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

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    By studying a worm that swims in bacteria, scientists believe they will gain a better understanding of our immune systems. Video and photos by Rebecca Jacobson.

    Dennis Kim, associate professor of biology at MIT, spends his days carefully raising worms that are no bigger than a comma. The students in his lab feed them, watching them grow and multiply on petri dishes that sit in a plastic tub.

    Then they infect the worms with deadly bacteria and watch them fight for their lives.

    But as the worms die, humans learn how the simplest immune system can stave off a deadly infection while swimming in a world of bacteria.

    "We're interested in how (the worm) defends itself against bacteria," Kim said. "They have an immune response that has a lot in common with a very ancient and kind of basic sort of branch of the human immune system, called the innate immune system."

    Primitive Immunity

    Kim's lab is studying the innate immune system, which is a first line of defense against infections. It's a more primitive defense system, where physical barriers keep out bacteria and immune cells swarm to infection sites to fight off pathogens. All multicellular organisms -- humans, worms, plants -- have this general protection, Kim said.

    Humans also have what is known as an adaptive immune system. When our body is attacked by a virus or bacteria, our white blood cells develop highly specialized antibodies to attack the disease.

    That response can take days to kick in, and it's up to the innate immune system to trigger it, said Stephen Calderwood, chief of infectious disease at Massachusetts General Hospital. If the immune system is weakened, either by medications, severe injury or genetic disorders like cystic fibrosis, infections can run rampant.

    "Some of the mortality that occurs from bacterial infections occurs very early, in the first 24 hours, and that's a time when the innate immune system is most relevant. Antibiotics are very effective of course, but often don't have an opportunity to interact with the bacterium that quickly," Calderwood said.

    The worms, seen through a microscope, swim in a "lawn" of E. coli bacteria.

    Why a Tiny Worm May Have the Answers

    That innate immune response is the first line of defense in humans, Kim said. But even without highly specialized antibodies, microscopic organisms can fend off infections.

    "Worms and flies don't have that adaptive immune response, so it's that first branch where they recognize that there's a problem, and do what they can to either neutralize or kill the microbe with making proteins that can, for example, kill bacteria," he said.

    To understand how they do it, Kim's lab has been studying Caenorhabditis elegans, usually just called C. elegans or "the worm." It's a tiny worm that lives in places teeming with bacteria, like soil, compost and rotting fruit. They eat bacteria; E. coli is the regular worm chow in the lab.

    At first glance, worms don't have anything in common with humans. Each adult has about 1,000 cells, 302 of which are neurons or brain cells. They are transparent. They're hermaphrodites, meaning each worm can create both sperm and eggs. That means each of its babies is a clone of its parent.

    Despite those differences, a third of the worm's genes have human counterparts, said Joshua Meisel, one of the graduate students in Kim's lab. To understand which genes affect its simple immune system, Meisel creates random mutations in the worm, then looks for the mutant worms that have an impaired immune response.

    "So you ask in this mutant, what is the gene I mutated that is producing this defect?", Meisel said. "So you're understanding the function of an unknown gene that has a human counterpart that no one has ever known before. And you would not have been able to get there if you had to guess at what the gene was that was controlling the immune response."

    And its a lot simpler to do this with worms rather than mice, he said.

    "To do a genetic screen in mice like that you would need many, many years and a building the size of the MIT campus to hold all the mice. But in worms we can do a forward genetic screen where we mutate all the genes in the worm genome in a shoebox like this in 10 days."

    Associate professor Dennis Kim says that studying these worms may be able to teach us how to better coexist with bacteria.

    Pseudomonas aeruginosa: The 'Scourge of the Burn Unit'

    About 30 feet down the hallway from the lab is a room the size of a coat closet, where beakers full of greenish fluid are kept at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Machines whir to keep the beakers spinning, circulating air inside the beakers to allow the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa to thrive.

    Pseudomonas is unusual because it can infect just about any organism, Kim said. If this strain was injected into a plant, it would kill the plant. Put it in a mouse, and the mouse would develop sepsis and die, he said.

    The strain of Pseudomonas in his lab was cultured from a patient across the river at Massachusetts General Hospital in the 1990s, and it remains the "scourge of the burn unit," Kim said.

    Pseudomonas is one of the top five nastiest hospital-acquired infections, Calderwood said. The bacteria is in the environment all around us, and for those of us with healthy immune systems, it rarely becomes a problem, he said.

    But the bacteria is notoriously antibiotic resistant, making infections tough to treat, he said. In a hospital, Pseudomonas can be carried into a patient's lungs or blood through medical equipment -- breathing tubes, IVs, needles -- and it's a common cause of hospital-acquired pneumonia.

    It's a nasty infection to look at in some patients, Calderwood said. For one thing, it has a cloyingly sweet smell to it. Kim describes it as being grape-like. Zoe Hilbert, a graduate student in Kim's lab, says it smells like a dirty gym locker room. The bacteria can also create inflammation and cause infected wounds to ooze green pus.

    And for burn patients, Pseudomonas can be fatal. Pseudomonas kills the patient's skin tissue, and patients wait in agonizing pain for a skin graft.

    "Burn wound infections with Pseudomonas can be quite difficult to look at, and obviously if you're the patient, quite difficult to tolerate. They're usually heavily sedated with pain medicine, obviously to keep them out of pain while the treatment takes hold," Calderwood explained.

    View through a microscope of C. elegans worms that have been tagged with a green protein.

    Seeing Green and Watching the Immune System at Work

    One of the advantages of using C. elegans is biologists can watch how the entire organism reacts to an infection, Kim said. But the worms are see-through, and the bacteria are even smaller that the millimeter-long C. elegans.

    So the researchers make the worms and bacteria light up with a green fluorescent protein that is found in jellyfish. Scientists take the jellyfish gene for fluorescence and splice it into the DNA of a protein they want to study and watch it glow in the dark. They can tag specific tissues or individual cells, said Doug Cattie, a graduate student in Kim's lab.

    For one experiment, researchers engineered the bacteria with the glowing green protein so they could watch how the microbes made the worms ill.

    "Normally when C. elegans eat bacteria, the bacteria die and burst open," Cattie said. "When the worms get sick and the bacteria start growing inside of their intestine, then you'll actually have division of the bacteria inside the intestine of the worm and you can see this green fluorescence glow as the bacteria become pathogenic to the worm."

    How the Worm -- and Humans -- Can Win

    The Pseudomonas can kill the worm in just a couple of days, Kim said. But the worm can win. Its innate immune response uses a protein as warning flag, signaling to the worm's cells to mount an attack against the Pseudomonas.

    Studying those proteins can help us understand how humans' immune systems deal with bacteria too.

    "It turns out that if you look at the proteins that are involved (in) signaling the worm, many of those proteins actually have a function in mice or human cells, in defending mammalian hosts against pathogenic infection," he said.

    But what has been more surprising is that the worms learn to avoid the bad bacteria in the first place, Kim said. Not only do their bodies adapt to fight the Pseudomonas, they learn behaviors to avoid the bad bacteria. And it turns out that worms help other worms stay alive.

    "They're social organisms. They make small molecules that allow them to sense crowdedness ... we think, actually, some of these sort of cues are also involved in their responses to pathogenic bacteria. So in some ways, it's a group effort," Kim said.

    This is how worms survive in a world full of bacteria, Kim said. And by continuing to study how they survive and avoid the bad bacteria, we may understand how our own cells cope with a world of microscopic invaders, which, he said, outnumber our cells 10-1.

    But we're really not battling these bacteria all the time. "In fact, we're just coexisting with them," said Kim. "Yet there's emerging evidence that there's some communication going on." In other words, if a worm can avoid the bad bacteria, maybe our cells can do it too, he explained.

    And for those who work in infectious disease, understanding how the body's first line of defense works could mean better survival for their high-risk patients.

    "If you could figure out better how the innate immune system works, then you could probably stimulate it in a non-specific way, non-specific in relation to what kind of infection is going on," Calderwood said. "Even if you didn't know the infection yet for another day or two, while you're still getting tests, the innate immune system could respond ... That's what happens in most normal people, so the question is: could we reproduce that in people who aren't responding in a normal way, to influence the mortality in that first 24 hour window?"

    PBS NewsHour coverage of basic research is funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which also supports our regular science reporting along with the S.D. Bechtel, Jr., Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the National Science Foundation.

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    Heading to the Super Bowl soon? Hope you have a friend in New York -- hotel rooms that normally cost $100 a night are now $1,000. Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The NFL's Super Bowl is one of the biggest sporting events on the planet, a fact made obvious by the stunning amount of money spent and food eaten over the course of the game's weekend.

    Super Bowl XLVIII, a contest between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 2, at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, promises to be no different.

    DealNews.com's Lou Carlozo broke down the numbers in a column Tuesday, counting everything from Vegas bets to hotel room costs:

    "In 2013, sports fans bet a record $98.9 million at Nevada casinos on the Super Bowl, according to the Nevada Gaming Control Board. That number shattered 2012's mark of $93.9 million, and based on conservative estimates, we may see $104 million in bets placed on this year's contest."
    "Buffalo, N.Y.'s home team may be fated to never win a Super Bowl for the next 173 years, but as the birthplace of the Buffalo wing, it's winning a Super Bowl contest of a different sort. Wings and Super Bowl Sunday go hand-in-hand, and we're forecasting that 1.25 billion wings will be eaten this year, based on 2013 and 2012 figures from none other than the National Chicken Council."
    "Inexpensive rooms that normally cost around $100 per night are going for $1,000 during the week of the big event. And while that's a 90 percent increase, that's chump change compared to the more luxurious options. A night at the Ritz Carlton will cost $5,000 per night or more, while renting a luxury home will clock in at $35,000 per week."

    In addition to Carlozo's data, a 2013 Nielsen article tells us more about consumers' habits during the big game -- including the surprising fact that vegetables and fresh fruit are served more often than pizza and buffalo wings.

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    Giving the State of the Union

    When President Barack Obama delivered his 2013 State of the Union, he asked Congress to tackle many issues, including immigration reform, a minimum wage hike and gun legislation. But one year later, little progress has been made on the presidential agenda. Pool Photo by Charles Dharapak/Reuters

    Here's a little secret about the State of the Union address that President Barack Obama will deliver next week: He'll give Congress a long list of requests but few likely will be approved. That's just the reality of a politically divided government.

    Take a look at what happened after last year's speech.

    Congress was not in a giving mood, stalling or downright ignoring Obama legislative priorities such as gun legislation, immigration, a minimum wage hike and universal preschool. The president did better with his own to-do list, but even there the administration was still wrapping up some of his pledges just days before his 2014 State of the Union address.

    Indeed, when Obama delivers his speech Tuesday before a joint session of Congress, it might sound familiar. Heavy on economic themes, the address will again appeal for action on immigration and the minimum wage, and in the event Congress once again balks, he'll offer narrower programs that he could initiate on his own.

    "There is always potential for new energy behind older ideas so that they can move forward," White House spokesman Jay Carney said, suggesting that State of the Union addresses are more an exercise in patience than in action.

    So here's an annotated look at the president's 2013 State of Union. Use it for keeping score or as a guide for his coming address.

    $9 snubbed? Try $10.10

    In 2013 Obama told Congress: "Let's declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full time should have to live in poverty, and raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour... let's tie the minimum wage to the cost of living, so that it finally becomes a wage you can live on."

    Congress didn't act. Instead, Democratic lawmakers upped the ante. A Senate bill, now endorsed by the White House, would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016 and then adjust future increases to inflation. Obama is expected to make raising the minimum wage much more central to his agenda this year than last.

    "You're going to see a big push in Congress to get it done," said Jason Furman, the chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers. "With each passing year it's increasingly overdue."

    Falling on deaf ears

    In 2013 Obama told Congress: "Let's agree right here, right now to keep the people's government open, and pay our bills on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America."

    Instead, a budget impasse triggered a 16-day partial government shutdown in September and the administration and congressional Republicans went to the brink before agreeing to increase the nation's borrowing authority and thus avoid a default.

    It appears to have taken that experience, however, to change behavior.

    Congress last week approved a $1 trillion spending plan for 2014 without the drama of past budget fights. Another debt ceiling looms in late February or March. Republican leaders have said they won't allow the nation's credit to be threatened again.

    Failed but still alive

    In 2013, Obama told Congress: "Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away."

    The Senate last year passed a comprehensive, bipartisan bill that addressed border security, provided enforcement measures and offered a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally. In the House, the move stalled as Republican leaders, pressed by tea party conservatives, demanded a more limited and piecemeal approach.

