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- 12/20/13--06:30: _After being put on ...
- 12/20/13--07:35: _Report shows no wid...
- 12/20/13--07:49: _Gwen's Take: Taking...
- 12/20/13--11:43: _The Fed's 'Great Un...
- 12/20/13--12:57: _E-cigarette smokers...
- 12/20/13--13:02: _Admitting ups and d...
- 12/20/13--13:06: _White House nominat...
- 12/20/13--13:07: _News Wrap: Congress...
- 12/20/13--13:10: _Obama administratio...
- 12/20/13--13:16: _Political clash in ...
- 12/20/13--13:23: _Can memory video ga...
- 12/20/13--13:31: _Shields and Brooks ...
- 12/20/13--13:44: _Journalist Ari Shav...
- 12/20/13--13:48: _Download your holid...
- 12/21/13--05:05: _What we're watching...
- 12/21/13--08:20: _Rough health law ro...
- 12/21/13--12:07: _Will France ban chi...
- 12/21/13--12:18: _Spiderman stages a ...
- 12/21/13--08:28: _Researchers measure...
- 12/21/13--10:56: _Does Pope Francis s...
- 12/20/13--07:35: Report shows no widespread misconduct at Secret Service
- 12/20/13--07:49: Gwen's Take: Taking yes for an answer
- 12/20/13--11:43: The Fed's 'Great Unwind': It Had to Start Somewhere
- 12/20/13--13:06: White House nominates Sen. Max Baucus to be next ambassador to China
- 12/20/13--13:23: Can memory video games deliver on brain-boosting claims?
- 12/21/13--05:05: What we're watching Saturday
- 12/21/13--08:20: Rough health law rollout tightens some Senate races
- 12/21/13--12:07: Will France ban childhood beauty pageants?
- 12/21/13--12:18: Spiderman stages a special performance for autistic fans
- 12/21/13--08:28: Researchers measure increasing sexualization of images in magazines
- 12/21/13--10:56: Does Pope Francis symbolize a changing face for the Catholic Church?
Photo by Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
With the threat of foreign journalists in China losing their visas -- and thus possibly their jobs -- at the end of 2013, China has decided it will renew foreign journalists' press cards. The Wall Street Journal reported that some correspondents from Bloomberg News and The New York Times have received their press credentials for 2014, even though those news sites' coverage of the wealth of the families of top leaders have lead to their sites being blocked in China since last year.
China did not release how many press cards were issued, but Edward Wong of the New York Times tweeted that only some reporters received the cards.
No NYT journalists in China have gotten their 2014 residence visas yet. Some but not all have new press cards in hand.— Edward Wong (@comradewong) December 19, 2013
Chinese press cards are the prerequisite before the government issues visas to work and stay in the country, and if a journalist is not granted a card, they will need to leave the country.
China's reluctance to hand out visas to the press is traced to its displeasure with Washington over matters of foreign policy.
The New Yorker reported earlier in December that three foreign journalists have been denied Chinese visas over the past two years. Melissa Chan of Al Jazeera English was the first foreign correspondent in thirteen years to be expelled from the country.
Members of the Secret Service watch as President Barack Obama speaks during a rally at Veterans Memorial Park. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
There is no evidence of widespread misconduct within the Secret Service, according to a Homeland Security Department inspector general's report.
The 145-page report was issued Friday, more than 18 months after the agency in charge of protecting the president was embroiled in a high-profile South American prostitution scandal.
The inspector general's office made its conclusions based on a survey answered by about 41 percent of the agency's staff and interviews with 200 managers and supervisors.
In April 2012, 13 agents and officers were accused of carousing with female foreign nationals at a Cartagena, Colombia, hotel where they were staying in advance of President Barack Obama's arrival.
Some of the women were prostitutes and the incident became public after one prostitute and an agent fought over payment.
Six of the employees resigned or retired, four had their security clearances revoked and were removed from duty and three others were allowed to go back to their jobs.
Secret Service Director Julia Pierson said in a letter to former Acting Inspector General Charles Edwards that while the agency agreed with the report's 14 recommendations she was concerned about how the survey was conducted and its results.
"For example, the survey asked Secret Service employees to speculate about the personal, sexual and potentially criminal activities of co-workers and to respond with what they believed to be true through rumor and gossip," Pierson wrote. "This posed a serious concern about the survey content and the value of collecting such information."
The Washington Post first reported details of the final report Friday morning.
Edwards stepped down from his post this week after being granted a transfer within Homeland Security. He had been set to testify before a Senate panel investigating allegations of misconduct against him made by whistleblowers. Among other things, he was accused of removing potentially damaging information from a report on the Secret Service scandal.
Edwards has denied wrongdoing. His appearance in the Senate was cancelled after he left his post.
Edwin Donovan, a Secret Service spokesman, said Friday that the "report concludes what we have said for almost two years now: that there is no evidence that misconduct or inappropriate behavior is widespread in the Secret Service and there is no evidence that leadership fosters an environment that tolerates inappropriate behavior."
Following revelations about the incident, then Secret Service Director Mark Sullivan apologized during a Senate hearing, ordered internal reviews of employee behavior and issued new conduct rules. Included in the new rules were bans on drinking within 10 hours of duty and bringing foreign nationals to hotel rooms where agents and officers are staying.
Sullivan retired earlier this year. Pierson was easily confirmed by the Senate and is the first woman to lead the agency.
Associated Press reporter Alicia A. Caldwell wrote this report.
It is apparently safe to use the word "compromise" again.
Vladimir Putin is granting pardons to his enemies (it took a decade, but still).
Nine U.S. senators this week dared to stray from the Republican fold to endorse a modest government budget that raises revenues and cuts spending.
"Mr. President, this deal is a compromise," Senate Budget Committee chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said. "It doesn't tackle every one of the challenges we face as a nation, but that was never our goal."
A leading Republican, Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, agreed. "The legislation we have before us is the embodiment of compromise, something that has unfortunately been absent in Washington as of late," he said on the Senate floor.
It should be noted that Murray is in the majority, and Chambliss is retiring. That makes compromise -- taking yes for an answer -- easier. But it's still a step in the right direction.
Secretary of State John Kerry is hoping a little of that spirit wafts over to negotiating tables in Europe in coming months, as he tries to plot a path through a thicket of conflict that includes Syria, Iran, Israel and the Palestinians. The word "compromise" seems too tiny to describe what it will take to make progress on those issues.
But is Kerry going to try? You bet he will. And are the people on the other side of those tables listening? For now, yes.
Now compromise is probably too big a word to describe what Putin has been up to this week, playing kingmaker in Ukraine and granting legal concessions to his top political foe and to members of the punk band Pussy Riot.
It's likely Putin's surprise actions had more to do with awareness of the impending Sochi Winter Olympics than with brandishing an olive branch to critics, but still, it's something.
Perhaps it's the holidays. Perhaps it's impossible to hold on to pessimism when you have Christmas carols running through your head. But I've decided we are all turning a corner.
I may decide something else tomorrow.
That's because I am well aware politics will always thrive. Tradeoffs will also be elusive. But for the first time in calendar year 2013, middle ground seems to a possibility once again. Even if only once in a while, and for a brief flash of time.
Merle Hazard performs "The Great Unwind."
This is not our typical post; it's an economics music video. If you saw what the Fed did this week -- or even if you didn't and want to know what the big deal is -- it will be well worth your while, we promise, to watch at least the first minute of "The Great Unwind," above.
When we began our coverage of the Fed this week, asking Nobel laureate Bob Shiller what he would do if he were chair of the Fed and talking with former Fed economist Catherine Mann about the nuances of quantitative easing, we weren't sure how the Fed's Open Market Committee would vote on continuing or beginning to taper the monetary stimulus.
But at the end of the week, we here at Making Sense were reminded of the recent classic from our econo-crooner Merle Hazard (aka money manager Jon Shayne) and wanted to know, is this the beginning of "The Great Unwind" Merle warned about this summer?
And so, we're revisiting the intersection of Wall Street and Nashville's Music Row, where we can hear a reprise of the song and an update from Merle himself.
Jon Shayne: About eight months ago, in March, I heard Warren Buffett on CNBC worrying about what will happen when the Federal Reserve starts to unwind its support for the financial markets.
"In the end, there are an awful lot of people (wanting) to get out of a lot of assets if they think the Fed is going to tighten a lot," Buffett said. We have "never had the degree of disgorgement that might be called for down the line," he said, "and who knows how it'll play out. But it'll be noticeable...."
When I heard Buffett say this, I thought, "Wow! That would be a great topic for a country song!"MORE ABOUT THE GREAT UNWIND: A Nonevent or the Chickens Finally Coming Home to Roost?
So I wrote "The Great Unwind." I rounded up some Nashville cats and background singers, and dusted off my cowboy hat. With help from the PBS affiliate in Nashville, I made a music video that Paul Solman debuted on this page. Paul got some big-name economists like Ken Rogoff, Simon Johnson and Art Laffer to weigh in on it.
In August, when the song came out, the Fed was still buying $85 billion per month of U.S. Treasury debt and mortgage-backed securities. But it was clear then, and clear now, that the Fed will need to stop buying these assets some day. Eventually, as Buffett warned, the Fed will also need to do something to sop up all the money it has created to buy these bonds, or else there will be inflation.
Buffett and I were early, as value investors tend to be, but this week, the Fed took the first step. It announced that it is reducing the pace of asset purchases from $85 billion per month to $75 billion.
Now, $75 billion is still a lot of new money entering the system. It's not exactly a full unwinding, but it is a slow-down in the rate of the increase. However, "The Great Unwind" had to start somewhere.
E-cigarettes are now added to New York's ban on smoking indoors. Photo by Flickr user Lindsay Fox
New York's City Council passed a measure Thursday that looks to add e-cigarettes to the city's 11-year-old ban on indoor smoking. Outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who signed the original ban into law in 2002, is expected to sign the new legislation.
