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

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    By David Grusky and C. Matthew Snipp

    In the wake of the release of a major economic mobility study, there's still a lot we don't know about social mobility in this country. "Children in the Tenement District, Brockton, Mass.", courtesy of Jack Delano via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

    Paul Solman: Increasing economic inequality has been a pre-occupation of ours for many years and our story on the subject in 2011, reported in part on the waiting line to get into the David Letterman Show in New York, remains our most popular ever (at least as measured by Facebook "Likes").

    So when a new study appeared suggesting that inequality varies by a municipality's generosity or stinginess, the NewsHour interviewed its co-author Raj Chetty, and I reached out to two scholars of inequality, Stanford's David Grusky and C. Matthew Snipp, for elaboration and context. They responded with a surprising appeal.

    David Grusky and C. Matthew Snipp: The recent release of a new economic mobility study that was featured on PBS NewsHour brings much-needed evidence on the difficulty of getting ahead in the United States.

    The study is important not just because it suggests how limited opportunities for mobility are in the United States. What's new is the finding that the neighborhoods in which children grow up affect their opportunities for mobility. The study suggests that poor children who grow up in communities like Detroit that don't provide income supplements for poor working families are less likely to escape poverty than those who grow up in places like San Jose in which relatively generous supplements are provided. It's difficult to get ahead, in other words, if one is so unlucky as to be born into an ungenerous community.

    We should care about this study because it says that economic opportunity is a function of where the stork happens to deliver us. And that's not supposed to happen in this country. The U.S. is famously understood to be a special "land of opportunity" in which the particular location of the stork drop is irrelevant. In the U.S., we believe that, no matter how poor the family or neighborhood into which we've been born, we will have a fair opportunity to exploit our talents and get ahead. This belief in the ubiquity of mobility underlies our high tolerance for inequality: We're prepared to accept, even welcome, a highly unequal society as long as we're assured that it's the outcome of a fair and open race in which everyone has an equal opportunity to get ahead.

    The study is important for another reason as well. Given that the U.S. has this special commitment to social mobility, one might imagine that we are constantly and carefully monitoring trends in mobility, ensuring that policy makers and informed citizens know whether our commitment to opportunity and mobility is under threat. Nothing could be further from the truth: the United States does not administer repeated and comparable surveys of social mobility of the sort needed to monitor trends in social mobility. Although we have various snapshot studies, like the one just released, these single-point-in-time studies cannot easily be used to track trends in social mobility.

    MORE ON INEQUALITY Inequality Today: Worse than a Century Ago?

    The paper's authors have carefully and properly avoided making any claims about trend precisely because such trend data are lacking. Although their results tell us that opportunities for mobility are limited, they don't tell us whether such opportunities are diminishing.

    Despite the absence of trend data, many people believe that mobility is likely to be declining. In his first of several recent economic policy speeches, President Obama stated, "When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther and farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America -- that idea that if you work hard you can make it here. And that's why reversing these trends has to be Washington's highest priority. It has to be Washington's highest priority. It's certainly my highest priority."

    We agree with the president. Whiffs of evidence that mobility is declining are indeed everywhere to be found. But we shouldn't be asking the president of the United States to formulate social policy on the basis of whiffs of evidence.

    Other rich countries, and even relatively poor ones, commit to ongoing measurements that allow us to examine trends in mobility over the long term. These trend measurements are either based on full population registers (as is the case in Sweden) or on regularly fielded surveys (as in Japan). But there is no comparable effort in the United States to collect data that would allow us to rigorously monitor trends.

    In other domains, we're deeply committed to evidence-based policy. We insist on measuring trends in unemployment rigorously and frequently. We likewise measure trends in student achievement, poverty and income inequality rigorously and relentlessly. But when it comes to social mobility, one of our country's key commitments, we've simply dropped the ball.

    What this latest study reminds us is that we urgently need to develop the country's capacity to assess whether opportunities for mobility, however limited they may be, have deteriorated relative to what prevailed in the past. Although smaller surveys of mobility are available for the purpose of studying trend, they are too small to reach reliable conclusions about whether mobility is declining.

    Given the dearth of mobility data, the results of this most recent mobility study from Raj Chetty et. al, are important even if they can't speak directly to trend. Their study is based on high-quality Internal Revenue Service (IRS) data that exploits a large population of tax records, allowing us to compare the income of parents with that of their children after they grow up and enter the labor market.

    But IRS measurements alone won't likely be the full solution to our need for trend data. First of all, the available intergenerational IRS data does not extend far enough into the past to construct long-term time series. Worse yet, given our country's long history of racial and ethnic discrimination, it is incumbent on us to monitor racial and ethnic differences in mobility, a task that would be difficult with tax records (given that race and ethnicity aren't directly available in such records).

    Although racial and ethnic effects can be estimated by characterizing neighborhoods in terms of their racial or ethnic composition, as Chetty's team indeed did, this approach will inevitably confound the effects of race at the neighborhood level with the effects at the individual level. If one finds, for example, that mobility is suppressed within Latino-dominated neighborhoods, we won't know whether that suppression holds for all residents of those neighborhoods or just for Latino ones.

    The IRS registers are also problematic because they represent the filing population rather than the full population of interest. We need to know about the mobility prospects of those who, by virtue of being poor and falling under the filing threshold, do not appear in the IRS records at all. We also need to know about the mobility of unauthorized immigrants and other groups, such as the incarcerated, who are less likely to file. These populations partly disappear when we rely exclusively on tax returns.

    We need to build a monitoring infrastructure that allows us to directly, reliably and regularly measure social mobility. If the IRS records are not the answer, what might this infrastructure look like?

    The good news is that we can build on already existing Census Bureau surveys such as the American Community Survey (ACS) or the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). The ACS is administered on a regular basis to approximately two million housing units every year. It represents immigrants as well as those who live in "group quarters" (e.g., students, prisoners). Although the ACS already includes much information on the education, occupation and income of respondents, it does not ask for corresponding information on the parents of respondents.

    So we must augment the ACS and other surveys either by directly asking respondents about their parents or by linking to the records of their parents in previous decennial Censuses or other sources. Given what's at stake, it's hard to understand why we haven't done so long ago.

    The National Research Council of the National Academies has recently appointed a planning committee that will lay out various options for building a new infrastructure for monitoring trends in mobility. The cost of building this infrastructure will not be trivial, but the outlay is small compared to the cost of continuing to fly blind.

    These new survey-based measurements, if they are indeed undertaken, will nicely complement the tax-return measurements of the sort that Chetty and his coauthors undertook. The IRS measurements are important characterizations of the mobility opportunities available today in different communities, but they will not suffice for building the monitoring infrastructure the country deserves.

    In the 40 years since the last mobility survey, American society has seen a dramatic increase in aggregate income inequality, a growth in immigration and a consequent change in the nation's racial and ethnic composition, the emergence of complicated family arrangements, the decline of manufacturing and rise of a service economy, a spectacular takeoff in female labor force participation, an equally spectacular takeoff in incarceration, and the rise of new profiles of educational investment and new types of job training. These are big changes with potentially big effects.

    We cannot rule out the possibility that some of them have brought about an unprecedented reduction in opportunities to get ahead, but we're working in the dark without the capacity to monitor whether this country is living up to one of its most cherished commitments.

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


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    JEFFREY BROWN: The United States worked today to firm up the intelligence behind claims that Syria used chemical weapons and to win support for a possible military strike. Meanwhile, a United Nations team began wrapping up its own efforts to find out just what happened last week in a suburb of the Syrian capital.

    Be advised, some of the images in this report may be disturbing.

    Outside Damascus, U.N. inspectors made a third trip to the site of an alleged chemical weapons attack, collecting samples in gas masks and protective gear, while the U.N. secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon, said their mission is nearly over. He spoke in Vienna.

    BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General: They will continue investigation activities until tomorrow, Friday, and will come out of Syria by Saturday morning, and will report to me as soon as they come out of Syria.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The inspectors' exit could set the stage for possible military action by the U.S. and other Western powers against the Syrian regime.

    Today, in Washington, the Obama administration was still marshaling its evidence and still not ready to present it publicly. In his NewsHour interview last night, the president said it's clear who's behind chemical attacks in Syria.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have concluded that the Syrian government in fact carried these out. And if that's so, then there need to be international consequences.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Even so, the Associated Press quoted multiple U.S. intelligence officials today as saying the evidence is not a -- quote -- "slam dunk" and doesn't yet tie any use of poison gas to President Bashar al-Assad's inner circle.

    That brought this response from White House spokesman Josh Earnest, dismissing suggestions of a split over the intelligence.

    JOSH EARNEST, White House Deputy Press Secretary: There is a preponderance of publicly available evidence to indicate that the Assad regime carried out chemical weapons attacks in Syria. That is what the president has said. The vice president has said that. The secretary of state has said that. We have also seen our partners all around the globe say that.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The president tasked Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to convey that same message to top lawmakers today.

    President Obama himself spoke by phone with House Speaker John Boehner. In a letter, Boehner had urged him to explain the rationale for any attack on Syria. Separately, nearly 120 other House members -- 98 Republicans and 18 Democrats -- wrote to the president, demanding that he seek congressional authorization before any military strike.

    Meanwhile, in London, British Prime Minister David Cameron faced a rising chorus of opposition in Parliament to attacking Syria. He sought to play down fears of a wider war.

    PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON, Britain: To me the biggest danger of escalation is if the world community, not just Britain, but America and others, stand back and do nothing, because I think Assad will draw very clear conclusions from that.

    JEFFREY BROWN: France endorsed that sentiment, and the defense minister signaled his nation's military is poised to act.

    JEAN-YVES LE DRIAN, French Defense Minister (through interpreter): The armed forces are in a position to respond to the requests and the decisions of the president once he reaches that point.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The French and British leaders had already spoken by phone with President Obama. Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the situation with the president. She also talked with Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, who's warned against attacking Syria before the U.N. inspectors make their report.

    And back in Damascus, President Assad sounded a new note of defiance, saying, Syria will defend itself in the face of any aggression.


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    JEFFREY BROWN: And just minutes ago, the British House of Commons rejected using force against Syria. The vote was nonbinding, but Prime Minister Cameron pledged not try to override the wishes of Parliament.

    And we turn now to an experienced weapons inspector who's also investigated and written about what went wrong with intelligence in the past.

    Charles Duelfer was a top U.N. inspector in Iraq during the 1990s. After the U.S. invasion in 2003, he led the CIA's Iraq Survey Group, which continued to look for weapons of mass destruction. He's author of "Hide and Seek: The Search for Truth in Iraq."

    And welcome to you.

    CHARLES DUELFER, former Chief U.S. Weapons Inspector: Thank you.

    JEFFREY BROWN: I want to get right to this question of what they're calling a slam dunk. How definitive can inspectors, can the intelligence community, and, therefore, government officials, ever be?