    Recent signs have raised expectations, however. House Speaker John Boehner plans to issue a statement of principles summing up still-undefined goals for changing immigration laws. Some Democrats appear willing to accept legislation that gives immigrant workers in the U.S. illegally official status to remain in the country, even if it doesn't specify a path to citizenship.

    Failed, has no chance

    In 2013 Obama told Congress: "Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote. The families of Oak Creek and Tucson and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence -they deserve a simple vote."

    Following the December 2012 elementary school shooting in Newtown, Ct., Obama proposed sweeping gun control measures. But the toughest proposals, including stricter background checks, failed in the Senate. The House did not even take them up.

    Eventually, Obama took executive action to strengthen federal background checks for gun purchasers, with a focus on limiting people with mental health issues from getting access to firearms.

    Fine, then I'll do it

    In 2013, Obama told Congress: "I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won't act soon to protect future generations, I will."

    He did.

    Obama launched a major second-term drive to combat climate change, bypassing Congress as he imposed first-ever limits on carbon pollution from new and existing power plants. The plan aims to help move the United States from a coal-dependent past into a future fired by cleaner sources of energy such as wind and solar power, nuclear energy and natural gas.

    Obama also has ordered the federal government to use renewable sources for 20 percent of its electricity by 2020 - nearly triple the current level.

    Moreover, the White House announced in December that John Podesta, a former chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, will join Obama's inner circle, focusing on energy and climate change policies that Obama can advance on his own.

    Getting in under the wire

    In 2013 Obama told Congress he would launch three manufacturing hubs, where businesses would partner with the Departments of Defense and Energy to crate global centers of high-tech jobs. "And I ask this Congress to help create a network of 15 of these hubs and guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is made right here in America," he added.

    While there is bipartisan legislation in the House and Senate that embraces Obama's proposal, Congress has yet to deliver.

    Obama also pledged to identify five communities that would be targeted for tax incentives and federal grants under a government "Promise Zone" program. And it was only this month that the Obama administration named the five communities that qualified for "Promise Zone" designation.

    This week, Obama announced that North Carolina State University had been selected to lead one of the three manufacturing hubs that he promised to launch in his State of the Union speech.

    The other two are still in the selection process.

    Didn't see that coming

    In his 2013 address, Obama told Congress: "I will continue to engage Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world."

    Then in June, a 29-year-old, bespectacled former National Security Agency contractor, Edward Snowden, emerged as the leaker of reports that the NSA was collecting the telephone records of millions of Americans. Subsequent newspaper stories contained further surveillance revelations.

    Obama's pledges of transparency were put to the test as Snowden's secrets were unfurled in news report after news report.

    On Friday, pressed by the attention generated by Snowden's leaks, Obama proposed new measures aimed at overhauling the government's sweeping surveillance program.

    This story was written by Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn. Associated Press writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Much of the Northeast endured a new cold wave today, on the heels of a winter storm that dumped more than a foot of snow in some places. The aftermath left states from Kentucky to Maine in cleanup mode. Schools were closed in a number of major cities. Airlines canceled another 1,400 flights, on top of 3,000 yesterday, and millions of people faced a mess on the roads, trying to get to work.

    STEVE ARECCHI, Commuter: It's been pretty rough out here. These roads are real bad. The ice has been stacking up. And, I mean, we have got a couple of inches of snow that they have still got to get out of here. So, it hasn't been fun.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And in the nation's capital today, thousands of anti-abortion activists braved the bitter cold for the annual March for Life. They rallied against Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in 1973.

    It was rough sledding today at the opening of the Syrian peace talks in Switzerland. For the first time, the Syrian government and members of the opposition sat at the same table, along with dozens of diplomats from other countries. But after a day of fierce exchanges, the U.N. secretary-general summed up, saying, no one underestimated the difficulties. We will get a full report right after the news summary.

    In Ukraine, the standoff between protesters and police turned bloody overnight. The clashes in Kiev claimed two lives, but crisis talks later produced no resolution.

    Matt Frei of Independent Television News is in Kiev.

     MATT FREI: Today is supposed to be Unity Day in the Ukraine, but only on the calender. This is the sound of a country divided, bitterly and, today, tragically. Everyone is making a noise, and no one is listening. The wolf of Kiev is ready for battle.

    This is now the front line of this crisis. The mood is extremely tense. Just about an hour ago, two protesters were killed by the police using rubber bullets. And, as you can see and hear, both sides are now spoiling for a fight, first a barrage of rocks from the demonstrators -- the answer, a barrage of stun grenades from the riot police, and then the guns, shotguns firing these rounds.

    They're always heard. Sometimes, they even kill. The riot police advance like a phalanx of legionnaires, moving like a millipede. And when they catch a demonstrator, they're merciless.

    And the police finally take the entire street in front of Parliament, but, minutes later, they walk away. The demonstrators flood back, this time armed with burning tires. The battle lines go back and forth, and so do the country's leaders, stalemate on the streets, paralysis in the palace.

    President Yanukovych met with opposition leaders this afternoon, in the middle, the towering figure of champion-boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko. But the talks were fruitless, and the government is digging in its heels.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Israel announced today that it has stopped an al-Qaida plot to attack the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. The internal security agency Shin Bet said it arrested three Palestinians who planned to supply explosives for bombing the embassy. It said they also planned to attack other sites.

    An apparent hoax has raised new concerns about security at next month's Winter Olympics in Sochi. A number of European countries reported -- received e-mails and letters in Russian threatening terror attacks and warning their delegations to stay home.

    Later, Olympic officials in Hungary said the threats were not serious.

    ZSIGMOND NAGY, Hungarian Olympic Committee: The Sochi organizing committee actually made their official statement and they officially declared that this -- after the analysis of the letter, that this threat is not real, and that this person actually has been sending all kinds of messages to many members of the Olympic family.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Officials in Austria said someone in Israel sent the e-mails and has sent others over the last few years.

    China held a six-hour criminal trial today for one of its highest-profile dissidents. Xu Zhiyong is accused of disrupting public order. The legal scholar started the New Citizens Movement to expose government corruption. Xu refused to speak at the trial, in an act of protest. He could get five years in prison.

    Chinese authorities are also investigating a major Internet glitch. Hundreds of millions of Chinese were rerouted yesterday to the home page of a U.S.-based company that helps users evade censorship. The company is tied to Falun Gong, a spiritual group that is banned in China.

    There's word today of a virtual epidemic of sexual assaults in American colleges. The White House Council on Women and Girls reported 20 percent of all female students say they have been raped. But only a fraction ever tell police because of the fear of stigma, among other factors.

    President Obama called it an affront to basic decency and humanity.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is estimated that one in five women on a college campus has been sexually assaulted during their time there, one in five.

    These young women worked so hard just to get into college. Often, their parents are doing everything they can to help them pay for it. So, when they finally make it there, only to be assaulted, that is not just a nightmare for them and their families. It's an affront to everything that they have worked so hard to achieve.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The president gave a new task force 90 days to recommend ways of preventing assaults and letting the public know any given school's track record.

    A separate White House body wants election reform, including expanded early voting and a guarantee that no one waits more than 30 minutes to cast a ballot. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration issued a 112-page report today. It was established after voters waited hours in line in November 2012.

    State and local governments have struggled to find the funds and overcome partisan divisions to expedite the voting process. West Virginia demanded more information today from a company involved in a chemical spill this month. Environmental regulators ordered Freedom Industries to disclose everything that leaked from a storage tank, tainting the water supply for 300,000 people.

    The company initially said a chemical used to clean coal was involved. Yesterday, it reported a second, less toxic chemical leaked as well.

    Wall Street failed to make much headway today. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 41 points to close at 16,373. The Nasdaq rose 17 points to close at 4,232.

     

     


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    GWEN IFILL: Today, for the first time since the country's civil war began in 2011, the Syrian government and the nation's opposition groups sat in the same room.

    But, as chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner reports, the parties stuck to their battle lines.

    MARGARET WARNER: Lake Geneva, next to the Montreux Palace Hotel, was calm and serene this morning. But, inside the hotel, the talks on how to bring peace to Syria were anything but, when it came to Syria's future and the role of the country's president, Bashar al-Assad.

    Secretary of State John Kerry didn't back away from Washington's long-held position that the aim of this conference was to carry out the so-called Geneva I communique of 2012.

    SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: Bashar Assad will not be part of that transition government. There is no way, no way possible in the imagination that the man who has led the brutal response to his own people could regain the legitimacy to govern. One man and those who have supported him can no longer hold an entire nation and a region hostage.

    MARGARET WARNER: The head of the opposition Syrian National Council insisted all parties must accept that stance, or there's no point in talking.

    AHMAD JARBA, Syrian National Council (through interpreter): Any talk of Assad staying in power in any form will be a derailment of Geneva I path, so we insist that we are not in any position to discuss anything in the negotiations before these issues are decided upon within a specific time frame.

    MARGARET WARNER: The Saudi Arabian foreign minister, whose government funnels money and arms to the rebels, was equally firm.

    PRINCE SAUD AL-FAISAL, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): It is common sense that Bashar al-Assad will have no role in a transitional government or any of those whose hands have been stained by blood.

    MARGARET WARNER: But the rapid-fire demands for Assad to go were just as quickly quashed by the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem.

    WALID AL-MOALLEM, Syrian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): No one in the world, Mr. Kerry, no one in the world has the right to give or take legitimacy to a president or government or constitution or law or anything in Syria, except for the Syrians themselves.

    MARGARET WARNER: The tense atmosphere was highlighted when, alone among the 40 ministers assembled, al-Moallem went well past his allotted time. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon objected.

    BAN KI-MOON, United Nations Secretary-General: But then I will have to give equal -- equal time to...

    (CROSSTALK)

    BAN KI-MOON: .. groups.

    WALID AL-MOALLEM: Yourself, you live in New York. I live in Syria. I have the right to give the Syrian version here in this forum.

     BAN KI-MOON: Yes, of course

    (CROSSTALK)

    WALID AL-MOALLEM: This is my right.

    BAN KI-MOON: This -- we have to have some constructive and harmonious dialogue. Please refrain from any inflammatory...

    (CROSSTALK)

    WALID AL-MOALLEM: You spoke 25 minutes. At least I need to speak 30 minutes.

    (CROSSTALK)

    MARGARET WARNER: Outside the meeting, Syria's information minister insisted the world isn't being told the truth about events in Syria.

    OMRAN AL-ZOUBI, Syrian Information Minister (through interpreter): Some foreign ministers today who spoke are taking part in misleading the world and international community and they are endorsing this misinformation. A big part of what was said today was either lies or unjust accusations or lack of data and information.

    MARGARET WARNER: The Syrian government also flatly rejected a report of graphic photos released yesterday alleging the systematic torture and killing of 11,000 detainees.

    There were renewed objections to the exclusion of Iran from the peace talks from Syria's ally Russia. And Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed the Syrian government concerns about growing threat of terrorism there.

    Back in Syria, state television broadcast the peace conference live, but when opponents of the Assad regime had the floor, it showed a split-screen with images of death and destruction on one side. The opposition released its own video that showed continued fighting, in Aleppo and outside Damascus today, even as the Montreux conference opened.

    The actual negotiations between the Syrian government and opposition begin on Friday at the U.N.'s headquarters in Geneva.

     


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    GWEN IFILL: Margaret is in Montreux covering the talks. I spoke with her a short time ago.

    Margaret, welcome.

    We saw that today was a pretty rocky first day. What were the atmospherics behind all of that?

    MARGARET WARNER: Definitely, Gwen.

    The hope had been that you have got these two parties face-to-face for the very first time, and that would begin a dialogue. What you saw, what we saw and heard was a lot of anger, bitterness, confrontation, and vitriol directed at one another, and that the government and the opposition, as you could see, laid out their maximalist positions, with the government saying this is all about terrorism, and the opposition saying it's all about changing the government, and that can't include Assad.

    Now, afterwards, Secretary Kerry said he wasn't surprised. And he said, after all, opening positions are opening positions. But my favorite comment came from the French foreign minister when one reporter said, well, was this a conversation between the deaf? And he said, only one side was deaf.

    GWEN IFILL: And I imagine he thought the one side was the Syrian foreign minister. Did he end up hijacking the conference that was supposed to be a nice, genteel diplomatic exchange?

    (LAUGHTER)

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, he certainly set the agenda.