E-cigarettes have been the subject of continuing health arguments and debates over how they should be classified by regulators. Studies have been inconclusive as to how safe the devices -- which contain no tobacco but do contain nicotine -- are for users or for people exposed to the vapors second-hand. E-cigarettes are not currently regulated by the FDA, despite efforts by many to classify them as tobacco products, the Associated Press reports.
Once signed, the updated ban would not take effect until April.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The White House Briefing Room was the scene this afternoon, as President Obama sized up his fifth year in the Oval Office. He conceded his administration has been buffeted by high-profile problems, but he voiced hope for the year to come.
Jeffrey Brown has our report.
JEFFREY BROWN: The president faced the White House press corps after a difficult year that's seen his approval ratings sinking. But he insisted he's not downcast.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That's not how I think about it. I have now been in office five years, close to five years, was running for president for two years before that. And, for those of you who cover me during that time, we have had ups and we have had downs.
And what I have been focused on each and every day is, are we moving the ball in helping the American people, families have more opportunity, have a little more security to -- to feel as if -- if they work hard, they can get ahead?
JEFFREY BROWN: The beleaguered rollout of the health care law has contributed heavily to the president's slump in the polls, from HealthCare.gov's many problems to the cancellation of millions of policies.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Since I'm in charge, obviously we screwed it up.
And I'm going to be making appropriate adjustments once we get through this year and we've gotten through the initial surge of people who've been signing up.
But, you know, having said all that, the bottom line also is, is that we've got several million people who are going to have health care that works. And it's not that I don't engage in a lot of self-reflection here. I promise you, I probably beat myself up, you know, even worse than you or Ed Henry does on any given day.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: But I have also got to wake up in the morning and make sure that I do better the next day and that we keep moving forward.
JEFFREY BROWN: There were several questions about revelations that have continued to grab headlines throughout the year: the National Security Agency's sweeping surveillance of phone calls and e-mails from ordinary Americans and foreign leaders alike.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I have confidence in the fact that the NSA is not engaging in domestic surveillance or snooping around, but I also recognize that, as technologies change and people can start running algorithms and programs that map out all the information that we're downloading on a daily basis into our telephones and our computers, that we may have to refine this further to give people more confidence. And I'm going to be working very hard on doing that.
And we've got to provide more confidence to the international community.
JEFFREY BROWN: On an upbeat note, the president suggested 2014 can be a breakthrough year for the economic recovery.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: The economy is stronger than it has been in a very long time. Our next challenge then is to make sure that everybody benefits from that, not just a few folks.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, on Iran, he again defended his decision to negotiate on ending its nuclear program.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Now, I have been very clear from the start, I mean what I say. It is my goal to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, but I sure would rather do it diplomatically. I'm keeping all options on the table, but if I can do it diplomatically, that's how we should do it.
And we lose nothing during this negotiation period. Precisely because there are verification provisions in place, we will have more insight into Iran's nuclear program over the next six months than we have previously.
JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama and his family leave for their Christmas break in Hawaii tonight.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We will return to the health care issue and developments of the last 24 hours right after the news summary.
President Obama also announced today that he's nominating Senator Max Baucus to be ambassador to China. The Montana Democrat has served in the Senate since 1978, but he's said he won't seek reelection next year. In a statement, the president said Baucus is perfectly suited to build on economic agreements between the U.S. and China.
President Obama confirmed Friday his decision to nominate Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to be the next United States Ambassador to the People's Republic of China. The move turned heads on Capitol Hill as Baucus is the chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee, which is in charge of tax policy and would spearhead any anticipated reforms of the tax code. The senator from the Big Sky State previously announced his intention to retire from the Senate in 2014 after serving in the upper chamber of Congress since 1978.
In the Senate, Baucus' would-be successor to the committee chairmanship, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., is also expected to retire in the coming election cycle. This would leave Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., as the most likely candidate for leadership on the committee and the point person for tax reform with Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
In Montana, the announcement sent shockwaves throughout the political scene. With an open Senate seat at stake, Gov. Steve Bullock, D-Mont., is expected to appoint a successor to Baucus' seat to then run in the upcoming 2014 midterm elections in the hopes that middle-to-right-leaning Montana could be controlled by two senators and a governor from the Democratic Party for the first time since 1989. The most likely choice would be Bullock's Lt. Governor, John Walsh. But both John Bohlinger, the former Lt. Governor, and Jim Messina, President Obama's 2012 campaign manager and a Montana native, have also been named as potential appointees on Bullock's shortlist.
While the move to nominate Baucus was surprising to some political watchers, it may have been made with a keen sense of political calculation by the Obama administration. Baucus is a supporter of the Affordable Care Act but has been a vocal critic of its rollout, comparing the HealthCare.gov website to the nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty."
Baucus has experience in advocating for bringing down trade barriers in U.S.-China economic relations. He would enter the post at a politically-sensitive moment, as the leadership in China has become increasingly aggressive in its claims of strategic airspace previously claimed by Japan. While Baucus is not well-known for dealing with defense issues in China, he is especially well-regarded on business and trade issues in Asia -- skills tested in the Finance Committee which oversees federal trade tariffs and port taxes.
Gary Locke, the current U.S. Ambassador to China and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, will be leaving the post if Baucus' nomination is confirmed.
JUDY WOODRUFF: A new defense spending bill costing nearly $633 billion now awaits a presidential signature. The Senate passed it last night. It includes a provision to curb sexual assaults by stripping commanders of the power to overturn court-martial convictions. Today, the president ordered the military to report in one year on what's been done to deal the problem.
The economy grew more than first estimated in the third quarter, at an annual rate topping 4 percent.The Commerce Department reported today it's the strongest growth since late 2011. And, on Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average gained 42 points to close at 16,221. The Nasdaq rose more than 46 points to close above 4,104. For the week, the Dow gained 3 percent. The Nasdaq rose more than 2.5 percent.
The one-time tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky walked out of a Russian prison today after serving 10 years on corruption charges. President Vladimir Putin pardoned his political foe this morning, as he'd promised yesterday.
In Moscow, Khodorkovsky's daughter welcomed news of his release.
ANASTASIA KHODORKOVSKAYA, daughter of Mikhail Khodorkovsky (through interpreter): Of course, I understand that I will be able to believe this completely only when I see my dad, and am able to give him a hug and say something. But, for now, I have a deep feeling of persuasion that this is really happening
JUDY WOODRUFF: From Russia, Khodorkovsky flew to Berlin, where he plans to be reunited with his family. It was unclear if he plans to return to Russia or engage in any political activity.
New clashes erupted in the Central African Republic today. Christian mobs attacked Muslim neighborhoods across the capital city of Bangui. At least 30 people were killed. Sectarian violence has raged since Muslim rebels overthrew the government of the mostly Christian country earlier this year. Now French and African troops have intervened to try to restore order.
An investigation into the Secret Service has found no evidence of widespread misconduct. That's based on a survey of the agency's staff and some 200 personal interviews. The Department of Homeland Security opened the probe after 13 agents and officers were accused in a prostitution scandal linked to a presidential visit to Colombia.
The Senate today confirmed a business turnaround specialist to head the Internal Revenue Service for the next five years. John Koskinen takes over as the IRS plans to play a major role in implementing the health care law. It's also recovering from a scandal over singling out conservative groups for audits.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was hospitalized early this morning. His press office says the Nevada Democrat was feeling ill, but tests found everything was normal. He was released late this afternoon. Reid is 74 years old. He suffered a mild stroke in 2005.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's focus on an issue the president was asked about at length today, the health care law.
Mr. Obama acknowledged the rollout of it was probably his biggest mistake of the year. But he defended the law overall, and pointed to a big increase in enrollment in the exchanges this month as evidence of his efforts to turn things around.
His remarks came after the administration responded last night to the problem of canceled insurance policies with a special exception. Those affected can buy cheaper, bare-bones catastrophic coverage if new plans are more expensive.
Mary Agnes Carey watching all this for Kaiser Health News, an independent news organization.
Welcome back to the program.
MARY AGNES CAREY, Kaiser Health News: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So what exactly did the administration announce last night?
MARY AGNES CAREY: What they said is for these folks in the individual market who may have had their policies canceled -- we're not sure exactly how many have had that. The estimates are maybe three to four million.
If they have not been able to find a policy that they think is affordable, they can qualify for something called the hardship exemption in the health law. Typically, this is for some sort of event, like you're homeless or you have been evicted in the last six months, that sort of hardship. But they're saying that by qualifying for the hardship exemption, there's two things.
Number one, they won't face the individual mandate penalty in 2014, and they would be allowed to buy something called a catastrophic health care policy, which is usually just open to people under the age of 30.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So they have made some significant changes. Why did they do this?
MARY AGNES CAREY: They received a letter from a handful of lawmakers and senators that were -- the letter was written by Mark Warner and signed by some other senators. And he's a Democrat of Virginia. And they were saying that, in their states, some of the people that had had their policies canceled were having a hard time finding coverage that was affordable to them.
And they looked at this catastrophic issue and they looked at the hardship exemption and said, perhaps that could help their constituents. They wrote to Kathleen Sebelius, who is head of the Department of Health and Human Services. And she wrote back and agreed with them.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, how many people, Mary Agnes, are affected by this?
MARY AGNES CAREY: Well, the individual market overall -- now, here, we're talking about people who buy their own health insurance coverage. That's about 5 percent of the covered market, about 15 million people.
The estimates are that between three to four million had their policies canceled. Now, many of those people have purchased other coverage on the market. So the question is how many people apply? How many people does this particular announcement cover? The administration has said it's about 500,000 people that they estimate haven't been able to find affordable coverage, and that's who they are thinking about in this particular action.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So is that a number everyone generally accepts then?
MARY AGNES CAREY: No, it is not.
And it's unclear. As we saw throughout the implementation of health care, there's all sorts of sets of numbers. This is an estimate, but others have questioned it, have wondered what the true number is. I don't think we actually really know.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the insurance companies, this was a surprise to them, right?
MARY AGNES CAREY: It was a surprise to them.
JUDY WOODRUFF: How do they respond? What are they saying?
MARY AGNES CAREY: They think it's going to add further problems to the health insurance market, could in their words it cause significant instability in the marketplace, and lead to further disruption and confusion for customers.