    CHARLES DUELFER: There's an important distinction between what the inspectors can do and what the intelligence community can do.

    And there's an important difference in the category of the information. The U.N. weapons inspectors will derive information which they gather, and it will be seen as unbiased. They will very credibility. And that's important in and of itself.

    They may not have the full range of access to secret sources, to potential defectors and so forth that the intelligence community may have, but their word is considered unbiased. They have access to victims. They're able to take environmental samples, biological samples. They're able to do a lot, and they will be able to make a judgment about whether chemical weapons were in fact used.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Now, OK, so, stay with the inspectors. What can we tell? What do we know about what exactly are they looking at right now? What's your assessment of what they're seeing?

    CHARLES DUELFER: They have had limited time.

    There aren't that many of them. But they are able to interview a range of people who were in each of these areas, to the extent that they can, about what happened, what types of munitions were used. They may be able to collect remnants of the munitions, which could tell you quite a bit about the type of agent.

    JEFFREY BROWN: What will that tell you? And will it tell you about who used it?

    CHARLES DUELFER: If it is a sophisticated kind of a rocket or an artillery shell, such as the Syrian army would have, you can tell.

    There's different reservoirs for the components of the sarin gas if they're there which are made to mix when it's fired. They're able to look at the type of gas, the sarin gas. Some of it is more sophisticated than others. For example, if it were just made up by insurgents, an ad hoc group, as some are suggesting as one alternative, they wouldn't have something called stabilizers or preservatives in it.

    Serious Syrian army stuff has been on the shelf for a long time. It's like Wonder Bread. It has got something in the agent which will keep it active for years.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Now, come back to the intelligence community. And I say that because the British intelligence just put out a report today saying it is highly likely that the regime was responsible for the chemical weapons attack on 21 August.

    Based on?

    CHARLES DUELFER: Presumably, the British and Americans have very similar sets of intelligence. They have got presumably agents on the ground. Presumably, they can hear what's going on.

    One would think that the NSA, which is so prominent in the news these days, is listening carefully to the types of communications going on. Now, that communication can sometimes be ambiguous. But if you put all that together, it can clearly point in the direction of one actor in this, and I think there's probably, as has been said, the preponderance of evidence, public or nonpublic, does fall on the side that it's the Syrian government that did this.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the important context here, of course, is what happened in Iraq, where you were involved, where you looked at what happened afterwards. To what degree has what happened there affected how these kinds -- how this kind of work is done?

    CHARLES DUELFER: Well, the weapons inspectors, it turned out, did a much better job than anyone thought.

    Their techniques and methods have improved a fair amount. On the other hand, the intelligence community, they have had their fingers burned. They got it massively wrong in 2002 and 2003. So they are going to be very reluctant to make categorical statements like slam dunk to the policy-makers.

    They will caveat their language, and that in effect is going to make policy-makers' life a little bit more difficult. It's also interesting that, like 2002-2003, Washington in a way is now seeing the U.N. processes as a bit of a problem. They're teed up and ready to go, and you hear language coming out of the White House which in a different time you could equally hear coming out of Bush White House, where they're seeing the U.N. process, well, it's slow, it's ponderous, and people can slow down the process. It's an encumbrance.

    So there are many similarities, but I would finally say the evidence is much stronger in this case than it was in 2003. There's much more data.

    JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you look at something like -- there was an article earlier this week in Foreign Policy about an intercepted phone call supposedly between Syrian army officials talking about this attack.

    Does that feel helpful, either on the intelligence side? Does that remind you of things from Iraq, where you might wonder about it?

    CHARLES DUELFER: What disturbs me about that is that it suggests that there's a lot of confusion on the part of the Syrian government.

    One of the nightmare scenarios we have in all this is that all these weapons, which we know that they have, can fall out of their control. The one positive thing that anyone can say about Bashar is that he had control over these weapons. If that's coming apart, then we have got a problem that's even bigger than we thought.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And how much does that play into any potential punitive strike as to the -- who has control of the weapons at this point?

    CHARLES DUELFER: This is a huge dilemma for the White House. Do you want to make the problem worse? People are thinking of target sets, in the military jargon. What are you going to blow up?

    Well, you can blow up the weapons, but wouldn't -- maybe it will just disperse them. Maybe you won't be able to incinerate them. You might create a bigger mess. You can blow up so-called command-and-control, but then doesn't that make the thing even worse? Then who is going to control the system?

    It's a real dilemma. And it depends on how you define the problem that the solution is going to fit.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, a lot of questions.

    Charles Duelfer, thanks so much.

    CHARLES DUELFER: Thank you, Jeff.


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    KWAME HOLMAN: The U.S. Justice Department signaled a major drug policy change today. The department announced it will not go to court to block Colorado and Washington state from permitting recreational use of marijuana. Voters in the those states approved the practice last year. Justice said it will focus on other priorities, including drugged driving and violence in the cultivation of marijuana.

    A federal appeals court has upheld the nation's first law barring medical therapy aimed at making gay youth straight. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued the ruling today, letting stand California's ban on so-called conversion therapy. The state ban applies to health care practitioners, but doesn't extend to pastors and unlicensed lay counselors.

    The Obama administration is moving to curb the re-importation of military surplus weapons sold overseas. Vice President Biden made the announcement today, as he swore in a new head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He said the new federal rule will mostly end a policy that's let 250,000 guns back into the country since 2005.

    VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: We're ending the practice of allowing countries to send back to the United States these military weapons for -- to private entities, period, period. The new policy is going to help keep military-grade off our streets. And, again, it's a simple commonsense way to try to reduce gun violence in America.

    KWAME HOLMAN: The administration also will require background checks for some owners of machine guns and some shotguns. Broad gun control legislation failed in the Senate four months ago. Since then, the White House has worked on executive actions that do not require congressional approval. The National Rifle Association said the latest moves are misdirected.

    Fire crews have made more headway against the Rim fire burning into California's Yosemite National Park. The weather was cooler and humidity higher today, and that helped slow the flames. The fire now is 30 percent contained, and officials hope to keep it from advancing much deeper into Yosemite, where crowds are expected for the Labor Day weekend.

    Fast food workers across the country walked off the job today in their latest protest for a higher minimum wage. Employees from McDonald's, Burger King and other restaurant chains are asking for $15 an hour and the right to unionize. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which most of those workers are paid.

    WOMAN: McDonald's make a lot of money, and I have a child to take care of. I have to survive by living off of welfare, and I don't think that that's right for me.

    WOMAN: I don't always know if I'm going to eat. I don't always know if I'm going to be able to do my laundry. That's not OK.

    KWAME HOLMAN: The walkouts occurred in 60 cities, but the size of the turnout varied.

     In Pakistan, a senior judge today overturned the prison sentence of a doctor who helped the U.S. find and kill Osama bin Laden. The judge cited procedural issues and ordered a new trial. Dr. Shakil Afridi faced 33 years behind bars for providing money and medical help to Islamic militants, allegations he denied. He also ran a vaccination program for the CIA that helped locate bin Laden.

    Another major disclosure has emerged from documents leaked by former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden. The so-called black budget details $52 billion in spending this year for secret U.S. intelligence efforts. The Washington Post reports that, among other things, the National Security Agency was investigating up to 4,000 reports of possible security breaches by its own employees last year.

    In economic news, the Commerce Department announced growth last spring was much better than first estimated at an annual rate of 2.5 percent. The numbers helped Wall Street overcome worries about Syria. The Dow Jones industrial average gained 16 points to close near 14841. The Nasdaq rose almost 27 points to close at 3620.

    Those are some of the day's major stories.


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: And we look at new rules on same-sex marriage and the equality of tax benefits. The issue has long been an important and practical concern in the financial lives of many couples.

    Today, the Treasury Department and the IRS announced that legally married same-sex couples can filed joint returns and will receive the same tax benefits as straight couples, no matter where they live in the U.S. The change comes as the federal government continues to implement this summer's Supreme Court ruling that struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

    Brian Moulton is the legal director for Human Rights Campaign. The group works on behalf of civil rights matters of importance to the LGBT community.

    And welcome to the program.

    BRIAN MOULTON, Human Rights Campaign: Thank you.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So how significant a development is this for same-sex couples?

    BRIAN MOULTON: It's a very big deal for same-sex couples.

    Really, once the Supreme Court made its decision this summer, the agency that our community most wanted to hear from was the IRS. And I think that's because it's the one federal agency that everybody deals with once a year at least, and there are some real financial ramifications to the tax inequalities those couples were facing.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, in brief, what is changing here? How did the federal government look at these marriages before and how do they look at them now in terms of taxes?

    BRIAN MOULTON: Sure.

    Well, certainly, before the Supreme Court decision this summer, these marriages didn't exist for federal purposes. Lawfully married same-sex couples were ignored completely by the federal government because of the Defense of Marriage Act.

    After the decision, really, the answer -- or the question we still needed an answer to was what would they do about particularly married couples who live in states that don't recognize their marriages. So, you got married in the District of Columbia, for example, but you live in Virginia. What about those folks?

    And the question was really because in the past the IRS had often looked to the law in the state where someone lived to determine if they were married for federal tax purposes.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So this means if you're -- again, if you're living in a state that doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, but you as a couple were married elsewhere, and that marriage was recognized legally at the time, you get to file as if you were a straight couple.

    BRIAN MOULTON: Exactly. You're a lawfully married couple for federal purposes, in this case for tax purposes.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we're talking about -- Brian Moulton, we're talking about income taxes and what other federal taxes?

    BRIAN MOULTON: Gift and inheritance taxes. So, really, obviously, the income tax is something everybody is familiar with dealing with, but any of the ways that the federal government takes a piece of income or other funds that come into your life through other processes.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, give maybe an example. Say a couple married in one state, happened to be living now in a state that doesn't recognize same-sex marriage. What would be the financial implications for them?

    BRIAN MOULTON: Sure.

    Well, certainly, you know, a great example is the -- Edie Windsor's example, the woman who was the plaintiff in the case in front of the Supreme Court. She was married. Her wife died. She inherited her wife's estate. And she wasn't granted the spousal exemption to the federal estate tax because she wasn't considered a spouse for federal tax purposes, which meant a $363,000 tax bill for her that now, because of the decision and the IRS' ruling today, she won't have to pay and couples like her won't have to deal with.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And now -- and what about across the board? Does this mean a tax reduction for most couples or what?

    BRIAN MOULTON: Well, it's going to be a mix, because it's all about your own financial circumstances. Some people who file jointly are going to end up paying more taxes. Some will pay less.

    Some will have access to exemptions from taxes that they would have otherwise have paid. For example, if you get employer-provided health benefits for your same-sex spouse, up until now, those were taxed as if they were more income for you, unlike spousal benefits for a straight spouse. Now those won't be taxed anymore, and that is going to be a benefit for those families.