    What was interesting about Moallem was, it wasn't so much the accusations he made, but that he really attacked almost every party in the room. So he called the opposition words like that they were cannibals butchering human hearts. He said that the Gulf states were promoting this medieval brand of what Wahabism and exporting their only national product, which was terrorism.

    He called all the Western powers colonial powers who a hundred years ago carved up Syria. So, in that sense, he forced other speakers to respond, certainly on the terrorism charge, that the real problem was terrorism. And also the State Department was sending out e-mail refutations of what Moallem had to say, saying this kind of aggressive, inflammatory rhetoric won't solve the problems, going on about the problems on the ground, that the horrific conditions can only be changed by a change in the two sides there.

    So, in that sense, I would say he did set the agenda to some degree.

    GWEN IFILL: So what was the goal of Syria at this meeting in sending him to do these things? Was it just to say, we're not going anywhere?

    MARGARET WARNER: That is really the puzzling question, Gwen.

    Now, I have spoken -- one great thing about these conferences is you actually get to speak to people, all the parties. And so the Syrian delegation, which happened to be staying in our hotel -- we have had a chance to talk to some of them -- they say and some observers from Damascus say that the Syrians really thought that this terrorism, this specter of terrorism among the jihadi fighters has finally brought the world together because they are so worried it is going to move on to Europe or the U.S., and, therefore, that they really have expectations that the world will start to put pressure on Turkey and Jordan not to let these terrorists through their borders, on the Gulf states not to send money and weapons.

    Maybe, cynics say, that Assad is just trying to buy more time, time for his forces to try to take back more territory from the rebels and most of all let the rebels continue fighting amongst themselves. So it's really -- I would say it is a very hard question to answer.

    GWEN IFILL: Well, and, meanwhile, John Kerry said today that, you know, basically, we just have to deal with reality. And you wonder, what is his idea? What does he mean when he says reality?

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, the context of that comment, which he made a couple of different times, was that the reality is under this Geneva I communique, which was 18 months ago and the Security Council signed off on it, it says that this new transition government must be done by mutual consent.

    And so, as Kerry said in that speech, that means no one can form a government if the other side objects. And he says, so that means, of course, Bashar Assad will not get the consent of the Syrian people, whom he has brutalized, he said, for three years. So that is the context. And it is sort of a message to the entire world, but particularly to the Syrian government, that you better have a plan B.  

    GWEN IFILL: So, after a day like today, does the U.S. or the U.N., do they think that Syria may have been emboldened in this process, rather than weakened?

    MARGARET WARNER: I don't know about today, Gwen.

    There is no doubt in the administration's mind that Assad is in a considerably stronger position than just last July, I think it was, when Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov really said, well, let's set a date for this conference. And so they know he is in a stronger position.

    He also gave an interview to Agence France-Presse a couple of days ago where he talked about running for reelection, that the idea of taking in some exiled member of the opposition into government, power-sharing was a -- quote -- "good joke." So he didn't sound like a man who thinks his back is against the wall.

    But it was interesting that Moallem, who was so inflammatory this morning, when he made comments later in the day, had really softened his tone, and his own U.N. ambassador said at a briefing for reporters afterwards, well, they were going to go to Geneva now for the real face-to-face talks.

    So, you know, there's speculations that the Russians were leaning on them. But I think there is a lot of backstory to this very public conference that we still have yet to learn.

    GWEN IFILL: Well, we will be waiting to hear it all from you, Margaret Warner, our chief foreign affairs correspondent, in Montreux, Switzerland, tonight. Thank you.

    MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Gwen.

    GWEN IFILL: So, given the lack of progress in Switzerland so far, can anything positive come out of these talks? If not, what other path exists to end a war that has claimed the lives of more than 115,000 people?

    I'm joined by Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute.

    Andrew Tabler, you heard Margaret talk about the anger, the bitterness and the vitriol. What do you think Assad wants out of this?

    ANDREW TABLER, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: It's very clear. He wants to frame the war in Syria, the uprising in Syria, as a war against terrorism and one that, as Margaret said, the rest of the world can bandwagon behind him.

    But, actually, what President Assad wants to do is, he wants to force a solution in Syria. He doesn't want this kind of negotiated solution, as we have seen here in Montreux. He wants to instead peg his holding onto power to his upcoming presidential reelection for a third seven-year term as president. And he talked about that in a recent interview leading up to today's talks in Montreux, which were -- which actually were the precursor to Moallem's comments today.

    GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Joshua Landis? What is Assad up to here?

    JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: Well, I think Assad, you know, the Americans want him to step aside. The Syrian opposition want him to step aside.

    He's quite strong on the ground. He's got a powerful military with an air force and tanks and artillery. The opposition cannot respond to that. They have taken a bunch -- the north of the country and the east. Assad and for the last two years has been sitting in the south and the west. The country has been divided.

    Now, you know, the United States said that he had to step aside two years ago, Obama did. And John Kerry said he was going to make him change his calculation. But it's not clear how he is going to change his calculation. And if the United States is not willing to send F-16s to Damascus, he isn't going to change his calculation.

    So he is standing firm and he's going to wait to negotiate over a cease-fire, which would mean partitioning Syria in some way, at least temporarily, and having perhaps the rebels hold the north and he would hold the south.

    GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Andrew Tabler about that.

    The U.S. says they would like for him to step aside. They say it every chance they get. The U.N. says the same thing. That is what this basic fight was about in Montreux. What do they have in mind to make that happen?

    ANDREW TABLER: They have in mind the Geneva communique, which was the basis of the negotiations today.

    And the reason why there should be this political transition, this process, is because they don't believe that President Assad can sit atop that regime, which is, indeed, strong in the west and the south, and then reunite the different parts of the country.

    So, if Assad is able to go on with a forced solution, I think the chances of putting the pieces of Syria back together as one country are very slim. If there is a negotiated process here, where members of the current government, as the Geneva communique says, and members of the opposition come together as part of this transition governing body going forward, then there is a chance in the end without Assad that you could put it all back together.

    But, again, this is the beginning of a process and one that is going to be very long.

    GWEN IFILL: Joshua Landis, can that happen without Iran at the table?

    JOSHUA LANDIS: No, it can't. And even with Iran, it's unlikely to happen.

    Assad runs the Syrian regime. Anybody who stands up and says you should really step aside ends up dead or in prison. And that is what has happened for 40 years. And why people expect to today that his generals will stand up and ask him to leave is beyond me. He's not going to do it. He's fought. He's killed many people in order not to do it.

    And unless somebody is willing to force him to do it, which they haven't so far, he's not going to. And what we have seen is two years of stalemate. And how that balance of power is going to change is beyond -- is a mystery to everybody today.

    Now, the opposition has asked that he go. And Kerry has taken their side in order to get them to Geneva, but he has not told the world how he's going to make that happen. Until he does, there's no reason to believe it will.

    GWEN IFILL: That's a question. Can he force a cease-fire, John Kerry, or anybody on that side to help the opposition?

    ANDREW TABLER: Yes, and it's a good question.

    Until now, cease-fires and provision of humanitarian aid by the regime has meant, well, if the rebels evacuate rebel-controlled areas, if armed rebels evacuate those areas, then the regime will come in and then distribute aid, right?

    Well, what they are pushing for now is the unconditional delivery of that aid, some limited cease-fires to help that, and also an exchange of prisoners. And we will have to wait to see how these discussions come out on the other end of the lake in Geneva or Friday between the Syrian parties.

    GWEN IFILL: You think those things are actually still on the table?

    ANDREW TABLER: I think that they are on the table.

    Now, I don't know -- it is important to note that the -- while the comments at the conference started out quite acrimonious, at the end of it, the Syrian contingent was much more easy-going. Walid Moallem, Bouthaina Shaaban, all the -- President Assad's men and women, they all were more conciliatory. I think that they realized that they were losing the public relations battle probably because of Walid Moallem's sort of remarks in exchange with Ban Ki-Moon early in the conference.

    GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Joshua Landis that question.

    Did you see it that way, that, in the end, that the Syrian government was tempering their remarks more than they had at the beginning of the day?

    JOSHUA LANDIS: You know, I don't know what their strategy is.

    Clearly, they have come out shooting and very dismissive. They are trading to state that they are there, that they are not going away. And now they're going to get down to see what sort of business can be done. This was -- first day was a scene-opener. And both sides came out with their maximum demands.

    The opposition said he has to go and the regime has to go. And he said, we're not going and they're terrorists. So now we will have to see, you know, what can be provided. And there's going to be inducements, perhaps, from both Russia and the United States to both sides to see if they can move closer to some kind of cease-fire, which would allow refugees to stop pouring out of Syria, and perhaps the process of rebuilding to eventually move forward.

    GWEN IFILL: Well, we talked about the cease-fire, Andrew Tabler. What other kind of inducements are there for the opposition -- to help the opposition, if that is what the U.S. or the U.N. want to do?

    ANDREW TABLER: Yes, it's a really good question. What can the United States do?

    The opposition that's at the table in Geneva is not tremendously representative of the armed groups on the ground. But delivering humanitarian aid to different areas, Syrians are in desperate need of that throughout the country. So, a -- some sort of agreement for the delivery of humanitarian aid without -- you know, without evacuating areas, unconditionally, on both the -- conditioning the rebels and the regime to both allow that would be a victory.

    I think that, by achieving that, that would then strengthen the rebels' hands and the opposition's hands within the country. But, beyond that, it's going to be just the beginning of a very long process.

    GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you both briefly, are you optimistic, Joshua Landis, or pessimistic about these talks?

    JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, today, I am pessimistic.

    This is a scene-setter here. Both sides still believe that they can win this battle. They're beginning to doubt it, I think, because it's been -- you know, it's been years. And there -- a third of the country has been displaced. So there is real pressure to come to some kind of agreement.

    But none of them -- they're still feeling around to see whether their backers, whether Saudi Arabia, whether Iran are able to make a deal. And that will be -- ultimately, I think, Iran and Saudi Arabia have to come to some agreement on how they can agree on Syria before the forces on the ground will really begin to talk about cease-fire.

    GWEN IFILL: Andrew Tabler, are you optimistic, pessimistic?

    (CROSSTALK)

    ANDREW TABLER: No, I'm also optimistic.

    Yes, I think talks between the different regional parties are very important, right? They are the ones who are involved in supporting the different -- the different factions. But the one interesting thing is, I think, today, the hard line of the Syrian regime and backed up by the Iranians, I think, was rebuffed. And I think, at the table, it started something.

    Now, whether it leads to something in the concrete is really too hard to tell at the moment.

    GWEN IFILL: Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute and Joshua Landis at the University of Oklahoma, thank you both so much.

    ANDREW TABLER: Thank you.

    JOSHUA LANDIS: A pleasure.

     

     


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: It's well-known that California has its share of disasters and troubles with extreme weather. But the severe drought that's hitting the state is having a deep and widespread impact. It's even bringing back bad memories of similar problems during the '70s.

    Jeffrey Brown has the story.

    JEFFREY BROWN: While the Midwest and East face a fierce winter and heavy snowfall, there's an entirely different climate concern in California: a record-breaking dry spell that's been building for three years.

    GOV. JERRY BROWN, D-Calif.: I'm declaring a drought emergency.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Last week, Governor Jerry Brown formally announced the state may be facing its worst drought since record-keeping began some 100 years ago. He returned to the subject today in his state of the state address.

    JERRY BROWN: Among all of our uncertainties, weather is one of the most basic. We can't control it. We can only live with it. And now we have to live with a very serious drought of uncertain duration.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Precipitation is below 20 percent of normal this winter, and, as a result, river flows are low, snowpacks are much smaller than normal and reservoirs are shrinking.

    NARRATOR: Water in L.A. is limited. Every drop is precious.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The dry conditions are also feeding wildfires, as vegetation that typically rehydrates during the winter dries out instead.

    California's huge agriculture industry is likewise threatened, raising prices for produce and raising concerns among farmers. And the drought has raised new regional tensions. Some in Northern California demand the drier south conserve more, while water suppliers insist they already are.

    TERRY ERLEWINE, state water contractors: There's been a huge amount of water conservation implemented in Southern California.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Several California Republicans in Congress and House Speaker John Boehner announced emergency legislation today to stop restoration of the San Joaquin River aimed at bringing back salmon to let farmers tap water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

    They spoke in Bakersfield.

    REP. DEVIN NUNES, R-Calif.: We're not asking for anything more. We're just asking for the original contract of water. That is what allowed this valley to bloom. So if we would just get the water that we were allocated and that we have been promised by the government, all these people would be working.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Today, Gov. Brown called for everyone across the state to save water.

