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

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    Some of the new financial-health numbers out from the Bureau of Economic Analysis Friday morning are a bit of a yawn. American’s disposable income decreased by $3.8 billion, but while that may sound like quite a bit that amount only accounts for less than 0.1 percent of all disposable income. Meanwhile, the civilian workforce became ever so slightly more expensive for employers during the last quarter of 2013, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

    Compensation costs for civilian workers increased 0.5 percent, seasonally adjusted, for the 3-month period ending December 2013, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Wages and salaries(which make up about 70 percent of compensation costs) increased 0.6 percent, and benefits (which make up the remaining 30 percent of compensation) increased 0.6 percent.

    Yet this news comes on the heels of the highest consumer spending in three years, and an uptick in personal consumption. Gross domestic product — all the goods and services produced within the United States — increased at a 3.2 percent annual rate during the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2013, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The quarter, which spanned October through December, marks one of the strongest six-month periods of growth in 10 years.

    And in Q4 of 2013, we spent $12.069 trillion on stuff — AKA personal consumption expenditures — just shy of a 1 percent increase from Q3’13. And U.S. exports were up by quite a bit: 11.4 percent for Q4, the highest in three years.

    The GDP uptick is being largely attributed to robust spending by consumers and businesses alike. Particularly, a 3.3 percent rise in consumer spending helped bolster growth in the last three months of 2013. This increase is especially important, as consumer spending accounts for roughly 70 percent of U.S. economic growth.

    “The economy is in a much better place today,” Moody’s Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi told USA Today. “Most importantly, the collective psyche is much stronger today than at any time since before the Great Recession.”

    But Thursday’s report also pointed out that overall, the economy only expanded by 1.9 percent in 2013, compared to 2.8 percent in 2012. Stifled growth may have been due to higher taxes and lower federal spending.

    Despite the weaker rate of the growth, 2013 proved that the economy is becoming increasingly resilient. The partial government shutdown and the near-breach of the debt ceiling, among other things, weren’t enough to drastically affect spending. In fact, the government says that shutdown may have only decreased fourth-quarter growth by about 0.3 percent.

    Looking to 2014, the economy may see growth in a number of areas, including construction and auto sales and in the jobs sector. But challenges also lie ahead, particularly in light of the Federal Reserve’s announcement that it will continue to pare back its bond-buying program.

    The post Five newly-released numbers to help you gauge how the US economy is doing appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Updated 3:30 p.m. EST: Released Friday, the State Department’s review of the Keystone XL oil pipeline concluded that the project has no major environmental impact, the Associated Press reports.

    The department concluded that the pipeline was “unlikely to significantly affect the rate” of oil sands extraction, a sticking point that raised concerns about the proposed 1,179-mile long pipeline extension and its potential effects on climate change.

    A senior U.S. State Department official said earlier Friday that an environmental impact statement on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project would be released , according to a Reuters report.

    The project would add another line to the already extant Keystone Pipeline System, which transports oil from Alberta, Canada, through the American Midwest to refineries in Illinois and Oklahoma. A new proposal, which would extend the system into Texas, has raised considerable environmental debate since it was introduced in 2008.

    A source told Politico that the new statement will likely follow past State Department studies in declaring the project to have “few significant environmental risks.” However, the document will not have the last word on whether or not the project is approved.

    Last June, President Obama said that the pipeline extension would only be approved if there was proof that it would not be excessively harmful to the environment.

    “‘Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interests,’ Obama said in a speech on climate change at Georgetown University. ‘Our national interest would be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.’”

    Earlier this week, PBS NewsHour’s Rebecca Jacobson wrote about Mr. Obama’s environmental promises in his State of the Union address.

    The post State Department review of Keystone XL pipeline finds no major environmental impact appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Lawmakers watch President Obama deliver his 5th State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, 2014.

    Lawmakers watch President Obama deliver his 5th State of the Union Address on Jan. 28, 2014. Photo by Getty Images

    The State of the Union speech gives Washington a chance to reacquaint itself with ritual. When else do we need to know the name of the House doorkeeper? What other extended opportunity do we get to study the body language of the president, the vice president and the speaker of the house — in a single screen shot?

    For one night, we obsess over which Cabinet member stays away from the Capitol (to preserve the line of succession in event of calamity … it was Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz), count the number of Supreme Court justices in attendance (Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg greeted the president with a hug), and gauge the significance of the occupants of the first lady’s box.

    But the most predictable ritual of the last several years has been watching lawmakers decide when to applaud, when to stand and applaud, or when to convey studied neutrality or disapproval as the president speaks. It is the visual illustration of a nation hopelessly divided.

    This week’s address did not veer from that script. Although a few members crossed the aisle to sit together, mostly Democrats stood to applaud the president – while mostly Republicans sat on their hands. (There were rare exceptions. Everyone gets up to applaud wounded warriors and the first lady.)

    But the day after the speech offered a different tone. House Republicans were signaling movement on immigration reform. The president was emphasizing small bore improvements in education, employment and a retirement savings incentive that mostly sidesteps partisan conflict.

    And the language offered up by leaders in both parties had softened. For a moment, it was all butterflies and rainbows.

    Instead of talking about the dangers of inequality that benefit the richest, the president talked about providing “ladders of opportunity.”

    And Speaker John Boehner told reporters covering the House Republican retreat in Cambridge, Maryland that he wants his party to be seen as the “alternative” party, not the “opposition.”

    This formulation caught my ear, because on the morning after the State of the Union speech, I heard Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio use exactly the same language in response to a question about the credibility problems Democrats and Republicans face.

    “We should not aspire to be the opposition party, we should aspire to be an alternative,” he told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Wall Street Journal. “An alternative that explains to people how our principles of free enterprise and limited government can lead to upward mobility, equality of opportunity, the achievement of the American dream in a safe secure country.”

    “I don’t want us to be the doomsday party that’s constantly telling people how bad things are and how the country is inevitably headed to decline.”

    This would be a switch of strategy, at least for the tea party lawmakers the president mocked for voting unsuccessfully more than 40 times to repeal his health care plan.

    But Boehner took the step of beginning his caucus retreat by sending a letter to Mr. Obama outlining four areas of potential agreement -– increasing natural gas production, beefing up skills training programs, prioritizing basic research and reforming workplace rules.

    However, he took his incremental kumbaya only so far. “Listen, we know that the president’s policies are not working,” Boehner said. “That’s why we need to show the American people that the policies that we’re in favor of really will improve their lives.”

    One can sense Democrats stepping back from the brink as well. The president has vowed to act without congressional support, but on the stump, he’s throwing only mild rhetorical salt in the wounds.

    “I’m not going to stand still,” he told an audience at U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh. “So wherever I can take steps to expand opportunity for more families, regardless of what Congress does, that’s what I’m going to do.”

    It takes only one glance at the polls to see why both sides are emphasizing the things they can get done rather than the things they can’t.

    Just prior to the State of the Union speech, President Obama’s approval rating stood at 46 percent in a Washington Post poll, with only 37 percent saying that have a good or great deal of confidence in him to make the right decisions for the nation’s future.

    It’s worse for Congress. Seventy-two percent of those polled say they have little or no confidence in Democrats; 80 percent say the same about Republicans.

    With numbers like that, a few butterflies and rainbows can’t hurt, even if it means accentuating occasional rays of bipartisan hope. After all, voters get to turn these poll numbers into election outcomes within months.

    The post Butterflies, rainbows and midterm realities appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A handful of immigration reform proponents demonstrate during the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on the West Front December 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

    A handful of immigration reform proponents demonstrate during the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on the West Front December 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

    WASHINGTON — Signaling a possible opening in the tense immigration debate, President Barack Obama indicated he may consider legislation that does not include a special pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people already in the U.S. illegally.

    Obama reiterated his preference for a concrete route to citizenship. But he said he doesn’t want to “prejudge” what might land on his desk and would have to evaluate the implications of a process to allow people get legal status and then have the option to become citizens.

    “I’m not sure how wide the divide ends up being,” Obama said of the differences between a special citizenship pathway and legal status.

    The president’s carefully worded response in an interview with CNN marked a noticeable shift in the hard-line position he has previously taken on citizenship. He has repeatedly insisted that legislation must include a way for those in the U.S. illegally to become citizens, saying it “doesn’t make sense” to leave that aspect of immigration reform unresolved.

    On Thursday, House Republican leaders released immigration principles that would allow millions of adults who live in the U.S. unlawfully to get legal status after paying back taxes and fines. The proposal was greeted negatively by many conservatives who oppose granting any kind of legal status to immigrants in the country illegally.

    The White House said it welcomed “the process moving forward in the House, and we look forward to working with all parties to make immigration reform a reality.”

