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Analysis, background reports and updates from the PBS NewsHour putting today's news in context.

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    HARI SREENIVASAN: A new winter storm blasted its way across the nation's midsection today, bringing heavy snow, freezing rain and even thunder and lightning. Weather warnings and watches extended to at least 20 states, from New Mexico all the way to Virginia. In parts of Kansas and Colorado, the snow fell at a rate of more than two inches an hour. It caused whiteout conditions, shutting down highways, schools and some state legislatures. Forecasters said the system will push on to the Great Lakes and Appalachians, with a spinoff storm dumping heavy snow on New England.

    The snowfall in the Plains brought some relief to the drought-stricken region, but not enough. In fact, government climate experts warned the drought is likely to continue through at least spring. Drought conditions are also expected to spread to California, Texas and Florida. Currently, just over half of the U.S. is affected by some form of drought, but that's down from last year.

    The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO have agreed on principles for a key part of immigration reform: letting in more lower-skilled workers. The two groups called today for a new worker visa program that makes it easier to hire foreign workers when Americans are not available to fill those jobs. The principles also envision a federal bureau to track labor market needs and shortages.

    The focus of the gun control debate shifted back to Connecticut today. Vice President Biden attended a conference in Danbury, just miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School, where 26 people were killed last December. Biden urged support for the administration's proposals to curb gun violence and he warned there is a moral price to pay for inaction.

    VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: The president is absolutely determined that the loudest voices will be for the voices of the people who lost their voice. They will be the loudest voices in this debate. We intend to speak for them. Enough is enough. We have an obligation to act. And we are taking that obligation seriously, responsibly, and we're acting expeditiously.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: We will have more from our "After Newtown" series later in the program.

    Gunfire erupted in the heart of the Las Vegas Strip before dawn today and when it was over, three people were dead and at least six injured. The shooting sent a Maserati crashing into a taxi, sending that car up in flames. Police said someone in a black Range Rover had opened fire on the Maserati near several major casinos. There was no word on a motive. Police in Nevada and neighboring Southern California were on the lookout for the Range Rover.

    In Southern India, a double bombing killed at least a dozen and injured scores more. The targets were a movie theater and a bus station in Hyderabad, a city that's a major center for information technology. Indian authorities said the explosives were attached to bicycles that had been parked in a busy market. They were detonated minutes apart.

    There were startling numbers today on this season's flu vaccine. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that among seniors, the vaccine works just nine percent of the time against the most common and virulent flu strain of the season. That's the one causing most of the illnesses this year. For all age groups, the vaccine has been about as effective as it has in previous years.

    In economic news, first-time claims for unemployment benefits rose last week, signaling that the recovery is still moving slowly. The news put a damper on Wall Street. The Dow Jones industrial average lost nearly 47 points to close at 13,880. The Nasdaq fell almost 33 points to close at 3,131.

    Those are some of the day's major stories.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to the battles playing out over the health reform law and particularly the expansion of the Medicaid program. Many Republican governors have long insisted they wouldn't participate.

    But some of those more prominent opponents are shifting their position. Now that includes the governor of the state that first brought suit against Medicare.

    MAN: Gov. Rick Scott.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Florida's Gov. Rick Scott has been one of the most vocal critics of President Obama's health care law.

    GOV. RICK SCOTT, R- Fla.: This is going to be devastating for patients.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: But, yesterday, he reversed his decision to block the expansion of Medicaid.

    RICK SCOTT: While the federal government is committed to paying 100 percent of the cost, I cannot, in good conscience, deny Floridians that needed access to health care. We will support a three-year expansion of our Medicaid program under the new health care law, as long as the federal government meets their commitment to pay 100 percent of the cost during this time.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Scott, up for reelection next year, is the seventh GOP governor of late to accept the Medicaid expansion. Arizona's Jan Brewer, Ohio's John Kasich and Michigan's Rick Snyder have also accepted the expansion.

    Scott's move is also significant because Florida has one of the nation's highest levels of uninsured residents. More than a million people could be added to the state's Medicaid rolls, potentially funneling an estimated $73 billion dollars in federal money to the state over a decade.

    Medicaid, the joint federal and state program that provides health coverage for low-income families and those with disabilities, is key to the president's Affordable Care Act. The Congressional Budget Office projects 12 million Americans will gain coverage through Medicaid expansion. Starting in 2014, the federal government will pick up 100 percent of the cost. By 2017, the government's share starts to ramp down, so that by 2020, moving forward, Washington will pay 90 percent of the tab, with states picking up the other 10 percent.

    But many Republican governors said this summer they wouldn't opt into the Medicaid expansion after the Supreme Court ruled that states could opt out and not be penalized. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was among them. His state leads the nation in the number of uninsured residents, some six million.

    GOV. RICK PERRY, R- Texas: The idea that we're going to expand what we know is a failed economic program is -- but we're not going to do it in the state of Texas.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: To date, at least a dozen Republican governors are declining to take part in the expansion. And even in states like Florida, it still must be approved by state legislatures.

    To clarify, Florida was the first state to bring suit against Obamacare.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: We get two views. Paul Howard is senior fellow and director of the Center for Medical Progress at the Manhattan Institute. It's a conservative policy research center. And Ron Pollack is executive director of Families USA, a health care consumer advocacy group which worked to help pass the law.

    And, gentlemen, we welcome you both to the NewsHour.

    RON POLLACK, Families USA: Thanks for inviting us.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Ron Pollack, let me start with you. What's your reaction to this announcement from Governor Scott?

    RON POLLACK: Well, I think it's a hallelujah moment. I think it's terrific.

    I think this means that we're going to see states all across the country, I think, follow what Gov. Scott has done. As you aptly indicated, Florida was the state that first went to court to challenge the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. It was that case that went to the Supreme Court.

    So this is a big deal. And, mind you, for Floridians, this is enormous, because if you look at the eligibility standards that exist today, they're really meager. For parents, for example, in a three-person family, they're ineligible for health coverage under Medicaid if they have incomes over $11,000 dollars.

    For people who are -- don't have any children, it makes no difference what their income is. They're ineligible for Medicaid. So this would be an improvement.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to ask you about eligibility.

    But, Paul Howard, how do you see this decision by Gov. Scott in Florida?

    PAUL HOWARD, Manhattan Institute: Well, I think it's obviously a political decision on the part of the governor who's facing low approval ratings in the state and he's trying to do something to elevate his stature and perhaps move to the center.

    I think it's a mixed bag for Florida. Obviously, you want to expand coverage to low-income Americans, but Florida as a whole right now spends about a third of its budget on Medicaid. It's the largest expenditure and it's crowding out other spending on things like education and infrastructure. And that's a story that is repeated across the country, not just in Republican or GOP states like Florida, but in New York and Illinois and California.

    So this is an ongoing challenge that the ACA really doesn't address, and it's going to be a problem for the state going forward.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Paul Howard, why do you believe -- you said you think it was mostly done for political reasons. Why do you say that?

    PAUL HOWARD: Well, you have the governor facing a reelection, as you noted, next year, with low approval ratings right now.

    He's also moved recently to give bonus payments to state workers and to teachers. I think he saw this as a moment to try and reach across to the center or to the left in Florida and boost his reelection chances. It's an enormous flip-flop for the governor, given the stance that he took earlier against Obamacare and the Medicaid expansion. It looks just to be purely politically expedient.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Ron Pollack, coming back to you on this question of politics, do you believe, as Mr. Howard does, that that's the reason?

    RON POLLACK: Well, it's a factor.

    Why would a governor from Florida say to his citizens, we're going to spend tax money, we're going to send it to Washington, and that money that goes to Washington should go to California and to New York and to Ohio to help their folks get health care coverage, but we're not going to do it in Florida?

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And, in fact, that's the argument some of the other Republican governors have made to change.

    RON POLLACK: Absolutely.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's get back to who benefits from this. You were touching on that a minute ago. I think you used the term meager. The benefits are not huge in Florida.

    Just -- I mean, to put in the just a few words, how much benefit does this mean for people -- low-income individuals in the state of Florida?

    RON POLLACK: This is going to be a lifeline.

    So, all together, in terms of people eligible for coverage as a result of this expansion, it's 1.8 million people. Now, quite a few less might get it because they may not know about it. They have to get enrolled, but this means these folks who are newly eligible for coverage for the first time can get good coverage and they will be able to afford it. So this is a big deal.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Paul Howard, how do you see that? How do you see the difference this is going to make for those individuals either with disabilities or low-income?

    PAUL HOWARD: Well, obviously it's a challenge.

    You know, nationally, the Congressional Budget Office pointed out that most of the people who are going to be affected by the enrollment under Obamacare, under the Affordable Care Act, are young and healthy. So the sliver of patients that have chronic diseases or chronic illnesses you really want to reach out to, it's a small portion of people that get expanded coverage.

    I caution just a little bit. Medicaid faces challenges in many states because it has low reimbursements for primary care physician enrollment. So Medicaid patients, they have good coverage on paper. They're going to have challenges reaching specialists and getting care for complex conditions. So that's a bit of a mixed bag here.

    It looks terrific on paper, good coverage on paper. The more complex problems, the people we should be most concerned about, they're going to have the most trouble getting really high-quality care.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you saying you dispute that 1.8 million number we just heard from Mr. Pollack?

    PAUL HOWARD: No, I don't dispute the number.

    What I'm saying is that of the people who are uninsured in states like Florida, the vast majority of them are going to be young and healthy. The CBO has said that in its most recent update in its estimate of Medicaid costs. So these are young, healthy people. They don't have insurance.

    We need to find a way to get those people covered, but Medicaid as a vehicle for getting them that coverage, from my perspective, is the wrong way to go.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you respond?

    RON POLLACK: Well, this covers people throughout the age spectrum. It's not just young people. And, by the way, I think getting young people into coverage is terrific, because these are folks who are less likely to need care, so the costs for those people is less expensive.

    But this is going to help people whether they're 40 or 50, so it's not simply young people. This is going to be across the board. This creates a floor under which nobody can fall in terms of their eligibility for Medicaid.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Paul Howard, how about the rest of Obamacare? What is left now for the states to decide? We know there are the health care changes. And without getting into all the detail about that, how much of an advance is this for getting Obamacare instituted?

    PAUL HOWARD: Look, from the perspective of the states, I think Ron was absolutely right about this. States are looking at kind of a no-win situation.

    If they don't expand under Medicaid, they're looking at state funding, their tax dollars going to other states that have expanded. The law is going to face a number of challenges. I think that the exchanges are going to be an ongoing challenge for the law. A number of insurers have said that they are not going to participate.

    The cost problem of coverage is still something that hasn't been solved. As CBO and others, other organizations, independent analysts have noted, health care costs continue to rise. And then finally the problem of doctor access, physician access under the law is going to be a challenge. So implementation is going to go forward.

    I think a number of states are going to continue to hold out and let the federal government operate the exchanges and see what happens. I think you are going to continue to see a mixed bag on the Medicaid expansion as well. So I think from here on out, we are going to see a number of challenges on implementation and cost. They're not going to be resolved to anyone's liking in the next few years.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see, Ron Pollack, the -- what's left of Obamacare, what's left to be done and accomplished?

    RON POLLACK: Well, now we have to implement this legislation effectively.