You have to remember that as the insurance companies price their products for 2014, they assumed these in the individual market would go into the marketplace, they would buy a range of plans. That's how -- what we call the risk pool. And so this may have some impact there. And they have been generally upset with some of these last-minute announcements from the administration's implementation of the law.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So do they just accept this, or do they change their policies? What happens? I mean, do they just automatically go along with what the administration says?
MARY AGNES CAREY: Well, the administration has said that people can qualify for the catastrophic plans.
But people could still decide -- they might look at a catastrophic plan and decide, this isn't really the coverage I want. And they might decide to try to qualify for a subsidy. They might go in -- they may or may not qualify for the Medicaid expansion. So there are other options for individuals. And it is unclear exactly what they're going to do.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Mary Agnes, if you step back and look at the whole health care, the structure of health care reform, does this affect that? Does it -- do the marketplaces work? Do the economics of it work with -- when you take this change and all the other changes the administration has made?
MARY AGNES CAREY: Well, talk about this change.
If, in fact, it is a group of people around 500,000, how much of an impact would that make when the expectation is that seven million people would get coverage in the exchanges, and another separate group, I think around seven million, get coverage in Medicaid?
So it's sort of unclear exactly to know how this particular change will affect them. But delays in the employer mandate, for example, this requirement that most employers 50 -- who have 50 or more workers provide coverage for their workers, that was delayed a year. There are other delays that have changed. So we have to watch and see how it shapes the market.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about what insurance companies do in terms of pricing policy? Can they still rates their prices to get more if they think they're not going to make as much?
MARY AGNES CAREY: Well, they have made bids currently for the year of 2014, but the question, how does all this affect coverage in 2015? Who signs up for coverage? What is the mix, how many healthy people, how many sick people? What are the other demographics? And those will all affect pricing for 2015.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, another bigger-picture question, the president was repeatedly asked today about health care, the problems, he acknowledged big problems with the rollout, he said -- in essence, he acknowledged the biggest mistake of the past year.
But he kept coming back to what he said was the fact that many people are being helped. I think he said most people are going to be better off as a result of health care reform. Is there a way to measure that?
MARY AGNES CAREY: I think that people will ultimately measure it for themselves.
For example, let's say you're not part of the individual market. He talked about the 85 percent of us that get our health insurance through work. We have preventive services at no out-of-pocket costs. Seniors are getting help with prescription drugs and Medicare. The cost of prescription drugs...
JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned that.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Yes, adult children up to 26 being covered by their parent's plan until they turn 26. How do you judge that individually as the consumer? Does it matter to you, for example?
I think that people have to have an experience with this health law to make their own decision.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Because the squawking is clearly coming from the people who lost their policies, people who are -- don't like the idea of having to pay a penalty. Some of these other so-called benefits that the president was citing may be things people aren't even aware of.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Well, that's the other thing.
And there are people that say this is great that you are adding all these mandatory services to be covered, but I don't want them and I don't want to pay for them, and it's not affordable to me. I liked my old plan. I wanted to keep it. You in fact said, President, that I could keep it.
But, as we know, the president has apologized for that. And, again, the experiences will vary for people.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Mary Agnes Carey joining us once again, thank you.
MARY AGNES CAREY: Sure. Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: For much of the last three years, South Sudan has been embroiled in conflict with its northern neighbor. New violence erupted this week inside its borders, this time spurred by internal ethnic and political tensions, killing hundreds and sparking fears of further unrest.
Jeff is back with that.
JEFFREY BROWN: The political crisis in the world's youngest nation deepened this week, raising fears of all-out civil war.
Foreign nationals began evacuating and the United Nations sought to bolster its force there, after two Indian peacekeepers were killed yesterday. On Wednesday, President Obama ordered 45 American troops to reinforce U.S. Embassy security in Juba, the capital.
South Sudan broke off from Sudan in mid-2011. This conflict began as a power struggle between the country's president, Salva Kiir, and his former vice president, Riek Machar, whom he fired earlier this year.
They represent rival ethnic groups. Kiir is Dinka. Machar is Nuer. And some say that's fueling the violence.
WOMAN: They are targeting Nuer particularly. And I don't know what the reason why this specific tribe is being targeted by the government forces.
JEFFREY BROWN: Kiir, who led the Sudan People's Liberation Army, or SPLA, in a long insurgency against Sudan, urged calm earlier this week.
But violence has continued. At least 500 people are reported dead, and 30,000 have been displaced. Late today, word came after a U.N. Security Council emergency session that Kiir and his former vice president will hold -- quote -- "unconditional talks" in an effort to defuse the crisis.
And with me now is Lesley Anne Warner, an Africa analyst at CNA, a not-for-profit research organization that provides analysis for the U.S. government and military.
Welcome to you.
LESLEY ANNE WARNER, CNA: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: First, we have to remind people this is a -- this is a very new and clearly very volatile country.
LESLEY ANNE WARNER: Yes, that's true.
So, South Sudan received its independence from Sudan in July of 2011. And this came after 23 years of civil war. And there had been a previous civil war from '56 to '72. But there had been great optimism when South Sudan eventually received its independence, although it was essentially starting as a very undeveloped state.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what is the dynamic at work now? Does it seem more like political rivalries, or how much does it feel like ethnic divisions at work?
LESLEY ANNE WARNER: This current unrest started as a political dispute. And it has rapidly started it to take on elements of ethnic conflict, but it's not there yet.
But the issue is, once you cross the ethnic conflict line, it will be difficult to walk that back. So what started off as a dispute between Salva Kiir, President Salva Kiir, and his former vice president, Riek Machar, who he fired along with the rest of the cabinet over the summer in July, has become -- it started off with clashes in the capital city of Juba on Sunday, and has devolved into clashes in the rest of the -- in other parts of the country.
JEFFREY BROWN: And you are saying it would be hard to walk it back if it becomes -- and how strong are these ethnic divisions or how much of a factor is that in this new country?
LESLEY ANNE WARNER: It's a bit of a factor, but it's important not to reduce the conflict, this political conflict to Dinka vs. Nuer.
Dinka are the majority ethnic group in South Sudan. The second is the Nuer. There are several other ethnic groups in South Sudan. The reason the ethnic issue is important is that these groups were on opposing sides of the civil war in South Sudan. And Riek Machar himself was responsible.
When he split from the SPLA in 1991, he was responsible for some of the worst ethnic violence, or he was responsible for initiating some of the worst ethnic violence in South Sudan.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is also an oil-producing country, right? How much is that a factor in what is happening or what could happen?
LESLEY ANNE WARNER: It's -- the issue of oil is not a factor at this particular moment, but there is a potential that it could be an issue, because in areas where some of the clashes have broken out outside of Juba, there are reports of the SPLA, the military dividing along ethnic lines in Bentiu, which is the capital of Unity State, which is along the border with Sudan.
And a very heavy oil-producing area, and it's an area that suffered a lot of violence as a result of being in an oil-producing area during the civil war. There is also violence in Jonglei State, which is -- some oil is produced there as well, but not nearly as much as in Unity State.
And there is the potential that these armed movements may decide to capture the oil fields to be able to fund their continued rebellions.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is also within a very volatile region, right? So is the fear not only what happens within South Sudan, but whether it spreads?
LESLEY ANNE WARNER: I don't think that there is necessarily a fear that it will spread too much to the south. But there is a fear that it could destabilize Sudan, actually, just because, as you mentioned, oil is a variable in this -- oil is a potential future variable in this conflict.
And you have already seen in Sudan, when the oil was cut off between Sudan and South Sudan, because the oil is in -- most of the oil is in South Sudan and the pipeline goes out through Sudan, that there were anti-government protests that came very close to toppling the National Congress Party in Sudan. And you saw protests earlier this year as well. And so Sudan may also destabilize if oil is cut off from South Sudan.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we saw various steps being taken at the U.N., or at least discussions, and in Africa. What kind of leverage does the outside world, including the U.S., have, if any?
LESLEY ANNE WARNER: The outside world, especially the U.N., the African Union, the Intergovernmental Authority and Development, which is an East African regional community, they have a bit of leverage because of the role that the -- the instrumental role they played in brokering the peace agreement between Sudan and South Sudan signed in 2005.
However, at the same time, while they have diplomatic leverage, it is important to note that they don't necessarily have the military leverage to back that up, which is -- it is potentially problematic.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, briefly, does the U.S. have any particular interest at this point?
LESLEY ANNE WARNER: The U.S. has an interest because of the role that it played, along with other members of the international community, in brokering this peace.
But it's important to keep in mind that the U.S. has other priorities at play, not only globally, but also in Africa.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Lesley Anne Warner, thanks so much.
LESLEY ANNE WARNER: Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: This weekend, the crossword puzzle marks its hundredth birthday. First published in a New York newspaper, it's become a daily ritual for many and even been rumored to help stave off dementia. But there isn't much evidence to back up that claim.
On the other hand, special correspondent Jake Schoneker reports on new research using video games to sharpen an aging mind.
JAKE SCHONEKER: Fifty-seven-year-old Ashley Wolff has been a self-employed children's author and illustrator for 25 years, working out of her small home studio in San Francisco. She says she loves being her own boss, but that working from home can be a challenge.
ASHLEY WOLFF, author and illustrator: Working from home allows me really to just let my attention deficit problem fly.
JAKE SCHONEKER: Like many people her age, she's recently found herself forgetting things more often, and getting easily distracted from work. She was worried about these problems getting worse as she got older, especially because her mother, at age 85, was beginning to exhibit signs of Alzheimer's disease.
ASHLEY WOLFF: My sister and I are watching our mother kind of lose her memory. And we thought, gee, wow, she always did the New York times crossword puzzle, and always seemed so sharp, and here she is, none of that helped her. And we thought, we should try something.
JAKE SCHONEKER: So she decided so try cognitive training, a new breed of video game designed to exercise the brain. She now gets a daily reminder to log on to her laptop for a 15-minute mental workout.
ASHLEY WOLFF: She wants a BLT and coffee. He wants a garden salad.
