is “less than half the average number of monthly hearings in FY 2019, and only a third of the average number of hearings held in FY 2018.” 

In September 2019, Gov. Kay Ivey appointed former Attorney General Charlie Graddick as executive director of ABPP, and former Jefferson County prosecutor and Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney as chair of the parole board. 

The report notes that Graddick suspended all hearings in September and October, and when hearings resumed in November, the number of persons receiving a hearing declined sharply. 

“Additionally, the current board has denied release in 85 percent of cases considered. Only 133 people were granted parole out of the 866 cases considered in the last five months, a grant rate of just 15 percent,” the report states. 

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During fiscal year 2019, the board’s parole grant rate was 31 percent, and in FY 2018, was 54 percent, according to the report. 

“Unless there is a dramatic increase in the number of parole hearings and parole grants, Alabama’s prison population will continue to skyrocket,” ACLU’s report states. 

Aabama’s prisons were at 170 percent capacity in January, according to an Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) report

As of Tuesday, the last day ADOC had updated testing figures, 30 inmates had been tested, but no inmate was positive for COVID-19. There were seven pending test results for inmates, however. 

Two ADOC employees have tested positive for the virus. An employee at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County and at the St. Clair Correctional Facility both tested positive for COVID-19. 

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, in numerous tweets this week has called on the bureau to restart parole hearings by using an order by Ivey that allows board meetings to safely take place during the COVID-19 crisis.  

Ivey’s March 18 order allows state government bodies to “establish a quorum, deliberate, and take action- by means of telephone conference, video conference or other similar communications equipment” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

England on Thursday cited an Al.com article that quotes Ivey’s press secretary, Gina Maiola, as saying Ivey recognized the importance of keeping Alabama’s criminal justice system functioning and included the option of holding virtual meetings in her order. 

@ALBPP seems that @GovernorKayIvey expected the Board to use the March 18th order to figure out a way to hold hearings and not cancel them. It has become clear that the Bureau’s mission is basically not to parole anyone, crisis or not.” England said in a Thursday mornring tweet. 

England in one tweet also noted that the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles is considering releasing some inmates serving for non-violent crimes to community corrections programs to serve the remainder of their sentences outside of prison, as reported by WTVM

England told APR by phone Thursday that it doesn’t make sense that when all aspects of the state government are scrambling to address the crisis, a major component isn’t acting to help. 

“It would seem that the default position of the bureau has become, in times of challenge or controversy, just to stop holding hearings,” England said. 

England also said the bureau should be reviewing and releasing inmates who have serious medical problems, who are much more likely to suffer serious complications or death from COVID-19.  

“If COVID-19 ever invaded our prison system we would basically be giving them a death sentence,” England said.

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Health

ER doctors in frontline battle against COVID-19 are facing pay cuts

Bill Britt

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Emergency room doctors across the nation are experiencing cuts to pay, benefits and hours even as they battle COVID-19. Suddenly ER doctors in Alabama are facing the same slashes to their income.

“It’s crazy, cutting hours and pay right as hell breaks loose,” said an Alabama ER doctor who has spent the last month treating COVID-19 patients. “We are putting ourselves at risk, reusing supplies and dealing with constant uncertainty, and this is how we are treated.”

Healthcare professionals quoted in this report have asked that they not be identified by name because many hospitals have forbidden staff from speaking directly to the press.

“Testing is still so limited and the numbers are so inaccurate, and they don’t want the public to know how bad it is, so they tell us to shut up,” said an ER healthcare worker. “Now they are cutting our hours and pay, what are we supposed to do? I’m so frustrated.”

In other states, health system CEOs and leadership are forgoing or donating pay during the COVID-19 outbreak as systems face furloughing workers due to low revenue, according to a report in Fierce Healthcare.

Mount Sinai, a healthcare network in New York City, announced last week that the system’s leadership team would take a 50 percent pay cut “for as long as necessary so that these dollars can be directed to our front lines in this fight.”

Erlanger Health System, a seven-hospital system in Tennessee and North Carolina, announced March 30 it is reducing leadership pay as have other systems throughout the country.

Here in Alabama, cash strapped hospitals are cutting some frontline workers’ pay first while administrators so far have not offered to reduce their salaries to help those working in the middle of the calamity.

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Over half of Alabama’s hospitals were already facing financial difficulties before the coronavirus struck.

About 52 percent of the state’s hospitals had negative total margins before COVID-19, and 75 percent of them had negative operating margins before the outbreak, according to a report by APR‘s Chip Brownlee.

According to Brownlee’s report, nearly 90 percent of rural hospitals had negative operating margins before the COVID-19 pandemic invaded Alabama.

The recent $2.2 trillion stimulus bill known in congressional circles as COVID 3 was created in part to reimburse hospitals and other health providers to offer compensation for losses and additional expenses at the local level.

“The 2 trillion dollar package we passed — hospitals, health care facilities will get about $133 billion,” Alabama’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Doug Jones told APR in a phone conversation Wednesday evening. “That will be divvied up by the states and there’s a formula that they’ll use. Every hospital that’s dealing with this should get some of that money. That will help them in one way dealing with this crisis.”

But money from the stimulus package is slowly flowing and hospital administrators are not confident how much money they will receive. But even when the funds from COVID 3 are fully allocated, it will not be enough to fill the gaping hole in hospital budgets Jones believes.