    JERRY BROWN: We need everyone in every part of the state to conserve water. We need regulators to rebalance water rules and enable voluntary transfers of water. And we must prepare for forest fires. As the state water plan action lays out, water recycling, expanded storage and serious ground water management must all be part of the mix.

    JEFFREY BROWN: If the drought continues, Brown warned, mandatory measures may be imposed. And the lack of water will begin to affect surrounding states as well.

     


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    JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us now from California is the state's secretary of food and agriculture, Karen Ross.

    Thanks for joining us.

    So, how bad, first, generally, is the situation from where you sit?

    KAREN ROSS, California Secretary of Food and Agriculture: Well, it is very serious.

    And we know that the statistics are telling us that it is at least as serious as 1977, which at that time was the most severe drought on record. As of today, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 62 percent of California is under extreme drought conditions.

     JEFFREY BROWN: So give us a sense more specifically. In your area, in agriculture, what kind of impact are you seeing?

    KAREN ROSS: Well, we can't grow food and farm crops without water. And about 65 percent of our cropland is irrigated. So it is very serious.

    It is not just isolated to one part of the state. As I said earlier, we have a number of our counties that are under extreme drought conditions. And what it means is that we are already seeing farmers choose to fallow land that normally this time of the year they would be preparing for a springtime crop or a summer crop.

    Every drop that they do have will be diverted to their permanent crops. That is tree nuts, which we are a significant supplier of nuts to the world. Over 50 percent of the fresh produce comes from our fields and orchards. So it is a very serious problem. And we are all in this together. It could be very long-lasting.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Can you tell at this point the impact on consumers both now or potentially, and I mean in California and beyond?

    KAREN ROSS: Well, because so much of our product is in high demand here and around the world, we do have to anticipate that. And at this point, it's too early to be able to quantify it in a way that would translate immediately to the grocery store.

    One of the things we do have to remember is that even though these surface water allocations have been dramatically reduced and could actually be zero, it will also have an impact on groundwater availability and how that is used to keep the crops going that normally would have as much water as they need.

    So it's a combination of understanding where there is surface water available and what can be done in the system. The governor referred to it this morning of how can we accelerate and streamline water transfers. At the same time, we are also having to provide notice to all of the water rights holders in this state that their access to water could be curtailed. And we're already seeing severe groundwater depletions in the state.

    So it's going to take a lot of resources and a lot of good thinking to get ourselves through this.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that goes to part of what I was wondering, because I know that California -- now, you can explain this. California has a very complex and sophisticated water system, from the Sierras down to the -- down to the reservoirs, down to farms and cities.

    But how is -- easy is it to move water from one place to where perhaps it's more needed?

    KAREN ROSS: Well, our biggest challenge right now is that there is so little surplus water in the system to move around. And that's something we have to keep in mind, is that this is about weather and climate and the fact that our reservoirs are at record lows.

    And so there is little water or flexibility to move it around. But there are certain steps that we can take between the Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board on some of the temporary changes that they can make now, hoping that we will still get a couple of those significant storms that will save us this year.

    But we're trying to do all we can now to save flexibility in this system for deliveries later this year. So where they can make some adjustments, the proclamation that the governor issued last week will allow that to happen, but the most important thing here is that every Californian can help with conservation.

    Farmlands being fallowed -- we already have cities that have put in voluntary and some are getting ready to do mandatory conservation measures. Every Californian can also make a contribution to saving water so that we have water in the system to move to places that don't have it.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And you mentioned the governor's declaration of a state of emergency.

    KAREN ROSS: Yes.

    JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of impact can that have for farmers and others?

    KAREN ROSS: Well, it is limited, but it does help raise the visibility of the issue, so that first and foremost all Californians are aware of the role that they can play with conservation.

    It also provides us an opportunity to work with our federal partners to see what kind of flexibility is within the federal system. It also highlights the importance of being able to pass a farm bill, because some of the programs that are normally available to farmers currently have not been reauthorized. So we desperately do need to have the farm bill passed.

    Secretary Vilsack at the United States Department of Agriculture has already declared a secretarial disaster, so that the programs that are in place without the farm bill can kick in. Some of that deals with water conservation measures, some emergency loan programs that are available at low cost.

    But we're also looking at, as a state task force, taking a look at food assistance that we know will be needed for many of the farmworkers that will go without seasonal employment this year, rental assistance, utility assistance. This has a severe impact on some of our rural communities in the Central Valley.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And just very briefly, if you could, in 30 seconds, the governor said that you can't really tell what this is caused by, how much of it is climate change.

    But are people in fact worried or thinking in terms of a new reality there now going forward?

    KAREN ROSS: Well, it does call into question what is the new normal, and climate change is something that many people talk about.

    And, really and truly, droughts come and go, but the severity of this one and what it means for us will certainly raise the topic of climate change in the conversation.

     JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Karen Ross is the secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

    Thanks so much.

    KAREN ROSS: Bye-bye.

     


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    GWEN IFILL: Next: the challenge of getting students ready for the working world.

    While most high schools focus on preparing students for college, businesses in one community outside Chicago are rallying around a different approach, preparing students for work.

    Special correspondent John Tulenko from Learning Matters has our report.

    JOHN TULENKO: From the outside, Hoffer Plastics in Elgin, Illinois, looks about the same as it did when it was founded back in 1953. Inside, it's a different story.

    Bill Hoffer is the CEO.

    BILL HOFFER, Hoffer Plastics Corporation: We have got job after job that 20 years ago would be a full-time operator. Now it's a robot.

    JOHN TULENKO: There are fewer workers, but they're required to do more.

    BILL HOFFER: They need to be able to read blueprints. They need to follow procedures, document what they're doing. And that's all very important.

    JOHN TULENKO: Right now, finding employees who can do all that is a challenge for Hoffer Plastics and for 40 percent of U.S. companies. The result? A revolving door of workers that cost businesses billions.

    PAT HAYES, Fabric Images: Why do we keep spending money to solve the same problem over and over and over again?

    JOHN TULENKO: Pat Hayes is founder of another local company, Fabric Images, a textile printer. Filling 150 positions here the usual way, relying on diplomas and GPAs, left Hayes frustrated.

    PAT HAYES: What does an A mean to an employer today? I got an A in math. What does that mean? Nothing. Where did you go to school? What level of course? Was it accelerated? Was it a college prep course? I don't know.

    JOHN TULENKO: To get a better read on an applicant's skill level, both Fabric Images and Hoffer Plastics turned to a job-readiness test called WorkKeys.

     PAT HAYES: WorkKeys, it's an assessment, what you have accomplished in math, in reading and locating for information. Those three characteristics are in about, I don't know, 98 percent of the jobs at some level.

    JOHN TULENKO: More specifically, WorkKeys, developed by ACT, the nonprofit behind the college entrance exam, uses actual workplace scenarios to measure how well individuals can decipher charts, graphs and other visual information, convert ratios, measurements, and make calculations across a variety of situations, and effectively comprehend memos, instructions and other authentic workplace documents.

    There are also tests of visual observation and listening comprehension.

    PAT HAYES: In our company, we can profile every job that we have based on these core skills. For the first time, I saw a commonality of what an individual had and what I needed, and I could start putting the two things together.

    JOHN TULENKO: More than 1,000 companies use WorkKeys. Though it hasn't been evaluated by independent researches, company testimonials describe sharp declines in employee turnover and training costs.

    And businesses may not be the only winners. Recent high school graduate Sarah Rohrsen was accepted at a four-year college, but she found the tuition beyond her reach and decided instead to look for a job.

    SARAH ROHRSEN, recent high school graduate: It was kind of a disappointment. The only options really were was fast food or, if you're lucky, seasonal work.

    JOHN TULENKO: Sarah wound up behind the counter at a Wendy's restaurant and kept looking. Nine months later, she applied for a job at Hoffer Plastics, which requires applicants to take WorkKeys. Sarah's top-notch scores landed her a well-paying full-time job with benefits as an inspector.

    SARAH ROHRSEN: I wasn't happy working at Wendy's, and to come in here thanks to WorkKeys and to be able to know each week my paycheck is going to have 80 hours on it, since we're paid biweekly, it's pretty awesome.

    JOHN TULENKO: Conventional wisdom has held, the answer to closing the skills gap is to send more people to college. But Sarah Rohrsen's experience points to a different solution: expanding the talent pool to include some 36 million Americans who got into college, but never finished.

    PAT HAYES: Are they to be thrown away? Why can't we understand where they are? Why can't we get them to some level and utilize them?

    JOHN TULENKO: And how does WorkKeys help those folks?

    PAT HAYES: It defines where they are. I have something that says, I achieved this level.

    JOHN TULENKO: Based on their scores, test takers can earn a work force readiness certificate. In Elgin, more than 100 local businesses have gotten behind the certificate called an NCRC for short, putting signs like this one on their doors.

    And the businesses lobbied the schools, so high school students would have a chance to test for the certificate, too.

    JOSE TORRES, U-46 School District: The reason that we have WorkKeys is because I listened to the community, to the business community.

    JOHN TULENKO: In 2010, local school superintendent Jose Torres made earning NCRC certificates a crucial part of his five-year plan.

    JOSE TORRES: Our goal in our district is to have 75 percent of our kids about above a gold, which is almost the highest level.

    JOHN TULENKO: So we went to Elgin High School, a predominantly low-income school where administrators say half the students go directly into the work force, to see how they were doing.

    Raise your hand if you have heard of something called an NCRC certificate? No hands. OK.

    It was like this in virtually every classroom we visited, and this was four years after the district adopted the 75 percent goal.

    Where are you today?

    JOSE TORRES: We're at 22 percent.

    JOHN TULENKO: Why are so many students missing the mark for work force readiness? It comes down to priorities.

    LAURIE NEHF, Elgin High School: I'm not told to have them job-ready. I'm told to have them college-ready.

    JOHN TULENKO: Like math teachers everywhere, Laurie Nehf follows a curriculum designed to prepare students for college-level calculus.

    LAURIE NEHF: I'm focusing on linear functions, quadratic functions, polynomial functions, higher-level types of questions from WorkKeys.

    JOHN TULENKO: WorkKeys doesn't go there, because it's math most students are unlikely to use on the job.

    Surveys indicate 90 percent of all jobs, including many that pay well, do not require this kind of math. Advanced math is used in most science and technology jobs, but, even with expected growth, they will make up just 5 percent of the nation's work force.

    LAURIE NEHF: Is it important that they know that a negative under a square root creates an imaginary number? No, that's not really that important.

    JOHN TULENKO: The impact that math has on many students is important.

    How often is it that teachers will help you see how what you're learning in class is applicable outside of school?

    CURTIS MAJKA, student: I don't think very often. A lot of school subjects, like, you don't use, and a lot of people believe that. A lot of people don't try in math because they don't think they're ever going to use it.

    JOHN TULENKO: To others, that's a misunderstanding.

    JOSE TORRES: I'm no math expert, but, algebra, what it does, it helps you to think, think critically, think logically. And that is exactly what people need in the workplace. They need to be able to think critically and logically.

    JOHN TULENKO: Trouble is, those lessons aren't getting through. Across the country, 75 percent of 12th-graders scored below proficient in math.

    At Elgin High School, it's not much better. Last year in math, 60 percent of students missed the mark. A number of teachers here told us it's not uncommon they find students in their classes who have yet to learn the math taught in middle school. Regardless, these students are placed in algebra and geometry.

    LAURIE NEHF: They just shut down. They get very frustrated. We won't accept meeting kids where they're at and helping them where they're at.

    I would love to spend all my time working on percentages, fractions, all that stuff with number sense. That number sense skills is what matters in the real world.

    JOHN TULENKO: But, right now, providing alternatives to the traditional high school math could be risky. Historically, this math has been a gatekeeper. It's what's tested on college entrance exams, the SAT and, ironically, the ACT, made by the developers of WorkKeys.

    And unless that changes, there's little incentive for high schools to do more with the kind of math most of us will use on the job.

     


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the latest twist in a political scandal involving Virginia's former Republican governor and his wife.

    BOB MCDONNELL, R-former Va. governor: I come before you this evening as someone who has been falsely and wrongfully accused, and his public service has been wrongfully attacked.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: For former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Tuesday's indictment on federal corruption charges marked a spectacular fall for a once promising Republican star.

    The government alleges that McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, received tens of thousands of dollars in gifts, from loans to money for a daughter's wedding, all from Jonnie Williams, a wealthy campaign donor and owner of a dietary supplement company.