    If Congress were to move forward on legislation that would allow people to gain legal status, the White House would likely insist that the millions affected by the measure have the option to eventually become citizens, even if a special pathway is not prescribed. The White House is also likely to take its cues from immigration advocates, some of which may see legal status as the best option that could be expected from the deeply divided Congress.

    “I want to make sure that I’m not just making decisions about what makes sense or not,” Obama said. “We’re going to be consulting with the people who stand to be affected themselves.”

    The post Obama says he may consider immigration bill with no citizenship path appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    As Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke closes out his term, how will he be remembered? Dean Baker sees a checkered legacy. Getty Images file photo.

    As Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke closes out his term, how will he be remembered? Dean Baker sees a checkered legacy. Getty Images file photo.

    Friday marks Fed Chair Ben Bernanke’s last day in office, after eight years on the job. Janet Yellen will take over as chair on Saturday, Feb. 1, and will be formally sworn in on Feb. 3. As Bernanke passes the baton to his vice chair, how will he be remembered? We’ll take a closer look at Bernanke’s legacy on the NewsHour Friday night, but we’ve asked economists from a range of perspectives to offer their takes on Bernanke’s tenure. First, we hear from a frequent contributor to this page, Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker on what he sees as Bernanke’s checkered legacy. Later, we’ll hear from one of Bernanke’s Princeton friends, Alan Blinder, and for a different take, from Columbia University’s Charles Calomiris.

    The retrospectives of Ben Bernanke on his leaving the Fed this week seem to be coming in overly favorable. While there is much that is positive about his tenure as Fed chair, many of these accounts have a rather selective view of history.

    The part that is clearly wrong is treating Bernanke as a bookish academic who got plucked down in the middle of a financial crisis that was not his making. While Bernanke had a distinguished academic career, he had been in the middle of the action in Washington since 2002. That was when he was selected to be a governor of the Fed. He served as a governor at Alan Greenspan’s side until he went to serve as head of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers in June of 2005. After a brief stint as the chief economist in the Bush administration, he returned to take over as chair of the Fed in January of 2006.

    It was during the period that Bernanke was at the Fed and his tenure in the Bush administration that the housing bubble grew to such dangerous levels. While Bernanke does not deserve as much blame for this as Greenspan, there were few people better positioned to try to deflate the housing bubble before it posed such a large risk to the economy.
    And yet, during this time, Bernanke was dismissive of suggestions that the unprecedented run-up in home prices posed any problem. There is no evidence that he dissented in any important way from Greenspan’s view that the Fed need not be concerned about the housing bubble or the innovations in the financial industry that was supporting it.

    In fact, even as the bubble started to deflate, Bernanke consistently underestimated the extent of the problem that would be caused by its collapse. In February of 2007, when the financial markets were first showing clear signs of turbulence due to widespread defaults, Bernanke famously expressed his view that the problems would be restricted to the subprime market. When Bear Stearns required a weekend rescue the following year, he told Congress that he didn’t see another Bear Stearns out there.

    When the financial crisis reached its peak in the fall of 2008, he deliberately misled Congress to help rush through the passage of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). To highlight the immediate threat to the economy, Bernanke said the commercial paper market was shutting down. This would have meant that even healthy companies would be unable to borrow the money needed to meet their payroll and other regular expenses. Bernanke waited until the weekend after TARP was passed to announce plans to establish a special Fed lending facility to support the commercial paper market. This move called attention to the fact that Bernanke had the authority to support the commercial paper market without any action from Congress.

    During the crisis, Bernanke lent massive sums to the financial industry at below market rates, allowing it to largely escape the crisis intact. In fact, because the Fed and other regulators were desperate to prevent a collapse, they allowed several major mergers that at other times would have been subject to serious conditions or blocked altogether. As a result, the financial industry is substantially more concentrated now than it was before the crisis.

    As an alternative, Bernanke could have explicitly called the attention of Congress to the fact that most of the financial industry was dependent on life support from the Fed. Congress could have imposed restructuring on banks as a condition of receiving the Fed’s assistance. Instead, the large banks are bigger and more powerful than ever.

    If Bernanke deserves much of the blame for failing to recognize the dangers posed by the housing bubble and its collapse, and also for saving Wall Street when it would been killed if left to market forces, he does deserve credit for trying to boost the economy out of its slump.

    After pushing the federal funds rate to zero in the fall of 2008, Bernanke turned to unorthodox monetary policy in an effort to provide additional stimulus to the economy. This meant large-scale purchases of government bonds and mortgage-backed securities which were intended to directly put downward pressure on long-term interest rates.

    While the effect of this quantitative easing on the economy has been limited, it has facilitated a massive wave of mortgage refinancing and made it easier for businesses and state and local governments to borrow money. Bernanke’s quantitative easing policy has been more aggressive than the policies pursued by most other central banks, with the exception of the recent decision by the Bank of Japan to explicitly target a higher rate of inflation.

    In principle, Bernanke could have also targeted a higher inflation rate (a policy he advocated as a Princeton professor), but it’s not clear that he would have been able to get the Fed’s Open Market Committee to go along. Still, given the enormous costs associated with the prolonged period of economic weakness, it would have been worth trying to push monetary policy harder than he did.

    On the other hand, Bernanke has been a useful voice in arguing against the deficit cutting that Congress, and to a lesser extent President Barack Obama, have embraced. Bernanke has repeatedly identified the rapid pace of deficit reduction over the last three years as a major cause of economic weakness. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem very many people were paying attention.

    The final verdict on Bernanke has to be mixed. He really messed up horribly by failing to recognize the risks from the housing bubble. There was an unprecedented run-up in home prices with no remotely plausible explanation in the fundamentals of the housing market. This run-up was clearly driving the economy, both directly through record levels of construction and indirectly through the consumption boom that was fueled by bubble-generated equity. What did Bernanke think was going to happen when prices fell back to earth?

    His efforts to protect a largely unreformed financial system are also hard to justify. The market would have wiped out Wall Street. If the government was going to come to its rescue, it should have set the terms.

    However, he does deserve credit for his efforts to boost the economy the last three years. Hopefully his successor will continue and expand on this aspect of Bernanke’s performance.

    The post Ben Bernanke’s legacy: A critique from the left appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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  • 01/31/14--09:34: Thailand at the brink
  • Thai anti-government protesters wave national flags during a rally in Bangkok on Jan. 31, 2014.  Photo by Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images

    Thai anti-government protesters wave national flags during a rally in Bangkok on Jan. 31, 2014. Photo by Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/AFP/Getty Images

    When I was in Thailand a year ago, the streets and glitzy shopping malls were crammed with tourists, including tens of thousands of Chinese escaping their country’s crowds and pollution for a more exotic Asian New Year holiday. The country’s economy was growing at a 6 percent clip. And its neophyte Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was receiving good marks from diplomats and local analysts for deftly balancing Bangkok’s power centers and lowering the temperature from a decade of political tensions.

    What a difference a year makes.

    Parliamentary elections are scheduled for Sunday, and no one can predict with assurance if polling stations will be open or whether voters will show up amid fears of violence. Behind the turmoil is the bigger question: Has this Southeast Asian nation’s sometimes halting, five-decade experiment in democracy now gone completely off the rails, to be replaced by chaos, rolling referendums of massive street demonstrations and at worst civil war?

    And while this beautiful nation and people certainly are unique, political scientists see a similar thread running through Bangkok, Kiev and Cairo: new classes gaining a political voice and coming into the system, sometimes captured or manipulated by charismatic leaders and challenging old ruling elites in a potent brew of civic confrontation and conflict.

    That these questions are being asked throughout Thailand and among the cadre of sympathetic Washington wonks who follow Thai affairs shows how deeply the political rifts have become in the country of 70 million and once the key regional ally of the United States. On one side are the supporters of former and now exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck, the current leader, who have won three elections since 2001, and on the other are the Thaksin opponents who have ousted two Thaksin governments by military or political coups.

    The latest unraveling began late last year when Yingluck thought she had a big enough parliamentary majority to push through a bill granting amnesty to her brother, now living in Dubai, from corruption charges and to a former prime minister from the Democratic party for the deaths of pro-Thaksin demonstrators in 2010. The bill failed and the streets have been full since with anti-Thaksin crowds sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands. Yingluck dissolved parliament and called for new elections. The opposition Democrats responded with an election boycott and then escalated their demands that parliament be replaced by an appointed council.

    Now, as Southeast Asia analyst Ernest Bower put it, Thailand “is still in the center of a hurricane.”

    At a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies conference, Bower said he was reluctant to predict that a civil war would result from the stand-off but also refused to rule it out, especially if the military splits. So far, military leaders have issued cautious statements, indicating they do not want to institute a coup and calling for calm.