    That's about $1,000 a year in taxes on the average that people were paying that they won't have to pay now.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it really does depend on your individual financial circumstances?

    BRIAN MOULTON: Absolutely.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, though, there can be a difference between what the state recognizes and what the federal government recognizes. So, even though this may change the way they file federally, it's still -- they're still going to, when it comes to state taxes, be affected by this.

    BRIAN MOULTON: Right. Exactly.

    So, if you're a lawfully married couple, but you live in a state that doesn't recognize your marriage and the state has an income tax, you are still going to be treated for that state income tax purpose as single people. You're not a married couple in the eyes of that state, and you will still have to pay your taxes for the state that way.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And tell us, when does this take effect?

    BRIAN MOULTON: So, the ruling, the IRS tells us, is effective September 16 of this year. But there are folks who got an extension from their 2012 taxes in April to October. There are people who can take advantage of a process the IRS has to look back to the last three years and amend returns.

    So this can affect what has happened in the past for married couples. But, for going forward, it really is going to be most for people filing their taxes next April.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: For 2013.

    BRIAN MOULTON: Exactly.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, what other federal laws, federal regulations is the LGBT community looking to potentially change in the federal government? What about Social Security benefits, veterans benefits? Where do those stand?

    BRIAN MOULTON: Sure. Right.

    So, there are still a lot of agencies out there we haven't heard from about how they are going to implement this summer's Supreme Court decision. And those are a couple of big ones, Social Security and veterans, where there are rules in their -- in the statutes that govern those programs that tell those agencies to look at the state in which people live to decide if they are married for federal purposes and for purposes of those particular programs.

    And those are big programs for people, particularly older people, and so we're definitely still anxious to hear from those agencies about what are they going to do and what might still need to change to really recognize all lawfully married couples.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: But, in the meantime, today's announcement a big one.

    BRIAN MOULTON: Absolutely.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Brian Moulton with the Human Rights Campaign, thank you.

    BRIAN MOULTON: Thank you.


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    JEFFREY BROWN: There was word today of a major settlement between the National Football League and thousands of its former players over concussions.

    Margaret Warner has the story.

    MARGARET WARNER: The settlement promises $765 million to retired players with brain-related illnesses that they blame on concussions suffered on the field.

    More than 4,500 former players had sued the NFL, alleging it hid information linking head trauma to an array of neurological diseases, including dementia and a condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The charges have generated increasing public and media attention.

    NARRATOR: Coming in October, the "Frontline" season premiere.

    MARGARET WARNER: An upcoming documentary on the PBS program Frontline will spotlight the way the NFL has handled head injuries among football players. An autopsy done on former New England Patriots linebacker Junior Seau after his suicide last year showed he suffered from CTE. His family is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, as are Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett and the Chicago Bears' Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon.

    The settlement money will go to examining and compensating those with brain diseases and to fund research. But the league won't have to disclose what it knew about concussions and when. The agreement is subject to approval by a federal judge in Philadelphia.

    And the agreement covers all eligible former players, based on the retiree's age, health status and years of play, and the survivors of those who've died. Minutes after the settlement was announced, experts began assessing why both sides agreed to it and what impact it will have.

    We explore those questions and more with Mark Fainaru-Wada of ESPN. He's an investigative reporter who's been working on a book about this subject and also on the Frontline documentary.

    And, Mark, welcome.

    There's been a lot of commentary today, and a lot of commentators are calling this a big win for the NFL. As someone who has really covered this for quite a while, what's your sense of it?

    MARK FAINARU-WADA, ESPN: Well, I think there's no question that the league wins on some level with this.

    Obviously, the last thing the league wanted to do was end up in a courthouse having to deal with public testimony, having to deal before that with discovery, in which you would see possible documents coming out in which this really cut to the question of, what did the league know and when did it know it?

    As well that -- the public relations issue for the league is one they have wanted to avoid on this as best they could. And the settlement, the number is not -- for an industry that right now is a $10 billion industry and, as one former player said, stands to be closer to $25 billion in 2025, the number is not a huge number for them.

    But, for the players, there's a sense of a win, too, at least among some of them, because you have players who are suffering significantly, and there was the prospect of this drawing out for five or 10 years and no benefits being available to them until then.

    MARGARET WARNER: And some of them are getting on in years.

    How big a turnaround does this represent, though, for the NFL in the way it's dealt with this issue and complaints about this issue in the past?

    MARK FAINARU-WADA: Well, I think, you know, there's no question the league has confronted this in a way that they haven't had to previously, if for no other reason by virtue of the research, the developments in research and the media attention it's drawn.

    You know, the league points out many rules changes it's made. By the same token, in many ways, the legacy of the lawsuits and all this is that, on the one hand, you have the league, while admitting absolutely nothing through the settlement, having to deal with the reality of a $760 million settlement that goes to this very question of brain trauma and football.

    And it's hard to get away from that as a future part of the discussion. What is the -- what's the real sort of question about what does football do to one's body and what does one -- what does it do to one's brain? And that question is not going to go away with the settlement of the lawsuit. MARGARET WARNER: So, as you point out, they're not admitting anything legally culpable in terms of that they hid or -- this info or misled the players.

    But -- so, you're saying, though, this is an implicit acknowledgment on the NFL's part that there is a link at least between concussions, severe concussions, and brain-related disease later in life?

    MARK FAINARU-WADA: Well, I certainly wouldn't speak for the league. And I don't think they would -- they would call this an implicit acknowledgment.

    All I'm saying is, on the face of it, you have the league accepting a $765 million settlement about this issue. And people will draw whatever conclusions they do from that. And the reality is, moving forward, one of the major sort of discussions around this issue is not only what did the league know and when did it know it, but the very question of what does the game do to one's brain.

    And that's a question the league has to deal with, not only at the highest levels, but at the lower levels, too, where it talks about Pop Warner, college football, high school football, and all those issues.

    MARGARET WARNER: Does this -- and I know all we really have is this one-page judge's order. We haven't seen the settlement agreement itself. But does it commit the NFL to making any changes to reduce the number or severity of concussions?

    MARK FAINARU-WADA: As far as I understand the settlement, and from what we have seen about it, there's nothing in there regarding rule changes.

    Those are issues that the league continues to take up with the Players Association -- Players Association. There is a commitment to further research money, and there is a commitment to doing financial -- money spent on baseline testing of players.

    But, as far as I understand, there's nothing in the settlement that speaks to the question of what will the league do to change or mitigate against concussions or brain trauma in the future.

    MARGARET WARNER: And then, if you take $765 million, but I gather this covers not just players or retirees who sued, but even those who didn't sue who want to apply, how much does that really average out to, or does that -- is that the wrong way of looking at it?

    MARK FAINARU-WADA: Well, I think that the way to look at it from the NFL's perspective is, what is the number as it relates to how much owners will have to pay?

    And I have seen, when the division is played out, somewhere around $24 million for each owner, if that's correct. And I haven't done the math myself. But I -- I think it's going to be different for every player, obviously, because the settlement speaks not only to players who have some cognitive issues or who are going to go through testing to determine the level of issues they have.

    It also speaks to players who have ALS. It also speaks to players who have been diagnosed with CTE, which you mentioned in the piece setting up. There's a $5 million cap for players who have ALS, and there's a $4 million cap for players who are diagnosed with CTE, of course, after their death.

    So, it will be different for different players.  

    MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, is -- do you have any -- what are your thoughts on what the implications of this are for current players, that is, future retirees?

    MARK FAINARU-WADA: Well, I think that issue remains very open. None of those players are eligible in the settlement. They're not -- they have no recourse for getting monies through this settlement.

    But I think it's a very interesting question that I think the lawyers will know more of the answer to in the future is, if you're a player right now who spent 10 years in the league and decides to retire next year, and then you end up subsequently having these kinds of issues, and you believe the league is culpable on that, do you have any recourse?

    And I think -- I think that remains to be seen. I don't think there's any doubt you will see more litigation. Whether any of that litigation has teeth and moves forward, I think, remains to be seen.

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, Mark Fainaru-Wada, thank you.

    MARK FAINARU-WADA: My pleasure.

     


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: The new school year is under way in many districts around the country, an even more important time than usual, as many states get used to new testing standards and changing course work.

    Teachers remain front and center in the ongoing debate over accountability and student performance. But there is new attention to the role of principals as well.

    We begin a two-part look with a report from Eddie Arruza of WTTW Chicago.

    ERNESTO MATIAS, Wells Community Academy: Hey, why are you messing around? Why are you messing around?

    EDDIE ARRUZA: Principal Ernesto Matias runs a tight and disciplined school on Chicago's north side. Like most urban high schools, Wells has occasional problems, but nothing like what was happening when Matias first arrived five years ago.

    ERNESTO MATIAS: There was a lot of conflicts, a lot of violence. There was a student walkout the year before. There were four teachers in remediation who were taken out of this building, not to return. And so that's what I stepped into, a lot of distrust, disunity, and a lot of beating up of staff members here.

    EDDIE ARRUZA: Principal Matias also inherited a school on academic probation. For 16 years, it had failed to meet basic standards for test scores, and more than half its students dropped out. In the community, the school's very name became synonymous with failure.

    ERNESTO MATIAS: The acronym was, "We Educate Low-Life Students." And so, we had to do a lot of work to change that, and five years later, we don't hear that stated anymore.

    EDDIE ARRUZA: Ernesto Matias is a new kind of school principal, one carefully cultivated to meet the complex and challenging needs of a 21st century urban school. He is a graduate of the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which developed a new approach to training principals.

    The head of the program, Steve Tozer, says in the past, any teacher who wanted to become credentialed to become a principal could.

    STEVE TOZER, Center for Urban Education Leadership, University of Illinois at Chicago: There's essentially no selectivity in the field.

    Our thought was that since we've known for about 35 years that a great principal could improve student learning in schools, that we ought to try to produce such principals instead of wait for them to come along.

    CYNTHIA BARRON, Leadership Coach: Students come in after school.

    EDDIE ARRUZA: So, how do you produce a great principal? To answer that question, the university turned to individuals like Cynthia Barron. In a career spanning 40 years, Barron began as a teacher and eventually became a principal by rising through the ranks. At the time, there were no special programs to create the outstanding principal that she became.

    CYNTHIA BARRON: It was really ad hoc; people like me really reached out and found our own mentors kind of in an ad hoc relationship. Some people, I realized, did not think that that was important. I certainly did. I kind of built my own cadre of mentorships.

    EDDIE ARRUZA: Mentorships are at the core of the program at the Center for Urban Education Leadership, and Cynthia Barron is now one of those mentors. She is a leadership coach who guides principals-in-training, like 33-year-old Rita Raichoudhuri. For the last year, Raichoudhuri has been a resident principal at Wells Community Academy.