    You know, since the legislation passed in 2010, we had a very contentious debate, and there was a question as to whether the Affordable Care Act would survive. Well, the Supreme Court held that it's constitutional. President Obama won reelection. So now it's clearly the law of the land.

    And for all of us now, we have got to try to make sure it gets implemented effectively state after state. I think that will happen, and it certainly will happen in a timely manner starting January 2014.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying what's happened today in these other states, especially those with Republican governors, which were not expected potentially to go along with Medicaid expansion, this will make a difference?

    RON POLLACK: Oh, I think it's going to make a huge difference. I think the dominoes are falling.

    I think you are going to see many Republican governors doing it. And they have to do it, because it's silly not to, 100 percent paid by the federal government, and the states are saving money in terms of their costs for uncompensated care. This is a good deal.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we're going to leave it there.

    And I know we're going to be coming back to this in the future.

    Paul Howard in New York, Ron Pollack in Washington, we thank you both.

    RON POLLACK: Thank you.

    PAUL HOWARD: Thank you. 

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    RAY SUAREZ: We return to the conflict in Syria, where more than 50 people were killed and hundreds more were injured in a Damascus car bombing today.

    We have a report narrated by Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

    LINDSEY HILSUM, Independent Television News: At least three bombs exploded in downtown Damascus this morning, a coordinated assault designed to kill and maim.

    A car which the Syrian government said was carrying five bombs exploded just outside the headquarters of President Assad's Baath Party, dozens killed, hundreds injured, devastating damage, more evidence that, even in the heart of the capital, Syrian civilians are not safe. Survivors shown on Syrian state TV blamed Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadi wing of the rebels linked to al-Qaida.

    MAN: This is terrorism. It's murder. It's un-Islamic. You're telling me it was done by al-Nusra? I hope God never forgives them.

    MAN: We think Jabhat al-Nusra and the Wahhabi terrorists did this.

    LINDSEY HILSUM: A rebel video reveals that the last man shows up frequently on state TV, often as an eyewitness, sometimes as a soldier. He spouts government propaganda. The video exposing him is rebel propaganda.

    Nonetheless, in recent weeks, al-Nusra says it has carried out bombings in the capital. They said nothing about today, while the more moderate Syrian National Coalition condemned the blasts. In the Damascus suburbs today, rebels were firing missiles at the army general command headquarters.

    This video apparently shows fighters who've come from Chechnya. The Koran speaks of Syria as a holy land. It's becoming a magnet for jihadis, the original opposition's talk of democracy overwhelmed. Having backed the opposition, Western countries are in no position to broker a cease-fire or a peace deal. This is a war with no victors, but many victims, where neither side is strong enough to prevail and no end is in sight.

    RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Warner picks up the story from there.

    MARGARET WARNER: For more about today's bombing and how it fits into the broader balance between the forces in Syria, I'm joined by Zeina Karam, acting Beirut bureau chief for the Associated Press.

    And, Zeina, welcome.

    This is, I understand, the third straight day of attacks at government-affiliated sites within Damascus, yet the government appears still to remain in control. What is the state of play between the rebels and the government right now in the city?

    ZEINA KARAM, Associated Press: Well, yes, as you say, this is the third consecutive day we have seen bombings and mortar shells striking targets inside the Syrian capital.

    Now, I do know the Syrian rebels have been trying to push towards Damascus in the past month, but they remain severely outgunned by the Syrian regime. And what these mortar attacks and bombings suggest is that, instead of immediate response, the rebel forces are starting to resort more to attrition and guerrilla tactics to loosen the government's grip on the capital.

    The attacks in the last few days have certainly shattered the sense of normalcy that the Syrian regime has tried to maintain in Damascus.

    MARGARET WARNER: Do the rebels control some parts of the city, and, if so, which parts?

    ZEINA KARAM: The rebels have footholds and control parts of the southern and the eastern suburbs of Damascus.

    In the past month, we have seen rebels try to push their way forward into Damascus from the northeast. And, in fact, they have seized several army checkpoints on the highway linking the capital with northern Syria. But those advances have largely been reversed now. And the government is mostly back in firm control of the capital.

    But, in recent days, we have seen the rebels launch mortar attacks from these areas into the central Damascus area.

    MARGARET WARNER: So, what can you tell us about the rebels' overall strategy, I mean for the country, and how key is -- do they want to seize control of Damascus? Are they trying to simply drive the Assad regime from power? What is their overall game plan?

    ZEINA KARAM: For the rebels, the capital, Damascus, would be the endgame. This is the prize that -- this is the seat of the Assad's government power. And this is what they want to get at.

    We have seen after they have lost momentum for a while in recent weeks, the rebels have had some strategic victories across the country. They have been gaining some momentum again and -- but, in the bigger picture, they're still a long way off before they can achieve any true breakthrough, because they remain severely outgunned by the government.

    MARGARET WARNER: So, the reports were today that there were a lot of civilians who were the casualties in that big bombing. Has there been any kind of backlash among the population towards some of the tactics employed by at least some of the rebel groups?

    ZEINA KARAM: Suspicion formed immediately to the al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra group, which has claimed responsibility for similar attacks in the past.

    And these -- these kind of tactics which can alarm many civilians, they -- in a way, they strengthen supporters of Assad, and they make many Syrians distrustful of the rebel movement. But we saw today the Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group, they condemned the bombing and they blamed the government indirectly for allowing foreign terrorist groups to operate in Syria.

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, Zeina Karam of the Associated Press in Beirut, thank you so much.

    ZEINA KARAM: You're welcome.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Online, we have a photo essay dispatched by a Reuters photographer who spent a month on the front lines in Syria. 

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to our weeklong focus on guns, violence and mental health concerns in the wake of the Connecticut shootings.

    Tonight, special correspondent Trimmel Gomes from Florida Public Radio WFSU-FM looks at the increase in gun ownership in that political battleground state.

    His report is part of the PBS "After Newtown" series.

    TRIMMEL GOMES, WFSU: Florida is known for many things, its sandy beaches and warm weather, but the state's nickname of being the Sunshine State is getting stiff competition by some who call it the "Gunshine State."

    CHARLIE STRICKLAND, Talon Range: Florida is very pro-gun.

    TRIMMEL GOMES: Charlie Strickland is a sheriff's lieutenant and part owner of the soon-to-be-built Talon Shooting Range and Training Facility.

    CHARLIE STRICKLAND: We have a Republican governor, Republican legislature, and so we have -- we sort of lead the country in a lot of the new gun laws, Castle Doctrine, stand your ground statutes, things like that. And, naturally, getting conceal carry permit is commonplace.

    TRIMMEL GOMES: A carry and conceal permit allows a Florida resident to carry a hidden weapon, except in schools and a few other buildings.

    CHARLIE STRICKLAND: Our background is teaching people to get conceal carry permits. We know why they are getting them. They're getting them primarily so they can protect themselves. Women are being taught to twist a finger and stomp on a toe, but nothing really, truly equalizes a small petite woman with somebody who's 6'3'', 230 pounds who's angry except a firearm.

    TRIMMEL GOMES: One woman who's been making sure that equalizer is in place is the leader of the gun lobby in Florida, Marion Hammer. In 1987, Hammer received the first carry and conceal permit issued in Florida. She lobbied hard for Florida to be the first state to make it easier to get gun permits and later went on to be the first woman to be the head of the National Rifle Association.

    MARION HAMMER, Former National Rifle Association President: Florida was the first state to pass a shall issue law, and basically what that means is that unless you are prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm, the state shall issue it, as long as you have no criminal record, no record of mental abuse or mental illness, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, just the standard prohibitors.

    TRIMMEL GOMES: 25 years later, there's another first. More than one million people have active concealed weapons permits. And like in the rest of the nation, gun sales here have spiked. Gun dealers in December reported daily sales that matched a month's worth of business.

    Gun owner Philip Vause likes his state's liberal laws, but doesn't want Florida to be known as the "Gunshine State."

    PHILIP VAUSE, Gun Owner: I think it's an adultery to use that terminology. We are the Sunshine State. We are not a gun state. Let's take one place, for instance. Let's get off of Florida for a minute.

    Illinois, Chicago, has the toughest gun laws in all 50 states. Where are most murders committed? Chicago, Ill., with the toughest gun control. I think you are slandering the name that I'm proud of. I have been here 77 years. And to me, it's not a gun state. It's a state that has guns and they are legal.

    TRIMMEL GOMES: Overall, Florida has seen a 33 percent decline in gun violence since 2007, but roughly 70 percent of homicides were tied to guns. Nationally, violent crimes of all types have been declining since the 1990s, but two-thirds of all homicides in the U.S. are tied to guns.

    Since a 1987 law giving the state jurisdiction over gun permitting, the process has been overseen by the state Agriculture Department, but because it is not a law enforcement agency, the department lacks access to the FBI crime database. There are an average of 10 arrests a day in the state of people who obtained weapons despite having a criminal record.

    Florida also sells conceal and carry permits to people out of state. That has allowed some to skirt their local, more strict gun laws. Pennsylvania recently changed their laws after violent crimes were linked to those with Florida permits.

    Barbara Petersen would like to see Florida laws change as well. She blames the gun lobby for preventing any attempts to restrict gun access or to allow oversight. She is the executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, which tracks open government issues in the state legislature, including the evolution of gun laws.

    BARBARA PETERSEN, First Amendment Foundation: It's not that we're against legal gun ownership. We just want to know and allow those who need to know who has a permit and who doesn't, who's got the right for a conceal carry and who doesn't. That's all we're asking.

    We're not trying to infringe on anybody's right to own or bear arms. As long as they're legally owned, that's fine. But we should have the opportunity to oversee those agencies and hold them accountable.

    TRIMMEL GOMES: She is fighting a tough battle in Florida, where the state legislature instead might liberalize the concealed weapon law to make it possible to carry guns in more locations. Many in the state also oppose President Barack Obama's proposal calling for restoring a ban on military-style assault weapons.

    PHILIP VAUSE: No, they don't need to ban the assault weapon, because there is no assault weapon. What are you going to ban, hammers, screwdrivers, saws? It's just the same thing. I don't categorize an AK as an assault weapon, because I'm not going to assault with anybody.

    You don't take a race car driver and categorize him with a drunk driver. They both drive cars. So I don't see the comparison at all.

    TRIMMEL GOMES: Now with more than a million active permits, that means about one in 14 or seven percent of adult Floridians now have the right to carry a concealed firearm. While praised by gun advocates, those numbers are troubling to some law enforcement officers.

    POLICE CHIEF WALTER MCNEIL, Quincy, Fla.: Obviously, it means that there are more opportunities in the community for guns to be in the hands of the bad guys.

    TRIMMEL GOMES: Walter McNeil is chief of police for Quincy. It's a town of nearly 7,000 residents west of Tallahassee with a violent crime rate higher than the national average.

    McNeil, a former president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, was part of a group of law enforcement officials that recently met with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss national changes to gun access.

    WALTER MCNEIL: Those weapons oftentimes fall in the hands of bad folks in our community. And what that means is, is that there are more opportunities for police officers to come into contact with those carrying weapons. And that creates a degree of concern and a level of tactical operation for a police officer in terms of now how do I make sure that, first of all, this isn't a bad guy that I'm dealing with, and that that weapon that he or she has now isn't going to be used against me?