JAKE SCHONEKER: In this game, called "Familiar Faces," Wolff is a waitress at a cafe. She has to remember the names of people who come in, as well as what they order.
ASHLEY WOLFF: Cheeseburger.
JAKE SCHONEKER: "Familiar Faces" is one of many games designed by Lumosity, a San Francisco based startup that launched in 2007. The company markets itself as a kind of gym for the brain, complete with monthly membership fees.
The service creates a personalized training program for users based on their needs that includes exercises for attention, speed, and memory. On most days, Wolff will play five different games selected for her by the program. Even though her memory isn't what it used to be, she says she's noticed a modest improvement since she started training. Increasing evidence from the field of neuroscience suggests it's never too late for the brain to change.
Companies like Lumosity have built a billion-dollar business out of a very simple premise: that no matter your age, you can improve your brain's performance through cognitive training.
Joe Hardy, the head of the science team at Lumosity, says the idea of being able to improve and train the brain as we get older is relatively new.
JOE HARDY, Lumosity: Previous to maybe 30 years ago, neuroscientists believed that the brain was effectively fixed in its ability to process information, pay attention, plan, remember. We now know that the brain is constantly changing the way that it operates in response to the challenges and activities that it's engaged in.
JAKE SCHONEKER: The concept is called neuroplasticity, meaning the brain continues to adapt, change, and perhaps be trained even as we age. It's the underlying foundation for the many startup companies that are developing brain fitness programs and bringing them to market. But are the claims of these companies supported by the science?
LAURA CARSTENSEN, Stanford University Center on Longevity: The claims being made by most of these companies that are selling products to improve your brain are exaggerated.
JAKE SCHONEKER: Laura Carstensen is director of the Stanford University Center on Longevity, an expert and author on the aging brain.
LAURA CARSTENSEN: When marketers tell you that you can increase your I.Q. by 20 points or that you can, with 15 minutes a day of training, improve your cognitive control and executive functioning, and that this will make you smarter in everyday life, those kinds of claims are just clearly unsupportable by scientific evidence.
JAKE SCHONEKER: She says brain games have potential, but more research is needed to understand if, and how, the brain benefits from training.
At the University of California, San Francisco, Adam Gazzaley is one of many neuroscientists working to answer those questions.
ADAM GAZZALEY, University of California-San Francisco: Well, I think that, very frequently, there's a mismatch between being based on science and claims being validated by the scientific method. And I think that's what the real goal, is that they're more than based on science; they're validated by scientific methodology.
JAKE SCHONEKER: So Gazzaley and his research team set out to design a game that started with the science. They chose a brain function known to decline with age, multitasking, and tried to find a way to slow that decline through training. The game they came up with, called "NeuroRacer," challenges subjects to drive a virtual car down a winding road while simultaneously recognizing and responding to road signs.
MAN: I'm dangerous here. This is -- I'm a menace to society here.
JAKE SCHONEKER: Like commercial games, this game gets progressively harder as the player improves, creating a challenging virtual environment for the brain to adapt to.
As subjects trained in "NeuroRacer," they improved dramatically at multitasking. Study participants in their 70s and 80s who trained for one month performed better than 20-year-olds playing for the first time. But perhaps the most interesting part of the study was that those older players improved in other areas as well, like working memory and sustained attention.
That's a big deal because there's evidence that training in one task can lead to benefits throughout the brain.
ADAM GAZZALEY: This is a measure of what we call functional connectivity, which is a reflection of how your brain functions as a network, so that different parts of the brain are not acting in isolation, but acting as a network. And that's what we see, that that improves as well.
JAKE SCHONEKER: Gazzaley's study made a splash on the scientific community, making the cover of the science journal "Nature."
Gazzaley is now working to build a better, more interactive version of "NeuroRacer" that the FDA could approve as a therapy for ADHD. But that pathway could take years or decades to complete. And, until then, Gazzaley says he can't make any strong recommendations for the use of cognitive training.
ADAM GAZZALEY: We do need better, more carefully controlled studies in order to make really strong prescriptive advice.
That being said, in general, I think if you find these games fun, at least there's no clear evidence that they have detrimental effects, so I usually don't disrecommend them.
ASHLEY WOLFF: I think the proof will be in the pudding. It's not going to happen to me now, when I'm in my 50s. But if I'm still able to do stuff like this in my 80s, I will be thrilled.
JAKE SCHONEKER: By then, in 30 years, who knows what science will tell us about how middle-aged people like Wolff can keep their minds sharp.
But with five million Americans suffering from Alzheimer's disease today, and with that number due to rise sharply in the coming decades, those solutions can't come soon enough.
ASHLEY WOLFF: Good brain training for the day.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
We're going to do our own version of brain training.
Talk about today's news conference by the president. David, it's been a rough year for the president. He was asked a lot of questions about what went wrong, especially when it came to health care. He acknowledged some problems, but he kept saying, I did the right thing.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. On health care, it's going to be political. It's going to be, let's say, the confluence of the politics and the messy implementation.
So, what happened last night was, they announced this delay -- or this delay in some of the -- really wiping away some of the internal mandate, the individual mandates for people who have hardship exemptions. And that came about as a bit because of political pressure from Democrats.
And the thing to look forward to in the -- really the months and years ahead -- or especially the months ahead, as the midterms approach, is, are more Democrats pressing the president to sort of weaken the individual mandate further, further, further? And if it becomes politically unsustainable, for a lot of Senate Democrats in particular, then the individual mandate begins to look weaker, possibly goes away.
And if that goes away, then the health care law goes away. So, they don't have a long time to implement the health care, because the political pressure may interrupt their effect to really implement the change and reform to make the thing work.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, how much leeway does the president really have to change impressions about health care right now? And how much does his legacy hinge on all this?
MARK SHIELDS: It's beyond packaging, and it's beyond speeches, Judy. It's now performance.
This going to be judged by how in the next year people's lives are either improved, and they feel more secure and better, and their family members and friends and neighbors are better off because of this law, or they're not. And I think that's -- that's -- we have moved beyond can we make another speech, can we do an event to really performance.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, they just stand back...
DAVID BROOKS: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it's sort of hard to know where it's going to wind up. It's either teething pains, in which case we will just get through this period and it will work in a little brief period, or it's a dissolution of the whole thing.
And at this point, none of us can really know which is true. One of the thing that strikes me is, in an era of high distrust, high cynicism about Washington, the losers seem to be a lot more louder and more powerful than the winners. And so you could have a situation where you have more winners, but they're a passive, less political power. The vocal minority of losers has much more political sway.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And that's one of the things. I was talking about with Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: She was saying, there are a lot of people that may be having a good experience, but we're not hearing from them.
MARK SHIELDS: Well, and no -- but that's got to be it.
I'm not as worried as David is about the dissolution. I mean, I am still hopeful and believe that it will work. But this is the whole ball game. This is the whole presidency. Everything else, Judy, you can -- you know, you can talk about State of the Union address. You can talk about legislative initiatives, and we will.
But this is what the Obama presidency will hinge on, and history's judgment of it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the other big question he was asked about was the NSA government surveillance.
And it was interesting. His answer was framed the same way. He acknowledged there have been some problems. But he said, you know, we're just trying to do the right thing for the American people and we're prepared to make some tweaks, some adjustments as we go along.
And clearly they are going to announce, I guess, some adjustments in January to the program.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, and as they should.
You know, I'm a pretty big national security guy. But if you looked at the way the NSA has acted in some of the foreign surveillance, and some of the domestic, media, all this stuff, it's hard not to be a little alarmed and it's hard not to feel that there is some lack of self-restraint.
And so the tide of public opinion has clearly turned toward more restraint. And I think there is going to be broad majority support from that -- from the right and the left, as long as it is done responsibly.
And so what this council report...
JUDY WOODRUFF: Broad support for?
DAVID BROOKS: For restraining the NSA, putting in some of the safeguards that the judicial decision, the Leon decision essentially sort of endorsed, but this group of advisers certainly endorsed. There's going to be I think broad support of that. And the president clearly is sympathetically aligned toward it.
MARK SHIELDS: The very fact, Judy, that the recommendations of the panel were made public tells you, I think, the degree of concern and confession and admission on the part of the administration there is an alarm.
There has always been this question about why Americans weren't concerned about privacy, but it's almost become cumulative now. It's both private and public. Anybody who signs on and looks up shoelace, and you're going to be bombarded with shoelace ads for the next generation, in the sense that, through your phone, they know where you are and who we are, and I think there is a merger here almost of the private and the public.
And the NSA was unable to come up with a single example of a plot that had been thwarted by all of this data that -- just this accumulation of it, and not that the phone companies, I think, are any more trustworthy. That is sort of a -- when the phone companies are the default position, it tells you how much confidence has been lost in the NSA.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes.
DAVID BROOKS: I sort of -- personally, I am a little less worried when the government -- when the private company has it than when the government, which really does have power of life or death over us, has it.
MARK SHIELDS: I agree.
DAVID BROOKS: Somehow, that seems more problematic to me.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, just about the only I guess institution out there that is less -- that has got worse approval ratings these days than the president is the Congress, Mark and David.
David, they're now -- they have left town. We think they're all out of town. They finished the budget. But what is the legacy of this Congress? What are we going to remember the Congress of this session for?
DAVID BROOKS: Some really great accomplishments.
DAVID BROOKS: The government shutdown was one.
I would say the change in the filibuster rules was a disaster, and then the failure to pass immigration reform, which really has majority support. So I think that is three pretty big strikes. I think they have earned whatever their approval rating is, 1.2 or whatever it is at this point.
DAVID BROOKS: I think it's been a pretty lamentable, lamentable Congress.
And that is partly because of Congress, partly because of the country, frankly, and partly because the president has not gathered a governing majority at any point in his presidency, some 60-vote majority that he can count on time and time again.
MARK SHIELDS: Judy, the -- the reality of the Congress -- and I give the president credit. He did accentuate the positive of the improved economic news at the beginning of the press conference today.