    RITA RAICHOUDHURI, resident principal: I have my mentor principal, who is a principal here at Wells, and then I have my leadership coach. So, I have two people who is -- taking me beyond that theoretical knowledge that I'm gaining from my classes, and helping me put them in action in practical terms in the school.

    EDDIE ARRUZA: Raichoudhuri has done more than just shadow her host principal. He has given her some real responsibilities.

    RITA RAICHOUDHURI: I took on the responsibility of really developing the new teachers. My mentor principal never got in the way of me saying, hey, you know, I want to try this out. He never said, that's going to fall flat on its face because of X, Y, and Z. He said, OK, go ahead and do it and then we'll talk about how it goes.

    So, there were times when I was successful, and there were times when I implemented theory by the book and I wasn't successful.

    MAGGIE BLINN DINOVI, New Leaders: How can we get the science out of the kids? How can we build teacher capacity?

    EDDIE ARRUZA: The nonprofit organization New Leaders also has been preparing principals to take the reins in struggling urban schools. It has training centers in 12 cities across the U.S. And, like the university's program, it has a tough screening process for its candidates.

    Maggie Blinn DiNovi heads the Chicago office of New Leaders.

    MAGGIE BLINN DINOVI: We're looking for their own track record in their classroom. Have they shown significant student growth in their classroom? Have they been an effective teacher themselves?

    EDDIE ARRUZA: The individuals who make it into the program become part of a cohort that takes classes and meets on an ongoing basis. They discuss their ideas and share their progress in the schools where they are resident principals, all under the watchful eyes of already successful principals.

    Over the last decade, the Chicago Public Schools system has hired dozens of principals that have come out of these training programs, and school officials say they want a lot more.

    Barbara Byrd-Bennett is the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

    BARBARA BYRD-BENNETT, Chicago Public Schools: We want our people not only to have the training, but to go through an intern process that really prepares them to step in the front door and do the work. And you learn that, I believe, from exemplary principals who are doing that work.

    EDDIE ARRUZA: Exemplary principals like Ernesto Matias. Wells Community Academy was taken off probation two years ago as test scores improved and the graduation rate began to climb.

    Rita Raichoudhuri will likely be facing similar challenges at her own school next year. She'll have the title of principal, but Cynthia Barron will still be there to back her up.

    RITA RAICHOUDHURI: Kids really observe what adults are doing. When adults are modeling that they collaborate, that they are a team, then the students start feeling that this is a school that has high expectations for me and will not let me slip through the cracks.

    EDDIE ARRUZA: Rita Raichoudhuri has been given the support she needs to become successful, but soon it will be her turn and her challenge to ensure the children under her watch receive the same.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray Suarez has the second part of our report.

    RAY SUAREZ: Some perspective now on the national picture when it comes to finding and retaining good principals and how that's changing.

    Will Miller is the president of the Wallace Foundation, a national philanthropy that focuses on education for disadvantaged children. The foundation funds research, including on ways of improving principal quality.

    For the record, the Wallace Foundation is also a NewsHour underwriter.

    Will Miller, so much of the debate nationally in education, so many of the policy solutions have concentrated on teacher quality. Have principals been getting enough attention?

    WILL MILLER, The Wallace Foundation: Well, they can probably never get enough attention, but the good news is that, recently, from the district level to the state level to the federal level, and even in university training programs, principals are getting a lot more attention.

    I think this is driven in part by the realization that some of the strategies for improving teacher quality, like evaluating them on a regular basis and providing developmental feedback, depend on having a good principal to do that job.

    RAY SUAREZ: Implicit in the report from Chicago that we just heard was Principal Matias getting a lot of the credit for the improvement at Wells Community Academy. What do principals do to make a difference?

    WILL MILLER: Well, there are four key things, based on the research that we have done.

    The first, which I think you saw Principal Matias demonstrate, is you have to have a vision for the school and how it can serve all of the kids that are in it. Second, you have to create a culture that values education. You have to share leadership with the other teachers in the school community. And perhaps the most important thing, from the -- what the research tells us, is a principal needs to concentrate their time on improving instruction in the classroom, because that's the thing that makes the most difference for the kids.

    RAY SUAREZ: So if we know that those are the things that a principal must do, can we teach them? Can they be included in training, and can you make someone able to do that in a school?

    WILL MILLER: Well, one of the things that was uncertain when we launched some of the research at Wallace about what makes for an effective principal was whether or not those behavior or characteristics would be teachable.

    Was it just charisma that made for an effective leader, or could you learn the behaviors? And the good news, again, was that they are in fact teachable. And many principal training programs have been restructured around the kinds of internships, real-world experience, and mentoring that allows the candidates to develop these very characteristics.

    RAY SUAREZ: Now, when I was a reporter in Chicago more than two decades ago, I covered Wells High School, and one of the first things that, under new school reform, the local school council did was fire the principal.

    Should we be trying to help principals in place take on some of those skills you're talking about, or is replacing them in some cases inevitably part of the answer?

    WILL MILLER: I think it's both.

    The principals who are in place who are well-matched with their schools, who have the capabilities to develop the characteristics that we know are effective should be supported. In fact, they should be evaluated in ways that identify the particular areas of professional development they need and have professional development delivered to work on their particular issues.

    Inevitably, however, some people are there who are not well-matched to the position, and perhaps bringing in another leader would be the right thing in that circumstance.

    RAY SUAREZ: Given the formulas that we're using now for both teacher and principal accountability, are we creating disincentives to go to places where it's hard to teach, where it's hard to manage? Why would you go to a place like Wells if you want to make a career as a principal? Why not go someplace easier?

    WILL MILLER: Well, there's no question that it's a very difficult job. But we also know that that's where leadership can make some of the biggest difference, in these most difficult schools that served our least-advantaged kids.

    And there are districts like Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina that have made those difficult turnaround jobs the most valued and the ones where the best people go. And they have done it through a combination of culture, valuing that, giving the principal candidates going to those schools the flexibility to do the job the way they want to do it, and of course, some economic incentives.

    So a district has a lot of influence over whether or not these are attractive or unattractive jobs.

    RAY SUAREZ: Will Miller of the Wallace Foundation, thanks for joining us.

    WILL MILLER: You're welcome.

     


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    JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, we turn to another in our continuing series of conversations and remembrances about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

    First, Edith Lee-Payne of Detroit tells the story of one of the iconic pictures taken at the event.

    EDITH LEE-PAYNE, March on Washington participant: One evening in October of 2008, I got a phone call from my cousin Marcia who lives in Baltimore, Md.

    She had been browsing a category with some friends, and came across a 2009 black history calendar. On the front of this calendar were pictures of Dr. King, and Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Jesse Owens. And on the back of the calendar were these same people, but, also, there was a picture of me.

    I, of course, immediately recalled being at the March on Washington, but I didn't recall a picture being taken. It also happened to be my 12th birthday. That day in Washington was a very hot day. But it was a day where a lot of people from all over the country came together for a common goal, and that was to make the quality of life better for everyone.

    So, it was very special to me to be there, to be one of the people present to make a difference in what Dr. King had brought to our attention.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: That was Edith Lee-Payne of Detroit. You can find her story and other firsthand accounts recorded for the Web series Memories of the March, produced by public television stations around the country. That's on the PBS Web site Black Culture Connection.

    We turn now to our own series of conversations on the march.

    Gwen Ifill spoke recently with Peniel Joseph, founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, and a professor of history at Tufts University, and Bonnie Boswell Hamilton, executive producer of the PBS documentary "The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights."

    Bonnie Hamilton, Peniel Joseph, thank you both for joining us.

    I want to start by asking you to look back over the five decades, Peniel Joseph, and tell us, what's your sense of how much has changed in that time?

    PENIEL JOSEPH, Center for the Study of Race and Democracy: Well, I think that the aesthetics of our democracy changed after the March on Washington.

    Barack Obama is probably the biggest example of that change. Fifty summers ago, we couldn't have imagined an African-American president, commander in chief, when there was racial segregation, racial violence, when people tried to integrate school counters -- or lunch counters in public schools.

    So, I would say that the biggest change has been the fact that we have more black politicians, we have more black elected officials, we have more black celebrities, a thriving black middle class. So, the aesthetics of democracy have certainly transformed.

    GWEN IFILL: Bonnie Hamilton, your uncle Whitney Young was for 10 years the head of the National Urban League, which was considered to be the kind of more pro-business, more moderate civil rights organization. If he looked at where we are now, was this what he intended?

    BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON, "The Powerbroker: Whitney Young's Fight for Civil Rights": Well, I think he would say it's kind of a mixed blessing, because certainly we have African-Americans in very great positions in corporate America right now, more blacks that are working in certain industries that were not accessible to them that many years ago.

    But at the same time, we have unemployment still about the same level, and these are the kinds of concerns I think he would have, because I think the mission, the vision was to be able to have a society that was truly inclusive. And I don't think that we have achieved that quite yet.

    GWEN IFILL: Has the definition of civil rights broadened now? There were a lot of different groups who were speaking at the march -- anniversary march last weekend, but also at the time, there was labor, there were gender groups. Is that what civil rights is now? Is it a broader definition than black and white which we got so used to?

    PENIEL JOSEPH: Yes, it's definitely broader.

    Remember, 50 years ago, there was no woman scheduled to speak at the March on Washington. That's something that's outrageous. It was sexist, and that could never occur today. So, when we think about civil rights, we think about gays and lesbians, immigration issues. We think about Latinos. We think about women. So, civil rights has become really human rights in our contemporary context.

    GWEN IFILL: But does that dilute the message?

    BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: Well, you know, I think it's really important to really understand that the message always was about the democracy.

    The slogan of SCLC was to save the soul of America. And Whitney Young's ideal was to have America live up to her ideals. So, I think the vision of those who planned the march, who were working behind was really always about inclusion. And so I think a lot of times, the media has narrowed the definition.

    I worked with a man who said, don't call it the civil rights movement. It was the justice movement. It was then, and it still is now.

    GWEN IFILL: You know, your uncle was also a social worker by trade. Did that have anything to do with the way the march played out? People were prepared for violence. They were prepared for conflict. But that didn't happen.

    BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: It didn't happen. And I think Whitney Young definitely played a role in being able to really create the kind of interracial march it was and peaceful one, because he stipulated that if the Urban League was going to become involved, it would have to become interracial, it would have to become nonviolent.

    And he was able to negotiate this within the inner circle of people who were planning the march as a social worker. His skill set allowed him to really be able to play this mediating role within the inner circle. And I think that's what contributed to the outcome.

    GWEN IFILL: And yet, Peniel Joseph, 50 years later, the races are -- still largely live apart. There is still residential segregation. They worship apart. They socialize apart. This is certainly not what was imagined at the time, or is it?