    TRIMMEL GOMES: One hundred and sixty-five police officers were killed in the line of duty in the U.S. in 2011. That was the highest number on record and Florida saw the highest number of officers killed, 14, most of them by guns.

    To help protect citizens and police, Chief McNeil argues there needs to be more background checks on anyone trying to get a gun.

    WALTER MCNEIL: The issue of background checks to us is a no-brainer, that any persons, whether they purchase a weapon through a friend or family or at a gun show or go to a gun shop in person and purchase the weapon, at every one of those circumstances, there should be a background check done on that person. That, to us in law enforcement, seems to be a simple solution.

    TRIMMEL GOMES: There's another thing that worries police officers about all those guns, their use in Florida's stand your ground law, a law that got national attention when it was used by George Zimmerman to defend the shooting of Trayvon Martin last year.

    The law allows the use of deadly force if an individual has a reasonable fear of being killed or seriously injured.

    WALTER MCNEIL: When the stand your ground law was first contemplated, the Florida police unanimously took a position that we believe it was wrongheaded and not the appropriate thing to do. I would submit to you today that, having seen what -- the carnage, if you will, that has occurred on our streets, that we should move away from that -- that legislation today.

    TRIMMEL GOMES: Since the law was passed in 2005, the number of justifiable deaths has nearly tripled to an average of 35 a year. Trayvon Martin's mother recently went to the legislature with a call to repeal the stand your ground law.

    SYBRINA FULTON, Mother of Trayvon Martin: We need to get rid of this law. We need to do something seriously about this law. As a parent, I wouldn't want you to stand in my shoes, because it is hard. It is difficult.

    TRIMMEL GOMES: A bill has been introduced in the state legislature to repeal the law, but it is given little chance of passing. Both sides say there needs to be a sensible approach to tackling gun violence.

    But in this gun-loving state, it's hard to see any major changes to legislation on the horizon. 

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    RAY SUAREZ: Now a different perspective on guns and public safety from young people who participate in the "NewsHour"'s Student Reporting Labs program.

    And again to Hari Sreenivasan.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: We brought together high school students from around the country into a Google Hangout to talk about recent gun proposals that affect schools, the connection between video games and violence and what can be done to prevent mass shootings like the one that took place in Newtown, Conn. We asked them about recent proposals, such as arming teachers.

    Jacqueline Mears is from Magnolia, Texas.

    JACQUELINE MEARS, Magnolia, Texas: I wouldn't trust a teacher who's trained to teach to protect me. We also have three armed constables all our school. And I would trust constables. And I would trust somebody that is trained to protect me to protect me. So I feel safe with the constables, and I feel like they can do the job better than a teacher that's armed.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Spencer Baldwin is from Shenandoah, Iowa, a place he describes as a rural community with many hunters and farmers.

    SPENCER BALDWIN, Shenandoah, Iowa: A lot of our teachers are already gun owners. They have conceal and carry permits. They have been trained to do that kind of thing. And I think that having one in every classroom wouldn't necessarily be a danger to the students at all.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Students also talked about the changes they have seen since Newtown. Many oft schools are increasing restrictions on who can enter the school, times that kids can go off campus, and they're trying to keep individuals from walking the halls alone.

    SaDarius Clayton is from Las Vegas, Nev.

    SADARIUS CLAYTON, Las Vegas, Nev.: Our school has implemented a closed school campus, where students cannot leave the school for lunch anymore and not too many people can get into the school without going through the front office. Therefore, now they have teachers guarding the door where students cannot sneak out or cannot sneak anything in without teachers being around.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Patrick Avognon, who goes to school in Los Angeles, described what he sees as a useful tool.

    PATRICK AVOGNON, Los Angeles, Calif.: We have random searches. And so what happens is an administrator will come in and she will ask for the attendance list. And they will do every third person or everyone who has a birthday in the month of February. And they will take them. They will search their locker. They will search their backpack. And it's completely random.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The students had a lot to say about whether video games cause real gun violence.

    Elitza Batchiyska from Los Angeles thinks the underlying causes are more complicated.

    ELITZA BATCHIYSKA, Los Angeles, Calif.: I mean, I think that we have been witnessing violence for years, whether in reality through the media or through video games. And I don't think that's a first-hand effect. A lot of the shooters that we know of might not even be interested in that stuff. I go to school with a lot of kids, teenaged boys who are into that, but they would never even dream of owning a weapon.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Jacqueline?

    JACQUELINE MEARS: I feel like it's a false placement of blame, because other countries have the exact same video games, they have the exact same movies, exact same cartoons that children and teenagers and adults are watching, and those other countries don't have the same violence as we do.

    And I feel like it's basically just the fear ingrained in Americans' minds that you need that gun to protect yourself, when, in reality, it's kind of putting you out to be a victim of crime.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: A separate group of students said families and parents have to counter the effects of a violent media culture which can desensitize people to the brutality around them.

    Ben Hudson from Magnolia, Texas, believes media violence can be desensitizing.

    BEN HUDSON, Magnolia, Texas: When they see in video games they're killing people or they see it on a movie, it kind of makes the whole violence thing, even hearing it on the news, like it's not real.

    I don't think it will affect someone enough to pick up a gun and kill someone just because they played a video game.

    PATRICK AVOGNON: I disagree, because I think if you were raised on a game like "Grand Theft Auto," like you played it when you were 6 years old and now you're playing something like "Call of Duty' now, you're a lot more comfortable with the idea of a weapon or a gun, especially if you don't have parents or you don't have someone telling you that this is the wrong thing or this -- you shouldn't be -- this is just a game.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Gerald, you had your hand up.

    GERALD HARRIS, Nashville, Tenn.: Yes, I don't think that we should legislate against a culture or cultures. And I'm not comfortable with restricting choice. I think if it's the parents' choice and if it's the child's choice to go and buy that video game ...

    ROGER MCLAUGHLIN, Richwood, W.Va.: I don't always agree with, you know, a 6-year-old, for instance, my nephew, playing "Grand Theft Auto." But I won't say that video games themselves are the problem.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Madison, go ahead.

    MADISON THOMAS, Missoula, Mont.: I agree with Ben about video games numbing us as people to when we hear about violent things. You don't feel as much as you would before, like, playing the video game. But without having playing these video games, you probably feel more when you hear about tragedies like these.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Thank you all for participating in this student Reporting Labs Google Hangout chat by the NewsHour. Thanks for joining us.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch the full conversations with the students speaking candidly about guns on our Web site.

    Also online, you can explore our entire week's worth of coverage for the "After Newtown" series. That's at NewsHour.PBS.org. 

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    RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight: an assessment of the state of movies and the state of the business, as Hollywood gets set to congratulate itself with the Academy Awards this Sunday.

    By and large, this was a year where the nine films nominated for best picture arguably generated more critical praise than usual and several proved to be solid commercial hits. Some also generated plenty of controversy -- controversy, too, including "Zero Dark Thirty," "Lincoln,, "Argo," "Django Unchained."

    Tony Scott of The New York Times has been writing and reviewing these films, plus hundreds of others. He joins us now.

    Tony, was this an unusually good year to go to the movies, and does that make it an unusually hard year to pick winners?     

    A.O. SCOTT, The New York Times: I think it was a good year.

    I mean, I think there's so many different kinds of movies that come out in every year that it's sometimes hard to rank them. I think it was a very good year for mainstream movies that grownups might want to go see. There's been sort of a knock against the Hollywood studios for the last decade or so that they're mostly interested in teenagers, in action franchises for the international marketplace, in sequels and superheroes and so on.

    This year, a lot of movies, "Lincoln," "Life of Pi," "Les Miserables," "Zero Dark Thirty," came from the big studios, found audiences, and as well as a lot of critical acclaim. So I think it is a strong year for the kind of movies that we were accustomed to seeing around Oscar time in decades past, but maybe haven't been as thick on the ground recently.

    RAY SUAREZ: Ah, around Oscar time. Might this be part of what some critics see as a gaming of the calendar, the concentration of what you would call movies grownups want to see around the time that would make them Oscar-eligible?

    A.O. SCOTT: There's no question about that.

    And I think it is a distorting affect that the Academy Awards and the whole phenomenon of the awards season and the awards campaign has had. That is, for the first nine months of the year, there's very little for grownups to go and see, and critics find themselves falling into despair, wondering, are the movies dead, is it all over, where are the great movies of yesteryear?

    And then around the time of the Toronto Film Festival in September, all of a sudden, these very ambitious and creative and interesting and serious-minded movies pop up, and they kind of overwhelm the multiplexes for a while. And so there's a great kind of famine in the first part of the year, and then the last three months, there's a big feast.

    And that certainly happened this year. I mean, with the exception, I guess, of "Beasts of the Southern Wild," an indie movie that came out of Sundance and was released in the late spring early summer, all of the movies that we have been talking about, "Lincoln," "Argo," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Django Unchained," right down the list, came out in October, November, December.

    So they definitely kind of clog up the system. And that's all about the prestige and the hoped-for box office bounce that awards consideration will bring.

    RAY SUAREZ: Some were gripping, beautifully acted, beautifully shot, but they deal with some tough themes, don't they, I mean, slavery and revenge, emancipation, torture, mental illness. There's a lot of darkness there, isn't there, among the nine nominees?

    A.O. SCOTT: Yes, there certainly is.

    And there's a lot of sort of tough and interesting political themes as well, slavery, terrorism and torture, as well as some very painful personal stories. One of my favorite movies, the French language-film "Amour," is a really devastating drama about an elderly couple and how they deal with the wife's decline.

    And I was -- I was amazed and impressed that that actually got not just the nomination for best foreign language film, but for others as well. But there is -- you know, there's a comedy in the mix, "Silver Linings Playbook," which, yes, does deal with mental illness, but in a very, I think, Hollywood-friendly, lighthearted, affirming way. It's a romantic comedy really in the screwball tradition.

    I think there's also "Life of Pi" and "Les Miserables," which gives something to fans of sort of spiritual splendor and musical spectacle. So there's quite a range. A few years ago, the Academy opened up the best picture field to allow for more than the traditional five nominees so, now we have nine that represents a pretty nice spectrum of what movies are today and what the American film industry at least thinks is worth recognizing.

    RAY SUAREZ: So, who do you like for best picture, quickly, before we go?

    A.O. SCOTT: I think it's going to be "Argo." I think that "Argo" has kind of marched through the guilds. If you had asked me six weeks ago, I would have said "Lincoln." But it's looking like it will be "Argo"'s night, although not Ben Affleck's, because he's not nominated for best director. I think that one will probably still go to Steven Spielberg.

    RAY SUAREZ: Tony Scott of The New York Times, thanks a lot.

    A.O. SCOTT: Pleasure, Ray.

    RAY SUAREZ: Do you think you know this year's nominated films? Play our Oscar quiz online. That's on our home page. 

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    Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe waves at Tokyo International Airport on Feb. 21 on his way to meet with President Obama in Washington. Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images.

    President Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meet at noon Friday at the White House. The two world leaders are embroiled in their own domestic economic issues, and just days before their visit, North Korea conducted another nuclear test.

    We asked Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, about these and other issues that might top the leaders' agenda.

    North Korea

    On Feb. 12, North Korea defied the international community by conducting another nuclear test -- this time of a lighter device that packs a larger punch. The United States, China and others condemned the move, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak called an emergency meeting of the National Security Council, while the U.N. Security Council quickly met in New York.