    Sunday will be another test of whether such calm is possible Early voting last Sunday produced nearly as many anti-government demonstrators as voters, which led an official at Human Rights Watch Thailand to denounce “thuggery.” And even if the vote goes smoothly, the election will not produce a quorum for a new parliament since dozens of districts have no candidates on the ballot.

    In recent meetings around Washington, mostly off the record, one new trend has become increasingly clear: The ability of U.S. officials to work hand-in-glove with the royal palace and Thai elite that governed the country is about reaching its end. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 86, hospitalized and has not even issued a written statement on the current tangle. American experts throw up their hands in despair when asked if they can find any way out of the deepening stalemate. Increasingly, the Thai elite are growing upset with the U.S., particularly recent statements saying the Sunday elections should go ahead without violence or intimidation.

    That divide was evident in the visit of two Thai senators to congressional and think tank offices late this week. Sens. Bilaibhan Sampatisiri and Pikulkeaw Krairiksh said their main objective was to change the narrative of a Bangkok elite challenging the legitimacy of a government elected with overwhelming support from the rural and poorer northern provinces which are now receiving generous subsidies for their rice and much improved health care. They insisted the streets are full of people from all classes fed up with Thaksin family corruption (40 percent rake-offs instead of the 5-10 percent that characterized traditional Thai corruption) and authoritarian tendencies. The senators said they made some headway on Capitol Hill, but at think tanks they were strongly challenged by local analysts including one who said “the problem is that power is going from people like yourselves to people not like yourselves” and warned their arguments would fall on deaf ears in the United States.

    What that American said privately was put on the record by French political scientist David Camroux in an article widely circulated and seconded among Washington Asia hands:

    “Above all, what is occurring in Thailand is not so much a ‘crisis,’ to use that much-abused term, but something far more serious — a profound malaise within Thailand as a whole that has been brewing for over a decade … the longstanding competition for power among elites is eclipsed by social cleavages, economic uncertainty and an almost existential angst linked to a ‘fin de regne,’” (the death of a monarch who has ruled since 1946 and whose crown prince son is as widely divisive as the king is revered).

    Despite such a gloomy analysis, some in Washington keep looking for silver linings. The tourists will come back when things quiet down, said one analyst, because of the country’s great allure for foreigners. Even as the economic growth rate has been halved and new foreign investment is on hold, it is unlikely that the Japanese and other foreign companies will shut down their large factories short of full-scale civil war. The country has a way of bouncing from crisis to recovery; the difference this time is that no one can predict how.

    Michael D. Mosettig, PBS NewsHour foreign affairs and defense editor emeritus, watches wonks push policy in Washington’s multitude of think tanks. From time to time, he writes dispatches on what those scholars and wannabe secretaries of state have in mind for Europe, Asia and Latin America.

    The post Thailand at the brink appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    A father walks with his children through the rubble after a war plane bombed the Salahadin neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria on Aug. 1, 2012. Few civilians remain in the district and those who stay face heavy shelling from tanks, fighter jets, helicopters and rockets. Photo by Nicole Tung / GlobalPost

    Syrian peace talks concluded in Geneva Friday, with no progress and uncertain prospects for future negotiations. Photo by Nicole Tung / GlobalPost

    The Syrian peace talks in Geneva concluded Friday, with no progress towards a resolution and uncertainty that the sides will come together again to continue talks in a proposed February meeting. While the eight-day negotiations were underway, the civil war in Syria continued and 1,900 people were killed.

    Since the war began in 2011, more than seven million Syrians have become refugees, fleeing the conflict for nearby countries. More than 130,000 people have been killed. Tens of thousands go without food and water in rebel-held areas that are under a blockade by the Syrian regime under President Bashar Assad.

    Syria’s third largest city, Homs, is one of the areas blockaded by troops loyal to Assad.
    Activists called for humanitarian aid for the blockaded citizens while the peace talks took place. UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said in a statement, “I personally appealed for action to address the desperate humanitarian situation in Syria. Homs was extensively discussed, though unfortunately there has been no breakthrough yet.”

    [Watch Video]
    Video by PBS NewsHour

    Brahimi suggested both sides meet again on Feb. 10 to resume negotiations. While the opposition agreed to the second meeting, the government’s delegation said it would need to consult with Assad before committing to attend.

    “The gaps between the sides remain wide; there is no use pretending otherwise,” Brahimi said, stressing the intense divisions between the parties. “Nevertheless, during our discussions, I observed a little bit of common ground — perhaps more than the two sides realize or recognize.”

    Though both sides remained at a stalemate during the heated negotiations, he outlined ten points where he believed the opposition and the Syrian government agreed, including the need to end the conflict, establish a transitional government, and a belief that “the future of Syria can only be determined by the people of Syria, men and women, through peaceful means, without any external intervention and interference.”

    “The opposition is demanding a transitional governing body with full executive powers and wants Assad to step down,”AP reported. “The government delegation says that’s a nonstarter and has insisted the talks focus first on ending the violence.”

    The post Syrian peace talks end with no progress appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Scientists in Cambridge may have made a breakthrough in combating peanut allergies, an affliction that affects a growing segment of American youth.

    An experimental treatment that exposed children with the allergies to a small amount of peanut flour has helped more than 80 percent of children tolerate the allergen.

    Scientists at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge mixed increasing doses of peanut flour in food for 99 children with allergies to the popular nut. By the end of the trial, well over half of the children could consume a handful of peanuts daily without experiencing any dangerous reaction.

    The goal of the treatment was the help children build small, incremental tolerance to the nut.

    “Before treatment children and their parents would check every food label and avoiding eating out in restaurants. Now most of the patients in the trial can safely eat at least five whole peanuts. The families involved in this study say that it has changed their lives dramatically,” said Dr. Andrew Clark, who co-led the research team.

    Food allergies can range from mild to life-threatening and occur when the immune system negatively responds to certain foods, mistaking it for a harmful substance entering the body.

    Food allergies are a growing concern in the U.S. and elsewhere in the developed world. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), four to six percent of children in the United States are affected by food allergies, and about 0.6 percent of the American population are allergic to peanuts.

    Food allergy prevalence has increased by 18 percent from 1997 to 2007, but researchers aren’t sure why the numbers are on the rise. Some theorize that allergies develop when children are not exposed to certain food at an early age. Others say that high levels of sanitation prevent children’s immune systems from combating common allergens.

    After their success, the researchers plan to test the therapy on a larger population.

    Though results were positive, parents should not try this treatment at home.

    The post Scientists find possible treatment for kids’ peanut allergies appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Fragments of the Chelyabinsk meteorite will be given to athletes at the Sochi games. Photo by Denis Panteleev/Wikimedia Commons.

    Some of the winners at February’s Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, will be taking home a little more than gold, silver or bronze.

    The government of Chelyabinsk, a city in the southern Ural region of Russia, has struck 50 medals containing fragments of a meteorite that exploded over the area last February.

    According to the Associated Press, ten of these commemorative medals will be given to Olympians who win their events on Feb. 15 — the one-year anniversary of the meteor strike. According to the Associated Press, the presentations will not be part of the official Olympic program.

    Several large chunks of the rock, weighing more than 1,250 pounds in total, were recovered from Lake Chebarkul in October.

    Recently, several of the pieces went on display at the Moscow Planetarium in an exhibition titled “Meteorites — guests from the sky.”

    The post Meteor medals to be awarded at Sochi games appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Vodka bottles
    Study says alcohol use is cause of death among 25 percent of Russian men who die before age 55. Photo by Flickr user Colognid

    A recent study in The Lancet suggests that the 25 percent of Russian men who die before they are 55 do so because of alcohol use.

    The causes of death from alcohol — particularly vodka — include liver disease, alcohol poisoning, accidents and brawls. In the UK, only seven percent of early deaths for men are attributed to alcohol.

    For ten years, researchers tracked the drinking patterns of 151,000 men from three Russian cities. During that time, 8,000 died.

    “Russian death rates have fluctuated wildly over the last 30 years as alcohol restrictions and social stability varied under Presidents Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin, and the main thing driving these wild fluctuations in death was vodka,” University of Oxford professor Richard Peto told the BBC.

    The post Study suggests vodka is a leading cause of death among Russian men appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Maine’s highest court Thursday that school officials who prevented a transgender student from using the girls’ bathroom violated state anti-discrimination laws.

    In the first ruling of its kind, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court concluded that a transgender person should use the bathroom consistent with the gender with which they identified. The decision overturned a lower court’s ruling which found that the school district acted within its discretion.

    Fifth-grade student Nicole Maines, her family and the Maine Human Rights Commission filed a lawsuit in 2009 after school officials required Maines to use a staff bathroom.

    “This is a momentous decision that marks a huge breakthrough for transgender young people,” said Jennifer Levi, director of the Boston-based Transgender Rights Project for Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders, GLAD, after the court ruling on Thursday.