    PENIEL JOSEPH: No. King talked about multicultural, multiracial democracy. He really thought that, after the March on Washington and the civil rights legislation, blacks, whites, Latinos, Native Americans, everybody would come together.

    I think, in the ensuing years, our democracy has been transformed, but there's been stubborn persistences of the old Jim Crow. Sometimes, people call it the new Jim Crow, when we think about mass incarceration, unemployment, but also just the fact that 40 percent of whites don't have any friends who are outside of their own race. So, in some ways, we're still as segregated as we were 50 years ago, and I think that King would be very concerned about that.

    GWEN IFILL: So, is this something we have to re-imagine what our goals of equality are about, not just access, but also what happens after you get through the door?

    BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: Absolutely.

    I think it's important for us to really, as citizens, claim the vision. A lot of times, what we want gets mediated through politicians or through the media. And I think that's a mistake. I think that we, as American citizens, have to say, look, we -- we all have a stake in the vision of America.

    And so we have to not be manipulated by our own fears, which tends to happen, and that polarizes us.

    GWEN IFILL: Did we spend too much time over this process, these five decades, being obsessed with the black-white narrative and not broadening it or focusing in a different way?

    PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, I think we have to both broaden it, but always the African-Americans are the best indicator of how our democracy is doing.

    GWEN IFILL: Why do you say that?

    (CROSSTALK)

    PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, because African-Americans historically are the people who have been here the longest, but yet have had the right to vote for the least amount of time.

    So, historically, if the economy has a cold, African-Americans have pneumonia is the old saying. So when we think about African-Americans, the best way to gauge this democracy, are black people doing well? Are they in the middle class? Are they employed? Are they being treated fairly by the criminal justice system?

    If they are, most people are going to be doing very, very well.

    GWEN IFILL: Yet, another march, another protest. Are we past that, or should we be past that?

    BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: Well, I think it's important to raise our voices, to be in community.

    But I think also we have to be able to find ways to do it in our own hometowns, in our schools. I mean, this fight happens in all kinds of ways, so I think we have to take responsibility for it. A lot of times, again, we abdicate responsibility to others. And I think that, if we're going to have the kind of society that all of us want, we have to take more on our backs as individuals, and really be inclusive, and really care about what's happening with poverty in general in America.

    It's not just about African-Americans, although I completely agree with you that we're a harbinger of things that happen and things that are going to come. But we also have to look at what is going on in the society as a whole and really take responsibility for that.

    GWEN IFILL: How much is class a greater issue than race as we have these discussions? That's a continuing, roiling debate.

    PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, race and class are intertwined.

    And in 1963, the March on Washington was for jobs and freedom. And so, for African-Americans, jobs are always part of fulfilling the American dream. And we think about poverty. Poverty is both class, but the racial face of poverty is black because blacks are disproportionately represented.

    So, when we think about race and class, they're completely intertwined, but race becomes the face of American poverty because so many poor people in this country are disproportionately black and brown.

    GWEN IFILL: But Whitney Young was the -- one of the unsung heroes of the march, behind-the-scenes organizer. And he was known as being kind of aggressively middle-class.

    He was raised by educated black people and he was running the business arm of the movement. So, I wonder what he -- what his -- what message about class he was bringing to this, and what of it resonates now.

    BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: Well, I think, at the time, of course, Whitney was always about really being able to open up the borders for everybody.

    And his father was an educator, for sure. But it was about being able to take that vision and open up a path for other people. So, it wasn't about that I got mine, and, you know, the rest of you, too bad. It's about, you know, let's all come together.

    So I think that the issue of, again, being able to have the true American ideal of diversity and also being able to be concerned about poverty, because, you know, as a social worker, as your point, that he was concerned about these issues that everybody be able to have the safety net, be able to have food on the table.

    And right now, we're seeing a situation in America where the income disparity is tremendous. We're -- you know, there are only three other countries that have a greater income disparity than we do.

    GWEN IFILL: Do you see a discussion about this beginning, ending, or stalled?

    PENIEL JOSEPH: Well, right now, I would say that the discussion is being renewed, is the best way I would describe it.

    We have talked about these issues for decades and decades. There has been real, real progress. And I think that the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and all these 50ths, Birmingham, John Kennedy's June 11 race speech, King's letter from Birmingham jail, it's a way to renew the spirit of American democracy that that march really exemplified. 

    BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: I think that Whitney Young's legacy for this march would be to be able to be bridge-builders. That's what he did.

    And I think that if we could all use that as an example to find the places where we may not agree with somebody, but find the points of commonality, I think that's something we can draw from this moving forward.

    GWEN IFILL: Bonnie Hamilton, Peniel Joseph, thank you both so much.

    BONNIE BOSWELL HAMILTON: Pleasure.

    PENIEL JOSEPH: Thank you.

     


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    President Obama sat down with PBS NewsHour's Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill for an exclusive interview in the Blue Room of the White House. Photo courtesy of White House.

    On Wednesday, President Barack Obama gave an exclusive interview to Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff. During the conversation, he told Ifill and Woodruff that he had "not made a decision" on his course of action on Syria. He concluded that the Syrian government had carried out attacks with chemical weapons and that there are "international consequences" for those actions.

    In all, the president spoke on Syria for about eight minutes. But there were several more attention-worthy moments during the other 19 minutes of the interview. Here are some highlights and some of the events surrounding their discussion:

    1. Was the toll of the Arab Spring underestimated?

    I think we anticipated this would be a really difficult process. I mean, you've got a region that, for decades, has basically been under autocratic rule. And people have been suppressed, and there were no traditions of civil society. There were no traditions of political freedom. And then suddenly, folks are allowed to express themselves, but a lot of their organizing principles end up being around extremist agendas, in some cases; more moderate forces sometimes haven't get got their act together. So we anticipated that this was going to be a very difficult path. We're not surprised by that.

    2. What was the importance of the March on Washington?

    ... the capacity for ordinary people, for citizens, to change structures of oppression that had been in place for for decades and to do it peacefully. It not only gives you a sense of the power of individuals, but it also said something about the power of America to transform itself.

    3. How will the president "make up" for the Voting Rights Act decision?

    ... if we can go ahead and move administratively so that our attorney general can go ahead in jurisdictions that seem to be intent on preventing people from voting and that have a racial element to it, even though largely it's probably for partisan reasons, then we need to go ahead and enforce the law.

    4. On the importance of early childhood education

    I want to get early childhood education done because we know that's the single most important thing we can do to increase upward mobility and opportunity for disadvantaged kids.

    5. On whether he is the victim of "partisan racial gridlock"

    There's a line that's drawn between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor. I think that has been fairly explicit in politics in this country for some time. It's directed at Bill Clinton or Nancy Pelosi just as much as it's directed at me. I think it doesn't have to do with my race in particular.

    6. Are there things the president can do to regain American's trust in government?

    I think there are. I'm an eternal optimist.

    7. Inside the NewsHour, you missed everyone in the control room excitedly waiting for Ifill and Woodruff to start their first major interview together as co-anchors.

    What did you think of President Barack Obama's interview with Woodruff and Ifill? Tell us in the comments below.

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    On Wednesday, President Barack Obama sat down with NewsHour's Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

    It never gets old slipping inside the gates at Pennsylvania Avenue and walking up the path to the White House. Over the years, Judy Woodruff and I have been privileged to do it countless times in our roles at some of the nation's most prestigious news organizations.

    But as I sat in the East Room on Wednesday afternoon, watching on a small television monitor as the president delivered his remarks commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington a few blocks away at the Lincoln Memorial, this was different.

    We'd agreed to the interview on this day. We knew it would give the president an opportunity to reflect on something he seldom talks about extensively -- his role as the nation's first African American president.

    Every time you interview a sitting president is different. I've spoken with this and other presidents before, but as Mr. Obama strolled into the Blue Room for our joint interview, everyone in the room (and there are a lot of people in the room for these things) knew that there was a lot on his plate.

    As the week began, it had become clear that the United States was ramping up to launch an attack in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad had apparently unleashed chemical weapons on his own people.

    So, overnight, the task for Judy and me was to talk about war and peace. War, as in what the U.S. is prepared to do now that lines have been crossed -- and peace -- in the context of the 50-year legacy of a nonviolent march.

    That is tougher than it looks. Although any of us could dream up a million questions, or a thousand ways to phrase them -- as I'm certain many of you have -- it's a complicated thing to get the most famous politician in the world to be revealing if he chooses not to be.

    You don't think so? In answer to Judy's first question about how close the president was to authorizing a strike, he said he had not made a decision -- then kept talking for a solid three minutes. That's a long chunk of time in what was to be a 20-minute interview all total.

    So the goal for the interviewer is to come up with thoughtful questions, and then get as many of them in as possible during a structured period of time. Judy and I came prepared with a lot of ideas, but in the end only eight basic questions about Syria and the state of race relations in America made the cut. Looking back over the transcript, I see his answers eventually also touched on Egypt, the domestic minimum wage, early childhood education and even poverty. And it's not because we necessarily asked about these things.

    Few reporters will admit it, but whether the venue is a formal news conference, a sit-down interview like ours or even in an off-the-record lunch, when the venue is the White House, journalists cede control of time place, and -- often -- topic.

    This doesn't mean we don't try anyway. The best history books I have read about the presidency reconstruct events using the words uttered at the time as viewed through the time lapse of history. Daily reporters don't have the luxury that historians do, but getting that first draft down is important in the long run.

    I don't know a reporter who can't think of a better, smarter way to phrase a question and press for an answer -- after the fact. But that's small beans.

    Watching a crisis unfold in real time inside the White House on the same day bells were ringing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to mark 50 years of history, made for a remarkable day.

    Editor's note: Now that you've read the back story, watch the complete interview here.

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    Secretary of State John Kerry will make a statement regarding Syria at 12:30 p.m. EDT Friday, Aug. 30. Watch the player above for a live stream of that announcement.

    WASHINGTON -- You simply can't safely bomb a chemical weapon storehouse into oblivion, experts say. That's why they say the United States is probably targeting something other than Syria's nerve agents.

    But now there is concern that bombing other sites could accidentally release dangerous chemical weapons that the U.S. military didn't know were there because they've lost track of some of the suspected nerve agents.

    Bombing stockpiles of chemical weapons -- purposely or accidentally -- would likely kill nearby civilians in an accidental nerve agent release, create a long-lasting environmental catastrophe or both, five experts told The Associated Press. That's because under ideal conditions -- and conditions wouldn't be ideal in Syria -- explosives would leave at least 20 to 30 percent of the poison in lethal form.

    "If you drop a conventional munition on a storage facility containing unknown chemical agents - and we don't know exactly what is where in the Syrian arsenal -- some of those agents will be neutralized and some will be spread," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit that focuses on all types of weaponry. "You are not going to destroy all of them."