“We all recognize that this [COVID 3] is not enough,” said Jones. “We’re going to have to put out some more money to help shore up these hospitals. So many of them have been operating in the red.”

In an effort to reduce stress on the state’s hospitals, all elective services were canceled. Elective surgeries, along with health and wellness programs, are profit centers for hospitals.

In some cases, more patients are coming into the hospitals, but they are not there for the high-profit procedures; they are sick needing immediate care.

“Now they’re focused on saving Alabamians, saving Americans, and so we’ve got to do our part to help backfill — we can’t afford to lose doctors and get them out of the profession,” said Jones. “We’ve already got a shortage. So we’re doing things I think to help that in COVID 3, and I think that’s going to be included in COVID 4.”

Senate Democrats are proposing that the fourth COVID-19 stimulus bill include additional pay for doctors, nurses, grocery-store workers, and other workers whose jobs are deemed essential.

“We are here at the hospital trying to help patients, protect the public and do our jobs under unbelievable circumstances,” said an ER doctor. “Who is watching out for us? Nobody?”

Jones says help is on its way but more must be done going forward.

“So now, people understand that your neighbor’s health — your health — is dependent on your neighbor’s health,” said Jones.

COVID-19 has exposed severe cracks in the state’s healthcare system. Jones sees expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act as a vital part of restoring Alabama’s healthcare system while offering much needed relief to all individuals affected by COVID-19.

“This has shone a light on the deficiencies in our system,” said Jones. “This has shone a light on the racial disparities in urban and rural areas. Everybody in Alabama, and America, has an opportunity to fix it,” said Jones. “We must act now.”

Not all Alabama hospitals are cutting ER doctors’ pay, hours, or benefits, but for many healthcare professionals on the frontlines, they now have one more thing to worry about — paying the bills.


Update: East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika, Alabama, announced after APR published this story that its leaders were taking a temporary reduction in pay in order to prevent cutting pay for frontline staff.

EAMC President and CEO Laura Grill explained the decision, “In an attempt to avoid impacting frontline staff as we are seeing elsewhere in Alabama and across the country, we are making some temporary pay cuts. I asked our senior leadership team to take the first cut and then we asked our employed physicians as well. Then, yesterday, we communicated a reduction in pay to the rest of our leadership team—our directors and managers. I am very hopeful that these cuts will be temporary and that business will return to normal in the near future. However, leadership starts with all of us. I am immensely proud of our team and entire organization, and thankful for the support of our community as we navigate these challenges.”

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Congress

ADOL begins paying federal $600 stimulus benefit

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Alabama Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington announced today Alabama has begun paying the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) benefit that was established with the passing of the federal CARES Act on March 27, 2020.

ADOL began paying the FPUC benefits on April 8, 2020.  Claimants whose claims have processed should expect to see the funds within 2-3 days, if not sooner.  ADOL paid $40,060,495 in FPUC benefits to 60,848 claimants yesterday.

Under the legislation, anyone receiving unemployment compensation benefits is eligible for the additional $600 a week stimulus payment. The payment is added to the recipient’s state weekly benefit amount (maximum of $275/week). The payments will be made for eligible weeks beginning on March 29, 2020 through July 25,2020. This does not refer to the date the original claim was filed, but to the weeks being claimed.  For example, if someone filed their initial claim on March 16, 2020, and remains out of work, they will not receive the additional $600 for the weeks beginning March 15 or March 22, but would receive it for the week beginning March 29, and all weeks going forward.

ADOL will make payments retroactively for weeks already claimed since March 29, 2020.

“We understand the frustration of many Alabamians who are out of work due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and we know that they need these benefits to stay afloat,” said Washington.  “We are working as hard as we can to make sure that everyone gets the benefits they need as quickly as they can.  We are one of the first states to begin distributing these funds. We continue to urge patience as the department works to implement this vital legislation.”

Programs included in the legislation:

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) – provides unemployment benefits to those not ordinarily eligible for them. This includes individuals who are self-employed or contract employees. This benefit is retroactive to January 27, 2020.

Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) – provides $600 per week to any individual eligible for any of the Unemployment Compensation programs. This benefit begins March 29, 2020. 

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Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) – allows for an additional 13 weeks of benefits added to the end of regular unemployment benefits. This means claimants may collect unemployment benefits for a longer period of time than under normal circumstances.

ADOL is encouraging anyone who believes they may be eligible for these programs to file a claim at www.labor.alabama.gov or by calling 1-866-234-5382. Online filing is strongly encouraged.

Those who already have an active claim, or who have already filed a claim, DO NOT NEED TO REFILE to be eligible for these benefits. ADOL will begin processing PUA and PEUC claims as soon as administratively possible.

Important note: None of the benefits described above, nor unemployment benefits of any kind, are available to employees who quit without good work-related cause, refuse to return to work, or refuse to receive full-time pay. Refusing to return to work could result in a disqualification for benefit eligibility. Attempts to collect unemployment benefits after quitting a job without good work-related cause is considered to be fraud.

The CARES Act specifically provides for serious consequences for fraudulent cases including fines, confinement, and an inability to receive future unemployment benefits until all fraudulent claims and fines have been repaid. Employers are encouraged to utilize the New Hire system to report those employees who fail to return to work.

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