    GLAD said the decision marks the first time that a state high court concluded that transgender people have the right to use the bathroom of their choice.

    The post Court rules in favor of transgender student’s right to use the girls’ bathroom appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Photo by Flickr user slightly everything

    Photo by Flickr user slightly everything

    President Barack Obama appealed to the nation’s chief executives to hire job applicants who’ve been unemployed long-term. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates nearly 4 million Americans have been without work for 27 weeks or more. On Friday, the president hosted top leaders from eBay, Boeing, Morgan Stanley and a number of other major companies at the White House. He urged them to reach out to job seekers who have been out of work for an extended period of time.

    “Folks who have been unemployed the longest often have the toughest time getting back to work. It’s a cruel catch-22,” President Obama said. “The longer you’re unemployed, the more unemployable you may seen. Now this is an illusion, but it’s one that unfortunately we know statistically is happening out there.”

    Nearly 300 companies, such as Apple, McDonald’s and Walmart, have now signed onto the president’s initiative, pledging to focus more on the long-term unemployed.

    The president also signed a presidential memo ensuring the federal government won’t discriminate against those workers in its own hiring.

    President Obama also reiterated his call for Congress to extend long-term jobless benefits which expired last December.

    The post Obama appeals to CEOs to hire long-term jobless appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    Updated 6:00 p.m. EST | Responding to the letter by former Port Authority official David Wildstein, Chris Christie’s office released a statement late Friday, saying that the letter “confirms what the governor has said all along.” The full statement is below:

    Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer confirms what the Governor has said all along – he had absolutely no prior knowledge of the lane closures before they happened and whatever Mr. Wildstein’s motivations were for closing them to begin with. As the Governor said in a December 13th press conference, he only first learned lanes were closed when it was reported by the press and as he said in his January 9th press conference, had no indication that this was anything other than a traffic study until he read otherwise the morning of January 8th. The Governor denies Mr. Wildstein’s lawyer’s other assertions.


    A former Port Authority official said Friday that he had evidence that proved that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie knew about the lane closings that ensnarled traffic on the George Washington Bridge over a four-day period in September, the New York Times reports.

    David Wildstein, identified in the Times report as a high school friend of the governor, released a letter through his lawyer that described the lane closures as “the Christie administration’s order” and said that “evidence exists as well tying Mr. Christie to having knowledge of the lane closures, during the period when the lanes were closed, contrary to what the governor stated publicly in a two-hour press conference” in early January.

    Last month, the governor said he was “blindsided” by the bridge scandal, when correspondence among his closest aides suggested that they orchestrated the traffic jam to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, N.J. for not endorsing Republican Christie’s reelection.

    “I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or its execution,” he said.

    Wildstein, who ordered the closures, does not say whether Christie knew the lane closures were an act of political retribution.

    Christie’s office told Talking Points Memo on Friday that it had no comment on Wildstein’s letter.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Supporters of the much-debated Keystone oil pipeline project won a key round today. A State Department review found completing the final leg of the pipeline, which would then run from Canada to the Gulf, would cause no serious environmental problems. We will have more on the review, and its implications, right after the news summary.

    The state of California is cutting off state-supplied water to 25 million people in the face of severe drought. The unprecedented decision today means 29 water agencies will have to rely on local sources of water. The head of the state water control board says it’s essential to conserve what little water is left in state reservoirs.

    FELICIA MARCUS, Chair, California Water Resources Control Board: This is the most serious drought we have faced if modern times. And we will have to face it head on and make many hard decisions in days, weeks and months to come. Everyone, farmers, fish and people in cities and towns will get less water because of the drought.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The cutoff also affects nearly one million acres of crop land in one of the nation’s richest farm belts.
    A global sell-off sent Wall Street sharply lower. The Dow Jones industrial average lost well over 149 points to close below 15,699. The Nasdaq fell 19 points to close below 4,104. For the week, the Dow lost 1 percent; the Nasdaq fell more than half-a-percent. Overall, it was the market’s worst month since last May.

    President Obama appealed to the nation’s CEOs today to hire the long-term unemployed. The president urged them to create opportunities for nearly four million Americans who’ve been out of work for six months or more. He spoke to leaders of eBay, Boeing, McDonald’s and a few others at the White House.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The folks who have been unemployed the longest often have the toughest time getting back to work. It’s a cruel catch-22. The longer you’re unemployed, the more unemployable you may seem. Now, this is an illusion, but it’s one that, unfortunately, we know statistically is happening out there.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Nearly 300 companies made commitments to focus more on the long-term jobless. The president also signed a memo ensuring the federal government won’t discriminate against such applicants in its own hiring.

    A former New Jersey Port Authority official now says there’s evidence that Republican Governor Chris Christie knew about a major bridge closing while it was happening. Christie has said he found out after the fact. The new allegation comes from an attorney for David Wildstein, who ordered the bridge closing, allegedly to punish a Democratic mayor. Christie has denied any knowledge of a political motive. And his office says the Wildstein lawyer’s statement actually confirms his account.

    The first round of the Syrian peace talks ended today in Geneva, with little to show. The Syrian government rejected opposition demands that President Bashar al-Assad give up power. The regime also refused to commit to a second round of negotiations. We will get a full report and explore what happens next later in the program.

    Officials in Thailand are warning they may close polling stations if violence erupts during Sunday’s general election. The government is going ahead with the vote, despite protesters’ opposition. Today, the atmosphere at protest sites in Bangkok was festive, and demonstrators tried to drum up support. They have threatened to disrupt the polling to support calls for a boycott.

    PONGPHAN NANTHASRI, Anti-Government Demonstrator (through interpreter): I’m not going to vote on Sunday, because if you do, that means you accept that this election right. We have been defying this government for a long time. We need to finish it this time.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: The protesters are demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. They say she’s a puppet of her brother, who was ousted as prime minister in 2006.

    Members of the International Olympic Committee arrived in Sochi, Russia, today to view the security for themselves. Thousands of police and troops are being deployed, along with helicopters and radar sites. It comes in the face of threats by Islamist insurgents. Meanwhile, President Obama says he would advise friends it’s OK to go.

    He told CNN — quote — “I believe Sochi is safe and that there are always some risks in these large international gatherings.”

    The process of building an Obama presidential library has formally begun. Major supporters announced today they’re forming a foundation to raise money, develop building plans and pick a site. The leading possibilities include Hawaii, where the president was born, and the Chicago area, where he lived for many years and was first elected to office.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: As the proposed Keystone oil pipeline extension cleared a major hurdle today, it set off alarms in some quarters and lifted hopes in the world of energy and business.

    Jeffrey Brown has more on today’s developments.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The pipeline would stretch from the Alberta, Canada, oil sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast, moving more than 800,000 barrels of oil a day. There are concerns about leaks and spills, but some of the biggest environmental issues are focused on the extraction of the oil.

    Juliet Eilperin has been reporting on this story for The Washington Post and joins me now.

    So, Juliet, fill in the picture a bit. What exactly was the State Department looking at in this report? And what was its key finding?

    JULIET EILPERIN, The Washington Post: They were looking the a whole range of impacts, including whether rejecting the pipeline would make a different in global greenhouse gas emissions linked to climate change.

    They also looked at things like what would happen if there was a spill and what about endangered species along the route, things like that. Their overall conclusion was that no one single infrastructure project makes a huge difference, a significant difference in terms of development in the oil sands region in Canada. And so the overall climate change impact they’re saying is not significant from this decision. That’s their broad conclusion.

    JEFFREY BROWN: So this is, of course, highly contentious, with environmentalists feeling that they have evidence of just the opposite. So just remind us of what their main concerns have been.

    JULIET EILPERIN: Absolutely.

    So, environmentalists have been arguing for years at this point that by allowing this pipeline to travel from the United States to Gulf Coast — from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries in the U.S., you’re accelerating climate change, both because you are speeding development in the oil sands region, and also because you’re increasing the United States’ dependence on fossil fuels.

    And one very interesting fact is that, while this technical document suggests that this one project wouldn’t have a significant global carbon impact, the State Department is making it very clear that they’re still looking at how this pipeline decision fits into the broader national and international climate strategy that the president is pursuing.

    And so they’re making it clear that this is not the final word even on what is the climate impact of this project.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what are they going to be looking at going forward here? They still must decide whether it’s in the so-called national interest, right? How is that being defined?

    JULIET EILPERIN: That’s a very broad line, actually. And so it can include everything, including our energy security. In other words, what does it mean to have the supply coming from Canada, as opposed to other countries.

    They will look at things like our relationship with Canada and what are the foreign policy implications of this, as well as, again, as I mentioned, they still are going to use this kind of amorphous term, which is how does this fit into the broad national and international climate policy that President Obama is pursuing?