    "It's a classic case of the cure being worse than the disease," Kimball said. He said some of the suspected storage sites are in or near major Syrian cities like Damascus, Homs and Hama. Those cities have a combined population of well over 2 million people.

    When asked if there is any way to ensure complete destruction of the nerve agents without going in with soldiers, seizing the chemicals and burning them in a special processing plant, Ralf Trapp, a French chemical weapons consultant and longtime expert in the field, said simply: "Not really."

    United Nations arms experts arrive on Wednesday to inspect a site suspected of being hit by a deadly chemical weapons attack last week in the Eastern Ghouta area on the northeastern outskirts of Damascus, Syria. UN inspectors arrived in Eastern Ghouta area under the protection of rebel fighters, said the Syrian Revolution General Commission activist group, citing the opposition forces. Photo Mohamed Abdullah/AFP/Getty Images

    Trapp said to incinerate the chemicals properly, temperatures have to get as hot as 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Experts also say weather factors -- especially wind and heat -- even time of day, what chemicals are stored, how much of it is around and how strong the building is all are factors in what kind of inadvertent damage could come from a bombing.

    There is one precedent for bombing a chemical weapons storehouse. In 1991, during the first Persian Gulf War, the U.S. bombed Bunker 13 in Al Muthanna, Iraq. Officials figured it contained 2,500 artillery rockets filled with sarin, the same nerve gas suspected in Syria. More than two decades later the site is so contaminated no one goes near it even now.

    That bunker is a special problem for inspectors because "an entry into the bunker would expose personnel to explosive, chemical and physical hazards," says a 2012 report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which implements the international chemical weapons convention.

    Pentagon planners are also worried about accidentally triggering a nerve agent attack by hitting weapons stores that have been moved by the government to new locations.

    Over the past six months, with shifting front lines and sketchy satellite and human intelligence coming out of Syria, the U.S. intelligence community has lost track of who controls some of the government's chemical weapons supplies, according to one senior U.S. intelligence official and three other U.S. officials briefed on the information presented by the White House as reason to strike Syria's military complex. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the briefings publicly.

    That's a very real risk, said Susannah Sirkin, international policy director for the Physicians for Human Rights, which has been monitoring weapons of mass destruction for more than two decades.

    "You would risk dispersing agents into the environment," she said. "Given that sarin is not seen or smelled, that's terror."

    Another issue is that by bombing storage sites that are near contested areas in the civil war, the chemical weapons can fall into others' hands, including extremist rebels or pro-Assad militia, Kimball said.

    "What we're looking at in Syria is an unprecedented situation," Kimball said.

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    By Paul Solman

    The hardest part of managing a parent's money is figuring out how to make it last. Photo courtesy of Flickr user JBStafford.

    Paul Solman frequently answers questions from the NewsHour audience on business and economic news on his Making Sen$e page. Friday's comes from a reader at Next Avenue. The NewsHour has partnered with Next Avenue, a new PBS website that offers articles, blogs and other critical information for adults over 50.

    NextAvenue

    Question: What's the best way to manage a parent's money when he or she is unable to do so? And how should I deal with communicating the plans with my siblings?

    Paul Solman: I have dealt with this problem personally, as my dad lived past 99. I and my one sibling -- my sister -- got him to sign over power of attorney to us. The problem was that he had begun to spend somewhat indiscriminately, bidding on art, and the auction house wouldn't -- or couldn't -- simply refuse his bids just because we asked them to.

    It turns out this is a common problem with old people, and especially very old ones: they lose their aversion to risk and become increasingly uninhibited financially. (Don't even ask about "carnal knowledge.")

    More on Retirement and Money: 'Have I Managed My Finances Properly For a Long Retirement?'

    Step two: my sister began to manage our dad's bank statements. I monitored his credit card for anomalies and immediately found an egregious one: a monthly charge from Citicorp for some sort of utterly unwanted insurance, obviously sold to him by phone. I had it removed and asked to speak to a supervisor, identifying myself as a journalist.

    "You should look into this further," the man told me. "You have no idea how much of it is going on." And this was the guy from Citicorp!

    In our case, all this was easy. Neither my sister nor I would have dreamed of taking any of these steps without the other. You shouldn't either. And if you have trouble working as a group, perhaps you can decide on a trusted person -- a lawyer or financial adviser, say -- to take on the role, under the family's supervision.

    The hardest thing, we found, was figuring out how to manage our dad's money. Investment safety was the key consideration: he needed to preserve what he had so that, given his costly but high quality lifestyle, he wouldn't outlive it. We paid a younger person -- $25,000 a year, I think -- to live with him in his rent-controlled New York City apartment, while hiring a young person to spend the day with him as well. He went out for all meals, paying for himself and his companion. He never went to an institution. He loved his life. But all in all, he cost about $135,000 a year. So his savings had to last.

    This was pre-crash, when the interest rate on a diversified bond fund was more than 4 percent, enough to more than hold its value against inflation. As "The Onion" recently pointed out in a video, the price of money is mighty unpredictable.

    So we put his money in a diversified bond fund. Today, given low interest rates, the decision is somewhat more difficult. All I can offer by way of advice is my own asset allocation, designed to preserve the savings my wife and I have managed to salt away over our working decades.

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


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    Seamus Heaney, one of the major poets of the twentieth century, died in Dublin on Friday at the age of 74. Known in his native Ireland as "Famous Seamus," Heaney was that rare writer who garnered critical acclaim while harvesting a large public audience.

    "The first poetry a writer feels he can trust and come to a point that you think that is a poem, that is a life changing experience," Heaney told Jeffrey Brown on the NewsHour in 2011.

    He was a prolific poet, publishing 16 major collections of verse, plus a number of smaller collections, along with translations and scores of works of prose.

    Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995 and in his address accepting the award described his life's journey into "the wideness of language."

    Here you can watch the NewsHour's full profile of Heaney:

    Watch Video

    You can also watch Heaney read one of his most famous poems, "Death of a Naturalist," here:

    Watch Video

    And The Poetry Foundation has an extensive biography of Heaney that includes a bibliography and suggested reading about the author. The Poetry Foundation funds the NewsHour's Poetry Series.


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    Watch Video Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday afternoon said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons on his own people multiple times this year.

    Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons on his own people and that the U.S. has "high confidence" that the regime carried out the chemical attack on Aug. 21 that reportedly killed 1,429 people.

    As Kerrry spoke, the White House released the government's assessment of the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons on Aug. 21.

    The United States Government assesses with high confidence that the Syrian government carried out a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, 2013. We further assess that the regime used a nerve agent in the attack. These all-source assessments are based on human, signals, and geospatial intelligence as well as a significant body of open source reporting. Our classified assessments have been shared with the U.S. Congress and key international partners. To protect sources and methods, we cannot publicly release all available intelligence -- but what follows is an unclassified summary of the U.S. Intelligence Community's analysis of what took place.

    Read the complete assessment below:

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    A heavily damaged street in Syria's eastern town of Deir Ezzor on Aug. 26, 2013. Photo by Ahmad Aboud/AFP/Getty Images.

    An alleged chemical attack outside Damascus on Aug. 21 drew the world's concern back to the Syrian civil war. Since news of the attack, the Obama administration and America's Western allies have weighed how and whether to respond, including possible military action. On Friday, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. has "high confidence" that the Assad regime used chemical arms that reportedly killed 1,429 people.

    You can keep up with the latest developments by following these trusted sources on Twitter, or subscribe to them via our Syria Twitter List.

    Also be sure to keep up with our Foreign Affairs team: @NewsHourWorld; Foreign editor Justin Kenny @JustinPKenny; deputy senior producer Dan Sagalyn @DanSagalyn; and reporter/producer P.J. Tobia @PJTobia.

    Andrew Tabler @andrewtabler: Syria and Lebanon expert, senior fellow at the Washington Institute.

    Anup Kaphle @AnupKaphle: Digital foreign editor at The Washington Post.

    Arwa Damon @arwaCNN: CNN senior international correspondent

    Ben Hubbard @nytben: Middle East correspondent for The New York Times.

    Syria's Alawite Force Turned Tide for Assad. Very important reporting from @samdagher in Homs. Bravo. http://t.co/z8YGDE45Jr

    — Ben Hubbard (@NYTBen) August 28, 2013

    Cara Swift‏ @cswift2: BBC Middle East producer covering Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon, Tunisia, Gaza, Israel.

    Deb Amos @deborahamos: Covers the Middle East for NPR.

    Fadi Salem‏ @FadiSalem: From Aleppo, Syria. Author and director of Governance & Innovation at Dubai School of Government.

    Ian Pannel @BBCiPannell: BBC correspondent.

    Jad Bantha ‏@JadBantha: Human rights researcher and social media expert reporting from inside Syria.

    Syrians living around military bases and Assad palaces are advised to stay away from them #Damascus#Syria

    — Jad Bantha (@JadBantha) August 27, 2013

    Joshua Landis @joshua_landis: Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma.

    Lina Sinjab @BBCLinaSinjab: BBC correspondent in Syria.

    "We are not afraid of death anymore, we are waiting for it, we just need an end to all of this" a woman who lives in central #Damascus says

    — Lina Sinjab (@BBCLinaSinjab) August 30, 2013
    Liz Sly @LizSly: Washington Post Beirut bureau chief covering Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond.

    8000 Syrians who fled poison gas attacks in Damascus are denied entry to Jordan, some need urgent medical care http://t.co/aOYs8nMFji

    — Liz Sly (@LizSly) August 30, 2013

    Martin Chulov‏ @martinchulov: Covering the Middle East for The Guardian.

    Matthieu Aikins @mattaikins: Reports from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and other places for magazines including Harper's, the Atlantic, GQ and Wired.

    Miriam Elder @MiriamElder: Foreign editor at BuzzFeed.

    OCHA Syria @OCHA_Syria: Mobilizes and coordinates humanitarian assistance in Syria.

    .@WFP's August cycle #food distributions are targeting a total of 3 million beneficiaries across #Syriahttp://t.co/muNtP3g2VN#Aid4Syria

    — OCHA Syria (@OCHA_Syria) August 29, 2013

    Ole Solvang ‏@OleSolvang: Senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch.

    Paul Conroy @reflextv: Sunday Times photographer covering Syria.

    Richard Colebourn ‏@rcolebourn: BBC News Middle East bureau chief.

    Sam Dagher @samdagher: Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Covering Syria and Lebanon.

    SANA English‏ @SANA_English: The Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) is the national official news agency of #Syria. It was established in 1965.

    Steven Heydemann @sheydemann: Special Advisor, Middle East Initiatives for the United States Institute of Peace.

    Tracey Shelton @tracey_shelton: Senior correspondent for The Global Post covering Syria, Libya and conflict zones throughout the Middle East.