    McDonnell pledged last night to fight the charges, while insisting he didn't break any Virginia law.

    BOB MCDONNELL: I have apologized for my poor judgment, and I accept full responsibility for accepting these legal gifts and loans. However, I repeat again emphatically that I did nothing illegal for Mr. Williams in exchange for what I believed was his personal friendship and his generosity.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: McDonnell first gained national attention for his 18-point victory in Virginia's 2009 gubernatorial campaign. Months later, he delivered the Republican response to the president's State of the Union address.

    BOB MCDONNELL: Today, the federal government is simply trying to do too much.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: His political stock rose even higher in 2012, when he found himself on Mitt Romney's short list for a vice presidential running mate.

    Now McDonnell's focus is solely on his legal battle, with an arraignment scheduled for this Friday.

    We take a closer look at the charges against the McDonnells with Rosalind Helderman. She's been covering the story for The Washington Post.

    Thank you for joining us.

     Roz Helderman, tell us exactly, what are the kinds of charges the government has leveled against the former governor and his wife?

    ROSALIND HELDERMAN, The Washington Post: It's a very extensive indictment.

    It's 14 counts in all against both the governor and his wife. There are things like bank fraud. There's an obstruction charge for the first lady. There is wire fraud, violating what is called the Hobbs Act.

    These are basically federal corruption statutes. And what it boils down to is a quid pro quo, exchanging the promise of official action by the state of Virginia on behalf of a wealthy businessman's company in exchange for gifts and loans.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And some of the details are pretty remarkable, the e-mail exchanges between Mrs. McDonnell and the governor's staff about the what she called unconscionable amount of credit card debt they had, the shopping trip that she went on with the businessman Jonnie Williams. Tell us about some of that.

    ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Yes.

    What emerges from the indictment is a picture of a couple really experiencing life sort of in extremes. On the one hand, they were experiencing some obvious, but not known to the public, financial distress. They had invested heavily in real estate during the financial boom and were having trouble making payments.

    And they went to this man, Mr. Williams, to help them out of a bind when they were having trouble making payments on homes that they had purchased. But, on the other hand, there was a real desire for luxury items. The first lady bought all kinds of things on a New York City shopping spree, Louis Vuitton shoes, Oscar de la Renta dresses. The governor and his sons went golfing at exclusive golf clubs in the Richmond area, charging thousands of dollars to Mr. Williams.

    So you really see two sides of this couple.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And when the indictment talks about official actions taken in is behalf, what are they talking about? What are they saying the former governor did?

    ROSALIND HELDERMAN: They outline a number of things the governor did.

    The governor and first lady hosted an event at the governor's mansion, a sort of launch party for a new dietary supplement being offered -- that was being introduced to market by Mr. Williams' company. The governor set up meetings for Mr. Williams with top state officials.

    And the governor also appeared to show some interest in encouraging public universities to conduct clinical studies of a chemical found in the supplement. He insisted emphatically that that doesn't sort of constitute an official action of the kind that is usually used in corruption statutes. It's just sort of helping out an interested constituent with a business in the state.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And there are references to the McDonnells lying to investigators?

    ROSALIND HELDERMAN: That's a charge specifically leveled at the first lady, who was interviewed by investigators in February and, the authorities say, told a number of lies during that -- during that interview.

    She said, for instance, that her husband had met Mr. Williams years ago, when the two worked together. In fact, they had only met in 2009, when he was running for governor. She also said that they were making periodic payments on a loan that Mr. Williams had made to them. That wasn't true.

    They had made no payments to Mr. Williams until after we had started writing stories about this. And the governor paid back all the money in July.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, we know, Rosalind Helderman, Virginia is known to have relatively lax ethic laws compared with other states around the country. And when the governor made his statement yesterday, he insisted -- he has apologized and said he made mistakes, but he said he didn't violate Virginia law.

    So, is there -- are there technical loopholes in the law that he could explain, somehow explain this away for him?

    ROSALIND HELDERMAN: So, under Virginia law, you are allowed to accept as an elected official gifts of any size, including money, as long as you disclose those worth at least $50.

    There has been a state investigation into whether the governor properly disclosed gifts and also stock holdings he had in Mr. Williams' company. And that investigation has not come forward with any results thus far.

    But federal officials are actually concerned with federal law, not with state law. And they believe that there are federal violations here, regardless of disclosure requirements, having to do with this issue of quid pro quo, an illegal exchange with this man.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Roz Helderman, we know that not only the former Governor Bob McDonnell, he has attorneys. His wife has an attorney or more. We know Jonnie Williams, the businessman, the company, Star Scientific.

    Where does this go from here?

    ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Now we enter a classic criminal -- criminal trial phase. The governor is set to be arraigned on Friday. There was a thought that that might be pushed off, but it looks like that will probably go ahead on Friday.

    We would expect him to enter a plea of not guilty, given everything he has said publicly. And, you know, there's going to be some fighting in court, and eventually we're probably going to see a very messy and probably unpleasant trial.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just quickly, a sense of how this happened to be announced right now, just days after he left office?

    ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Well, that's a very interesting question.

    We had reported in December that he had been informed by the U.S. attorney in Virginia that the U.S. attorney intended to seek criminal charges. But then the governor and first lady's lawyers went to top officials at the Department of Justice in Washington and asked them to hold off. They told them to take another look at the case.

    But one of the arguments they made was that they shouldn't do it in December, just a couple of weeks before Governor Terry McAuliffe took office, that it would be not in the interest of the public for the sort of smooth transition of power to be disrupted.

    And whether that argument was persuasive or something else, they did hold off. And so the charges didn't come until now.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Rosalind Helderman with The Washington Post, really fine reporting over the many months.

    ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Thank you.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

    ROSALIND HELDERMAN: Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

     

     


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    The pathway to medical careers for countless women in the United States became a little easier on Jan. 23, 1849, when Elizabeth Blackwell ascended a stage in New York and became the nation's first female doctor. Photo by Pali Rao/Getty Images

    It was a cold, wintry day in upstate, western New York when a 28-year-old Elizabeth Blackwell received her diploma from the Geneva Medical College. As she accepted her sheepskin, Charles Lee, the medical school's dean, stood up from his chair and made a courtly bow in her direction.

    Only two years earlier, in October of 1847, her medical future was not so certain. Already rejected at schools in Charleston, Philadelphia and New York, matriculating into Geneva represented her only chance of becoming a medical doctor.

    A sketch of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman doctor in the United States. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    Dean Lee and his all male faculty were more than hesitant to make such a bold move as accepting a woman student. Consequently, Dr. Lee decided to put the matter up to a vote among the 150 men who made up the medical school's student body. If one student voted "No," Lee explained, Miss Blackwell would be barred from admission.

    Apparently, the students thought the request was little more than a silly joke and voted unanimously to let her in; they were surprised, to say the least, when she arrived at the school ready to learn how to heal.

    Geneva Medical College required only a year and a half of formal lectures, and young Elizabeth found her new home to be somewhat daunting.

    Too shy to ask questions of her fellow classmates or even her teachers, she figured out on her own where to purchase her books and how to study the rather arcane language of 19th century medicine.

    Most medical students of this era were raucous and rude; it was not uncommon for crude jokes and jeers to be hurled at the lecturer, no matter what the subject. But with Miss Blackwell in the room, as the legend goes, her male classmates quieted down and immediately became more studious than those the Geneva faculty had taught in the past.

    One of her greatest hurdles was the class in reproductive anatomy. The professor, James Webster, felt that the topic would be too "unrefined" for a woman's "delicate sensibilities" and asked her to step out of the lecture hall. An impassioned Blackwell disagreed and somehow convinced Webster to let her stay, much to the support of her fellow students.

    Geneva Medical College in Geneva, N.Y., was the first college to award a medical degree to a woman. Photo courtesy of Geneva Historical Society

    Nevertheless, medical school and her summer clinical experiences at the Blockley Almshouse in Philadelphia were hardly a bed of roses. Few male patients were eager to let her examine them, and not a few of her male colleagues treated her with great animosity.

    Undaunted, Elizabeth persevered and gained a great deal of clinical expertise, especially in the treatment of one of the most notorious infectious diseases of the poor: typhus fever, which became the subject of her doctoral thesis.

    In April of 1849, Dr. Blackwell crossed the Atlantic to study in the medical meccas of Paris and London. In June, she began her post-graduate work at the famed Parisian maternity hospital, La Maternité, and was acclaimed by her teachers as a superb obstetrician.

    Unfortunately only few months later, on Nov. 4, 1849, while treating a baby with a bacterial infection of the eyes, most likely gonorrhea contracted from the infant's mother while passing through the birth canal, Elizabeth contaminated her left eye and lost sight in it. This injury prevented her from becoming a surgeon.

    She subsequently studied at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London. Ironically, she was permitted to practice all the branches of medicine save gynecology and pediatrics -- the two fields in which she was to garner her greatest fame.

    When she returned to the United States in 1850, she began practice in New York City but found it tough going, and the patients in her waiting room were few and far between. In 1853, she established a dispensary for the urban poor near Manhattan's Tompkins Square.

    By 1857, she had expanded the dispensary into the New York Infirmary for Women and Children. One of her colleagues there was her younger sister Emily, who was the third woman in the U.S. to be granted a medical degree.

    "Medicine as a Profession for Women," by Drs. Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, published by the Trustees of the New York Infirmary for Women in 1860. Image by the National Library of Medicine (click to enlarge)

    Dr. Blackwell traveled widely across Europe and became increasingly interested in social reform movements dedicated to women's rights, family planning, hygiene, eugenics, medical education, sexual purity and Christian socialism.

    She was also an avid writer whose by-line attracted many readers on a wide range of subjects, including advice to young girls and new parents, household health, medical education, medical sociology and sexual physiology.

    Dr. Blackwell returned to London a number of times during the 1860s and 1870s and helped establish a medical school for women, the London School of Medicine for Women, in 1874-5.

    She remained a professor of gynecology there until 1907, when she suffered serious injuries after falling down a flight of stairs.

    Dr. Blackwell died only a few years later, in 1910, after suffering a paralytic stroke at her home in Hastings, East Sussex, England. Her ashes were buried at St. Munn's Parish Church in Kilmun, Argyllshire, Scotland.

    Most often remembered as the first American woman to receive an M.D. degree, Dr. Blackwell worked tirelessly to secure equality for all members of the medical profession. Many might argue we still have a long way to go.

    Dr. Howard Markel writes a monthly column for the PBS NewsHour website, highlighting the anniversary of a momentous event that continues to shape modern medicine. He is the director of the Center for the History of Medicine and the George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan.

    He is the author or editor of 10 books, including "Quarantine! East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York City Epidemics of 1892," "When Germs Travel: Six Major Epidemics That Have Invaded America Since 1900 and the Fears They Have Unleashed" and "An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine."

    More Stories on the History of Medicine

    How to save a dying heart

    One man's rise from 'Dr. Unqualified' to surgeon-in-chief

    The Real Story Behind Penicillin

    A Curious Inspiration for the First Stethoscope

    'I Have Seen My Death': How the World Discovered the X-Ray

    How a Boy Became the First to Beat Back Diabetes

    The Day Scientists Discovered 'The Secret of Life'

    How a Doctor Discovered U.S. Walls Were Poisonous

    The Day Polio Began Losing Its Grip on America

    The Day Doctors Began to Conquer Smallpox

    A Hormonal Happy Birthday

    How 'Going Under the Knife' Became Much Less Deadly

    The Painful Story Behind Modern Anesthesia

    Do you have a question for Dr. Markel about how a particular aspect of modern medicine came to be? Send them to us at onlinehealth@newshour.org.

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    By Howard Sherman and Michael Meeropol

    Many conventional economics textbooks cheat our students and economy out of a stronger future, argue the authors of an alternative economics text. Photo by Flickr user Tiffany Bailey.

    Paul Solman: I first met Michael Meeropol at Elisabeth Irwin High School in what later became SoHo, in the Cold War '50s. He was among the most personable kids at "EI," surprising to some in that he was the elder son of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed by the U.S. government for espionage only a few years before.

    Many years later, I ran into Michael at America's annual economics conference and learned that he had become a professor of economics. In the year 2000, he wrote "Surrender: How the Clinton Administration Completed the Reagan Revolution," published by the University of Michigan Press. And I interviewed him briefly that year for a NewsHour story on the state of the economy as the new millennium dawned.