    And they will be reviewing this, getting input both from the public, as well as from eight agencies that will weigh in on this question?

    JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so what was the response today?

    JULIET EILPERIN: There was, you can imagine a lot of response.

    So, for example, clearly the oil industry and other conservatives, for example, on Capitol Hill welcomed it, as well as the Canadian government and TransCanada, the company that has been pursuing this project for years. Environmentalists without exception criticized this, although again they emphasized that they didn’t think this was over.

    One interesting thing is we have just had a rail spill of oil in Mississippi. And so there’s — people are seizing on that, saying this is yet another example of what are the problems with the transportation of oil into the United States?

    JEFFREY BROWN: The ultimate decision, of course, will be by the president. And there’s been, as you said, so much pressure for several years on this now. What will — do you expect that to not only continue, but ramp up now that we’re into what looks like maybe a final stage here?

    JULIET EILPERIN: Absolutely.

    I think you will see an intensification of the pressure, particularly on the Secretary of State John Kerry, since this is the moment that he gets involved in the process. He has absolutely stayed out of it until this point, as has the White House. And this is the first moment that, for example, both environmentalists, as well as their opponents, can appeal directly to a man who has made climate change and addressing carbon one of the central points of his career.

    And so I think that this is going to become even more intense as we move forward.

    JEFFREY BROWN: And the president himself, last summer, he said he would approve the pipeline only if it didn’t — quote — “significantly exacerbate carbon pollution.”

    So today’s decision clearly plays at least partly to that.

    JULIET EILPERIN: It does, although, again, when reporters were trying to press the senior State Department official, Kerri-Ann Jones, of whether or not this report answered that question, she declined to answer it. So that is absolutely the central question.

    And while at this point the State Department won’t say what role the president will play in this, it’s clear that once a decision is made, the White House can’t stay absolutely removed and that there will be at least some input.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Finally, is there any sense of when a decision will come?

    JULIET EILPERIN: That actually is still an open question, which is interesting, particularly in a midterm election year. So, technically, we could be looking at a process that would last about 105 days, if you look at technically the calendar. But one of the things that they have been emphasizing is that both Secretary Kerry will take as much time as he needs to consider it.

    So it could be longer. But at the same time, some of the officials warned that it could be shorter, that they will urge agencies to get engaged quickly, and frankly because this is being done under the president’s executive authority, there is considerable flexibility. So there is no deliberate end point that we can see.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, thanks again.

    JULIET EILPERIN: Thank you.

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    Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke Speaks At Nat'l Economists Club Annual Dinner

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: Part of the turmoil in the markets of late, especially emerging ones overseas, has to do with the Federal Reserve’s decision to start pulling back on its stimulus. That’s led to worries about what may happen to capital and investment in some countries.

    But the Fed’s decision comes after years of unprecedented moves to prop up the economy. The man at the center of that action, chairman Ben Bernanke, is ending his term today.

    NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman looks at his legacy and the questions awaiting his successor. It’s part of his reporting on Making Sense of financial news.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Ben Bernanke, TIME’s 2009 person of the year for saving the U.S. economy, in 2012, still a hero on the cover of The Atlantic.

    But as that magazines cover also asked: Why does everyone hate him? So, hero or zero? Rather than trawl the darker corners of the Internet, we thought we’d ask two professional economists, on the right and left, to grade Bernanke’s performance.

    ALAN BLINDER, Princeton University: I give him for his whole tenure an A-minus.

    PAUL SOLMAN: Economics professor Alan Blinder, a past vice chairman of the Fed, hired Ben Bernanke at Princeton, so, of course, he’s biased. But in his post-crash bestseller, “After The Music Stopped,” even Blinder takes Bernanke to task for letting Lehman Brothers fail, freezing credit worldwide. That lowers the grade from a straight A. or A-plus.

    ALAN BLINDER: The Lehman episode just sticks in my craw, not to save Lehman or put them to bed in a more gentle way. This is a joint mistake of Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson, who was secretary of the Treasury, but it was very consequential. I mean, as you know, all hell broke loose the very next day.

    PAUL SOLMAN: But at a televised town hall in 2009, Bernanke told Jim Lehrer that the Fed didn’t have the legal authority to intervene in an investment bank like Lehman.

    BEN BERNANKE, Federal Reserve Chairman: In the case of Lehman Brothers, there was just a huge $40 billion, $50 billion hole that we had no way to fill and no money, no authorization, no way to do it, so we had to let it fail. We had no choice.

    PAUL SOLMAN: To Blinder, though, the government made up all sorts of tools during the crash.

    ALAN BLINDER: Guess what? They had the legal authority to save the money market mutual funds by using something called the Exchange Stabilization Fund, which is supposed to be to support the dollar. Now, how did that work? But somehow the Treasury’s lawyers koshered that, when just a few days before nobody was koshering a saving of Lehman, so I count that as a mistake.

    PAUL SOLMAN: But the rest of his tenure, you give him an A.?

    ALAN BLINDER: My grading system says let’s take Lehman day plus three or something, just a few days after Lehman. Grade him from that point forward, yes, I give A-plus.

    PAUL SOLMAN: And that’s pretty much the mainstream opinion of Bernanke’s role in saving our economic bacon.

    PAUL SOLMAN: And so, starting that weekend, the Fed, in conjunction with the Treasury Department, took historically unprecedented action.

    It bailed out the insurance giant AIG, slashed short-term interest rates to zero, used its emergency powers to launch a passel of programs that rescued key markets in short-term lending, mortgages, student loans, pumped a trillion new dollars into the economy.

    When push came to collapse, even conservative economist Charles Calomiris thinks Bernanke saved the day. But how does he grade Bernanke’s entire chairmanship, which kicked off exactly eight years ago tomorrow?

    CHARLES CALOMIRIS, Columbia University: Let’s take it as three semesters. The semester that begins in September of 2008 and ends middle of 2009, I would say he gets very high grades, maybe even a straight A., but the semester before that, I would give him maybe a C-minus. And the semester since 2010, let’s say, I would say incomplete.

    PAUL SOLMAN: The C-minus is for Bernanke’s stint pre-crisis. Calomiris points out that he joined the Fed’s Board of Governors back in 2002, became chairman in 2006, and yet never in all that time pushed to clamp down on the promiscuous lending that helped cause the crash.

    CHARLES CALOMIRIS: I think that the Fed was far too late in recognizing problems after 2006 and doing something about them. The banking crisis wasn’t a surprise. The banking crisis was the culmination of that erosion in the creditworthiness of the banks.

    PAUL SOLMAN: So we asked Alan Blinder, what about the charge that before the crisis, when the housing bubble was obvious to a lot of people, and the Fed did absolutely nothing about it?

    ALAN BLINDER: Bernanke becomes chairman of the Fed February 1, 2006. So this process had gone pretty far by then.

    In addition, try to put yourself in his shoes. And I have thought about this a lot. You’re taking over from a person, Alan Greenspan, who has been deified. You become chairman of the Fed. Are you going to walk in the office and say, OK, now everything’s different, right? I’m taking over from God and I’m changing everything. I think that would have been asking too much of anybody. I don’t think anybody would have done that.

    PAUL SOLMAN: So, mixed grades before the crisis, high grades during, but what about the Fed’s policy ever since, so-called quantitative easing, in which the Fed continued the expansion of the nation’s money supply begun during the crash, an expansion that the Fed is only now gradually tapering off?

    Might not all that new money lead to inflation and then another crash landing, risks that the Fed’s new chair, Janet Yellen, would have to contend with?

    Has expansionary policy since the crisis, as many critics allege…

    CHARLES CALOMIRIS: Including me.

    PAUL SOLMAN: … set us up for another fall?

    Again, conservative economist Charles Calomiris:

    CHARLES CALOMIRIS: The Fed under Bernanke in the last two years has created inflationary risk that could be hard for his successors to manage. What he created was a risk of inflation over the next five years, in exchange for getting very small potatoes in terms of improvement in the economy over the past two years.

    PAUL SOLMAN: That risk is why Calomiris gives Bernanke a post-crash grade of incomplete.

    But Alan Blinder calls inflation fears baseless.

    ALAN BLINDER: For years, there was going to be inflation next year, inflation next year. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. We haven’t had any inflation. Lately, since there’s no inflation, often, it’s the same people have started this, it’s causing speculative bubbles.

    So let’s see, where? House prices? I don’t think so. They have recovered about one-third of what they lost, and it looks like they’re kind of leveling off. Can’t tell. Stock prices? Well, maybe, but, you know, we have extraordinarily high profits. We have extraordinarily low interest rates. On basic fundamentals, stock prices should be high. I don’t stay awake worrying about bubbles now.