    The test, though difficult to independently confirm, "demonstrates that Pyongyang is moving along its arc of developing nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States," James Acton, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on the NewsHour the day of the test:

    Watch Video

    "The U.S.-Japan cooperation on North Korea is fairly seamless," Smith told us. The United States, Japan and South Korea will work together not only on a coordinated response to the latest North Korean provocation in the United Nations, but on possible deterrence and alliance consolidation in responding to further actions by Pyongyang, she said.

    Island Dispute

    China and Japan are jockeying for territorial rights of islands in the East China Sea that are rich in fish and potentially in oil and gas. (See a backgrounder on the islands in dispute.)

    Tensions intensified early this year when both countries' militaries got involved, causing concern in Washington over the possibility of an inadvertent clash, said Smith.

    "De-escalating these tensions is of the essence, and both Tokyo and Washington are calling on Beijing to begin to develop some kind of maritime consultations that will decrease the likelihood of miscalculation by local forces," she said. "Japan has begun bilateral talks with China that were interrupted last summer, and the United States, too, has been publicly and privately urging both sides to sit down and discuss how best to discuss their differences."

    On the Sept. 18 NewsHour, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Douglas Paal and the Atlantic magazine's James Fallows discussed how the conflict between Japan and China is as much about national pride as about natural resources:

    Watch Video

    Trans-Pacific Partnership

    When Abe's party came to power in December, the prime minister said he would focus on revitalizing the economy by increasing Japan's fiscal stimulus and encouraging the central bank to introduce a 2 percent inflation target.

    Abe's economic focus, dubbed "Abenomics", included his establishing an economic competitiveness panel to advise him on a growth strategy, said Smith.

    It also might include Japan's joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a proposed regional free trade agreement. Analysts say Abe is receptive to joining the partnership though some members of his party are not, because they're worried it could harm Japan's agricultural industry, Smith said. Eyes will be on Abe's White House visit to see if he alludes to the partnership.

    The next TPP meeting is March 4-13 in Singapore.


    Japan's triple disasters in 2011 -- the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown -- launched a review of its nuclear energy usage and policies. As a result, Japan has shown an interest in purchasing more natural gas from the United States, and the two leaders probably will discuss that option, said Smith.

    (View all of the NewsHour's coverage of the triple disasters and the fallout in Japan.)

    Child Custody

    Another possible topic is the issue of child custody, specifically when a Japanese parent removes a child from a household in another country and brings the child to Japan without the other parent's consent.

    Japan has not signed the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, which requires signatories to return the children to their country of residence. The United States has been pushing Japan to enter the agreement. The State Department says about 100 cases of American children brought wrongfully to Japan are pending.

    Abe reportedly intends to have Japan join the convention, and he likely will update President Obama on those efforts, said Smith.

    View more on our World page and follow us on Twitter:

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    Guns for sale. Photo by Mike Fritz/PBS NewsHour.

    The Morning Line

    Even as a government spending crisis nears, President Obama and Vice President Biden have been working steadily on gun control measures, both in public and private.

    The president's newly revamped campaign arm, now dubbed Organizing for Action, on Friday mounts a major push to apply pressure on members of Congress to back a specific proposal from the White House: closing the loopholes in background checks to purchase firearms.

    The first "Day of Action" will feature more than 100 events in 80 different congressional districts. An official with the group said the events include "Letter to the editor writing parties, or rallies and press events," along with candlelight vigils. Just like campaign events in 2008 and 2012, the supporters organized "what they thought was the best event for their community," the official said.

    The effort launched with a to-the-camera video from Sami Rahamim, whose father was killed in a workplace shooting. "We've lost enough friends and family members and fellow Americans," Rahamim says. "It's time to do something about this."

    Organizing for Action also will buy online ads in districts of members "who have not yet publicly committed to support background checks." The group dubs the issue "the first of a number of common sense tactics is to strengthen and broaden background checks for those who wish to purchase firearms."

    It's one more example of the president using his own popularity and bully pulpit as public sentiment looks to be on his side.

    Speaking in Connecticut Thursday, 12 miles from Sandy Hook Elementary School, Biden said that there is "a moral price to be paid for inaction." The Washington Post's Philip Rucker detailed the impassioned plea as Biden cautioned lawmakers to pay attention. "If you're concerned about your political survival, you should be concerned about the survival of our children," the vice president said. "And guess what? I believe the price to be paid politically should go to those who refuse to act. . . . The American people are with us."

    And groups are getting just as involved. Consider this new spot from Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. It takes a simple approach -- women speaking right to the camera asking viewers to "demand a plan."

    "One child every three hours," the moms say. "Enough."

    Watch it here or below.

    As we noted here earlier this week, the National Rifle Association has its own campaign against Democratic Senators up for re-election in 2014. The newspaper ads also go after one Republican: Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

    And Tuesday's special election in Chicago is looking bright for Democratic former state Rep. Robin Kelly, thanks to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's nearly $2 million investment in making the race about guns.

    On Friday, both the Washington Post and New York Times led with enterprising stories on guns on their front pages.

    The Times reported on state-based efforts to require insurance for gun owners. The Post focused on one woman's sometimes-lonely fight as a gun control advocate in North Dakota.

    Talking Points Memo's David Taintor notes that the mother of an Aurora shooting victim was shocked Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told her at a recent town hall meeting that she needed some "straight talk" about the chances of the Assault Weapons Ban become law once more. On Wednesday the Senate holds its first hearing on the Assault Weapons Ban proposal.

    This debate isn't going away any time soon.

    PBS' weeklong "After Newtown" series exploring every facet of the societal debate in the wake of the tragic shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn. wraps on Friday with a look at mental health and gun violence in Chicago.

    On the NewsHour Thursday, special correspondent Trimmel Gomes of Florida Public Radio/WFSU-FM reported on the 1 million concealed carry permits issued in the Sunshine State, nicknamed by some "The Gunshine State."

    The piece examined the tricky balance between rights and control, and featured interviews with gun enthusiasts and law enforcement officials who fear the state's Republican leaders have gone too far. Watch Gomes' report here or below:

    Watch Video

    "After Newton" includes robust online offerings you can check out here, and find all the details about which pieces are airing and when here.


    The Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO came to an agreement Thursday on an issue that was a major sticking point when immigration reform failed in 2007: low-skilled workers. "The fact that business and labor can come together to negotiate in good faith over contentious issues should be a signal to Congress and the American people that support for immigration reform is widespread and growing, and is important to our economy and our society," the business and labor groups said in a statement. "This is an urgent national priority and Congress should act accordingly."

    A group of Republican senators penned a letter to the White House calling for ex-Sen. Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary to be withdrawn. Not signing: McCain and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, N.H. And you can add Sen. Richard Shelby to Hagel's list of GOP supporters.

    There are seven days until the sequester cuts kick in. On Thursday, Mr. Obama called Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to talk through his proposal. Senate Democrats say they will move forward with their plan when Congress returns next week. Politico sees the administration shifting gears in the fight. And the president will visit a shipyard in Newport News, Virginia Tuesday to highlight the expected cuts. Finally, the Washington Post details how the animals at the National Zoo could be affected by the cuts.

    A 2016 re-election bid? "Sure, why not?" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the Reno-Gazette Journal.

    The Hill cites GOP sources who say Rep. Phil Gingrey won't pursue a Senate bid.

    House Republicans will reveal their own version of the Violence Against Women Act next week, Roll Call's Daniel Newhauser reports.

    The National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee raised just $1.5 million in January, way less than its Democratic counterpart.

    In the latest Atlantic, Molly Ball dives in to polling.

    The Post details the steep climb for likely 2016 hopeful Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.

    A look at quirky bills filed in state legislatures.

    Former first lady Laura Bush asked to be removed from an ad calling for marriage equality.

    Former President Jimmy Carter said that Mr. Obama thanked his grandson for the "47 percent" tape that doomed Mitt Romney last fall.

    The Guardian takes you step by step through what happened in Georgia this week when mentally challenged Death Row inmate Warren Hill went through all the actions before his planned execution, only to have it called off.

    The Boston Globe looks at one GOP Senate hopeful, businessman Gabriel Gomez.

    Sen. John Thune wouldn't lie to second-graders, would he?

    The White House opened the lottery for the annual Easter Egg Roll on Thursday. Details here.

    This is really, really cool.

    People, it's time to get Peep'n. Don't be intimidated by how awesome our submission was in 2012.

    Today's tidbit from NewsHour partner Face the Facts USA focuses on medical research and notes that cancer and heart disease get the most attention.


    The NewsHour fielded a debate between Paul Howard of the Center for Medical Progress at the Manhattan Institute and Ron Pollack of Families USA about governors' opting in to the Obama administration's Medicaid expansion. Watch the segment here or below: Watch Video

    The NewsHour led Thursday's show with an examination of some promising figures when it comes to obesity. Here is the segment, and don't miss Big Bird's cameos to promote healthy eating and excercise in twovideos with First Lady Michelle Obama.

    Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill both have new blog entries up. Gwen gives her take on her interview with Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the Supreme Court this week, noting that when the justice walks into a room, "It's as if the Bronx has come to Washington." And if you're not sure what sequestration has to do with smartphone apps or volleyball tournaments, Judy can fill you in here.

    If you missed Gwen's live chat, you can relive it here.

    Ray Suarez went over the Oscar nominees with the New York Times' Tony Scott. And play our quiz to test your Academy Awards knowledge.

    We showcase one photographer's month in Damascus.


    All of Sunlight's data and analysis on #guns in one place: sunlightfoundation.com/guns/#guncontrol#gunrights#tcot#p2

    — Sunlight Foundation (@SunFoundation) February 22, 2013

    No state has 2 senators further apart politically than WI: a look at the odd pairing of Tammy Baldwin, Ron Johnson: bit.ly/YpW7ji

    — Craig Gilbert(@WisVoter) February 22, 2013

    Utah Democratic Party Chairman: "Jon Huntsman would make a great Democrat." tinyurl.com/bfovjtq

    — Christian Heinze (@CPHeinze) February 22, 2013

    Reports that Hillary Clinton will be charging $200k per speech. If you live in Iowa, just wait a couple years & you can hear her for free.

    — Ari Shapiro (@arishapiro) February 21, 2013

    .@tedcruz headlining Cuyahoga County GOP dinner tonight in Ohio

    — Matt Mackowiak (@MattMackowiak) February 21, 2013

    Cassie M. Chew, Elizabeth Summers and politics desk assistant Simone Pathe contributed to this report.

    For more political coverage, visit our politics page.

    Sign up here to receive the Morning Line in your inbox every morning.

    Questions or comments? Email Christina Bellantoni at cbellantoni-at-newshour-dot-org.

    Follow the politics team on Twitter: @cbellantoni, @burlij, @elizsummers, @kpolantz, @indiefilmfan, @tiffanymullon, @dePeystah and @meenaganesan.

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    In the aftermath of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., gun control policy has sparked constant debate.

    As gun control laws and policies continue to shift in America, so too are changes occurring abroad. To offer a better understanding of international gun law, a group of global gun policy experts joins NewsHour for a live chat today at 3 p.m. ET.

    Participants include:

    Rebecca Peters, a violence prevention specialist from Sydney, Australia, who has worked for more than 20 years on arms control, women's rights, public health and human security.