    A politically passionate progressive, Michael has retired from his longtime post at Western New England University and has, in the past few years, been teaching -- public spiritedly, as always -- at the John Jay College of Criminal Science, a senior college of The City University of New York. He has also collaborated on an alternative economics textbook with Howard Sherman, emeritus economics professor at the University of California, Riverside.

    I asked them why the world needs yet another econ textbook. They took the double occasion of the recent 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and this week's Martin Luther King Jr. Day to explain.

    Howard Sherman and Michael Meeropol: America recently remembered the 1963 March on Washington and this week, the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But it continues to forget half of what brought over a quarter of a million Americans to the nation's capital 50 years ago and motivated King throughout his life: not just the desire for freedom, but for jobs.

    In 1966, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, the two men who organized the march, came up with what they called the "Freedom Budget," which demanded massive government intervention to guarantee full employment. Too many Americans remember only Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech. What most do not know is that King signed his name to the Freedom Budget and demanded that the United States guarantee everyone either a job or an income. Instead, what we have now in this country, according to Paul Solman's inclusive "U-7" reckoning of under and unemployment, is more than 24 million Americans who want a full-time job but don't have one.

    Most economics textbooks implicitly argue that such a guarantee is impossible to achieve and that any effort to attempt to do so will result in more harm than good. But our new text, "Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policy," presents the evidence that suggests otherwise. Moreover, we think textbooks that accept the conventional wisdom are doing a grave disservice to students all over the country.

    As we see it, the problem begins with a failure to diagnose the problems of unemployment and inequality. Many macroeconomics textbooks today accept as plausible, if not gospel, that there can never be a deficiency of aggregate demand -- a deficiency of spending, that is -- caused by our present economic system. According to this orthodoxy, economic downturns are caused by factors external to the system itself and can usually be attributed to the government mucking with the market: government overspending, for example, which racks up a ruinous debt load or profligacy by the central bank, creating too much money out of thin air. If this were the case, the best policy for recovery would be to cut back government spending, taxation, regulation and money creation.

    And what about economic inequality -- an inconvenient yet stubborn fact about our current economy? The usual argument is that it is a natural occurrence, based on rapid technological change that unfortunately leaves many individuals without the skills needed in a changing labor market, and/or the so-called "winner-take-all" phenomenon in which modern technology and global markets combine to turn small individual advantages into huge ones, with commensurately huge pay premiums.

    But what conventional textbooks conspicuously ignore is economic policies that arguably cause rising inequality by favoring the rich and powerful over everyone else: lower marginal tax rates on the rich, for example, or greater restrictions on unions.

    Our opposing point of view has a small but growing minority of economists, among them Paul Krugman, whose textbook ranks third in the macroeconomics market and whose basic economics textbook, written with Robin Wells, has also gained some popularity.

    This alternative view of macro is popularly called "Keynesian," but it includes all kinds of leftist views, from institutionalist to radical. It asserts that downturns and crises are not due to technological change or any other external forces, but primarily to the extreme swings of the economic system itself, which government must moderate. It also argues that inequality has a seriously negative impact on the macro-economy -- decreasing aggregate demand -- as well as obviously harming so many of the individuals that the economy supposedly serves.

    Our textbook's introductory section contrasts the old, conservative view of economics with the newer progressive view. It spells out the strengths and the weaknesses of the old view in verbal, technical and graphic detail, but also shows the alternative view of Keynes and other progressive economists, emphasizing the role of a deficiency in aggregate demand in causing downturns and crises and the way inequality contributes to that deficiency.

    In addition, the book introduces the reader in detail to the business cycle analysis of Wesley Mitchell, which shows that the same basic pattern occurs in every expansion because it is based on the same basic bipolarities of a capitalist economy.

    The dominant view in textbook American economics is still the conservative notion that since the problem is government, the answer is to cut government. That is also the supposed logic behind the House Republicans and their intransigence with regard to raising the federal debt limit. Less government spending would supposedly lead to lower interest rates and thus more private investment -- because it will be cheaper. In addition, lower taxes will leave the wealthy -- America's investors -- with more money to put to work and grow businesses, which will in turn, theoretically hire new workers. Finally, relaxed regulation, the thinking goes, will lower costs and also translate into higher profits, even further encouraging investment.

    The progressive view, by contrast, is that companies will not invest so long as the outlook for profits is bleak and the outlook for profits is bleak if there is insufficient aggregate demand. Why invest in more capacity to produce if consumers aren't buying what you're already turning out? And why aren't they buying? Because wages and salaries are contracting. In brief, profit falls because of lack of demand, which sets off a recession or (sometimes) a depression.

    Our textbook reports both sides of the argument in full, but we present the progressive argument as more persuasive. What is necessary is to stimulate the economy, change institutions to provide more equality -- through more progressive taxation, a higher minimum wage and support for unions, for example -- and also change institutions to provide more stability in the economy: by making major government investments in infrastructure, say, and generally providing greater job security.

    More concretely, we argue that some sectors of the economy are especially crucial to maintaining both economic equality and employment stability. These are sectors neglected by private enterprise or ones in which businesses make unnecessarily high profits that reduce equality without compensating benefits to the rest of us. The clearest example is health care, which provides no better care than other industrialized countries, but costs at least twice as much per person. What is needed is universal public health care at low cost, which will, for example, create more jobs in elder care like home nursing.

    A second area that demands extensive public investment to create jobs, as the March on Washington urged a half century ago, is higher education. Why not free education at public universities, paid for by higher taxes on the increasingly well-off? Education investment has the highest return to the public of any sector. If education is free to students and paid for by progressive taxation, it will shift income from rich corporations and individuals to people who will, eventually, have more skills to sell in the global economy, again increasing employment, spending and aggregate demand.

    A third area, of which some conservatives deny the very existence, is global heating caused by fossil fuel-driven production. Public money invested in research and the production of clean energy would propel the green energy industry to create jobs that don't require advanced degrees.

    Fourth, at least a trillion dollars is required to make American roads and bridges safe. Everyone knows it. And yet in Texas, conservative politicians, operating on conservative textbook theories, have begun to change paved roads into gravel roads to save maintenance money. Meanwhile, it is a simple fact of engineering that potholes will inevitably cost more to fix the longer they go unattended. Yet potholes remain unfilled all over this land.

    Last but not least, subsidies should be given to states to restore jobs to their peak level of employment. Conservative economics books either attack all of the above or don't even present them, even though they seem obvious ways to reduce the problems of inequality and inadequate employment.

    As we remember Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington, let us remember that there's nothing especially radical about any of this. King, Randolph and Rustin recommended virtually the identical program back in the 1960s.

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


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    Police have arrested 13 men in India's West Bengal state in connection with the gang rape of a 20-year-old woman.

    The rape was allegedly ordered by village elders who form a council known locally as the "salishi sabha" or "grievance committee." The attack was meant to punish the young woman for her plans to marry a man from another community, according to Indian police reports.

    The ordeal began when a man named Khaliq Sheikh asked for the young woman's hand in marriage. She accepted his proposal.

    But the salishi sabha saw the move as a violation of local codes. Village chief Balai Mardi reportedly had the man detained and asked the couple to pay Rs. 25,000 ($400) each for the infraction.

    The man was able to pay the fine and was released, but the woman's family was not. She was forcibly taken and reportedly raped at the command of the elders through Monday night.

    "I lost count of how many men took turns to rape me. They were more than five. It could even be 10," the woman told journalists, according to the Hindustan Times. "It's horrific. They (rapists) are all our neighbors and I call some of them as kaka (uncle) and some others as dada (elder brother) or bhai (brother)."

    The woman's family brought her to the hospital in critical condition on Wednesday. She is now stable but traumatized, doctors say.

    Village councils are common in rural India. The councils enforce strict, traditional codes of conduct. Among other concerns, village elders may worry about claims on communal land should a woman marry outside of the community.

    But this time, the abuses of the kangaroo court were brought to justice.

    "We arrested all the 13 men, including the village chief who ordered the gang rape. The accused have been produced in court which remanded them to jail custody," Birbhum's Superintendent of Police, C. Sudhakar, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

    India is in the process of tightening its anti-rape laws, especially since the high-profile rape of a 23-year-old student on a New Delhi bus in December 2012 sparked massive protests across the country.

    H/T Sarah Sheffer

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    A new survey suggests the Obama administration needs to continue informing the public about coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

    Almost a month into 2014, most uninsured Americans remain oblivious to their coverage options under the Affordable Care Act. In fact, less than 40 percent of the uninsured say they'll gain coverage in the coming year, according to a new survey released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

    And for many, that's true -- health insurance will remain beyond reach either because their state chose not to expand Medicaid or they've decided to skip coverage and pay the fine. For others, it's a simple misunderstanding.

    Researchers with the Urban Institute -- the group that authored the report in partnership with RWJF -- found that only 31 percent of those eligible for Medicaid know they qualify for the newly expanded health care program for the poor. And roughly 35 percent of uninsured adults who qualify for subsidies know that they can go shopping for discounted health insurance on the now-functioning online marketplaces.

    Just as troubling to supporters of the law? Only about 40 percent of those who said they'll remain uninsured thought they would be required to pay a fine. In reality, most uninsured Americans -- especially those not qualifying for a hardship exemption -- will need to comply with the so-called "individual mandate" to either purchase coverage or pay the penalty.

    The authors' conclusion about all of this was pretty blunt: The Obama administration better get busy spreading the word if they want the law to succeed.

    "The survey respondents' relative lack of knowledge about the availability of free or subsidized health insurance illustrates the need for increased outreach," said Katherine Hempstead, who leads coverage issues at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "People should know that help is available."

    The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is an underwriter of the PBS NewsHour's health unit.

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    GWEN IFILL: Wall Street was down sharply today on worries about corporate earnings and a slowdown in China. The Dow Jones industrial average lost nearly 176 points to close at 16,197. The Nasdaq fell 24 points to close below 4,219.

    The state of Virginia will no longer defend its ban on same-sex marriage. Newly elected Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, announced the decision today. He said he believes the ban is unconstitutional.

    ATTORNEY GENERAL MARK HERRING, Virginia: The United States Constitution is the law of the land. So a state law and a state constitution cannot violate the United States Constitution. And I swore a duty to uphold both. And the Supreme Court is clear. The United States Constitution is the law of the land, supreme law of the land.

    GWEN IFILL: Last year, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and allowed gay marriages to resume in California.

    A United Nations envoy struggled to hold the Syrian peace talks together today. The Assad regime and the Western-backed opposition traded barbs at a distance, without saying if they will sit down for direct talks. We will get a full report on the day's developments later in the program.

    Iran's President Hassan Rouhani is promising to adopt policies of prudence and moderation, including a final nuclear deal. He told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that his government wants constructive engagement with the global community. And he insisted any nuclear efforts will be for peaceful purposes only.

    PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, Iran (through translator): The Islamic Republic of Iran has a strong will, a serious will. Again, when it comes to the nuclear program, to reach a comprehensive agreement, I do not foresee an impediment. Iran has never pursued a nuclear weapon, and it will never desire to have one in the future.

    GWEN IFILL: Rouhani also met with Western and Arab businessmen, telling them Iran wants new investments in its economy.

    In Ukraine, protesters stormed government offices in three cities today, but a tense standoff held in Kiev as the president met with opposition leaders who oppose closer ties with Russia.

    Matt Frei of independent television news is in Kiev.

    MATT FREI: Old tires are the new currency of the struggle, essential for creating the wall of fire that renders the other side blind, especially when the wind is on the side of the revolution.

    What we see here right on the front line is a battle between the elements. The protesters are using smoke and fire, and the police are using water.

    Just as things looked as if they were getting even more out of hand, a visitor arrived at the barricades, the tallest and certainly most famous Ukrainian on hand, Vitali Klitschko, heavyweight world champion, politician, and fast emerging as the most popular opposition leader.

    "I have taken responsibility," he told the crowd. "There will be a truce until 8:00 this evening, while we resume talks with the government."

    The talks this afternoon may have produced a compromise of sorts, but no one is taken anything for granted. The supply lines of tries continues to make its way to the barricades.

    GWEN IFILL: Negotiators for South Sudan's government signed a cease-fire with rebel forces today in Ethiopia. The fighting has killed thousands of people and driven thousands more from their homes since mid-December.

    And a transitional president took office today in the neighboring Central African Republic. Catherine Samba-Panza was sworn in as the nation's first female leader. She's asked for the Muslim fighters behind last year's coup and Christian militiamen who've fought them to support peace.   


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: A government review panel warned today that the NSA's collection of Americans' phone records is illegal and advised that the program be terminated. The recommendations by the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board go further than the Obama administration has been willing to accept.