But the legacy of this Congress, in spite of the great summit with Patty Murray and Paul Ryan and accommodation and conciliation, we're going to end up -- as David Rogers, the Politico budget reporter pointed out, we're going to end up with -- and all of us know about economic inequality, and the need for research, the need for education, the need for all sorts of scientific -- or the infrastructure efforts.
And we're going to end up with an average spending $486 billion on all discretionary -- domestic...
JUDY WOODRUFF: domestic.
MARK SHIELDS: ... discretionary spending, that is that -- not the defense and not that that goes to Social Security and Medicare.
In George W. Bush's administration, we averaged $509 billion. That's $23 billion less a year. So we're cutting back at the very same time that Ben Bernanke tells us in his valedictory that we should be spending more. And so, the idea...
JUDY WOODRUFF: But that's what Republicans want, isn't it?
MARK SHIELDS: But, I mean, the idea that it's happening, that the Democrats have accepted this, and this is going to be going forward, I really think it's -- this alarm has not been sounded. It takes a reporter to make the case, rather than a leader.
DAVID BROOKS: It's not because we're spending less money overall. It's because it is going to entitlements.
It is the entitlement piece that is swallowing up the domestic discretionary piece, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Social Security, Medicare, yes.
MARK SHIELDS: But the figure -- I was talking to David before the broadcast about this.
There were 196 million Americans in 1966. And there were -- at that time, there were 2,721,000 Americans working for the federal government. Today, with 316 million Americans, there are 2,000 more. I mean, we have cut the number of federal employees.
I mean, it is not -- it is not some behemoth. I mean, Rand Paul, for example, when he found this out was just rather amazed, I mean, because he had bought into the idea that this was -- they were hiring and hiring and hiring and spending and spending.
I mean, that -- that, I think, has to be a concern going forward about whether we're going to have money for research and for education and for infrastructure.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But do you think the American people understand that, and, frankly, are focused on it and care about it?
MARK SHIELDS: No.
I mean, I think that's -- no, the American people have an awful lot on their minds and what they are trying to deal with. But I think that is the responsibility of leadership to make that case. And I don't think that case has been made.
DAVID BROOKS: Well, again, Milton Friedman used to say that government is becoming a check-writing machine, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
It's money comes in, checks go out. It doesn't take a lot of government workers to do that. And so when Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security and those programs begin to expand, everything else shrinks. And so it is a question of getting those two. And Friedman used to say, this is a libertarian paradise. When the entitlements take up 100 percent of the federal government, there is no money for anything else.
And that is more or less where we are headed.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.
It is almost Christmas. Whether you observe Christmas or not, it is the time of year when everybody thinks about giving gifts. So I have asked the two of you to think about what gifts would you like to give to some prominent Americans?
So, Mark, let's start with President Obama. What would you give him?
MARK SHIELDS: President Obama needs a whirlpool.
MARK SHIELDS: He's got a lot of bruises and bumps. He needs some -- some personal time.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You don't mean a washer and dryer set? You mean...
MARK SHIELDS: No, I mean just that hot tub that he can sit in and get -- you know, get -- get feeling better, maybe a couple Band-Aids even.
DAVID BROOKS: It is funny. We went in the same direction...
DAVID BROOKS: ... because I wanted to give him one of those massage chairs you get at Brookstone, the vibrating things.
MARK SHIELDS: Oh, did you really?
DAVID BROOKS: He was going to do that in the press conference, sort of shaking around there.
MARK SHIELDS: He's got more taste than that.
DAVID BROOKS: Those are pretty nice.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what about Speaker Boehner, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Speaker Boehner needs to get rid of Jack Kingston, the congressman from Georgia who is running from the Senate, who said this week, Judy, in a major breakthrough of great conservative thinking, that children are -- that their moral fiber is undermined by receiving free school lunches; therefore, they should fire the janitors in poor schools and let the children who are getting school lunches work as janitorial people.
You know, John Boehner doesn't need those people. And he needs to get in touch with his feelings again, like he did last week.
JUDY WOODRUFF: I remember one of the Republican presidential candidates talking about that too at some point.
DAVID BROOKS: I'm getting him a life-size picture of Dean Martin, because I have had trouble telling the two apart, frankly.
MARK SHIELDS: That's good. That's good.
DAVID BROOKS: Same voice, same skin. He needs Jerry Lewis off on the side.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let's talk about...
JUDY WOODRUFF: You want to keep that up?
MARK SHIELDS: That's good.
JUDY WOODRUFF: A couple of Republicans who may run for president next time around.
What about Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey?
MARK SHIELDS: Governor Chris Christie needs to receive and to listen to the C.D. of "Feliz Navidad," because he -- his position on immigration is a little sketchy.
And I think it's time for him to work it out and be inspired.
DAVID BROOKS: I was just going to give him -- I'm writing a book on humility. And I think he could use that one.
JUDY WOODRUFF: OK.
This is a good place to sell your book.
Ted Cruz, the senator, junior senator from Texas, Mark, what about him?
MARK SHIELDS: I think a camo outfit, so he could join the folks at "Duck Dynasty" and feel very comfortable with his core constituents.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking of "Duck Dynasty," I was going to ask the two -- I will ask you about that in just a minute.
What about Ted Cruz?
DAVID BROOKS: I will -- he can take the camo, but I would give him an hour with Pope Francis.
MARK SHIELDS: Oh, boy.
MARK SHIELDS: You're into humility this year.
DAVID BROOKS: I know.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, somebody else who said I guess in an interview in the last few days that she's going to decide this year whether she is running for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton.
Mark, what would you give Hillary Clinton?
MARK SHIELDS: I am into C.D.s this year. "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow."
MARK SHIELDS: I mean, it worked for Bill. You ought to just hum it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: You want her to run?
MARK SHIELDS: Do I want her to run? I...
JUDY WOODRUFF: You're not going to go on the record.
MARK SHIELDS: I have absolutely no interest in whether she does or doesn't. I mean, that is solely up to her.
Anybody who runs for president, it is a personal decision. And I wouldn't presume...
JUDY WOODRUFF: David.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I'm picking C.D.s. I would give her "Grand Theft Auto," something to play on the bus there.
JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, finally, what would the two of you to give to the American people, to the country.
MARK SHIELDS: Boy, just some sense of optimism and confidence about the future, which is -- our supply of which has been sadly depleted.
DAVID BROOKS: He's getting sentimental.
I was going to give us a break from ourselves. But, you know...
JUDY WOODRUFF: You don't mean the three of us. You mean...
DAVID BROOKS: No, I mean all of us need a break from all 320 million of us.
MARK SHIELDS: Need a break from each other?
DAVID BROOKS: From ourselves.
MARK SHIELDS: Oh.
DAVID BROOKS: No, if you want to feel good about the country, just go back to 1830. Tocqueville comes here.
He finds certain American values, dynamism, hard work, industry, moral materialism. They're all still here. We're still essentially Tocqueville's country. And so I would give them -- I would give them "Democracy in America" and remind us that we still essentially have the secret we have always had.
JUDY WOODRUFF: That is a good note to end on.
MARK SHIELDS: I would...
JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks, merry Christmas. Happy holidays.
MARK SHIELDS: Merry Christmas, Judy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you very much. Thank you.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: This year, Secretary of State John Kerry embarked on the task of trying to settle the unresolved conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner talks with Israeli author Ari Shavit about his acclaimed new book, exploring that conflict and the contradictions he sees in his nation's history.
MARGARET WARNER: Sixty-five years ago, the state of Israel was created from the ashes of the Holocaust. Its birth also uprooted, by U.N. estimates, some 750,000 Palestinians who had inhabited the land.
The decades since have brought wars, violent Palestinian uprising and Israeli crackdowns and many attempts to negotiate peace. Yet, today, the land remains divided, with the majority of the Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and the unoccupied, but hemmed-in Gaza Strip.
The family story of writer Ari Shavit spans Israel's founding and history, from the days of his great grandfather, a British solicitor in art and scientist. Shavit, a one-time paratrooper, now a columnist, tackles this complex history in his new book, "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel."
We spoke recently at Washington's historic Sixth and I Street Synagogue.
MARGARET WARNER: Ari Shavit, thank you for joining us.
ARI SHAVIT, "My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel": Pleasure to be with you.
MARGARET WARNER: The subtitle of your book is "The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel."
You're a fourth-generation Israeli. Have you always felt that way, that there was a duality to the whole nature of this country?
ARI SHAVIT: Absolutely.
One of the basic things about that country that I love so much is that it is so complex. And, usually, the conversation about it is too simplistic this way or another. And if you don't wrestle with the complexity, you don't get it. You don't get Israel, you don't get the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you don't get the Middle East.
The book is a personal journey of real soul-searching. On the one hand, Israel is an amazing triumph because it did build a home for a homeless people. So Israel is a remarkable success of the people that have saved themselves and have chosen life and are celebrating life.
The tragedy is that the conflict -- and what my claim is, is that the conflict is not only about occupation and settlement. It is a deep conflict that has religious, historical elements, begins from the very beginning, because there was an inherent tragic flaw, if you wish, in this great success story of Zionism, and that created the conflict that created a kind of 100-year war which is still with us.
MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think the Jews, who had been an oppressed people, a persecuted people, could not or didn't empathize with the Palestinians that they were in turn uprooting, as you so vividly describe in this book?
ARI SHAVIT: I think that what happened is that the need to have a Jewish national home was so deep, this was such a deep existential need, that the first Jews who went there, the founders of Zionism, were blind to the existence of others.
And, in a sense, this blindness created this conflict from both sides. We were blind to the fact that there is a Palestinian people. The Palestinians were blind to the fact that we are a Jewish people that has a right on that land. My hope is that we will get over this blindness and that will be the key to a real peace, not just a political peace.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, you tell the story dramatically by focusing in on one village or town of Palestinians called Lydda, 50,000 to 70,000, that really on one or two days in July of 1948, they were evicted, some of them murdered.
Are you the first to really peel back the layers of the onion on that story? And was it a painful experience for you?
ARI SHAVIT: Writing the Lydda chapter was very painful.
I thought it was my duty, and I still think it is my duty as an Israeli, being honest about the history of my nation, to acknowledge the darker side of our history. But, on the other hand, I think it's very important not to take that out of context.