    PAUL SOLMAN: At her confirmation hearings, Janet Yellen didn’t seem overly concerned about bubbles either. She testified that she wants to see stronger job growth, making sure that the Fed doesn’t withdraw its stimulus too rapidly.

    As for Bernanke, he says he’s confident the Fed can continue safely pulling back.

    BEN BERNANKE: I think we have plenty of tools now at this point. We have developed all the tools we need to manage interest rates, to tighten monetary policy.

    PAUL SOLMAN: And so, as Ben Bernanke leaves office after what everyone agrees is an unforgettable eight years on the job, his final grade probably won’t come for years, during the tenure of successor Janet Yellen, or maybe even later than that.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: The long-awaited Geneva II Syria peace talks ended today without any semblance of an agreement.

    And, as Jeffrey Brown reports, there’s uncertainty on whether there will be another round of discussions.

    LAKHDAR BRAHIMI, U.N. Envoy to Syria: This is a very modest beginning, but it is a beginning on which we can build.

    JEFFREY BROWN: U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi summed up the nine days of contentious talks, saying, in effect, progress needs to be measured in small steps.

    LAKHDAR BRAHIMI: It was a very difficult start. But the sides have become used to sitting in the same room. They have presented positions and listened to one another. There have been moments when one side has even acknowledged the concerns and the difficulties and the point of view of the other side.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Brahimi lamented that the two sides failed to agree on lifting the siege of Homs, where civilians are trapped, with no access to food or medicine. There was also no movement on creating a transitional government. The Syrian foreign minister rejected it out of hand and complained the opposition won’t face facts.

    WALID AL-MOALLEM, Syrian Foreign Minister (through interpreter): I regret to tell you that we have not reached tangible results during this week because of the lack of maturity and seriousness on the other side and the threat to implode the conference, as if we have come here to meet for one hour to hand over everything to them and then to go back. It’s indicative of the illusions that they are living in.

    JEFFREY BROWN: The minister didn’t say if his government will come back for a second round of talks scheduled on February 10. But the Western-backed Syrian National Council insisted that Bashar al-Assad must negotiate the end of his regime.

    AHMAD JARBA, President, Syrian National Council (through translator): I don’t think that there will be a kind of meeting of minds with this criminal regime. It’s very difficult. I think that this regime was forced to come to Geneva. Assad is trying to buy time because he knows the end is near.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All of this as opposition activists reported that another 1,900 people have died in the civil war since the peace talks began. Amid the fighting came word that the U.S. resumed shipment of non-lethal aid and some light arms to moderate rebel factions.

    At the same time, The New York Times reported groups linked to al-Qaida have seized control of most of Syria’s oil and gas resources. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is said to be selling fuel back to the Assad government.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. complained Assad is dragging his heels in shipping chemical agents abroad for destruction. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke today in Berlin.

    JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: We want the Syrian regime to live up to its obligations. And it is critical that, very rapidly, all of those chemical weapons be moved from once — from their 12 or so sites to the one site in the port and be prepared for shipment out of Syria altogether.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Kerry meets this weekend with his Russian counterpart to discuss the chemical weapons issue and prospects for the now-recessed peace talks.

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    JEFFREY BROWN: And so with no deal achieved and without a firm agreement to meet again, what are the prospects for ending a civil war that has claimed an estimated 130,000 lives and displaced millions?

    We turn again to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow in the Program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

    Joshua Landis, let me start with you. What do you take from this first round of talks?

    JOSHUA LANDIS, University of Oklahoma: Well, I think many people were expecting — were expecting that the United States would be willing to take half a loaf, that it would be willing to compromise to the point of not asking for regime change in Syria in order to get, perhaps, some access to starving people, to victims inside Syria, and perhaps the beginnings of a cease-fire, in order to alleviate the suffering of the Syrians and the big outflow of refugees that risks to bring down and trouble neighboring states.

    But the U.S. stuck to its guns and said that there has to be regime change in Syria. As soon as the Assad regime sensed this and heard the opening speech, it began to take away offers of cease-fire access to humanitarian agencies. And the conversation became one of accusation, counteraccusation, very heated.

    And we haven’t seen any progress. And we have seen stalling on chemical weapons. I think that the regime went to Geneva, I believe — the Syrian regime — believing that it could — that the United States was beginning to get worried about the jihadist problem and wouldn’t — would stake a deal somehow with the Assad regime. And that didn’t happen.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Andrew, what do you take from it? And the very fact of meeting, even symbolically, does that have any importance?

    ANDREW TABLER, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: Yes, it does. It got the diplomatic ball rolling.

    Many people predicted that the opposition would collapse. That didn’t happen. They didn’t end up with getting access. And the reason why I think the U.S. stuck to its guns is because this conference was about transition. It was never going to be about — a conference about why the Assad regime should be doing what it’s obligated to do under international humanitarian law and the Geneva Convention.

    Access of humanitarian goods and evacuation of civilians are required there. It’s about a transition. Russia is on board with that. And so, actually, at the end of the week, I think the opposition, it’s a tactical victory, at least in the short-term.

    JEFFREY BROWN: But in addition to transition, there’s the humanitarian crisis going on. We mentioned Homs, for example. What is the holdup there with getting something?

    ANDREW TABLER: The regime will not allow supplies through their lines into Homs.

    Now, in Homs, the rebels there are actually more reliable. There is better command-and-control. The long siege there has pushed them together and they are also better connected with the Syrian National Coalition.

    So, it was a golden opportunity. Unfortunately, it was missed. And we will have to see if the regime comes back to the negotiating table on February 10.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Joshua Landis, do you — are things like humanitarian — the humanitarian crisis, was that on the table there? Did it make any headway?

    JOSHUA LANDIS: It didn’t make any headway. It was on the able, but the regime is trying to make a deal. And it didn’t sense that there was a deal, and so it took its offer of aid off the table.

    And we’re back to a war of attrition here. And I have talked to a number of people in Washington and Paris about this. And they feel that Assad is at his acme, his greatest, strongest point here, because he has had a number of successes militarily. The rebels are in chaos.

    But they believe that with time the rebels will get a new command structure that they are getting together, they are going to get more help, and that the minority regime behind Assad, the Alawites, Christians, other minorities, are only about 20 percent of the Syrian population.

    They can be attrited. And their young men will be killed off eventually, and that in a year’s time or perhaps even two, the balance of power will be very different and this regime will begin to collapse. And then the conversation will change.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Andrew Tabler, what about the reports that Syria is so far behind on the timetable to give up its poison gas stocks?

    ANDREW TABLER: Right. It has only handed over about 4 percent of initial shipment of 500 tons, but not only that. Syria is now refusing to physically destroy its chemical weapons facilities and said they wanted to make it inaccessible, meaning like lock up the front doors, weld it, which is easily reversed.

    The U.S. has come out very strongly. And remember that the Geneva communique on which the talks had been going on be there, the only place that is enshrined inside the United Nations is in the U.N. Security Council 2118 that deals with the chemical weapons issue. So they’re actually linked in there.

    And so I think now we’re going to be going back to the Security Council concerning chemical weapons and to the humanitarian access.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Is this tied to what Joshua Landis was talking about, that Assad feeling himself still very powerful?

    ANDREW TABLER: Assad feels very powerful, particularly in the Western part of the country.

    But what is interesting is Assad, despite being so powerful, is saying, I’m not strong enough to allow these convoys of these chemical weapons and these chemical agents through the Qalamoun area out to the coast. He’s demanding more and more equipment, which is interesting. If he is so strong in the west, why demand so much equipment?

    Actually, the international community believes they have provided sufficient equipment. So does the OPCW. And that led to the statements we have seen from the United States the last two days.

    JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Joshua Landis, do you expect the Syrian government to go back to the table on February 10? Are there some areas, even limited, where there might be some progress?

    JOSHUA LANDIS: I don’t think they want to talk about regime change.

    And, you know, the message from Geneva was, the most important thing is that Assad has to step down, we need regime changes here. Assad is not going to step down. And this is going to be done over his dead body. And that’s — that’s the — you know, this is what this civil war is about. And that is where we are once again.

    He thought there was an opening for — that the West was falling out of love with the Syrian opposition, they’re worried about the jihadists, they’re willing to talk about Assad remaining. As you remember, the ex-head of CIA Hayden had said, well, maybe Assad is better than the opposition.

    And Ryan Crocker, important ambassador and spokesperson for the State Department, now retired, had said the same thing roughly, that he expects Assad to win. So Assad I think had begun to feel that perhaps there was a changing mood in the West. He discovered in Geneva there is no change in the West. Kerry was very dramatic. This is about regime change. He said that Assad is the reason for the jihadists there, he is the magnet, and until he goes, jihadists will not go.


    JOSHUA LANDIS: And that was his assertion.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask very briefly, Andrew, are you as pessimistic?