    The panel's 234-page report includes dissents from two of the board's five members.

    For more on the group's work, we turn to David Medine, who is the committee's chairman, and Elisebeth Collins Cook, who was one of the board members to dissent some of the recommendations of the overall committee.

    Welcome to you both.

    DAVID MEDINE, chairman, Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board: Thank you.

    ELISEBETH COLLINS COOK, member, Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board: Happy to be here.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David Medine, again, you're the chairman. Tell us -- and you are speaking for three members of this group -- what are the main reasons that you think this program should be discontinued?

    DAVID MEDINE: Sure.

    And I would say that 10 of our 12 recommendations were unanimous, but this is one where there were dissents. And the reason that the program should be done away with is threefold. One is, it doesn't comply with statute, Section 215, in a number of respects.

    Second is, it impinges ...

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And 215 being the statute.

    DAVID MEDINE: The business records under the USA Patriot Act that -- that the program is supposedly authorized by, but there are number of requirements under the statutes, for instance, that the records go to the FBI and not the NSA -- they in fact go to the NSA -- that the records be relevant to an investigation.

    And these were every record in the United States of every phone call and kept for five years, so it goes way beyond.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, on legal grounds?

    DAVID MEDINE: Legal grounds, constitutional grounds. We don't say it is a violation of the Constitution, but we say it impinges on First and Fourth Amendment concerns of chilling speech.

    Having the government hold this much information chills people wanting to call journalists and be whistle-blowers. It chills dissidents who wanted to call their political organizations. Even if this government -- if information isn't used, just knowing that the information is there can have a dramatic effect on rights of association and free speech.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, for a variety of reasons.

    Beth Cook, what about you? There were two of you on the board, as we said, who dissented. Why do you think the program should be continued?

    ELISEBETH COLLINS COOK: I think the program is fully authorized by Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which has been codified as part of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

    And I would note that every federal judge to have considered this question also agrees that the statute provides the necessary authorization. Where I do agree with my colleagues on the board is that there are certain interim recommendations that we have made to impact the immediate operation of the program.

    But I declined to join the majority's statutory analysis, which I view to be flawed, on the constitutional analysis, which I viewed to be unnecessary and speculative.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: I saw -- I watched some of the statement that you all made today, David Medine, and one of the points I think the other -- the dissenters made was that there's really no evidence that the administration, either this one or the Bush administration, deliberately exploited or misused what they're collecting from all these phone records.

    That being the case, why wasn't that persuasive?

    DAVID MEDINE: Well, that's right.

    We didn't see any evidence of misuse, but at least a number of us on the board have lived through the Watergate era, the Church Committee era, where government wasn't always so beneficial to its citizens, where sometimes there was eavesdropping and spying on citizens, even though I think the president in his speech the other day talked about eavesdropping on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

    So, even though the government today is responsible and by -- for the most part following the rules, aggregating this much information, sensitive personal information, does run the risk in the future, if a government isn't so well-intentioned.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that?

    ELISEBETH COLLINS COOK: Well, this is one of the reasons I declined to join the constitutional analysis as the majority, which was concerned with programs that do not exist.

    As we all concluded, some incredibly minuscule portion of the information that is collected is actually seen by human eyes. The information that the NSA has collected is a set of numbers. It is not in any way associated with the identities of the individuals.

    So the programs that raise concerns for the majority and the majority found to raise First Amendment implications are programs that do not exist.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Why isn't that persuasive?

    DAVID MEDINE: Well, I think, on the one hand, you have the potential of serious privacy invasions.

    And what we did is, we balanced that against the national security benefits of this program. And we did a very careful study of, when has it been effective and how has it been effective? And we concluded that, by and large, it has never thwarted a terrorist plot. It's never really identified a terrorist that wasn't known in advance.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: You say by and large, so you mean there's no evidence?

    DAVID MEDINE: No evidence that it thwarted a plot or it's -- that it has detected a terrorist.

    There are some benefits to the program, peace of mind, knowing that there is not a terrorist plot under way. But we decided that, given that minimal value compared to the massive potential security -- privacy concerns, and really shifting the balance between citizens and their government -- once the government knows everything about you, everyone you call, everyone you associate with, what your interests are, we decided, on balance, it was better to terminate this bulk collection program and still allow the government to go to phone companies on a case-by-case basis and get the information.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you accept, Beth Cook, their finding or conclusion that there has never been a beneficial effect from this program?

    ELISEBETH COLLINS COOK: I also declined to join that portion of the board's report.

    I have looked at the efficacy of the program from a number of different angles. And my conclusion was that a program like Section 215 that allows us to connect dots about our adversaries, when used in conjunction, perhaps, with other programs, allows us to paint a better picture of our adversaries, allows us to triage threats, allows us to determine whether or not threats have a connection to the homeland.

    To me, it's a valuable program.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, that was non-persuasive?

    DAVID MEDINE: Right.

    Our board was created at the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, which said, after 9/11, let's build up our security, let's start connecting the dots and do a better job, but let's not go too far, because, if we do that, the terrorists have won, because we have given up our privacy and civil liberties.

    And so our job as a board is to strike the right balance between the two.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And you're saying this would have -- this is going too far.

    Just finally, I want to ask you both, we know the president is calling for changing the program somewhat. He doesn't want to do away with it altogether, but he says this information should be collected by something other -- somebody or something other than the government.

    To both of you quickly, how feasible is that?

    ELISEBETH COLLINS COOK: I would be open to any alternative that posed fewer privacy risks, raised fewer privacy concerns and was equally effective.

    Perhaps a failure of imagination on my part, I have been unable to develop that type of alternative. I think there are serious risks with counting on the telephone companies to maintain the records that are currently available today.

    And I think it will be -- I think it will lead to immense pressure to force the telephone companies to keep data that they don't currently keep today, which raises a different set of privacy risks.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the feasibility of what the president is talking about?

    DAVID MEDINE: Well, I don't support having a third party collect the information, because I think that just creates more problems in terms of privacy.

    I think, right now, again, you can go to the phone companies, but, also, let's enlist American technology companies and say, you do a tremendous job on searching and managing databases. Let's figure out a better way to do this, where we could target the bad guys and not collect every single American's phone records.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we thank you both, David Medine and Elisebeth Collins Cook, Beth Cook, both with the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

    Thank you.

    DAVID MEDINE: You're welcome.

    ELISEBETH COLLINS COOK: Thank you. 


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    GWEN IFILL: As the Syrian peace talks in Switzerland took a break today to move from Montreux to Geneva, the supporting drama continued with more heated rhetoric from the opposition and from government representatives.

    And, as Hari Sreenivasan reports, some are wondering whether the two sides will even keep their plans to meet tomorrow.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met separately today with the Syrian government's delegation and the opposition in the wake of yesterday's tense formal opening session.

    QUESTION: Are you confident of being able to ...

    LAKHDAR BRAHIMI, U.N. Envoy to Syria: I'm not speaking.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: He declined to comment on his conversations or about prospects for face-to-face talks that the two sides are supposed to hold tomorrow.

    Ahmad Al-Jarba, head of the Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, reiterated again today that Syrian President Bashar-al Assad must go.

    AHMAD AL-JARBA, president, Syrian National Council (through translator): It's clear to us and to you that the regime is dead. I think that the world is convinced today that Assad is not staying and will not stay in power.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: The Syrian government has repeatedly pushed back at that idea. And, today, the country's foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said the Assad government's priority is to focus on fighting terrorism in Syria, not to discuss peace. And he dismissed the Syrian National Coalition as not representative of the opposition.

    Indeed, many of the civilian opposition groups refused to come, and none of the fighting forces, secular or Islamist, sent representatives. Instead, they have been fighting among themselves. Today, al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri released an audio message urging the Islamists to unite.

    Meanwhile, the president of Iran called for elections to decide Syria's future. Hassan Rouhani addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, after his country was barred from yesterday's peace talks.

    PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI, Iran (through translator): We must pave the wave for the opposition and the government to sit at the table of negotiations and dialogue. The best solution is a free election in Syria. We must all respect whatever the people vote for.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Iran's support has helped President Assad's forces make important military gains in recent months. Perhaps with that in mind, Secretary of State John Kerry said today it's obvious that, for now, Assad is not ready to step down.

    Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner is in Geneva.

    So, Margaret, given all that happened yesterday, are these two sides likely to meet face-to-face tomorrow?

    MARGARET WARNER: They are, Hari, and we have been told that, today, Brahimi had meetings -- that is Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special envoy -- with both sides, and they have agreed on an M.O. for tomorrow.

    They will meet at the Palais des Nations right here and they will start in the same room. And Brahimi will propose to them what he is thinking of. They will speak through each person's, each side's representative to Brahimi, not to one another. Great care has been taken to make sure that nothing explodes, you don't have a situation like yesterday.

    Then, once that's happened, they will each retire to different rooms. And from then, the question is, will that then amount to turning to shuttle diplomacy, with Brahimi going from room to room, or will they return and again in this very structured way exchange ideas through Brahimi?

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Even though they are in the same room, they are going to speak through Brahimi.

    How much did what happened yesterday and how much could it impact the rest of this conversation?

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, interestingly, Hari, the opposition, which had to really be pressured to even come here by the West and its backers, comes out of the meeting in Montreux, with a little bit of wind in its sails.

    And the belief is among apparently Syrians in Syria and certainly among many of the world powers that Jarba, the leader of the Syrian opposition, who is really a neophyte to the international stage, did better than Foreign Minister Moallem, just in terms of style.

    That is, as we discussed yesterday, Foreign Minister Moallem was very histrionic, very aggressive in his language, very sort of bloody and violent in his terminology, and never talked about the future that they see, and that Jarba, while he also had a litany of grievances, did actually speak to the Syrian people about the kind of inclusive Syria he hoped to see.

    So, that said, the Western backers of the opposition have said to him, all right, you don't represent all of the Syrian people, as you well know. Now is the time to try to capitalize on this little bit of a boost you have given yourself by not rising to the bait of Moallem's comments yesterday and try to expand your circle.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: What about that reservation that we have talked about that not all the people who are fighting on the ground in the opposition are actually represented in the room?

    MARGARET WARNER: In fact, none of those really fighting on the ground are even in the room.

    And that has to do with a lot of the complicated politics of the fighting forces at the moment, where, as we have explained -- as you explained in the setup, they're fighting a two-front war. So they have no fighting forces here. Some of the civilian groups declined to come. And so that is an Achilles' heel for the Syrian opposition coalition, absolutely.

    And this is why it is very, very important not to prove -- for them not to prove the Syrian government right, and to actually be able to in a month or two claim to speak for a broader representation of the Syrian -- all the factions that are contending there.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: What about if the foreign minister of Syria says this is only to talk about fighting terrorism, not about Bashar al-Assad stepping down? What if that is the limit of what he wants to talk about?

    MARGARET WARNER: Well, you are right. He has repeated that again today.

    And, of course, the substantive answer is what Secretary Kerry said yesterday, that the only reason there are all these foreign jihadis in there is because Assad's brutality has created this chaotic situation.

    Today, however, a new argument was being made. And the opposition has made this before, but this time, we heard it from seasoned Western diplomats, who said, actually, that the Assad regime is in cahoots with the al-Qaida-linked groups. And their proof is that in areas that ISIS, as it's called, these al-Qaida-linked groups control, the regime doesn't bomb.

    They will bomb a town next door, and they don't bomb Raqqa, the city that ISIS has taken control of. and furthermore, this Western diplomat alleged, ISIS is financing itself through oil revenues out of oil wells that essentially the regime is allowing them to have control over and operate.

    So, if that is demonstrated to be true, essentially, what they're saying is, you want to talk about terrorism, let's talk about terrorism. And the charge is that the Assad government is deliberately encouraging these al-Qaida foreign fighters, some of whom used to get have, you know, in Syria long ago during the occupation of Iraq, that they're using that to demonstrate to the West that, in fact, the choice is what this diplomat called the big lie: It's Assad or al-Qaida.

    HARI SREENIVASAN: Margaret Warner joining us from Geneva, thanks so much.

    MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Hari. 


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    Photo by Flickr user Dan Domme.

    The black-and-white nutrition facts on the side of your cereal box may soon get a new look.

    The Associated Press reported Thursday that the Food and Drug Administration is considering revising nutrition labels to reflect updated knowledge about nutrition and to make them easier to read.

    Key revisions may include a more noticeable calorie count, a listed amount of added sugar and percentage of whole wheat and a measure of nutrients in teaspoons instead of grams.