    Daniel Webster, professor of health policy and management at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where he serves as director of the Center for Gun Policy and Research and deputy director of research for the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence.

    Gary Kleck, professor at College of Criminology and Criminal Justice and a courtesy professor of law at Florida State University.

    What are your questions on international gun control? Leave them in the comments or tweet them to @NewsHour using #gunschat. They'll be answered below at 3 p.m. ET.

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    As the nation struggles to pinpoint what might help prevent violence in the wake of the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary, a program being piloted at a school in Ohio may have a solution. The theory: short bursts of therapeutic exercise, even in a health class, can boost a teen's chances of dealing with stress and adversity.

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    We're talking to all of the filmmakers nominated this year for an Academy Award in the category of Best Documentary Feature, including David France, director of "How to Survive a Plague," Malik Bendjelloul ("Searching for Sugarman"), Kirby Dick ("The Invisible War"), and Dror Moreh ("The Gatekeepers").

    Our final conversation in the series is with Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi, directors of "5 Broken Cameras."

    In 2005, a Palestinian farmer named Emad Burnat acquired a video camera to document the birth and early life of his son. He did that but also captured in great detail what was going on around his family: the building of a security wall in the West Bank by Israelis, demonstrations by villagers against what they saw as this encroachment on their lands, and an increasingly tense situation that in some cases led to imprisonment, violence and death.

    Along the way, one camera after another -- five in all -- were destroyed. Each became a kind of chapter in the story.

    Burnat and Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi later turned this footage into the documentary, "5 Broken Cameras" -- now nominated for an Academy Award.

    I spoke with Burnat and Davidi both by phone from New York.

    A transcript will be added soon.

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    One economist has found a powerful connection between a child's early education programs and his or her earnings, IQ and behavior later in life. Photo by Flickr user Sarah Gilbert.

    Paul Solman: James Heckman is one of the economists of the hour -- a quirky star whose work is now in the limelight. He teaches at the famously conservative University of Chicago, where previous Nobel laureates have also worked, including Milton "Free to Choose" Friedman and Robert "Rational Expectations" Lucas. But work in "microeconometrics" -- the statistical study of individual responses to public policy -- has reached decidedly liberal conclusions.

    A policy that has obsessed Heckman since he moved to Tennessee at age 13: racial segregation and its effects on minorities in America. A much-cited 1991 paper demonstrated the efficacy of federal civil rights policy on African-Americans' economic progress.

    Since his Nobel Prize in 2000, Heckman has focused on early childhood education, focusing on ways to achieve the long-thought-to-be impossible: boosting the IQ scores of disadvantaged children, and therefore, their economic futures. I interviewed him about his work several years ago. Here, on the occasion of President Obama's new push for investing in early childhood education, is an edited version.

    James Heckman: Let me give you a startling finding about achievement gaps. Suppose you pay children in the 5th and 6th grades, right when you think of the achievement gap opening up between blacks and whites, to take an IQ test.

    Say you have unmotivated black kids living in the middle of the ghetto and white kids from Scarsdale or some other upper-class neighborhood. You give each kid who gets a successful answer one M&M -- just give them an M&M -- and you say for each point extra on the IQ test, each correct answer, I'll give you one more M&M. It turns out that the gap between the black and white student in the IQ test scores vanishes -- vanishes completely.

    Let me give you another startling finding. If you take disadvantaged, minority children starting at age six to eight weeks -- I mean, they're literally just born -- and you follow these kids and give them intensive interventions for about eight years, you can boost their IQ at least up to age 21. You can see permanent differences between the treatment and control groups in both men and women, boys and girls.

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    And so what do you do to boost these IQ scores?

    James Heckman: What you do is do what a normal middle-class parent does. Disadvantaged parents are simply not providing much information. That's what these programs can do. They can encourage the child by saying, "Look, you were born into certain conditions, but there are other opportunities for you."

    The Baby College program at Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone is trying to foster exactly this same kind of notion: enriched parenting, providing children with encouragement and creating early environments promoting cognitive skills and non-cognitive skills. Just something basic like reading to the child on a regular basis, a very simple human activity that many of these disadvantaged kids don't get, can have payoffs, in terms of IQ.

    When it comes to payoffs in terms of IQ, what kind of difference are we talking about?

    James Heckman: It hasn't been so well measured as you would hope, but I'll give you another study that we did, on the Perry Preschool Program. These were kids ages four and five in the 1960's. They got much less intervention than the other program I was describing.

    But they came in for two, two-and-a-half hours a day. They were given a goal: "What are you going to do today?" So they planned. They did the project. They reviewed the project in groups, and they learned to get along with each other. We followed these kids who are now 50 years old.

    This type of intervention didn't raise IQ, but their achievement tests, the common measure of IQ, were higher. Their crime rates were lower. We have direct measurements of social and emotional skills, showing that those were greatly improved.

    How much can you change IQ? How much difference can you make on a kid's IQ?

    James Heckman: Well, one project had a change of between four and five points. Five points can be the difference between someone having subnormal *and being *normal. But that's not to say that there isn't a lot more potential.

    A typical finding in these studies is you'll find a surge early on [in improved IQ scores] and then a tailing off. But that's because when a kid is in a program, he's being enriched and being enhanced.

    I don't know if you've taken an IQ test recently, but I bet you were much worse than you were when you were at school; not just because you're older, but also because when you're in school, you're taking tests all of the time. So there is a fade out that occurs when people get out of these enriched environments.

    We're so used to thinking of IQ as being genetically given, used to thinking of these traits as somehow embedded at birth, but they're not. The whole literature in genetics is now talking about gene-environment interactions: epigenetics.

    Here is an example: When you raise Rhesus monkeys -- they share about 95 percent of humans' genes -- with a form of disadvantage, you affect 23 percent of all their genes. The genes are there, but the genes themselves don't do anything.

    So you can have two identical monkeys, one raised in adverse conditions, another one raised in good conditions, and 23 percent of their genes will be different. The fact of the matter is, environment matters.

    So what do you do if you can't get to kids in the first few months of life?

    James Heckman: Well, there are remedies. I don't want to make this into a very precise science where I can say, "At age three months and two days, you should do this." I wish to God that we knew that, but we don't and we're working on it. But we do know roughly that the early years are very important and the later we wait, the harder it is. After age 10, IQ becomes very, very hard to change.

    You're a University of Chicago economist, which suggests a certain conservatism with regard to economics, right?

    James Heckman: Yes, but what I take from Chicago is not some hard line about minimum wages or anything of the sort, but understanding that incentives really matter. Alfred Marshall is one of the inspiring forces of the Chicago tradition.

    And Marshall, in his book, "Principles of Economics," made this remark:

    "The greatest capital that you can invest in is human capital, and, of that, the most important component is the mother."

    So he was talking about early motherhood, maternal interventions, the importance of the family. We know there are a lot of differences genetically; there are a lot of differences that emerge. But what we also know is that we can work with those differences and so we recognize individuality, we supplement individuality and when, in some cases, the individuality looks like it's heading in a bad direction, we can do something about it.

    I'll give you an example of gene-environment interaction. James Q. Wilson and Richard Herrnstein wrote a book called "Crime and Human Nature" about the determinants of crime. They said there is a genetic predisposition for crime, and there is! Have you heard about the MAOA gene?

    If you go to the State Prison of Georgia or any other prison you're going to find an overabundance of what are called "MAOA genes." This gene is very predictive of violence, especially early onset violence. But it turns out -- and this is an amazing finding, within the last several years -- if you take two individuals with the same MAOA gene, one raised in a middle class environment, one raised in an environment with a tremendous amount of violence in the background and not much family support, it is only in the latter environment that the MAOA genes show any predictive power for criminality.

    In the middle class environment, it's as if it never was there. That's a powerful gene-environment interaction. And that's just one gene! When you're thinking about all of the genes we have and that 23 percent of all of them could be affected by these early environments ...

    So your punch line is: Genes are very important, but the environment in which genes are expressed is really your destiny.

    James Heckman: Correct. And that, I think [environment] is powerful. You can shut down the operation of a gene, because certain aspects of the gene will never manifest themselves, or certain negative aspects can be reinforced by it. The gene is still the same but it can be shut down, or it can be enhanced.

    So what's an economist doing spending all this time on genetics and Rhesus monkeys?

    James Heckman: Because I'm deeply interested in inequality: why one person succeeds and another person fails. What is the contribution of the family? What is the contribution of markets? I mean, there's a whole range of questions, so it's not always just genetics; it's not always the family.

    We can change who we are. We can improve ourselves in various ways and we can give ourselves possibilities. I hate to use the word "improve" because that suggests a kind of social planning, a kind of normative action.

    What I'm thinking of is a sense of capabilities. It's basically saying, give a child more possibilities to do whatever he or she wants to do with their life. So you give them more capacities: more capacities to solve math problems, more capacities to do music, more capacities to control their anger or maybe not control it, but they could willfully be angry rather than just be angry impulsively.

    So the idea is to enhance these capabilities. These translate into earnings. These directly translate into who goes to school and who succeeds at school. IQ is a factor, but conscientiousness and motivation play a huge role.

    The traditional story of economists has been to say education explains what the returns are to school. I say, "Okay, that's fine, but what explains the education? How much is just a matter of my giving you a poor kid versus a rich kid?"

    The real scarcity isn't money. The real scarcity, at least when it comes to this matter of forming skills, is parenting. And that explains a lot of paradoxes. You have kids growing up in some of the worst circumstances financially, living in some of the worst ghettos, and they succeed. They succeed because an adult figure, typically a mother, maybe a grandmother, nourishes the kid, supports the kid, protects the kid, encourages the kid to succeed. It's as if the environment never happened.

    That's so important for social policy because think of what Lyndon Johnson was doing 45, 50 years ago. I think it was a very sincere effort. I deeply respected the effort but I think it was a failure. Clinton admitted it was a failure by the 1990s. Giving people money to change poverty and hopefully raise the standards of the next generation didn't seem to be doing much good. What we failed to understand was that the measure of poverty we were using was way too crude. The poverty was parenting. Of course, when the kid is starving and doesn't get any iron, then of course money would matter. But we're not typically at that level; it's much more what the quality of the early environments are.

    In some states over 80 percent of African-American families are now single parent. Even among Hispanic families it's a staggering figure, which has traditionally not been the case. To the extent that those early environments are actually worsening in this dimension, that should translate -- and does seem to translate -- into deteriorating conditions for the next generation.

    So what you're getting is kids growing up in a new form of child poverty. That new form of child poverty is actually threatening their ability to go to school, their willingness to learn, their attitudes and their motives. That's a major source of inequality.

    On top of the regular factors that affect increasing inequality -- globalization, unions getting weaker -- there's the factor of deteriorating parenting?

    James Heckman: Yes, I think there is, although I wish I had harder numbers. There's another study done by some demographers, Susan Bianchi in particular. More educated women are working more than they ever have before. They're also spending more time on child development than they ever have before. Why? Because they've read all this literature about child development.

    Less educated women are also working more - not quite as much - but they're not spending any more time in child development. So there's a great divide - that's what the demographers call it, "the Great Divide" - between the haves and the have-nots. So the parenting inputs are essentially not being achieved.