    ANDREW TABLER: I’m pessimistic in terms of — for relieving the suffering on the ground. But I think it’s no mistake President Obama talked about Syria three times in the State of the Union speech. He talked about — surprisingly, about supporting the moderate rebels.

    Dealing with extremism in Syria is not just as simple as flipping back the Assad regime. It has to involve working with the opposition as well, particularly the moderate parts of it that we can work with.

    JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Andrew Tabler, Joshua Landis, thanks again.

    JOSHUA LANDIS: Pleasure.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF:  Beyond the football game itself, advertisements have long been a big part of the event that is Super Bowl Sunday.  Now, as people are increasingly using mobile technology, companies are trying to step up their game, looking for new ways to pitch their product directly to you.

    And there are questions about whether they may be crossing a line.

    Hari Sreenivasan has the story from our New York studio.

    HARI SREENIVASAN:  Fans who’ve descended on New York for Sunday’s supersized matchup are excited, as always.  And so are companies looking to highlight new trends in tech.

    The Web site whosgoingtowin.com, for instance, has been tabulating fans’ daily Twitter votes.  Each night, the winning team gets a display of its colors atop the Empire State Building.  Last night, the honor went to Seattle.

    A number of companies also have rolled out online previews of Super Bowl ads, hoping to maximize the return on 30-second commercials that cost $4 million apiece.  Last year’s broadcast pulled in more than 108 million viewers, but the NFL hopes to expand past the television market.  This year, online viewers can see a live-stream of the game on FOXsportsgo.com or the company’s iPad app.

    Some Verizon iPhone users will watch using the NFL mobile app.  It also gives pop-up alerts on events and retail promotions around Manhattan and areas near MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.  Tiny beacons transmit the alerts, based on the location of your cell phone.

    Nick Wingfield of The New York Times has been writing about this latest move by advertisers in the mobile age.  He joins me from Seattle.

    So, Nick, I tried to explain it, but how do those beacons work?  How do they know where you are and where all the products around you are?

    NICK WINGFIELD, The New York Times:  So, these beacons are a form of transmitter that the NFL is installing in various areas around Midtown, and what they do is they wirelessly communicate using a technology called Bluetooth with your smartphone.

    So if you have downloaded an app for the NFL and you walk within let’s say 10, 20, 30 feet of one of these transmitters, it will wake up your phone and send you an alert, if you have consented, that is, to receive these alerts.

    And the alerts might tell you to walk down the street so go see the Vince Lombardi trophy.  It might tell you to go to the fourth floor of Macy’s to get NFL merchandise or to go see the toboggan run in Midtown Manhattan.  There is a variety of information it can give to you.

    But basically it works on the technology that almost all of us have in modern smartphones today.  And if you have the right app, then that means that the NFL can communicate with you.

    HARI SREENIVASAN:  And you’re saying that it’s not just the Super Bowl, that there are other stadiums and there are other cities and other leagues rolling this technology out?

    NICK WINGFIELD:  Absolutely.

    Think of the NFL and the Super Bowl this week as the first real big test of this knowledge.  It’s being rolled out in baseball ball parks.  It’s expected to be in about two dozen stadiums, including Fenway Park, by opening day this year.  American Eagle stores are putting it in.  Macy’s is putting it in.

    So there are a variety of different venues, stadiums and other — you know, other stores that are installing this technology.  And from what I have heard from people who are fluent in this area, you know, it’s going to be hard to find public venues that don’t have some form of this technology, because basically venues want to be able to communicate with their customers and spectators.

    And this is thought to be one way to do that.

    HARI SREENIVASAN:  So beyond sports venues, we’re talking about retailers trying to communicate.  So this is almost like an electronic barker standing at the door saying, hey, come in here, there is a sale at 10 percent off if you walk in and buy something right now?

    NICK WINGFIELD:  Think about your experience when you go to Amazon and you log in and maybe it welcomes you by name and then it sorts of customizes itself.

    This is kind of the same idea, but in the bricks and mortar world.  You might walk into an American Eagle store, it would say welcome, Hari.  It might recognize that you are a loyal customer and give you certain customized offers.  But it would do this very precisely.

    When you go over the jeans section, it would know when you got close to the jeans.  It wouldn’t just be one antenna for the entire store.  It is a very local technology that can be tuned very precisely to give you a better experience when you are wandering around the store.

    HARI SREENIVASAN:  So, I have got to ask, in the era of NSA revelations or even credit card breaches at Target and Neiman Marcus, who owns all that information about where I am in the store and what my tastes an preferences are?

    NICK WINGFIELD:  Well, in this case, the transmitters themselves, the people, technologists say, don’t actually record your location.

    What records your location are the apps that you are using when you go into the store.  So in the case of the NFL, that would be the NFL, Major League Baseball if you go into a ballpark.  And what they do with it is really up to their terms of service.  A lot of these places say they won’t sell it to another company, they’re going to respect your privacy, but, really, you know, they have a lot of latitude in terms of what they can use it for.

    And, of course, one hopes that they have good security because frankly someone can break in and steal this data the way they have credit card information for Target.

    HARI SREENIVASAN:  So let’s say, even setting hackers aside, doesn’t that data over time become more valuable, say, if someone approaches the NFL and says I would love to know the type of customers that buys jerseys is also the type of customers that buys beer, and could you let me take a look at your customer list?

    NICK WINGFIELD:  Yes, it could be.

    And we will really see how this information, how this type of technology pans out.  It really has not been tested broadly yet.  And so it may turn out that people really hate it.  We haven’t talked really — we talked about privacy.  But there are also some potential annoyance issues here.

    You walk into a ballpark, if they start sending you too many messages alerting you every 10 feet when there is a hot dog stand nearby or do you want to buy a beer and all of this, that can get very irritating, consumers would reject the technology, and opt out of the applications that do this tracking.

    So it remains to be seen how valuable this data is going to be.  But certainly the promise is there and the potential for abuse.

    HARI SREENIVASAN:  All right, Nick, Nick Wingfield from The New York Times joining us from Seattle, thanks so much.

    NICK WINGFIELD:  You bet.


    The post Will companies go out of bounds in transmitting Super Bowl ads to your phone? appeared first on PBS NewsHour.

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    JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Welcome, gentlemen.

    So I want to ask you for your Super Bowl predictions in a minute, so you have got a few minutes to think about that, but there are a couple of new stories bubbling today.

    David, one of them is this Keystone oil pipeline statement by the State Department that they don’t think that there is a serious environmental damage that would be created if they finished the pipeline. What’s the effect? This has been a hot potato issue. What effect did this have?

    DAVID BROOKS: Well, the president has been waffling, sort of signaling he’s going to OK the thing. His view is that the thing is sort of overblown, has become a symbolic issue of whether you are for fracking or against fracking, what your attitude is toward the natural gas industry.

    I think the assumption has always been that, at the end of the day, after making sort of a political gesture toward the environmental movement, he was going to end up on the other side. And if you listen to the State of the Union address, the energy revolution in this country is possibly the best thing economically that has happened to the country in a long time.

    And so he was bragging about how much energy we’re producing, how much we’re beginning to export, how it changes the dynamic in the Middle East. It’s been a wonderful boon to the American economy. So I think at the end of the day, he is not going to want to get in the way of that, even on a symbolic issue or semi-symbolic issue.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, do you think this just sort of smooths the way for the president to say it’s OK to go ahead with the expansion?

    MARK SHIELDS: Well, it makes it tougher for him to say no, I think.

    But I think the risk to Democrats is that it could alienate one of the most activist blocs in the party going into the 2014 elections, and that if environmentalists decide to sulk and sit on their hands and say, this president has let us down, and it could be a real deficit for Democrats.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: And so — and we will watch and see.

    We know there is another — John Kerry, secretary of state, has got to make a decision and tent president.

    MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the other story that came out, this is late today, has to do with Gov. Christie, the New Jersey governor, and whether he knew or didn’t know, David, about the closing down of traffic lanes on the bridge leading into New York City, and what it — it is a little confusing, but there is a New York Times story saying, quoting the former head of the Port Authority, who said that — who is saying Gov. Christie did know that this was going on.

    And now Christie’s office has come out subsequent to that and said well, that’s OK, that confirms what he said.

    So how do you — what do you take away from all this?

    DAVID BROOKS: Viewers with disturbingly long memories will remember that I thought this wouldn’t hurt him too much.


    DAVID BROOKS: So that view is looking a little less tenable as time goes by.


    DAVID BROOKS: And so it has begun to hurt him just because there’s been a series of other stories following along.

    But I did say that if it turns out that the central claim of that long news conference was that he did know contemporaneously, then he’s in big trouble. And so we don’t know the state of the evidence, the quality of the evidence. But argue about verb tenses aside, if he knew contemporaneously, then he doesn’t only look like a bully. He looks like somebody who got up there and said something that was either withholding the truth or simply untrue.