    The current nutrition facts label is 20 years old. Michael Taylor -- the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods -- says it's time for an update. He believes "the food environment has changed and our dietary guidance has changed."

    While several modifications have been suggested, the FDA has yet to make any decisions on what specifically will be altered.

    H/T Sarah Corapi

    Support Your Local PBS Station


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    GWEN IFILL: After a six-month review, the president's Commission on Election Administration has released a series of recommendations designed to improve the way America votes.

    Among the steps outlined in the 112-page report, expanding online voter registration and early balloting, increasing the number of schools used as polling places, and updating electronic voting machines.

    The president welcomed the proposed reforms at the White House yesterday.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: No American should have to wait more than half-an-hour to vote. And they should know, they should be confident that their vote is being properly counted and is secure. A lot of the recommendations they have made are common sense. They are ones that can be embraced by all of us.

    GWEN IFILL: We explore the ideas raised by the commission with its co-chairs. Democrat Robert Bauer served as the chief lawyer for President Obama's 2012 reelection campaign and for a time as his White House counsel. And Benjamin Ginsberg was Mitt Romney's top campaign lawyer. They also represented opposite sides in the 2000 Bush-Gore election recount.

    So you both come from opposite sides of the red-blue divide. So let's start by asking, as you are doing this investigation and putting together this report, what did you agree on, Mr. Bauer?

    ROBERT BAUER, co-chair, Presidential Commission on Election Administration: Well, we wound up with a report that was unanimous and bipartisan.

    And we did it by basically adopting a few methodological guides. We looked at the evidence.; We took testimony from state and local election officials. We heeded the advice of experts and looked at the most recent social science. And we looked at the evolving trends in administration of elections, and particularly at the interest and evolving expectations of voters.

    And in that way, I think we were able to reach agreements that Democrats and Republicans alike can support.

    GWEN IFILL: What are those agreements?

    BENJAMIN GINSBERG, co-chair, Presidential Commission on Election Administration: Well, there are a number of things that go to helping the voter experience and the way that they vote, an issue that both Republicans and Democrats agree on.

    It includes things like being able to have online registration, to be able to make that easier. It includes providing more opportunities in terms of days for voters to cast their ballots. It includes a plea that the country as a whole and its elected officials look at voting technology, which is going to face a crisis within the next decade.

    It includes a plea for schools and communities to be used as polling places, with an accommodation for the safety concerns involved, and a whole panoply of other recommendations and best practices that we think will be good for voters.

    GWEN IFILL: But, as you both know better than I do, there's always been this basic disagreement about what the question is when it comes to voting. Is it about access to the polls? Is it about what happens at the polls after people get there?

    Did you settle, what is the priority in this case?

    ROBERT BAUER: No, sometimes, that is faced -- posed as a false choice.

    Most Americans agree that balloting should be secure, double voting shouldn't be permitted. They also agree that access shouldn't be unnecessarily hindered. We have recommendations about, for example, populations of voters that deserve special attention, like military voters, disabled voters, language minority voters.

    But all Americans shouldn't find it exceptionally difficult to vote. And we sort of adopted and our commission composition reflected a view that, in a way, voters should be treated, expect to be treated the way customers at our best-run businesses.

    GWEN IFILL: Except that I know that -- and I will ask the Republicans this -- a lot of Democrats would say that voter I.D. issues are a barrier to voting. And that is something you touch only lightly on in this report.

    BENJAMIN GINSBERG: We do touch lightly on it.

    The reality is that Bob and I have been on opposite sides of issues for a lot of years and will be on the opposite side of issues going forward. But, in looking at elections, and especially in doing recounts, we came to recognize that there are problems with the administration of elections that impact all voters, and that we could solve and come up with bipartisan recommendations for those problems that are sort of built in to the way we vote and the way ballots are cast and counted.

    To come up with fixes to those important parts of our electoral system, we looked for the areas where we could agree, without abandoning our principles, as opposed to the areas where we knew we would end up disagreeing.

    GWEN IFILL: How about technology in terms of online registration or even online registries or advanced early voting? Is that something that is the key to fixing the fix we're in?

    ROBERT BAUER: Well, I think all of those have to have attention paid to them.

    For example, as Ben pointed out, if we don't pay attention to technology, we're going to have trouble in the years ahead. We have to certify and set standards for a whole new generation of voting technology.

    GWEN IFILL: So, why can't people vote online? Why wouldn't that be a good ...

    ROBERT BAUER: Well, there are some significant unresolved security issues about voting online, but there are other forms of online support for the registration process.

    Frankly, we provide ballots through the Internet to our military voters. I mean, there are all sorts of other vehicles online for facilitating the voting process. And to put it this way, we believe that the voting process has to evolve in accordance with the way Americans currently live.

    And they currently live in a world in which they're free -- they are connected. They're connected through the Internet and they expect a certain level of service and support. But, obviously, we have to work through the security issues.

    GWEN IFILL: What is -- did you -- gathering this information, you talked to local officials. And there is some debate about whether this is essentially a state responsibility or a federal responsibility. But what do local officials say?

    BENJAMIN GINSBERG: Well, local officials -- and we really did concentrate on state and local officials, because our elections are administered in 8,000 separate jurisdictions.

    So you really need to concentrate on state and local officials. They said, first of all, there is not uniformity in the problems we face nor the solutions for the different locales. They have concerns about a number of areas. We didn't talk to a single election official who said, I love the equipment our voters vote on.

    In fact, there was uniformity that there are real problems with the machines they have now, which are going to end up sort of being worn out within the next decade. They are not happy with the choices that are available on the marketplace today. That in part is because of a federal certification and standardization process that is simply not working.

    GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you both, as you sit side by side, having worked together on this report, is there a way to close the partisan divide in this discussion about how we vote and who gets to vote and how well it is administered depending on where you happen to live? Is there a way to close that?

    ROBERT BAUER: We think there is.

    I mean, look, there are going to be disagreements, and they're going to remain fairly -- separate disagreements on some issues, some of them which are caught up in litigation and in the federal legislative process.

    But, beyond that, there is a whole fundamental question of how we treat our eligible voters, the facility with which we provide them access to the polls, the administrative standards we set, the respect, frankly, we show them in that process that I think Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

    And we have -- we have conducted four field hearings. We have traveled around the country. We took a lot of fact-finding. And we have found that the bipartisan consensus we reached on the commission, we also found mirrored in that body of opinion.

    GWEN IFILL: Except these are suggestions, not binding. How do you implement them?

    BENJAMIN GINSBERG: The implementation really does have to occur, by and large, on the state and local level.

    I think Bob and I have become convinced that it is a subject we're spending a lot more time on, talking to state and local officials. The proper legislative arena for this is legislatures in local -- and we're happy to go out. And the members of the commission -- and we had an outstanding group of people working with us on the commission -- are all happy to do that.

    And I think the report itself is kind of a self-help manual for jurisdictions where there have been problems.

    GWEN IFILL: Ben Ginsberg, Bob Bauer, thank you both very much.

    ROBERT BAUER: Thank you.

    BENJAMIN GINSBERG: Thank you.


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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the challenges of combating climate change.

    This week, the European Union announced it was loosening its strict environmental regulations in the face of economic setbacks. In the U.S., renewable sources of energy like wind and solar have struggled to take hold on a large scale.

    As Gabriela Quiros of KQED-San Francisco reports, one major effort to harness the power of the desert sun shows promise, but has had its own effect on the land.

    JOSEPH DESMOND, BrightSource Energy: What's that sort of shiny object off in the distance there over a sea of mirrors? That's the first thing you see are the towers from over the mountains, and, as you get a little closer, you begin to see a sense of the scale of how it is designed.

    GABRIELA QUIROS, KQED: Three giant towers and three 300,000 mirrors have gone up in California's Mojave Desert one hour south of Las Vegas.

    The $2.2 billion Ivanpah solar project is the largest of its kind in the world. It will be able to produce as much electricity as a medium-sized natural gas plant, but without the carbon emissions.

    JOSEPH DESMOND: We selected the Ivanpah site because this good sun. The better the sun, the more cost-effective the energy is delivered because you can produce more.

    CARL ZICHELLA, Natural Resources Defense Council: Within 200 miles or less of Los Angeles, we have one of the very finest solar resources on the planet. You know, we need to take the carbon out of the world's largest economy and do it in a very short time frame. Large-scale solar in the best locations like the desert are going to be important parts of that.

    GABRIELA QUIROS: Ivanpah is one of seven new big solar plants in the state that will be finished by 2014. And solar energy from plants and rooftops will continue to grow.

    California utilities are rushing to fulfill a state law that requires them to produce one-third of their electricity from renewable energy by 2020.

    CARL ZICHELLA: California was among the very first states to adopt a policy that required utilities to buy a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable energy sources. Now 34 states have adopted similar policies.

    GABRIELA QUIROS: Unlike the photovoltaic solar panels you find on rooftops and in some solar plants, Ivanpah uses a technology called concentrating solar thermal. Mirrors reflect sunlight and concentrate it on to boilers filled with water on top of three towers, each as tall as a 45-story building.

    The taller the towers, the more mirrors fit on the field. The boiler produces high-pressure steam that powers a turbine at the base of the tower. Just as at any traditional power plant, the turbine produces electricity.

    JOSEPH DESMOND: The project itself will on an annual basis serve the equivalent of about 140,000 homes.

    GABRIELA QUIROS: One of the shortcomings of solar energy is that it's only available when the sun is shining. But systems in place at some solar plants similar to Ivanpah get around this by storing heat in molten salt for later use.

    JOSEPH DESMOND: When you add storage you're essentially making this a power plant just like a natural gas plant, meaning it has the ability to be flexible, controllable and deliver power when it's most valued and most needed on to the grid.

    GABRIELA QUIROS: Ivanpah doesn't include storage, but the first U.S. solar plant with storage started delivering electricity in 2013 in Arizona.

    Despite the advantages of these large solar plants in the desert, Ivanpah ran into challenges.

    ILEENE ANDERSON, Center for Biological Diversity: From the get-go, we knew that the Ivanpah project was located in an area that had fairly high density of desert tortoise in it.

    GABRIELA QUIROS: Worried about habitat disruption, the Center for Biological Diversity out of Los Angeles testified against the project. But construction began in 2010.

    Desert tortoises are protected under the Endangered Species Act, so the project's developer, BrightSource, based in Oakland, California, asked for a permit to move any tortoises it found on the federal land where it was building the plant.

    JOSEPH DESMOND: The initial surveys did not show that there were a lot of desert tortoises.

    GABRIELA QUIROS: Surveys conducted during dry years led BrightSource to believe they would find close to 30 tortoises. But the rains came, and 173 tortoises showed up instead.

    JOSEPH DESMOND: We stopped construction in one area of the project. What they did is have us take a pause in the area in which they had located the additional tortoises.

    GABRIELA QUIROS: The company transferred the tortoises to pens and later moved them back on to wildland; 53 additional tortoises have been born in captivity.

    JOSEPH DESMOND: If you take into account the care and monitoring of all the tortoises involved in the program, it works out to be about $55,000 per tortoise.

    ILEENE ANDERSON: I think, early on, it was a big rush to get projects on the ground. There hadn't been any planning. There hadn't been any large-scale evaluation of the landscape.

    GABRIELA QUIROS: In response, more research is taking place and new policies are being adopted.

    Biologists like Ken Nussear from the U.S. Geological Survey are trying to better understand how development might impact animals like desert tortoises.

    KEN NUSSEAR, U.S. Geological Survey: Each tortoise has its own channel, and we plug that channel in.

    We got tortoises up in this hillside somewhere.

    GABRIELA QUIROS: The U.S. Interior Department has identified solar energy zones on public land in six Southwestern states. These 300,000 acres are close to transmission lines and have fewer threatened species.

    In California, government agencies and environmental groups are working to identify large tracks in the Mojave Desert suitable for wind and solar plants. This plan would also set aside land for desert species.

    ILEENE ANDERSON: We're engaged in that process and very much looking forward to help crafting a good plan that allows for renewable energy development, as well as allowing for good, strong conservation to occur.

    KEN NUSSEAR: So this one here is a new burrow. And we just put an address here so we can see not only how many times does he use this same exact place, but which other tortoises are using this place.

    I got a position. Here we go, 665-672.

    GABRIELA QUIROS: Around the country, developers, policy-makers and environmentalists are faced with the delicate task of balancing the need for clean energy with the need to protect well-loved landscapes.


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