    And in many cases, the kids are growing up and going into childcare facilities that are second rate, that are basically not really providing them with the stimulation that a good middle class family might do. And so that's another source of disadvantage and it's exactly the sort of disadvantage, by the way, that Alfred Marshall was worried about back in the 1870s and 1880s.

    Since we don't seem to be willing or able to do much about the usual influences on inequality, why do you want to focus your attention here?

    James Heckman: This is one avenue I think we can go about it. Especially if we're thinking about poverty in the next 20-30 years.

    Paul Solman: For more, here's a fascinating interview with Heckman and a post by David Warsh, whose weekly "Economics Principals" column I cannot go without.

    This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown- NewsHour's blog of news and insight. Follow @paulsolman

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    State funding and investment for mental health services have significantly decreased in recent years, even as demand for these services has increased. But there may be a glimmer of hope for advocates of expanded access to mental health coverage.

    In participating states, the upcoming Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act will increase both the number of eligible enrollees and the list of treatments and services covered, including mental health coverage.

    Both the Medicaid expansion and the establishment of health insurance exchanges are scheduled to roll out Jan. 1, 2014. The federal government will pick up all the costs for newly eligible Medicaid patients under the expansion for the first three years, and then will slowly decrease the federal contribution to 90 percent.

    By expanding Medicaid and creating the health insurance exchanges, the federal government hopes that more uninsured Americans will become insured, and as a result, fewer people will need to rely on costly emergency room treatment for their basic health care needs.

    But the Supreme Court's ruling on the health care reform law on June 28, 2012, allowed states to opt out of the law's Medicaid expansion while maintaining their existing Medicaid funding. Those states that opt out will not receive the additional funds to expand coverage to include mental illnesses.

    For more of an overview of where U.S. mental health stands now, we turn to Christine Vestal, senior writer for the Pew Charitable Trust's Stateline blog.

    After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, many officials have been calling for more mental health services in the United States. How realistic do you think that is?

    Christine Vestal, Stateline: Well the states don't have a lot of money. It's probably getting more publicity than it will actually get funding. There are a handful of states where the governors have made this a big priority: Colorado is one, and we're also hearing from Ohio, Rhode Island, Maryland, and South Carolina.

    We've seen pretty drastic changes in state-level mental health funding in the last few years. What have you observed? ?

    Christine Vestal: At the state level, [mental health funding] has gone down since 2009. There's a report from the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors that shows a decline of $4.35 billion between 2009 and 2012 across all the states.

    State budgets have been challenged ever since 2001 with the back-to-back recessions, and "non-essential services" are getting cut. They don't want to cut education (even though they are). And they can only cut Medicaid so much because it's a federal program with federal minimums.

    So like other social services, mental health services are getting cut. They're just not considered essential. And because of that, some states are closing beds and closing hospitals.

    As cuts for mental health services continue, where do people go for help?

    Christine Vestal: When crisis hits, they end up in emergency rooms, because states are not only lowering the number of beds and state-funded hospitals, they're cutting back on funding to community services as well.

    State charity hospitals, state psychiatric hospitals, counselors within schools, emergency screening, long-term care and crisis centers and community mental health centers -- all of these are being cut. The study that I mentioned also shows that between 2009 and 2012, 12 states closed a total of 15 state psychiatric hospitals. And a total of 4,471 psychiatric beds were cut within state hospitals.

    Are emergency rooms equipped to deal with people in need of mental health services?

    Christine Vestal: For the most part, they are able to stabilize them. But the big question is: What happens after that? They're released again and so they may keep coming back.

    All of this doesn't mean there are no services. It's not as if they're closing everything up, they're just not funding it to the level to meet demand. There are longer waiting lists. You can look at the funding trend-line and say it doesn't look good and you can look at the demand, which is going up -- especially for community services -- so it's not good.

    How might the Affordable Care Act, the health care reform law, play into all of this?

    Christine Vestal: There are two major ways. One is that if you're buying insurance on an exchange, those policies will be required to include mental health services. Right now, a lot of people have insurance but it doesn't cover mental health.

    So for the people who are going to be using an exchange -- and that's estimated to be 22 million people by 2022 -- those people will be sure to have affordable insurance that covers mental health services.

    The other major factor is the expansion of Medicaid, which states can now choose whether they want to go forward with or not. If all states went forward, an estimated 13 million Americans would have insurance, most of whom don't have insurance through Medicaid at the moment, and the new coverage would include mental health services. Many of the people who would benefit from the expansion would be young adults, and that's a large portion of the people affected by mental illness.

    But there are quite a few Republican-led states that are saying "no," they're not going to expand Medicare. And at this point, a "no" means they're probably not going to be doing it at least for the first year, which is 2014.

    Do we know what kind of services will be included in these Medicaid plans?

    * Christine Vestal:* I haven't gotten to that level of detail, but it's considered comprehensive -- it would include some long-term care, some residential care, preventative care, screenings, testing, counseling, pharmaceuticals. It's just a matter of how much.

    The flip side of spending all of this money on this additional money is that this could potentially save the U.S. some money. What's known about that?

    Christine Vestal: The same report that I mentioned before says that for every dollar spent on depression, $7 is generated on the economy. And that's mainly because people can't work at all -- or at least not effectively -- when they're suffering from depression. So that's one gain that we can put a dollar figure on.

    Another is that it cuts back on admissions to hospitals, because mental illness affects physical wellbeing and very often, an individual can have physical health problems and they tend to be much worse when combined with mental illness. A recent study has shown that when comprehensive community based mental health services are available for young people, that cuts down on hospital admissions and the length of stay by 40 percent.

    What are states that are strengthening their mental health programs looking to do?

    * Christine Vestal:* Responding to the tragedy in Aurora, Colo., Gov. Hickenlooper proposed an $18.5 million increase in mental health services. Again, that's not enough to make up for the decline in funding in recent years by a substantial amount. But he wants to create a statewide mental health crisis hotline, set up five 24-hour mental health crisis centers, increase the number of psychiatric beds in state-run hospitals and develop housing for people suffering from mental illness.

    In Ohio, the governor has $5 million he wants to use to help families who have a family member suffering from mental illness and feel threatened by [their family member]. It provides housing for the person with mental illness or respite care for the beleaguered parents.

    In Maryland, Gov. O'Malley has said he wants to increase funding for crisis intervention, mostly for young people. Rhode Island wants to better identify the early signs of mental illness in young people and get them into effective treatment. And very often this involves having counselors in public high schools or K through 12.

    Christine Vestal is the senior writer for the daily news service Stateline at Pew Charitable Trusts.

    Photo above by Stockbyte/Getty Images.

    Jason Kane contributed to this report.

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    Editor's note | This post was updated at 5:52 p.m. to correct the language around New York's gun law as it pertains to magazines.

    A little more than a month after a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., left 26 people dead, New York lawmakers signed into law a suite of tough new policies they said were designed to prevent future gun violence.

    In addition to imposing a background check system on all private gun sales and reducing permissible magazines down to seven rounds from 10, the law implements the state's first handgun database for local officials to check gun owners for mental health issues and criminal offenses.

    "This is a gun control bill that actually exercises common sense," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said in a speech before signing the bill on Jan. 28. The law received broad support from legislators on both sides of the aisle.

    Cuomo isn't alone in his policy efforts to reduce gun violence as the country collectively heals following the loss of 20 first graders and six of their teachers, along with shooter Adam Lanza's mother. President Obama, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Maryland's Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley are some of the lawmakers readying for a fight with the gun lobby over their push to implement similar policies at federal and state levels.

    Recent public opinion data suggests they might have more success passing less controversial policies that researchers say also may have an appreciable effect on reducing gun violence.

    The national survey of 2,703 people includes respondents who identified politically as Republicans, Democrats and independents. The survey also broke down respondents in terms of gun owners, non-gun owners, gun owners living in a house with a gun and owners who identified as members of the National Rifle Association. The research center was established in 1995 with a goal of reducing gun violence.

    "There were a couple of real surprises that came out of this work," Colleen Barry, lead researcher and associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, told the NewsHour.

    "One surprise was that so many of these policies were supported by a majority of gun owners, and a second was that so many policies enjoyed support across political party affiliations," Barry said.

    PBS NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni spoke with Johns Hopkins professor Colleen Barry via Google Hangout about the role public opinion may play in this year's debate over gun control policy:

    Watch Video

    Several policies received more than 80 percent support across the groups surveyed. These proposals include expanding the background check system to all gun sales, adding individuals undergoing psychiatric treatment to the background check system, keeping people on the terror watch-list from legally obtaining a firearm, taking away a dealer's license for inadequate record-keeping and prohibiting a person convicted of a serious crime as a juvenile from having a gun for 10 years.

    "The majority of Americans supported most of the 31 different gun policies that we asked about and only four of those policies were supported by less than a majority," said Barry.

    The survey also showed consensus among non-gun owners and NRA members for several proposals. It found 89 percent of Americans support expanding the background check system. The policy received 84 percent support from gun owners and 74 percent support from NRA members.

    Policies that would prohibit certain individuals from having a gun also received broad support. For example, a policy that would prevent a person who has violated a domestic violence restraining order from having a firearm was favored by 81 percent of respondents. It received 76 percent support among gun owners and 62 percent support among NRA members.

    Survey respondents also were open to considering policies that place more scrutiny on gun dealers, including a policy proposal that would revoke the dealer's license if an audit revealed records-keeping violations. They also were open to a policy that imposed a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in prison on someone convicted of selling a weapon to someone who is prohibited from having a firearm.

    "I think the bottom line message for policymakers is they have a large range of options from which to choose in terms of enacting legislation to curb gun violence," Barry said. "We tend to focus in the political debate around a couple of policies and some of those are controversial and some are not that controversial."

    One of the most highly publicized and controversial policy proposals is a ban on assault weapons, consumer grade, military-style weapons on which users can attach devices to increase the weapon's firepower. Lawmakers also are proposing limiting the number of bullets an ammunition magazine can fire before reloading.

    "The high capacity magazines that give you the capacity to kill a large number of human beings is nonsensical to a civil society," Cuomo said before signing the New York legislation.

    Even as the Johns Hopkins survey found a majority of support among Americans for a ban on these weapons -- 69 percent -- the proposal didn't make the list of the top five policies that people across all groups viewed favorably.

    Yet armed with these survey results, Feinstein is working to gain support for a bill she introduced in January that would reinstate a ban on assault weapons and limit to a 10-rounds capacity. The prior ban in place for a decade between 1994 and 2004 was part of a broader initiative to reduce crime. A congressional hearing on Feinstein's proposal is set for Wednesday.

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    Gun rights supporter Doug Hathaway holds a sign in support of a pro gun rally rally at the Colorado State Capitol. Photo By Andy Cross / The Denver Post via Getty Images.

    As we wrap up coverage for PBS's "After Newtown" weeklong special on guns and gun violence in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, we examine look at some of the numbers: just how do Americans of all stripes feel about possible new gun policies?

    Researchers at Johns Hopkins looked into the issue, and after conducting two national public opinion surveys, released the data. You can read their report, including methods used and various findings, in the New England Journal of Medicine.

    The researchers categorized respondents based on political leaning (Democrat, Republican or Independent), gender and gun-owning status (non-gun Owners; non-gun owner but gun in home; or gun owners). Of the gun owners, NRA membership was included as a subset. We dug into the data and found some interesting points ourselves.