One must remember that the 1940s were not 2013 or 2014. The 1940s were brutal throughout Europe, throughout the Middle East. One has to remember that wherever the Arabs, the Palestinians won, not many places, they evicted all the Jews, and in many cases there were massacres.
In order to be honest with our Palestinian neighbors, what I say to them, I must acknowledge Lydda. This is my moral duty. But it's your duty to overcome Lydda, because one cannot be addicted to the pain of the past.
MARGARET WARNER: How much soul-searching is going on in Israel, not just among intellectuals and journalists, but in the population at large, about this?
ARI SHAVIT: Look, I think it's very difficult for many Israelis to go through deep soul-searching because they feel endangered.
On the one hand, we are an occupying nation, like no other democracy. And we may have to deal with occupation. But, on the other hand, we are an intimidated nation like on other nation on the face...
MARGARET WARNER: Intimidated?
ARI SHAVIT: Intimidated.
So, occupation and intimidation are the two pillars of the Israeli condition. And, usually, people on the left in this country and elsewhere, and in Israel, focus on occupation and ignore intimidation. People on the right focus on intimidation and ignore occupation. We all must wrestle with both.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, though, that the Israeli political leadership could do more to help solve some of those external conflicts?
ARI SHAVIT: I think there is a need for all leaders in the area to try to achieve what I call emotional breakthrough.
If an Israeli leader will go to Ramallah and speak directly to the Palestinian people, recognize their tragedy and their pain and offer them a future, I think things might change a bit. It will not solve it. But the same applies to the Palestinians.
I want to see the Palestinian Mandela. There is no doubt that, had the Palestinians had a Nelson Mandela, Israelis would have totally changed. There is deep wish on both sides of people to move on, to rebuild a life for themselves, and try to put a lot of the anger and old ideas behind.
But one of the greatest troubles of both peoples right now -- and I'm not talking about this specific leader or another -- generally, for a long time, we have not seen worthy leadership either in Israel or in Palestine.
MARGARET WARNER: Can the current state of affairs, 65 years really, after the birth of Israel, can it continue indefinitely?
ARI SHAVIT: Absolutely not.
I mean, the abnormality of occupation -- occupation is unacceptable for moral reasons, for demographic reasons and for political reasons. We have to try to end occupation with peace, what Secretary Kerry is trying right now.
But, if that doesn't work, we have to prepare a kind of plan B, in which we Israelis launch a nation-saving process of ending occupation gradually, cautiously, with wisdom and creativity, while the Palestinians launch a nation-building process in Palestine, building a constructive, life-loving, and hopefully democratic Palestine.
MARGARET WARNER: Ari Shavit, thank you.
ARI SHAVIT: Thank you very much.
Download the guide to civility. It's a handsome addition to any holiday table or potential political battleground.
It's the holidays, and that means one thing: It's time for uncomfortable political discussions with your distant relatives.
Uncle George founded the tea party chapter in Tulsa. Cousin Minnie just switched to a completely hemp-based diet. Sparks will fly. To bring peace across the land this holiday season, we asked Mark Shields and David Brooks to share their strategies for keeping things civil at the family dinner table. We baked Mark and David's sage wisdom into a handy holiday place mat, which you can print and share with your most uncivil family members.
Here's what our champions of civility had to say.
Mark and David's advice for keeping the peace
David Brooks: My first tip: if you have a deep-down disagreement about how you were treated at your 13th birthday party, deal with it honestly and don't submerge it into a political fight. Most family political debates are fought because of deeper family issues. Second, the key to a civil political debate is to consider the likelihood that you're wrong.
Mark Shields: Accept the rule that you can pick friends but you can't pick your relatives. I'd avoid toxic topics, no matter how tempting and provocative they may be. Avoid topics that are just depressing and would dampen the holiday spirit. Like the 2014 election if you're a Democrat. The Cheney family feud may be toxic in some families, but in others it would help them feel cohesive. The biggest rule of civility is avoiding those subjects that you know are just gonna lead to intense and intemperate disagreements.
How to end a political battle if it gets out of hand
David Brooks: There's a truism that you should never go to sleep mad. But I'm a believer that sometimes you just need to go to sleep. Get a good night's sleep and have a conversation about something else the next day. Politics is not that important.
Mark Shields: A false fire alarm is always helpful. Or announcing that the turkey is ready, even if it isn't. The fire alarm or smoke alarm, either one. Other than that, just turn to Uncle Eugene who has a theory that left-handed Presbyterians are taking over the Federal Reserve and say "You're absolutely right! I never thought of that before but that's right."
How to end an argument about the economy
David Brooks: I think the actions of one administration or another has a very minor effect on the economy. The thing driving the economy is bigger than politics or government. They're just structural realities having to do with the way technology is evolving, the way skills are evolving.
Mark Shields: Point out that the stock market has doubled since Barack Obama has been in office. You can't argue with that fact: It has doubled. Usually the person complaining is the one with the most in the stock market. At the same time, it's unacceptable that we have fewer jobs than five years ago. Anyone who boasts about a good economy is less than shortsighted.
How to end an argument about health care reform
David Brooks: Let's start with story about a rabbi who came to the synagogue with two pieces of paper in his pocket. One said the world was created for me and the other said I am nothing but dust and ashes. And the reason the rabbi carried those papers is they were both equally true. So when dealing with health care or any other issue, it's normal to have two opposing ideas be equally true. In Obamacare, it would cover millions of new people and it's also true that the website doesn't work well and it may hurt the economy. So, the big issues are always about balance.
Mark Shields: It's always great to introduce new information. I really don't know that persuasion on this topic is possible at this time. I might be tempted to say "Isn't it interesting that after the terrible tragedy in the Philippines, China originally contributed less relief money than Ikea or Coca Cola?" In other words, think of a creative way to switch the topic.
What do you do when someone says the president hasn't proven he's a U.S. citizen?
David Brooks: Sometimes there are just facts. He is a U.S. citizen. Then you throw the turkey at them.
Mark Shields: Anybody who brings up questions about where the president was born has proved his or her lack of civility. This is my kicker line: the government of Kenya will formally announce at a press conference that after exhaustive research they have determined that Obama was born in Honolulu. That's the kind of fall it's been for the government.
Mark Shields offers this bonus wisdom on maintaining friendly family relations. Most of these tips were most relevant for Thanksgiving, 2013, but there's some sage wisdom buried between the endzones:
It's a time to become a football fan. The NFL has done a great favor to the peacefulness of American family gatherings by scheduling a game between the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers beginning at 12:30 p.m. EST on Fox. As soon as that's over, CBS has the Dallas Cowboys against the Oakland Raiders. If you haven't had enough -- although Sally Quinn once made the observation that any man who watches three football games in a row is probably brain dead, and that's probably true -- there's an 8:30 p.m. game. As long as there's a football game, it gives us something to talk about that lowers the temperature in the room.
My other suggestion: It's good to ask non-political quizzes to get the conversation going.
Here's a question to kick things off. What are the only four American colleges or universities to have produced both a President of the United States and a quarterback who has won the Super Bowl? (There are 44 U.S. presidents and 30 winning quarterbacks and there are more than 14,000 U.S. colleges and universities.)
Answer: Stanford University produced Hoover and two Super Bowl quarterbacks, John Elway and Jim Plunkett, who won two as well. The University of Michigan produced Gerald Ford, as well as Tom Brady of the New England Patriots. The third school is the United States Naval Academy, from which Jimmy Carter and the Dallas Cowboys' Roger Staubach both graduated. Finally -- and no one ever gets this one -- there's Miami University of Ohio, which claims Benjamin Harrison and Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The other question I use that I think everybody can play is: What are the smallest (in population) state capital cities in the U.S.?
Answer: Montpelier, Vt., which is home to fewer than 8,000 people; Pierre, S.D., with fewer than 14,000; and Augusta, Maine. And I've been to all three.
Interviews by Bridget Bowman
Astronauts begin series of spacewalks
NASA astronauts began work Saturday to fix a cooling system aboard the International Space Station.
Astronauts need to urgently replace a pump containing a bad valve, a task that has only been done once before.
All scientific research has come to a near-halt on after the system malfunction on Dec. 11 forced nonessential equipment inside the space station to be turned off.
The spacewalk is being live streamed on NASA's website.
American troops injured in south of Sudan
A US military aircraft was hit by gun fire in South Sudan while attempting to evacuate Americans from the country.
Four American service members were injured, including one in critically. The aircraft was headed to Bor, which has seen heavy fighting over the past week.
"After receiving fire from the ground while approaching the site, the aircraft diverted to an airfield outside the country and aborted the mission," the military said in a statement.
Turkish PM speaks on corruption probe
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is pointing the finger today at unnamed foreign ambassadors, accusing them of playing a role in a growing corruption investigation against his government.
24 people have been arrested so far, including two government minister sons, charged with taking or facilitating bribes, according to Turkish media reports.
Local media reports the recent turmoil is tied to a power struggle between Erdogan and former ally, Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic scholar based in the US.
Snow and freezing rain threaten holiday travel
Weather forecasters are predicting freezing rain, thunderstorms, and snow as Americans hit the roads for one of the busiest travel weekends.
The wintery weather is expected to hit the Midwest and make its way toward the east coast late Saturday.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Thanks to the fiasco that followed the launch of President Barack Obama's health care law, Democrats are bracing for hard-fought Senate races in states they hoped to win with ease just two months ago.
The healthcare.gov website displayed on laptop computers on Monday, Nov. 4, 2013. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Weeks of technical problems with the health insurance enrollment website and anxiety over insurance cancellations for millions of people have erased early advantages enjoyed by Democratic candidates Gary Peters in Michigan and Mark Udall in Colorado.
As the election year dawns, those problems have widened the narrow opening for Republicans to retake control of the Senate.
"There's not a lot of wiggle room here. Colorado is definitely in play," said Craig Hughes, a Denver-based Democratic consultant who ran Obama's 2012 Colorado campaign and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet's 2010 campaign. "The website was a disaster, and the process of changing insurance is inherently difficult. This is not going to be a smooth process."