    So, I don’t want to say we are there yet, but if it turns out to be there, I do think it really becomes quite damaging. And it’s even possible to imagine he won’t be able to run for president.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: So it doesn’t matter whether it’s proven, Mark, that there was a political motivation, that he wanted to punish this mayor, what really matters is…


    MARK SHIELDS: Yes, his word. I mean, he was pretty unequivocal and pretty clear.

    And I think most Democrats would concede that he was the most formidable candidate in 2016 that they were most afraid of. They are less afraid today. This is the man, David Wildstein, who was his high school classmate.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the Port Authority…

    MARK SHIELDS: Port Authority official to whom the message was sent from Christie’s deputy chief of staff, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” And so he was the guy to execute the plan. And there was a plan. This wasn’t just obviously a hanging phrase. There had been a plan. This was the activation order.

    What is interesting, Judy, is this — everything goes back to high school. Chris Christie in high school said he didn’t really know — he said subsequently he didn’t really know David Wildstein, who he praised as a tireless advocate for the people of New Jersey when he left.

    But he didn’t really know him, because he, Chris Christie, had been class president, he had been an athlete, and David Wildstein hadn’t been a cool guy who sat at the cool guy’s table in the high school cafeteria. And this is sort of the revenge of the geeks.


    JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, so both of you are saying, no matter what comes out of this, his brand, his — his — his persona is hurt?

    MARK SHIELDS: I think the Times’ reporting has been pretty tough.

    I mean, they did a long documented piece earlier this week on his office and how intimately he was involved in everything that went on, the politics of it, the substance of it, the campaign of it, you know, that he was a hands-on guy.

    This is the argument for Chris Christie. This is a guy with wonderful political instincts, he’s a guy in charge. And now the defense is, he wasn’t curious, he didn’t know. And I just — or he was passive. And I just think it becomes more of a problem for them politically, whether legally or something else.

    DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think even bragging that you were a class president, big man on campus, you have already alienated 98 percent of the American public.


    JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s right.

    DAVID BROOKS: I’m sure people in Mark’s social circle are very upset about it.



    DAVID BROOKS: Not my social circle, of course.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.


    JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead, yes.

    DAVID BROOKS: But just one other point. You are from New Jersey, you’re governor. Read Machiavelli. If the guy has some evidence to burn you, stay loyal to him, and he didn’t do that.


    MARK SHIELDS: Yes, don’t — I could never understand that.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Alright, this is the week of the State of the Union, just three days ago, 72 hours.

    David, what are we left with at this point? Did the president help himself? Did he advance his cause by what he had to say?

    DAVID BROOKS: I just — I go back to the wet noodle. That has only been reinforced by just what I have heard from people around, that there is a sense of uninspired, not thrilled, ratings not great, not big ideas.

    And I do think it was a misreading, on reflection, a misreading of the country. With a country in fear of really decline, I do think you have to have something big. And that means you probably can’t have something passable. But I do think he had the opportunity to really change the debate in some large way to really maybe not pass legislation, but pave the way for a future president to pass legislation by introducing ideas, creating networks behind mobilizing a movement for equality, for opportunity, for social mobility.

    And he could have laid the predicate for something big that would have felt big and commensurate with the moment, and I guess I don’t think he did that.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you read…


    MARK SHIELDS: I can’t argue that it wasn’t big. I don’t think children in the future generations will be memorizing large chunks of this speech and committing them to memory.

    But I do think that it was the word that we used — I think Gwen used it in the post-election, post-speech analysis — and that was it was workmanlike. It worked politically. It wasn’t uplifting. It wasn’t the lift of a driving dream.

    But I do think that it has put the Republicans, quite frankly, on the defensive by the issues the president did raise. The Republicans have been scrambling since to prove that they’re not just the opposition, the blind opposition, that they do have alternatives, whether — and they are even now revisiting — I think forced to revisit health care.

    They just can’t be blindly let’s repeal it. And they’re wrestling with immigration, which is truly the San Andreas Fault of the Republican Party. This is potentially combustible for them.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, he only touched briefly on immigration. But since then, he’s indicated, David, just in the last day or so that he’s open to — frankly to language that the Republicans were supporting.

    Now, the House Republicans have been off at a retreat for the last couple of days. What is coming out of that and what do we think about it?


    DAVID BROOKS: Well, the president was actually deft about that. He didn’t want to get out in front of the Republicans. He wanted them to take the initiative and then he could embrace.

    And Boehner got out there and issued some principles. I thought they were good principles. I guess I thought when he issued the principles that they had found a way to heal the fault.


    DAVID BROOKS: And my understanding is they actually haven’t found a way to heal the fault.

    And they are certainly not going to want to do it, raise anything before primaries, because they don’t want Republican candidates to be faced with primary challenges on this issue. So that pushes it off for a bit of a while. And then I think the opposition is still strong. So I’m less hopeful that they’re going to be able to get something out of the House, let alone something that is manageable with the Senate.

    MARK SHIELDS: The problem the Republicans face is a very simple one. The Republicans have the House. In all likelihood, they are going to hold on to the House.

    The Republicans can and maybe even expand that in 2014. The Republicans cannot win the presidency with their present position on immigration and the position of Mitt Romney in 2012. They have to deal with it. It is the difference between the electorate in 2014 and that in 2016 is approximately 42 million people.

    Of those 42 million people, half of them will be African-American, Asian, and Latinos.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: In 2016?

    MARK SHIELDS: In 2016.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Who won’t be voting, you’re saying, this year?

    MARK SHIELDS: They won’t be voting.

    So they can win an election where whites are disproportionately represented, where older voters are disproportionately represented. They cannot compete presidentially. And I just think the party is — you know, Ronald Reagan won 45 percent of the Latino vote in California in 1984.

    Republicans held half the House seats in California. Today, as a consequence of Republican policy, beginning with Pete Wilson, but followed by Republican presidential candidates, the Republicans are not even competitive in California. And that’s 55 votes out of one-fifth of all you need to get elected president.

    And that is happening in Colorado, in Florida, in Virginia, in Nevada, across the country. I mean, this is a party that is writing off the White House.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Quick change of subject.

    Ben Bernanke, today is his last day as chairman of the Federal Reserve. We heard Paul Solman talk to economists on both sides of the political spectrum. David, how do you see it?

    DAVID BROOKS: I think it was gutsy.

    I think, right now, we have to think he did a fantastic job. It was gutsy to really not only unfurl the tools, but unfurl tools he didn’t know he had.

    MARK SHIELDS: I agree.

    I mean, when the — everybody else went weak in the knees and were naysayers and everything, particularly the Congress, the Republicans, he really stood up. I mean, he stood between this country and the gulf, I mean, and disaster. And I think he deserves an awful lot of credit. I really do.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: You both give him an A. or something like that?

    DAVID BROOKS: We will see how it is all unwound, but yes.



    JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the final and most important question, the Super Bowl. I want a prediction from both of you and what are you looking for?


    DAVID BROOKS: Well, when your own team is not in the Super Bowl, you have a moral — two moral obligations. You can either root for the team from the most economically disadvantaged city.

    MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

    DAVID BROOKS: And Denver and Seattle, I think, are about even. So, they are pretty economically advanced. So there is a wash there.

    So then you have to go on the moral caliber of the role model.


    DAVID BROOKS: And here you have Peyton Manning, who is a very perfect presentation.

    For Seattle, Richard Sherman, the defensive back, a bit of a braggadocio manner, you would say, so I do think you have to go with Manning on that. So that is my moral preference.

    My game decision preference is that Seattle wins.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Oh, my.

    All right, Mark.



    MARK SHIELDS: Let’s take a word for Richard Sherman, who came out of Compton, which is a tough city in California, gangs, and turned down a scholarship to the University of Southern California to go to Stanford, where he graduated, finished second in his high school class. Because he wears dreadlocks and maybe he has…


    DAVID BROOKS: No, but he says bad things about Crabtree. That’s…

    MARK SHIELDS: He apologized for that.


    MARK SHIELDS: Judy, favorites are favorites for good reason. Favorites usually win.

    I like underdogs. I root for the filly to win the Kentucky Derby, which it doesn’t do. I root for the kid who went to law school nights and worked days to get the promotion, and it’s always the CEO’s nephew that gets the promotion instead.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

    MARK SHIELDS: I am rooting for Russell Wilson, even though Peyton Manning is a totally admirable human being and great citizen. I am rooting for Seattle, and they will win.

    JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you can bet we’re going to hold to you account on this one.

    David, two answers you gave.


    DAVID BROOKS: Well, on the game outcome, we agree. So, that’s probably true.


    JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, thank you both.

    MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

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