    "It's not about saving Syrian lives. It's about Obama saving face." #Syria'ns share their view on proposed US strikes http://t.co/RM50SnNYUB

    — Tracey Shelton (@tracey_shelton) August 30, 2013
    U.S. Embassy Syria @USEmbassySyria: The official Twitter of the U.S. Embassy in Syria.

    Related Content:

    Live Blog: Following the Conflict in Syria

    Bombing Chemical Weapons Sites Could Endanger Civilians, Cause Environmental Catastrophe

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    A volunteer for Enroll America's Get Covered America campaign, organizes materials on new insurance possibilities available through the Affordable Care Act. On Thursday, 15 Republican members of the house sent letters to recipients of "navigator grants" -- federal funds distributed to groups that will help people sign up for coverage in new online health insurance marketplaces that open for enrollment Oct. 1. Photo by Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

    In a move that the administration described as a "blatant and shameful attempt to intimidate," 15 Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee are asking recipients of the $67 million in health law navigator grants to brief the panel on how they intend to spend the money.

    The Aug. 29 letter directs the grantees to schedule a meeting no later than Sept. 13 and to provide additional documentation, including a written description of the work they intend to do, the number of employees and volunteers, their duties and how much they'll be paid.

    The committee members are also requesting information about how the navigators will be trained and monitored. "All documentation and communication" related to the grant, including application materials, are requested, including any communication between their organization and federal agencies involved in the health law, such as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, according to the letter.

    In addition, the letter asks for documentation of any contact with Enroll America, a group with close ties to the Obama administration. The organization is trying to educate consumers about new insurance options and drive enrollment in the new marketplaces opening this fall for coverage that takes effect in January.

    Navigators will provide assistance on the phone and in person to individuals signing up for coverage in the health law's insurance marketplaces, as well as for public programs including Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program. They will receive 20 hours of online training and have to pass a test before they can start working. Their efforts could include help in evaluating health plans for sale on the marketplaces, also known as exchanges. They are not, however, allowed to expressly tell people which policy to choose.

    Timothy Jost, a professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law, called the letter "an obvious attempt at intimidation of navigator programs, most of which are nonprofits that don't have the resources to hire lawyers to fight this, nor the time to respond at this very busy time. ... This attempt to bully these programs is shameful."

    Erin Shields Britt, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said, "This is a blatant and shameful attempt to intimidate groups who will be working to inform Americans about their new health insurance options and help them enroll in coverage, just like Medicare counselors have been doing for years."

    The letter also drew criticism from the panel's ranking Democrat, Rep. Henry Waxman of California. In a letter to the panel's chairman, Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., Waxman said the letter to the navigator grant recipients is "an abuse of your oversight authority to launch groundless investigations into civic organizations that are trying to make health reform a success."

    Waxman said the timing of the letters was "particularly suspect. You are insisting on voluminous document productions by Sept. 13, just when these groups need to be focused on their mission of helping uninsured Americans enroll for coverage." He added that the requests may have been sent "solely to divert the resources of small, local community groups just as they are needed to help with the new health care law."

    The Energy and Commerce panel did not immediately return a call for additional information about the letter.

    The navigator program has raised controversy among opponents of the health law. Critics see navigators as potential competitors to insurance brokers, and some want the navigators to receive more rigorous screening before they can work with consumers. Some lawmakers and state attorneys general have expressed concerns that there are not enough safety guidelines in place to ensure that navigators do not misuse individuals' personal information.

    Hospitals, universities, Indian tribes, patient advocacy groups and local food banks were among organizations awarded $67 million in federal grants to more than 100 groups earlier this month to help people sign up for coverage in new online health insurance marketplaces that open for enrollment Oct. 1.

    According to a Commonwealth Fund assessment in July, 14 states, including Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin, have passed laws setting requirements for navigators and five others are considering such action.

    Navigators will be required to adhere to strict security and privacy standards, including how to safeguard a consumer's personal information, according to HHS. All types of enrollment assisters -- including navigators -- are subject to federal criminal penalties for violations of privacy or fraud statutes, in addition to any relevant state penalties.

    Phil Galewitz contributed to this article.

    Kaiser Health News is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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    Watch Video | Listen to the Audio

    JEFFREY BROWN: The Obama administration today laid out its case in detail that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its own people last week.

    Secretary of State John Kerry minced no words in a blunt accounting of the attack. And President Obama made clear the U.S. is still making plans for a punitive military strike.

    Once again, be advised that some of the images may be disturbing.

    SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: The United States government now knows that at least 1,429 Syrians were killed in this attack, including at least 426 children.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The chilling numbers stood out from the U.S. intelligence assessment released this afternoon. And lest anyone doubt, the secretary of state insisted, its findings are as clear as they are compelling.

    JOHN KERRY: Our intelligence community has carefully reviewed and re- reviewed information regarding this attack. And I will tell you it has done so more than mindful of the Iraq experience. We will not repeat that moment.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Kerry said the evidence this time was drawn from -- quote -- "thousands of sources," and he starkly recounted U.S. conclusions about what happened August 21 in a suburb of Damascus.

    JOHN KERRY: We know where the rockets were launched from and at what time. We know where they landed and when. We know rockets came only from regime-controlled areas, and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighborhoods.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The report told of victims stricken by spasms, foaming at the mouth and finally death, all without any signs of any visible wounds caused by conventional weapons.

    JOHN KERRY: Instead of being tucked safely in their beds at home, we saw rows of children lying side by side, sprawled on a hospital floor, all of them dead from Assad's gas, and surrounded by parents and grandparents who had suffered the same fate. This is the indiscriminate, inconceivable horror of chemical weapons. This is what Assad did to his own people.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The secretary acknowledged that a U.N. team has been collecting samples from the alleged attack site, but he said their mission is not to pinpoint who was behind it.

    JOHN KERRY: The U.N. can't tell us anything that we haven't shared with you this afternoon or that we don't already know. And because of the guaranteed Russian obstructionism of any action through the U.N. Security Council, the U.N. cannot galvanize the world to act, as it should.

    JEFFREY BROWN: In short, said Kerry, the question now is what the world is willing to do about it. And, he warned, what the United States chooses to do or not do will have profound repercussions.

    JOHN KERRY: A lot of other countries whose policies challenge these international norms are watching. They are watching. They want to see whether the United States and our friends mean what we say. It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. Some cite the risk of doing things. But we need to ask, what is the risk of doing nothing?

    JEFFREY BROWN: A short time later, President Obama addressed that same question as he met with leaders from the Baltic states at the White House. He said he's made no decision yet, but:

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We're not considering any open-ended commitment. We're not considering any boots-on-the-ground approach. What we will do is consider options that meet the narrow concern around chemical weapons, understanding that there's not going to be a solely military solution to the underlying conflict and tragedy.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The president acknowledged divisions here and abroad over the wisdom of any attack. He said a lot of people think something should be done, but nobody wants to do it.

    BARACK OBAMA: The world generally is war-weary. Certainly, the United States has gone through over a decade of war. But what I also believe is that part of our obligation as a leader in the world is making sure that when you have a regime that is willing to use weapons that are prohibited by international norms on their own people, including children, that they're held to account.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Any plans for a broader coalition suffered a blow yesterday when Britain's House of Commons voted against joining a potential military action. The vote was praised today by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who opposes using force against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

    But French President Francois Hollande said Britain's decision will not prevent his country from joining in a strike. He told the French newspaper Le Monde, "The chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished."

    Meanwhile in Iran, a senior cleric said any military action by the U.S. is doomed to fail.

    AYATOLLAH KAZEM SEDIGHI, Iranian cleric (through interpreter): If The Americans commit such a mistake of attacking Syria, they definitely won't achieve victory, and victory will belong to the resistance and the proud nation of Syria.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Back in Washington, members of Congress briefed last night by White House officials indicated they were also divided over whether to use military force. And The Washington Post reported some current and former military officers have serious doubts, in the wake of lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Still, a fifth U.S. destroyer, the USS Stout, moved into the Eastern Mediterranean, adding to the arsenal of cruise missiles ready to be fired at Syria if the order is given.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: In Syria today, the foreign minister dismissed Secretary Kerry's accusations as baseless lies and -- quote -- "a desperate attempt to justify aggression."

    Meanwhile, the U.N. inspectors wrapped up their work, as the people of Damascus braced for a possible military assault.

    We have a report from Bill Neely of Independent Television News in the Syrian capital.

    BILL NEELY: Their final mission, U.N. weapons inspectors set off to try to prove chemical weapons were used in Syria, a mission governments around the world are watching. But they went today not to the site of attacks to talk to those who had been targeted, but to a Syrian army hospital to interview soldiers.

    Syria's government says the soldiers were victims of poison gases. As ever, the inspectors gave little away.

    Why are you here?

    MAN: Because of our investigation.

    BILL NEELY: They brought in medical equipment to take samples and took statements from at least five soldiers. The Syrians refused to allow journalists to talk to the troops.

    On the capital's streets today, they are waiting for retaliation from the United States, though many said Britain's decision not to strike Syria is welcome.

    MAN: For sure. If they are saying they are against this attack to Syria, it's good for us.

    BILL NEELY: "Britain's made the right decision," he says, "and it will affect the Americans -- well, the American people, not the government."

    "I'm not sure it will have any effect on the American decision," he says. "But it's good."

    The U.N. mission here is now over. The inspectors will have left Syria by the morning, taking their chemical samples for testing in Europe. As soon as they cross the border, though, they will report to the U.N. secretary-general. Their initial findings may be clearer tomorrow.

    Today, all day, the smoke and noise of explosions in Damascus, Syria's army shelling suburbs, ready, too, for retaliation.


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    PBS NewsHour producer Cat Wise and videographer Jason Lelchuk were among the first film crews allowed access to the Hetch Hetchy Dam, which is in the fireline of the massive Rim Fire in Yosemite National Park. Photo by Cat Wise.

    Tonight, the NewsHour will air a piece on the race to save centuries-old giant sequoia trees in Yosemite National Park, threatened by flames from the massive Rim Fire, which are leaping dangerously high into the treetops.

    By Friday, the fire -- now ranked as the fifth-largest California wildfire on record -- was 32 percent contained, but had already burned through more than 200,000 acres of timberland forest and dry scrub, three-quarters of that in Stanislaus National Forest west of the park, where the fire began.

    PBS NewsHour producer Cat Wise and cameraman and editor Jason Lelchuk were among the first film crews allowed near the Hetch Hetchy dam, an area still solidly in the fire zone. There, the skies were an eerie orange and smoke obscured the horizon. And from a burned-out area of the forest, near the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, they got this shot (Click for the full-resolution image.):

    They also traveled to the park's still untouched Mariposa Grove, the only sequoia grove out of harm's way, and visited the magnificent "Grizzly Giant," estimated to be 1,800 years old and 209 feet tall, with a trunk that stretches 25 feet in diameter. They captured this shot of the giant trees in that grove:

    In some ways, giant sequoia trees benefit -- actually, depend on fires. In fact, while it may seem counterintuitive, more fires over the past century would have weakened the Rim Fire's power, according to Malcolm North, a research scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, who I spoke with this week.