Republicans need to pick up six seats to win the Senate in a midterm election year that typically hurts the party in the White House.
A victory in either Michigan or Colorado -- both carried by Obama in 2012 and 2008 -- would greatly boost their chances. Democrats already are defending Senate seats in seven states that Obama won, including three where incumbents are retiring.
Peters, a third-term congressman, and Udall, a first-term senator, both voted for the 2010 health care bill. They echoed Obama's often repeated but now discredited statement that people who had health insurance before the law took effect could keep it if they were satisfied.
By mid-November, 4.2 million Americans had received insurance cancellation notices, according to an Associated Press review, including at least 225,000 in Michigan.
Not even 7,000 Michigan residents had enrolled through the federal insurance exchange as of Nov. 30, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That number is expected to increase, but the early glitches kept sign-ups well below expectations.
At the same time, unemployment in Michigan hovers above the national average, and its biggest city, Detroit, is in bankruptcy. Democrats are fighting to reverse the historic drop-off in Democratic voter turnout in midterm elections, a problem that's compounded by the fact that Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who's also on next year's ballot, is polling well ahead of his little-known Democrat challenger, former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer.
In Colorado, at least 106,000 people had received cancellation notices as of mid-November, while fewer than 10,000 had enrolled in the state-run health insurance exchange. Colorado's economy has performed better than Michigan's, but Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who's also seeking re-election in 2014, has come under fire from the right for his efforts to enact new gun restrictions and to allow gay marriage.
To be sure, Republicans have not seized control of the contests in either state. Some national GOP strategists grumble about the quality of their party's candidates, including Ken Buck in Colorado, who lost his 2010 Senate race to Bennet and is one of three candidates seeking the nomination.
Obama announced Friday that insurance sign-ups have soared across the country in December, following upgrades to the website. The administration also has taken steps to help the 500,000 consumers with canceled policies who have yet to secure new coverage.
Still, recent public polls have shown Peters running even with Republican Terri Lynn Land, a former Michigan secretary of state, in the race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Carl Levin. Udall's approval in Colorado also has fallen into territory considered vulnerable.
During a campaign swing last week, Peters defended his support for the health law, and refrained from attacking Land for backing House Republicans' October shutdown of the federal government in their fight to defund the law.
"This bill gets us down the road but we've got to keep working on it," Peters said in an interview after a campaign event in Kalamazoo. "This is an election about someone who just wants to repeal the law and has no alternative and someone who is rolling up his sleeves."
Land said she plans to use Peters' claim that policyholders will not lose their coverage as a main campaign point. "When you make that promise, and you don't deliver, it really goes to the credibility," she said.
The policy cancellations broadly link Peters and Udall, as well as other Democrats, to cracks appearing in public perceptions of Obama. Just 42 percent of Americans approve of the job he's doing, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll this month. The poll found 56 percent of Americans said the word "honest" does not describe Obama well.
In Kalamazoo, in GOP-heavy western Michigan, perceptions of the health care law and its impact on the Senate race depend on who you ask.
"These issues can be fixed," said Lucy Bland, director of a food co-op kitchen.
"It going to set us all back for a long time," countered Kevin McLeod, with the area Chamber of Commerce.
Democratic National Committee leaders say publicly they welcome election-year attacks on the health care law, and plan to respond by pointing to the October shutdown. By next fall, they contend, the contour of the Michigan and Colorado Senate races will look more like 2012.
"None of these races have had their fundamentals change" due to problems with implementation of the health care law, said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
But Republican strategist Charlie Black notes that former President George W. Bush's believability slipped below 50 percent in November, 2005, a year before Democrats retook control of both houses of Congress. He said voters began questioning Bush's honesty and competence after the failed federal response to Hurricane Katrina that year.
"Obamacare gives both these negatives to Barack Obama," Black said.
Associated Press reporter Thomas Beaumont wrote this report. Follow him on Twitter @TomBeaumont.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In the public imagination, France is renowned for many things: its cuisine…its culture… as well as a very open embrace of female beauty.
You can’t walk a city block in Paris without seeing the scantily clad models showcasing France’s high fashion industry. This is the nation that gave us Brigit Bardot And Catherine Deneuve, and welcomed former supermodel Carla Bruni as its first lady… this after her many years modeling with very little – or nothing at all -- on.
Given all that, it’s maybe a bit surprising that a controversy has erupted in France over what some argue is the ‘hyper-sexualization” of young girls…. Girls like 9 year old Anais Agogue… Anais regularly competes in what are called “mini miss pageants”
MARTINE AGOGUE: (translated from French) This was her first pageant.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: How old?
MARTINE AGOGUE: (translated from French) She was 6 and a half years old.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Anais lives with her family in a suburb of Paris. Her mom Martine showed me photos of Anais competing.
MARTINE AGOGUE: When Anais comes out on stage people stand up and applaud her. I mean of course there is this feeling, this pride.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In the pageants, the girls wear formal dresses –no heavy makeup, no high-heels. They walk on stage, say a few words, and a winner is picked for her overall poise and presentation.
Martine makes most of the dresses Anais wears.
MARTINE AGOGUE: (translated from French) This one is for Anais’s next competition
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: She loves that the pageants bring her closer to her daughter, and thinks the awards Anais has won gives her a sense of accomplishment.
ANAIS AGOGUE: (translated from French) We arrive in the afternoon, have lunch, talk with our friends. My favorite part is when I’m on stage and when I put on my dress.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But Anais’s favorite activity might be threatened because of what happened with another young French girl. Back in 2010 this photo spread appeared in French Vogue magazine. The model here is 10 years old.
At first, no one in France paid much attention… but women’s groups in the U.S. were outraged, and they took their case public.
ABC Reporter: When you see these pictures, what do you think?
Woman in ABC report (Koa Beck, Mommyish.com) I see a young girl being sexualized.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM (to Jouanno): When you saw those photographs, what was your reaction?
SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO: Well, you always think of art. So, you think this is only creation, this is artistic. So, you don't see the problem.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Chantal Jouanno is a senator in the French legislature and a member of the center-right ‘UDI’ party. She says the fashion industry gets a lot of leeway in France, but the American reaction to these photos made her and others take a second look.
SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO: But after, when you really look at the-- the photo, the pictures, you say, "Yes, this is a problem." How can we use children just to sell products? How can we use children as sexualized people?
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The Vogue controversy got so big in France that the Minister for Family Affairs asked Jjouanno to investigate whether there was a problem of French children becoming ‘hyper-sexualized,’ and if so, what to do about it.
SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO: ( to French Parliament ) When our children are not with their parents, what do they see? They see cartoons, TV shows, which are all based on hyper-sexualization.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Jouanno is a mother of three kids… and she was surprised to discover that millions of kids in France – just like in the U.S. – routinely see images that PBS wouldn’t typically put on the air…
RHIANNA: (music video) All I see is dollar signs…
WILLIAM BRANGHAM… images of young women portrayed in highly-sexual ways… online, on TV, in music videos…
ROBIN THICKE: (music video) I know you want it
BRITNEY SPEARS: (music video)… at my derriere
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Jouanno found sexualized images infiltrating toys and cartoons aimed at younger kids.
SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO: I was surprised by those things my own children could see. And I was surprised to understand why hyper-sexualization could be a problem for them.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: At the end of her 6 month investigation, Jouanno issued this report: it argued that the level of sexualized, unrealistic body images was so pervasive in French society that it amounted to “a form of violence” against kids… one that not only objectifies girls, but causes them to then judge themselves harshly.
For example, according to the World Health Organization, 27% of eleven year old European girls think they’re “too fat.” That percentage rises to 40% for fifteen year olds. About a quarter of those girls say they’re now dieting.
So Jouanno’s report came out and it contains 12 recommendations to protect kids. It would prohibit companies from using children as their spokesmodels… it would create a website to ‘name and shame’ companies that don’t go along. It would create an educational program for parents... And it proposed banning those childhood beauty pageants, saying they offer a “degraded or tarnished” image of girls.
Jouanno -- who is not just a senator but is a 12-time karate champion and a former national minister for sports – says she’s not against competitions for kids, she just objects to ones that put a premium on their looks.
SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO: This was just one recommendation, to ban beauty pageants, so that the society will give a very clear message to medias, to companies, that our children are not object of beauty, and are not-- object of seduction. And that, we agree on any other kind of competitions based on talents, as singing, as dancing, but not only based on your physical appearance.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Nine-year-old Anais was not happy when she heard about Jouanno’s proposed ban. She thinks the senator is confusing the pageants she does with the kind that happen in the U.S. -- like those seen in TLC’s hit show ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’
ANAIS AGOGUE: (translated from French) There is this woman – I’m not sure what her name is – but she wants to forbid the Mini Miss pageants because she believes it’s just like in the U.S. and that we put on make-up and show our butts, show our mouth and teeth and breasts.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Her mother Martine agrees that kids are often exposed to too much, too soon… she says she and her husband Phillipe work very hard to protect their kids from that… but she doesn’t think pageants are part of the problem, and she’s furious at the senator’s suggestion that by letting Anais compete, she’s somehow harming her daughter.
MARTINE AGOGUE: (translated from French) I was angry for sure. Because essentially what she’s saying is we’re dumb and we can’t take care of our kids. We don’t let our kids wear anything indecent. She can come and have a look -- I want her to come and see! Our daughters are not Barbies.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The parents who support the pageants argue that it's not nearly as extreme as what we see in the United States – it's not so much makeup, high heels, and they think of it as a harmless, simple competition.
SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO: Yes, but the aim of this competition is still the same, with or without makeup. The only way you can tell where-- this is the winner, or this is not the winner, is to make a comparison between young girls, and between their physical appearance. This is the same issue, indeed. There is no difference, with makeup or no makeup.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Sociologist Michel Fize studies adolescent development. He says, yes, hyper-sexualization is real, and that it can rob kids of their childhood. But he’s not convinced that pageants – at least as they’re practiced in France -- are that harmful. He thinks they’re simply young girls showing pride in their femininity.