    Unsurprisingly, Democrats showed much more support for stricter gun policies than NRA members. Men had lower support than women. And non-gun owners had higher support on average than NRA members. When grouping similar policies into types (like ones directed towards assault weapons or just gun dealers), background checks were by far the most popular type, with assault weapon and ammunition policies the least popular.

    We were surprised that NRA members had the widest variation in their support (or not) of policy types than any other group. This means NRA members showed a lot of distance (in terms of percent approval points) between what they liked best and what they didn't. Women, on the other hand, liked just about every policy, and approved of them at similar amounts.

    You can dig into the full dataset on all 31 gun policies across 10 groups in our interactive table here.

    That said, there was plenty of variation between groups and the policy types they suggested. Even though the NRA members supported background check policies the most, their level of support was smashed by Democrats: they supported assault weapons policies 22 percent more than the average, while NRA members were 38 percent below the average support level. These differences are highlighted in our interactive chart, where you can view support for policy types against the average of all groups.

    Given the variation, could any policy be considered a shoo-in if their was a popular referendum on gun policy?

    A quick sift through the data suggests that yes, there were quite a few that had high support. The top five policies were all over an average 80 percent approval rate between groups. You can see those listed in our piece "Americans Support Range of Proposals to Reduce Gun Violence," including an interview with the study's lead researcher.

    The least popular?

    Allowing police officers to search for and remove guns from a person, without a warrant, if they believe the person is dangerous due to a mental illness, emotional instability, or a tendency to be violent? (49.8 percent support) Providing government funding for research to develop and test 'smart guns' designed to fire only when held by the owner of the gun or other authorized user? (41 percent) Prohibiting people who have been convicted of drunk and disorderly conduct from having a gun for 10 years? (36.4 percent) Allowing people who have lost the right to have a gun due to mental illness to have that right restored if they are determined not to be dangerous? (32.9 percent) Prohibiting people who have been convicted of indecent exposure from having a gun for 10 years? (25.5 percent)

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    This Oscar Sunday, enjoy a cocktail Hollywood-style, like Mae West in 1937's 'Every Day's A Holiday.' Photo by Paramount/Getty Images

    Alcohol has often held a starring role on the silver screen. Academy Award-nominated actress Greta Garbo opened the 1930 film "Anna Christine" (her first part in a "talkie" film) with the immortal words "Gimme a whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don't be stingy, baby!" Cocktails conjure visions of old Hollywood glamour and sophistication, but can also elicit panic from hosts and hostesses less versed in the art of drink-making.

    To assuage any worries over the best ways to make and serve cocktails, we turned to three experts in the liquor field: Lesley Blume, writer, journalist, cultural observer and author of "Let's Bring Back: The Cocktail Edition;" Steve Walton, head bartender at High West Distillery and Saloon in Park City, Utah; and New York based mixologist and beer sommelier Hayley Jensen. We get their entertaining tips, recipes for Oscar tie-in cocktails, and a little history of drinking in Hollywood.

    The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship

    The first Academy Awards were held in 1928 in the midst of prohibition. Even though it was illegal, Hollywood was deeply steeped in drinking culture. It was an age of speakeasies. According to Blume, Hollywood was a huge influencer of drinking habits because people drank what they saw people drinking in movies.

    Popular actors and actresses of the time like Charlie Chaplin and Mae West had drinks named in their honor. The Mae West contains the unlikely combination of brandy, half an egg yolk and cayenne pepper. Blume says the ingredients match West perfectly: strong, boozy and velvety.

    Best Leading Role at a Party

    One of the most common dilemmas in party planning is "how much (fill in the blank) do I need?"

    "Get heaps and heaps of ice," warns Lesley Blume. "You always need twice as much ice as you think you do." For glassware, Blume suggests stocking up with two times the amount of glasses as guests. Arm yourself with the appropriate equipment for cocktail-making. Steve Walton suggests a Boston shaker, a muddler (for crushing ingredients such as mint, allowing flavors and aromas to be extracted) and a jigger (a tool to measure alcohol for a drink).

    Hayley Jensen says if possible, make some of the drinks ahead of time. One of her signature cocktails, "The President," inspired by the movie "Lincoln," has a base of hard cider, and can be made ahead to be served in a punch bowl. "Everyone can gather around the punch bowl, which provides a conversation piece and an ice breaker," Jensen says.

    When deciding how much alcohol to buy for your shindig, Blume says allot three drinks per attendee. But don't forget to also serve some food or else you may get to see some real drama.

    Best Editing

    What does it take to make a good cocktail?

    "It's all about measurement," says Walton. "The biggest mistake people make is not measuring the ingredients. It's exactly like baking in this respect."

    This is where the jigger comes in handy. A jigger has two unequal sized opposing cones in an hourglass shape. Usually, one side measures 0.5 oz, the other 1 oz. By using a jigger, you ensure that you are creating a consistent cocktail.

    Blume and Jensen both agree that hosts should focus on one or two cocktails to serve, to preserve the integrity of the drinks and the hosts' sanity.

    Walton says a good rule of thumb is that citrus-based drinks are shaken, alcohol-forward drinks such as martinis is stirred, contrary to James Bond's signature drink order.

    Best Art Direction

    Making your party memorable does not require a long acceptance speech at the end of the night.

    Blume suggests an impressive presentation that is simple and hearkens back to the roaring '20s: a champagne tower using coupe glasses. Take Blume's advice, arrange the glasses in a round pyramind of stacked coupe glasses, not flutes. Pour Champagne or Prosecco, starting with the top-most glass, allowing the bubbly to stream down into the descending coupes.

    For a "highly stylized D.I.Y.," touches like customized cocktail napkins (available online) or tables decorated with wine bottles with art deco labels will set your performance apart, Blume says.

    For your drinking pleasure, below are the recipes that coincide with the time periods and tastes of a few Academy nominated films:


    The Blue Blazer- Invented around 1850 by Prof. Jerry Thomas, the father of American mixology. During the time of Lincoln's presidency, American mixology became "a thing." Blume says, this was a time of starched white shirts and diamond cufflinks." "There was a lot of care and high expectations to produce a fantastic cocktail," says Walton. Try your hand at the Blue Blazer; warning: it does involve some pyrotechnics.

    2 heated mugs 2 1/2 ounces boiling water 1 teaspoon sugar 2 1/2 ounces heated Scotch 1 lemon peel twist for garnish

    In the first mug, dissolve the sugar in boiling water. In the other mug, pour the whiskey and set it on fire. Pour the ingredients from one mug to another. As Thomas wrote in The Bon Vivant's Companion, "If well done this will have the appearance of a continued stream of liquid fire." Pour the mixture into a heated wineglass and adorn with the lemon peel twist. Make sure that your home insurance policy is intact.

    Recipe courtesy of Lesley M.M. Blume and Chronicle Books.

    The President - Hayley Jensen suggests serving this hard cider-based drink in a punchbowl for ease and it also allows guests to mingle and break the cocktail ice. Hard cider was a popular drink during Lincoln's presidency, and he was know to enjoy drinking it in the White House.

    1/2 oz raspberry liqueur 1/2 oz orange liqueur 2 orange slices 8 oz Angry Orchard Apple Ginger

    Muddle orange slices in pint glass. Fill glass with ice. Add liqueurs & cider. Pour into mixing cup & back into pint glass or into a punch bowl. Garnish with orange slice.

    "Les Miserables"

    "French cocktails use mostly gin and champagne," says Steve Walton. For a drink that combines some of those elements, check out a High West signature drink, "The Cowgirl Kiss."

    1.5 oz High West 7000 Vodka 1 oz pomegranate juice 1 oz champagne Add vodka and pom juice to cocktail shaker, shake, pour into a chilled martini glass, top off with champagne.


    The Rolls Royce A symbol of sophisticated, posh, glamourous living, which epitomized 1970s Hollywood. Here's recipe that's best drunk in a breezy caftan.

    1 ounce gin 1/2 ounce French vermouth 1/2 ounce Italian vermouth 1 dash Benedictine ice cubes

    Stir with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. The hand with which you grip this glass should be absolutely heaving with rocks--whether real or aspirational. Recipe courtesy of Lesley M.M. Blume and Chronicle Books

    "Silver Lining Playbook"

    Walton suggests this drink for whiskey novices. High West Silver Oat whiskey un-aged, meaning it doesn't need barrel time. The whiskey has tequila and vodka-like qualities. Give this a whirl with High West's signature "Cochise" cocktail.

    1.5 oz High West Silver Oat Whiskey 1 oz fresh grapefruit Juice 0.5 oz Fresh Lime Juice 0.5 oz Demerara Simple Syrup 2 slices of Fresh Ginger Muddle fresh ginger, grapefruit, lime and simple syrup, add Silver Oat Whiskey, shake and pour over ice in bucket glass, garnish with a grapefruit slice.

    Classics That Never Fade

    The Mae West- As Lesley Blume says, this drink totally epitomized its namesake: strong, boozy, and velvety.

    1 ounce brandy 1/2 egg yolk 1/2 teaspoon sugar ice cubes 1 dash cayenne pepper

    Shake the brandy, egg yolk, and sugar with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Add the dash of cayenne pepper and a dollop of naughtiness. Recipe courtesy of Lesley M.M. Blume and Chronicle Books

    Manhattan - Steve Walton says you can't go wrong with a classic Manhattan. It's a classic drink, drunk in a tuxedo.

    1.5 oz High West Rendezvous Rye 1 oz Sweet Vermouth 2-3 dashes of Angostura Bitters Add ingredients to pint glass and stir with ice, pour into chilles martini or rocks glass (personal preference) and garnish with a brandied soaked cherry.

    Simple Syrup As vital to many cocktails as gold is to Oscars. Using simple syrup as oppose to putting sugar directly into a cocktail assures that a un-chic sugary film will not collect in the glass.

    One part sugar One part hot water

    Combine is saucepan, then cool to room temperature. Use in your favorite cocktails, such as the "Cochise." Good to be stored in your refrigerator for one month.

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    Watch Video Judy Woodruff spoke with espnW reporter Brant James on Danica Patrick's star power and her chances in Sunday's Daytona 500.

    Danica Patrick has already made history when she became the first female driver to win a pole position in NASCAR's premier division, the Sprint Cup Series. On Sunday, she will have the chance to use that spot to drive her to a first-place finish at Sunday's running of the Daytona 500. Another female first for the history books.

    Danica Patrick, driver of the No. 10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, is the first woman to win pole position for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' race. Photo by Photo by NASCAR via Getty Images

    I was compelled by her story and wanted to find out more about the woman who is arguably the most popular figure in American auto racing. So I tapped the expertise of Brant James, a reporter who has covered Patrick extensively for espnW. James told me that Patrick's influence on the popularity of the sport is noticeable. Not only has she inspired more women to be fans, more families are coming to the track sporting electric green shirts with the bright orange No. 10.

    "She draws fans from across the demographic spectrum. It's incredible to watch at the race track. You see little girls wearing the shirts. You see the fathers, the sons. You see old men," James told me Friday from his hotel room near Daytona Beach, Fla., the site of the race.

    You can listen to the rest of our discussion about Patrick's electrifying effect on the world of NASCAR, the challenges women have faced in the sport, and James' prediction for Sunday's race, in the video above.

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    Photo courtesy of WhiteHouse.gov.