    Here's why. There are two kinds of fires. One is healthy for the giant sequoias; one's not. Smaller, so-called "ground fires" help the sequoias thrive. Heat from the fire opens their pine cones, allowing them to release and disperse the seeds, and the fire itself clears shade, providing light for these seeds to grow. Plus, as mentioned in tonight's piece, the trees have their own built-in defense mechanisms to protect against fire -- that includes a natural flame retardant in their thick bark.

    For a giant sequoia whose trunk stretches 10 to 15 feet in diameter, the bark can be as thick as 1.5 feet, which also provides strong insulation against fires.

    But certain high-intensity fires become too much for the trees to handle. In the case of a "crown fire," flames leap to the treetops, burning all vegetation and that kills the trees, according to National Park Service ranger Tom Medema.

    The concern is that flames from the Rim Fire will reach the tops of the giant sequoias and kill the trees. Giant sequoias are the world's largest tree by volume and among the oldest living organisms on Earth. Photo by Cat Wise.

    In Yosemite, a century of fire suppression has worsened these dangerous, high-intensity fires, placing the giant sequoias at greater risk, North said. Most forests burn naturally every 10 to 15 years, and as they do, material on the forest floor, such as dead pine needles, wood, acorns and debris, are burned off. In the absence of such fires, this material accumulates, providing powerful fuel when a fire does occur.

    "The forests where the Rim Fire is burning are very fire-adapted, but they're adapted to the kind of low-intensity fire that happens all the time," North said. "The Rim Fire is not like that at all."

    Interestingly, Yellowstone National Park withstands high-intensity fires much better than Yosemite, because it's trees are adapted to them, North said. In Yellowstone, fires are historically less frequent, but more intense, burning mass amounts of fuel and reaching the crowns of the trees.

    "What's different is those forests evolved with those kinds of fires for centuries," North said. And Yellowstone's lodgepole pine has pine cones that release seeds in such fires, allowing the forests to regenerate within five to 10 years.

    Essentially, North said, by putting out fires in Yosemite, you're kicking the can down the road, to a time when the weather will be so extreme that you can no longer control the fires:

    "Several scientists, myself included, are saying it might be a good time to reevaluate the policy of putting out and suppressing all fires," North said.

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    JEFFREY BROWN: And we're joined by two members of Congress who were briefed by the White House on last week's chemical attack in Syria, Congressman Eliot Engel from New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Texas Republican Congressman Mac Thornberry, a member of the House Armed Services and Select intelligence committees.

    And welcome to both of you.

    Eliot Engel, let me start with you. You said you were convinced by the briefing you got. What was the most convincing piece of evidence for you?

    REP. ELIOT ENGEL, D-N.Y.: Well, I suspected even before the briefing that the Assad regime was responsible for this because they kept international inspectors out of Syria for four or five days. If you're wrongly being accused of having these kinds of weapons, you would want the international inspectors to come in to prove that you have been falsely accused.

    The fact that they kept them out, I think, just speaks legends about the fact that Assad's forces were guilty. But the thing that we were told was that there were interceptions of high-level Syrian authority, and in those interceptions, they admitted to doing this and to using these chemical weapons.

    And then there were certain movements of Syrian personnel before the suburbs of Damascus were actually hit with the gas. So it convinced me. I think it's logical. I don't think there's any kind of doubt. I think Secretary Kerry made a very compelling case today, and I think what the president says is also very compelling.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mac Thornberry, you heard the same evidence. Were you convinced?

    REP. MAC THORNBERRY, R-Tex.: Sure.

    But I think most of us believe that Assad has used chemical weapons a month ago or two months ago, because the evidence has been accumulating over time. This particular attack a week or so ago, I think, was on a larger scale than we have seen before. And I think the evidence is clear. So the White House point was, the evidence is clear, and, secondly, we need to do something about it.

    But it's that what you do about it, of course, that gets into all these other questions.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so express your concerns about what happens next.

    MAC THORNBERRY: Well, the White House point was that we need to do something about it first to preserve the president's credibility because he said there's a red line. And, secondly, we need to do something about it to deter future use of chemical weapons we Assad or by anybody else.

    So I think it's incumbent upon the president to go to Congress and the American people and explain exactly what he wants to do and how it will achieve those objectives. Just the desire to do something for these atrocities, which are horrible, is not enough.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But you're saying he has not done that yet as far as...

    MAC THORNBERRY: He has...

    JEFFREY BROWN: No?

    MAC THORNBERRY: He has not. And none of those questions were answered.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Eliot Engel, what about that?

    ELIOT ENGEL: Well, I think the War Powers Act gives the president the latitude to strike first and then go to Congress within 60 days.

    This is precedent of past American presidents. Ronald Reagan did it in Grenada, and it was done in Panama by the first President Bush. It was done in Kosovo by President Clinton. It was done in Libya by President Obama. This has happened before. As long as there is consultance with Congress, as long as there are discussions, I think it's clear that the president does have the right to make a move, and if it's more than 60 days, he needs to come to Congress.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me...

    ELIOT ENGEL: The people who have accused the president through these many months of doing nothing are now accusing him when he wants to do something of not doing the right thing at all.

    So I think the president is put in a position of being damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. I trust the president. I like the president. I think he's doing the right thing. We cannot allow thugs like Assad to gas his own people. It's war crimes, and we can talk about it until we turn blue, but it's time to do something about it. And if America has the gumption to do it, well, I think that speaks legends about our country and what we stand for.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mac Thornberry, first, do you dispute that the president has the legal authority to act now?

    MAC THORNBERRY: I think it depends on how he intends to act.

    But, actually, I think there's a bigger issue. Rather than debating about the provisions of a particular law, I think it is important for the country that the president express why this is important, what he intends to do about it, what his authorities are, and come to Congress ahead of time.

    And part of the reason is you just hear a list of things that the president says, we're not going to do this, we're not going to do that. They seem to want to have a very narrow sort of military action. But you can't limit these sorts of things to just a couple of cruise missiles, necessarily. This may escalate. Iran may retaliate.

    There may be all sort of things, and the president will be so much better off, the country will be so much better off if he comes and has a fuller debate and get Congress' agreement with taking action here, rather than a few conference calls which seems to kind of get the feel of a check-the-box mentality.

    JEFFREY BROWN: You were with constituents in Texas over the last couple of days.

    MAC THORNBERRY: I was.

    JEFFREY BROWN: What are you hearing? Are you hearing concern?

    MAC THORNBERRY: Absolutely. Yesterday, I had two town hall meetings. The top two questions were, why does Syria matter to us and can -- how can we trust the president?

    Now, I represent a different area that Eliot does. But the point is, he -- this is the time to be the president of all the people, and convince all of the people that this is in our national interest. And, so far, he hasn't done that.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Eliot Engel, has the administration explained its position adequately? That seems to be one of the issues here.

    ELIOT ENGEL: Well, I don't disagree with Mac. I think the president has to come before the American people.

    I think what we saw Secretary Kerry do today was the start of that. I think the president, if he acts -- and I believe he will -- will explain what he's doing to the American people. I think this will be limited in scope, and it will be done to show Assad that the gassing of his own people is not acceptable. This is a war crime.

    Those pictures of those children foaming at the mouth and dying is something that will live in my mind for the rest of my life. I just think there are certain things that are unacceptable. And this is one of them. And the United States stands for something. I commend the president for action. I think he does need to discuss this with the American people. And I think he will.

    JEFFREY BROWN: You said, Mac Thornberry, earlier talking about the president's credibility being on the line. Secretary Kerry said it was the United States' credibility on the line. Do you not accept that, and the question of, if not us, then who?

    (CROSSTALK)

    MAC THORNBERRY: No, they're clearly connected. And we can rehash whether the president should have said there is a red line and so forth.

    But the argument that was made in the call today by the administration is that the president's credibility is on the line. And it is absolutely true. If the world doubts our president's credibility, our nation stands at greater risk because a variety of factors will push and test. And that is absolutely part of the danger that we're in.

    Some people say he's backed himself into a corner. And, obviously, all of us have to live with the consequences of that. But that doesn't relieve him of the responsibility to persuade Congress and the American people that he has specific military objectives to accomplish those -- the goals that he sets, and that he is capable of dealing not only with those, but with the possible repercussions that could come from any military action.

    JEFFREY BROWN: So, in a word, you do not think that something should happen within the next days, until the president comes to the Congress?

    MAC THORNBERRY: I think the president has a lot more work to do.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And, Eliot Engel, brief last word from you?

    ELIOT ENGEL: Well, I don't think this thing can be played out indefinitely.

    I think that there's clear evidence that gas was used, and if we do nothing or if we fiddle and faddle and wait weeks and weeks, it will tell every despot in the world, every dictator, every terrorist organization that they can commit a mass murder, that they can commit war crimes with impunity, and no one is going to say anything. We're all going to be talking and talking and not acting.

    I support the president in acting. I think he's doing a good thing, and I think we all should get around him.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Eliot Engel, Mac Thornberry, thank you both very much.

    ELIOT ENGEL: Thank you.

     


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    KWAME HOLMAN: Supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi staged their biggest protest today since a military crackdown two weeks ago killed hundreds. By the thousands, they marched through Cairo and other cities, demanding an end to military-dominated rule. Most marches ended without incident, but there were some clashes and several deaths. Still, the crowds remained defiant.

    MAN (through interpreter): We are here and we are unarmed, as you can see. We have nothing, and they are the ones who are hitting us with tear gas.

    MOHAMED RAGAB, Muslim Brotherhood supporter (through interpreter): I am here today to tell military chief General Fattah al-Sisi that we will not be scared of your tanks and your soldiers. You may put us all in prison as much as you like. We will not kneel.

    KWAME HOLMAN: Many leaders of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood have been arrested in recent weeks, and that had put a damper on demonstrations until today.

    The mayor of San Diego, Bob Filner, officially stepped down today after being accused of multiple instances of sexual harassment of women. Nineteen women have gone public with accusations he groped them or made unwanted sexual comments. The former 10-term congressman was less than nine months into his term as San Diego's first Democratic mayor in two decades. He announced his resignation last week. A special election for a new mayor is set for November.

    In economic news, consumer confidence has slipped this month, after hitting a six-month high in July. A University of Michigan survey found Americans are less confident the job market will improve in the coming months.

    On Wall Street, stocks finished August on a down note. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 30 points to close at 14,810. The Nasdaq fell 30 points to close below 3,590. For the month, the Dow lost more than 4 percent; the Nasdaq fell 1 percent.

    Those are some of the day's major stories.


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