MICHEL FIZE: (translated from French) For some people like Jouanno, the moment this femininity is exaggerated it’s a sign that we’re returning to male domination over females in society, with woman as ‘object’ in society. But little girls don’t see themselves as objects. They don’t see themselves as unequal to boys. They are just proud to be feminine.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But Jouanno argues pageants are just the beginning of a process where young girls are objectified by society, and often turn that objectification inwards…
WILLIAM BRANGHAM (to Jouanno): You're talking about something that is so broad in the culture-- affecting everything from parents to education, to the media, to our values. Do you think that going after pageants is the best approach to dealing with this enormous issue?
SEN. CHANTAL JOUANNO: No. The ban of beauty pageants was only one recommendation among 12 big recommendations. And that's a shame that the only recommendation which has been nearly adopted today is a ban of beauty pageants.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Anais is continuing to compete in pageants… she just did another one last week weeks ago. Jouanno’s proposed ban on those pageants will likely be voted on early next year…. Anais obviously hopes the measure fails.
ANAIS AGOGUE: It’s our passion so if she takes it away, we’re going to be really sad.
IVETTE FELICIANO: This might look like a typical Saturday matinee on Broadway…
But the fact that Annmarie Scotti is here with her son Nick, tells you it’s anything but…
(Annmarie Scotti: “Hey Nick, you ready?”)
IVETTE FELICIANO: And tickets for this particular performance weren’t available to the general public; they were only sold to families like hers…
(Annmarie Scotti: “we are in row f”)
IVETTE FELICIANO: Why?
Because this performance of “Spiderman, Turn Off the Dark” was specially tailored for people with autism…
People like 10-year-old Nick Scotti, who often has a very difficult time going to any kind of show.
(Nick: “I’m very excited!” Annmarie: “You’re excited?!”)
ANNMARIE SCOTTI: When you're on the spectrum, some kids either flap their hands, or scream. They have impulses. When you go to places, I always feel like I’m on guard. I have to be, like, okay, my son has autism. I'm sorry if he does something to, you know, to bother you or upset you, but I want him to be able to enjoy this as well.
(Annmarie Scotti: “see right there, the lady”)
IVETTE FELICIANO: Annmarie Scotti says her family has walked out of performances, wasting hundreds of dollars because of disapproving stares and comments from other audience members.
ANNMARIE SCOTTI: Nick actually wanted to see Spiderman in the worst way. And that, I gotta tell you, is one play I was not gonna go take them to.
IVETTE FELICIANO: That’s where the Theater Development Fund stepped in…
LISA CARLING-DIRECTOR, THEATER DEVELOPMENT FUND: This is a way of ensuring a warm, welcoming environment, judgment-free, so that families can come and relax and have a good time and not worry about how the person on the spectrum is going to behave or what-- other people might think.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Lisa Carling is director of accessibility programs at the Theater Development Fund. The non-profit organization coordinates autism-friendly performances on Broadway, like these, four times a year. TDF’s mission is to make live theater more accessible to diverse audiences…
LISA CARLING-DIRECTOR, THEATER DEVELOPMENT FUND: So we hope to raise awareness about autism and help people become more accepting and more inclusive.
IVETTE FELICIANO: Here are some of the things you’ll see at an autism friendly show that you wouldn’t see on Broadway otherwise:
Ushers have about 30 extra helpers on hand…They hand out colorful stress relievers and koosh balls called manipulatives to help autistic audience members relax before and during the performance.
Producers and actors work with autism specialists to make the autism friendly shows as close to the regular shows as possible…but this audience is especially sensitive to jarring lights and sounds…
So audio levels are reduced by about 20%, and strobe lights are completely eliminated.
Yet organizers say it’s what happening off the stage that truly makes this Broadway performance unique.
SAM BLANCO, AUTISM SPECIALIST, TDF: We have children and adults with autism at the show so if they need a break; they have a place that they can come to.
The usually empty lobbies are transformed into activity spaces with bean bags and toys for families who need a break from the sensory overload…And if anyone needs a bigger break, some sections are designated to be completely silent.
SAM BLANCO, AUTISM SPECIALIST, TDF: I’ve been working with kids with autism for 10 years and I’ve never seen so many of them openly able to enjoy something that we really take for granted on a daily basis.
(Nick: “want to sit in the middle?”)
IVETTE FELICIANO: For weeks before this special performance, Theater Development Fund was already helping Nick Scotti ease into this new experience by making customizable social stories available on its website.
(Annmarie Scotti: Here’s the lobby. Do we walk or do we run? What are we gonna do?
(Annmarie Scotti: We’re gonna walk, right… )
IVETTE FELICIANO: Even with the changes to the show, Nick had a hard time getting through the first act…but he was allowed to leave the theater as much as he needed to.
IVETTE FELICIANO TO SCOTTI: Is it different than other times?
ANNMARIE SCOTTI: Oh yeah, it’s definitely different because if you were in a regular play you’d be getting kicked out by now…you know, if your kid wasn’t quiet enough. So everyone here is great, all the volunteers have been great with my kids. So, I couldn’t ask for a better day…
In a 2011 photo spread for French Vogue, models stretched and slinked on an array of exotic animal furs. Their bodies were covered in jewels. Their faces were flush with rouge. They stared seductively into the camera. Nothing about these scenes would be out of the ordinary in the haute fashion magazine, except that in this case, the models were as young as 10 years old.
The controversial spread caused a flood of criticism from media watchers and feminist bloggers alike -- especially here in the U.S.A. But in a culture where sexuality is more accepted, had the French finally gone too far?
In response to the Vogue controversy, the French Senate opened an investigation into whether there was a problem with hypersexualzation affecting French children and if so what to do about it.
And here in the United States a growing body of research has also taken a more critical look at the sexualization of our society.
Social psychologist Sarah Murnen has studied the hypersexualization of women in media for more than 25 years. The research that she and her colleagues at Kenyon College conducted over the last several years found a steep increase in the pervasiveness of images in magazines that show young women in highly sexual ways. The American Psychological Association defines hypersexualization as “occurring when a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior to the exclusion of other characteristics.”
“We’ve seen three trends associated with these images,” said Sarah Murnen, “It’s now common to see more parts of the body exposed. There is more emphasis on the size of women’s breasts. And easy access to all these images has made it all more acceptable to us.”
In Murnen and her team’s recent analysis of Seventeen magazine’s advertisements and articles, they found that the average number of sexualizing characteristics almost tripled over three decades. In particular, depictions of low-cut tops and tight fitting clothing increased.
In a 2008 study of 1,988 advertisements from 50 well known American magazines, researchers from Wesleyan University found that half of them show women as sex objects. A woman was considered a sex object depending on her posture, facial expression, make-up, activity, camera angle and amount of skin shown.
In images where women were shown in victimized roles, the study found that most of the time they were also portrayed as sex objects. The authors noted that such images may function to normalize violence against women.
Sociologists at the University of Buffalo reviewed more than 1,000 Rolling Stone cover images published over four decades. They found that sexualized representations of both men and women have become more common over time. In the 1960’s 11 percent of men and 44 percent of women on the covers were sexualized while in the 2000’s, 17 percent of men and 83 percent of women were sexualized. However, they concluded that women were much more likely to be “hypersexualized” — showing a combination of multiple sexualized attributes.
“It’s the intensity and extent of being sexualized — not just one or two elements, but much more — that we are seeing increase in the portrayals of women.” said Erin Hatton, coauthor of the study.
Researchers from these studies used their own coding systems to rate the images for sexualizing traits. Those traits vary from study to study but include: body parts shown, body pose, facial expression, activity, camera angle and clothing. Some studies, like the analysis of Rolling Stone covers, assigned a sliding scale of points for each coded trait in order to get a more accurate rating of images. For example, exposure of body parts is usually coded high for sexualization, but does not always register. In the absence of other traits, a woman wearing a bathing suit might not be coded as a sex object while a fully clothed woman in a suggestive pose could be considered a sex object.
To get an idea of how the coding systems work, we decided to put it to the test. While reporting our story in France on the subject of hypersexualization, we picked up a selection of women’s fashion magazines that were on display at an everyday newsstand. From those magazines, we picked out a sampling of representative images of women in photo spreads and advertisements.
We asked experts Sarah Murnen and Erin Hatton to analyze these images using their research methods. Hatton clarifies that her coding system isn’t perfect and was intended for images in American social context.
“Sexuality is very much a social construction and, thus, a product of a particular socio-cultural environment,” said Hatton. “What we deem to be appropriate to “wear on the street” is likely not the same in other countries, including those in which women are expected to be fully covered and those in which women are not.”
We also want to hear what you think about these images, and the trends towards hypersexualization? What are your thoughts on the increasing sexualization of people depicted in popular culture? Let us know in the comments.
For more on the research behind sexualized images in American media, read the full study "Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualization of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone."
Also of interest:
Since his election to the papal office in March, Pope Francis is changing the tone of the Catholic Church's governing principles on issues ranging from abortion to gay rights.
Now, in his most recent message, Pope Benedict urged the Curia, the Catholic Church's governing body, to refrain from gossip.
"Holiness, in the Curia, also means conscientious objection. Yes, conscientious objection to gossip," he said. "For gossip is harmful to people, harmful to our work and our surroundings."
This is the latest in a series of comments made by Pope Francis that indicate a more progressive mindset from the papal office.
In July, aboard the papal plane, Pope Francis briefly remarked on homosexuality, an often taboo subject for the Vatican.
In Italian, he said, "If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?"
While Church's stance on homosexuality remains unchanged, the comments resonated around the world as a more compassionate take on gay men and women by the Church.
That same month, the Pope created a special commission to tackle the Church's administrative and economic problems. He also established a separate commission to oversee the Vatican bank, an institution investigated for "millions in suspect transfers."
In an interview with NewsHours' Jeffrey Brown, Father Matt Malone of America Magazine said the Pope's actions and words are "not changing any of the church's teachings, per se. But what he is doing is reordering our priorities."
This "reordering" may be why Pope Francis was recently named Time magazine's "Person of the Year."