    President Obama met Thursday with leaders of the NAACP, the National Black Justice Coalition, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and other prominent social justice groups largely focused on the needs of African-Americans.

    At times during Mr. Obama's first term, such a meeting would have drawn notoriety amid charges -- from people such as PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley and social activist Cornel West -- that the president was reluctant to push policies specifically aimed at helping the poor, especially low-income African-Americans.

    White House director of African-American media Kevin Lewis was in the thick of answering such charges like those back in President Obama's first term. In an interview with the NewsHour, Lewis explained why the president's policies helped everyone.

    "In the first term we did a good job of trying to get the policy right, to fight Congress to keep student loan [rates] low, preserve unemployment benefits, the earned income tax credit. Those are huge to the African-American community," said Lewis, who has been with Mr. Obama since the 2008 campaign.

    "[Just because] you don't put 'black agenda' or African-American in front of a policy doesn't mean it doesn't absolutely help African-Americans," said Lewis.

    In his State of the Union address, the president highlighted plans for a slate of programs to help low-income neighborhoods, including pre-school for all children and start-up loans for businesses.

    "African-Americans are disproportionately [helped] by universal pre-kindergarten, incentives for companies to invest in low-income neighborhoods, incentives for job training," Lewis said.

    According to Lewis, during earlier meetings with the president, the groups represented in Thursday's meeting suggested some of the ideas the president put forth in his speech. "[The president saw the latest meeting] as a chance to drill down on messages and issues from the State of the Union [about helping] the hardest hit neighborhoods," he said.

    Mr. Obama also granted interviews Thursday to black radio hosts and to local TV news anchors in carefully selected markets to make the case for his solution to the pending across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester.

    Such cherry-picking among media outlets this week chafed already irritated members of the White House press corps, who accused the president of going around them the same way he goes around Congress to push his point of view directly to constituents.

    Lewis, who began his White House stint in the press office, says both decisions reflect a strategy required by the times.

    "Not everyone watches the nightly news. I watch it because it's my job. But [for other people to get our message] it's on Yolanda Adams' [radio show] on the way to work," Lewis said. "The national press is going to cover [the president] anyway. They travel with the president."

    "We're looking to make sure we use all the methods. [Being on] black radio is part of that. It helps to hear him on different platforms," Lewis said.

    The White House plans more African-American oriented initiatives and events, including the president's speech next week at Wednesday's unveiling of a statue of civil rights figure Rosa Parks at the Capitol.

    For more political coverage, visit our politics page.

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    Follow the politics team on Twitter: @cbellantoni, @burlij, @elizsummers, @kpolantz, @indiefilmfan, @tiffanymullon, @dePeystah and @meenaganesan.

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    RAY SUAREZ: With just a week left before automatic spending cuts are set to begin, the Obama administration stepped up pressure on Republicans in Congress today.

    The latest warnings came over the potential impact that furloughs would have on air travel, starting in April. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said travelers could face new delays of 90 minutes at major airports in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. More than 100 air control towers at smaller airports could be closed, LaHood said. Airlines likely would cancel flights. And Congress, he said, would hear of the fallout.

    SECRETARY OF TRANSPORTATION RAY LAHOOD: It's not only the impact on the passengers. It's the impact that it has on airports, control towers, people who work there, airports.

    And their phones are going to start ringing. Why does this have to happen? Nobody likes a delay. Nobody likes waiting in line. None of us do. If we can't get our hamburger within five minutes, if we can't get on the plane within 30, 40, 50 minutes after going through, you know what happens. They start calling their member of Congress.

    RAY SUAREZ: More now on these latest warnings, the Republican response and the timing of these possible cuts.

    Lisa Rein is following this for The Washington Post, and she joins me now.

    Lisa, in recent days, senior members of the Obama administration have laid out in exacting detail all the terrible consequences if the sequester goes through, while Republicans, in many cases, have said it might not be that bad. From your reporting, can you tell who's working closer to the truth?

    LISA REIN, The Washington Post: Well, it is hard to tell, but this is really in part a political game because it really does look like these $85 billion dollars in spending cuts will begin to take effect next Friday.

    It doesn't look as if Congress, as either side in Congress has a real interest in resolving this issue. And the Obama administration has over the past I'm going to say about two weeks has stepped up the pressure on Republicans to say to the public, OK, dire consequences will result if these cuts take effect.

    That's in part because the agencies have to make the cuts across-the-board, and they can't really make them without furloughs. Now, air traffic is just one area of the government that would -- that the White House says would be impacted. You have got national parks that are going to delay openings because they have to. They can't do seasonal hiring, and seasonal hiring are the folks who really drive parks.

    Poultry inspections would be compromised. Prosecutions in federal courts, you know, would be affected, the whole range of things. Now, for the Obama folks, in many ways, it's in their interest to blame Republicans for these cuts because polls have shown that the Republicans would take the blame.

    For Republicans, many, many constituents in these Republican districts want to cut government spending. And their members feel that this is really the only way to start doing it.

    RAY SUAREZ: These are being portrayed as sudden and sizable cuts. Where are they going to be seen first? Sec. LaHood was talking about April for some of these air traffic effects. What will we see and how soon after Mar. 1st?

    LISA REIN: Well, it's hard to say.

    There's no question that no one is going to be furloughed next Friday. And the cuts will really not be visible for several weeks, if that. It's also possible that Congress will reach a deal several weeks into these cuts to stop them and nothing really noticeable, you know, would happen to government services.

    So they will be gradual. And federal agencies have the ability to push off some of the cuts. But what they are saying is that they need to start furloughing people in about April. The Defense -- the Pentagon said this week that it was issuing furlough notices to about 800,000 civilian employees to prepare to be furloughed.

    So, in the case of the Pentagon, you know, that means that destroyers, various aircraft carriers will not deploy to places like the Persian Gulf and other theaters. And that's a big effect on local economies, in areas like Hampton Roads, Va., San Diego. And it's an effect that will be clearly felt on contractors who rely on Navy contracts for shipbuilding.

    So I think the effects will be gradual. No one can really tell when the agencies will sort of pull the plug. And, as I said, the cuts nay not take effect for that long.

    RAY SUAREZ: Well, you said at the outset that there is a political dimension to this. And, of course, as we enter the final week, there most certainly is. What is the public telling opinion researchers about who they will hold responsible if Friday comes and goes without a deal?

    LISA REIN: Well, I think part of the problem is that many Americans don't really understand what sequestration is.

    It's become this obsession in Washington, but many people are only just now beginning to become aware of it. But the recent -- a recent poll by the Pew center for research said that many more Republicans would be held responsible than would the Obama administration. On the other hand, as I said earlier, Republicans have been putting pressure on the administration for two years, three years now to get -- to make deep spending cuts to the federal government which they see as excessive and in need of cutting and as causing huge deficit problems.

    And part of the problem is, if you have automatic spending cuts, which is what the sequestration would do, across all arms of the government, virtually, then no one really needs to take responsible for having authorized specific cuts to specific agencies. And that's in part why the cuts are, oddly enough, politically more palatable than if Republicans or Democrats were to say, OK, we suggest that you cut this agency or that agency.

    RAY SUAREZ: Lisa Rein of The Washington Post, thanks for joining us.

    LISA REIN: Thank you. 

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    HARI SREENIVASAN:  A winter storm headed east today, after socking the Plains with snow, sleet and freezing rain.  It was already blamed for four deaths, flight disruptions and hundreds of road accidents.  The huge system was moving north and east, and losing some of its punch.  But it was still expected to make trouble in the Northeast and New England this weekend.

    The sounds of snowblowers roaring to life and shovels scraping the driveway could be heard in state after state today.  Much of the nation's midsection spent the day digging out from under more than a foot of snow, and for drivers, it quickly turned into an icy nightmare.  The highly unsettled storm also brought lightning and thunder, but it was the snow falling at two inches an hour in places that caused the worst problems.

    Kansas City Mayor Sly James said it was the pace that was hard to deal with.

    MAYOR SLY JAMES, Kansas City, Mo.:  It fell fast.  It fell heavy and it fell at the wrong time.  You know, it started in the morning around rush hour, early rush hour, and just continued until about 2:00.

    HARI SREENIVASAN:  The mayor said Kansas City's Main Streets had been cleared by midday, and crews worked on residential neighborhoods.  But, yesterday, it was a far different story.  This Kansas City bus couldn't navigate the drifting snow and fishtailed into a lamppost.  The snow came with strong winds that piled up large drifts.  And that, in turn, caused problems on the interstates.

    MAN: Man, it's kind of tough out here, even if you got a four-wheel drive.  I advise you to just stay in because everybody's getting stuck all over the place.  It's a mess out here.  I mean, it's really a mess out here.

    HARI SREENIVASAN:  Crews worked through the night and into today in Missouri and Kansas to plow I-70; 200 miles of the highway in Kansas had been shut down as the storm blew through.

    Today, as the system tracked north and east, it created more travel woes.  A United Airlines plane skidded off the runway in Cleveland in icy conditions.  No injuries were reported.

    NATO defense ministers discussed plans today for keeping 8,000 to 12,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014.  That's when international combat forces are scheduled to withdraw.  Those remaining would focus mostly on training Afghan units.  In Brussels, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said it's unclear how many Americans would be part of that longer-term force.

    DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA, United States:  We want to be able to have the flexibility to look at a range of options that we ought to have for our enduring presence.  But I want to make very clear that the range of options we were discussing was with regards to the NATO force, and the NATO force consists of both a U.S. presence, plus NATO contributions.

    HARI SREENIVASAN:  Some 66,000 U.S. troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan.

    In Egypt, a general strike in the city of Port Said entered a sixth day, with major new protests.  Thousands of people rallied in the streets waving signs and chanting slogans demanding that President Mohammed Morsi step down.  They also denounced his call for new elections beginning in April.

    AHMED AL-TOHAMY, Protester:  Morsi's call for parliamentary elections is null.  I want to give a message to Morsi, who is a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood group.  I want to tell him that Port Said is the one that will get rid of this regime.  We have started this revolution and we started our strike.  We do not fear them.

    HARI SREENIVASAN:  One opposition leader, Mohamed ElBaradei, said holding elections amid the current upheaval is a recipe for disaster.  His group threatened a boycott of any vote unless Morsi first agrees to political talks.

    The states of Texas and Georgia executed two men last night by lethal injection.  Carl Blue was put to death in Texas for dousing his girlfriend with gasoline and setting her on fire in 1994.  She died later.  And in Georgia, Andrew Allen Cook was executed for killing two college students in 1995.  A second death row inmate in Georgia had been scheduled to die this week, but his attorneys argued he is mentally disabled and they won a stay.

    The Food and Drug Administration approved a first-of-its-kind breast cancer drug today.  The medication, named Kadcyla, attacks tumor cells without harming healthy ones.  Studies by the drug's maker, Roche, found it delays the progress of breast cancer by several months.  The FDA approved its use for patients with an advanced form of the disease that's more aggressive.

    Wall Street closed out a volatile week with a big day.  The Dow Jones industrial average gained nearly 120 points to close just over 14,000, making up most of the lost ground of the last two days.  The Nasdaq rose 30 points to close well above 3,161.  For the week, the Dow gained a fraction of a percent.  The Nasdaq fell nearly 1 percent.

    Those are some of the day's major stories -- now back to Judy.


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